“Splitting (also called black and white thinking or all-or-nothing thinking) is the failure in a person’s thinking to bring together both positive and negative qualities of the self and others into a cohesive, realistic whole.”
This is part of the diagnostic criteria for Borderline Personality Disorder; it is often seen as a defence mechanism. I want to explore what it means and how it presents itself in every day life.
Within relationships, splitting means that I have a tendency to see someone as all good or all bad. If someone does something that I perceive to be bad (e.g. lying) then I can often instantly forget anything good about that person, in my eyes they become a liar and that is all. This often results in instability in relationships because I cannot view someone as a good person who may make mistakes. People are either all good or all bad, there is no in between and once they are bad, I seek a way to end the relationship.
This does not just happen with my perception of others but also with me. I am fixated on the belief that I am fundamentally not a good person. I could endlessly list all the things I have said or done that demonstrate that I am a bad person. While others might see these as mistakes which do not characterise me entirely, I see these as evidence that I am a bad person. For me, being a bad person means that I struggle to accept any love or kindness from others. In my head, I am either a total success or complete failure. Coupled with low self esteem, the negative side of this all or nothing thinking often dominates with my sense of self. On the days I view myself as awful, I am more prone to self harm and other self destructive behaviours.
Differently, with others, the positive can sometimes dominate. This leads to me viewing people in an idealistic way, they are perfection personified. At the start of relationships, both romantic and platonic, I usually notice all the positive things about a person. They are kind, attractive, caring, interesting, passionate etc. I fall in love quickly because of this. I am often pretty intense as relationships begin because this person is perfect and I want to spend all my time connecting with them. Inevitably, as humans make mistakes, I am inclined to then thoroughly dislike the person who I once loved. The image I had of an amazing person becomes ruined. Mood swings are often associated with this. One day I can come across as friendly and loving towards someone but this can very suddenly change into a refusal to talk to them.
It might sound strange to you. You might be thinking ‘well, of course people can be both good and bad.’ But, for me and a lot of people with BPD, this is a way of thinking which is so ingrained in us that it is incredibly difficult to stop. Although I have become more aware of when this thinking has happened, it is done subconsciously.
This thinking goes beyond people as well. It is why, I believe, that within my eating disorder I was prone to binge eating and starving myself. If I made a plan to eat x calories in a day and did not stick to this, I felt as though I was a total failure and might as well just eat everything I possibly could. All of the food or none of the food. Clearly, this type of thinking can therefore be very dangerous.
Splitting is difficult for anyone involved. I am yet to figure out a way to stop it happening. But, I can notice it happening and this enables me to potentially reduce the impact. For me, talking helps. When I realised recently that I felt hatred towards a friend because they had done something to upset me, I let them know. It was hard for them to hear but made easier when I explained my struggle to integrate the good and bad parts of someone. I am trying to be less impulsive when it comes to ending relationships. Mentalisation based therapy has reminded me to wait until my emotions have settled before making big decisions. I am working on avoiding decision making when my emotions are in the extreme because in those times, I am not thinking clearly. I hope that one day I will be able to appreciate the positive and negative aspects of people and things as something that can exist together.
If someone you know is prone to ‘splitting’ then remind yourself of this when it appears to be happening: they do not want to think like this, they want your relationship to be good and stable. After time, they might be able to see you in a good light again. If they cannot, do not blame yourself. Do not blame them either, just accept is as an unfortunate reality.