What is “Splitting” and How Does It Occur?
Copyright 2002 by John T. Tennison, MD
The word, “splitting” can be used in two senses: as a way of perceiving OR as something that is “done” to others, and which results in conflict between others. Splitting is a process that oscillates between external and internal manifestations. Inconsistent, irrational, labile, and unpredictable behavior on the part of parents (an external manifestation) can result in a developmental process whereby a child’s thought processes (an internal manifestation) come to mirror these external behaviors. For example, the external behavior of a parent (most often a mother), biases the thought processes of a child into thinking in black and white, polarized ways. Because the parent does not model behavior and thinking that allows for shades of gray, continua, and subtleties, the child internalizes similar patterns. Thus, an external, i.e. behavioral, process on the part of a parent becomes a way of black-and-white thinking and perceiving on the part of a child. This internal process in the child then externalizes into that child’s behavior, which can then cause that child to treat people in polarized, black-and-white ways, such as valuation/devaluation.
In virtually every case, incidents of splitting have been caused by splitting that occurred prior to the incident under consideration. That is, to think of splitting as having a “beginning” is a misnomer. For a given individual, it does have a beginning. Yet, much like the famous chicken-and-egg question, the process of splitting oscillates between the external and the internal, with no clear beginning in either external or internal processes. For example, infants will internalize splitting processes in their cognition after having experienced behavioral examples of splitting as modeled by their parents and others in their early environment.
When “splitting” is used in the sense of something that is “done” to others, we often hear that a borderline patient is “splitting the staff” on an inpatient psychiatric ward or other healthcare facility. Yet, the process by which this happens is often not explained. Here is an example of how it happens: A patient is admitted to an inpatient psychiatric ward. In a private, one-to-one interchanges or assessments, the patient praises certain people, who in turn feel good about the patient. In other private, one-to-one interchanges or assessments, the patient condemns other people, who in turn, feel bad and thus, do not like the patient. Because the patient has treated the staff in these polarized ways in private unobserved interactions, different members of the staff come to have very opposite opinions of the character of the patient. Thus, the patient has “split” the staff. However, if all members of the staff could have witnessed ALL of the patient’s interactions, they would have seen how inconsistently the patient was behaving, depending on the particular member of the staff with whom the patient was interacting.
The patient’s “splitting” behavior is then internalized by those who have been valued or devalued by the patient. This internalization consists of liking and sympathizing with the patient if one had been valued. However, this internalization consists of disliking and lack of sympathy for patient if one had been devalued. This internalized “split” then plays out in arguments (an external split) among staff members about the true character of the patient. For example, a staff member who was valued by the patient might become angry with a devalued staff member who said something bad about the patient.
At this stage, an oscillation back to the internal can potentially stop if the ones who were valued/devalued were adults. This is because adults are past their formative, impressionable years, and their thought processes are less subject to being biased on a long-term basis by the behavior of the one(s) who has done the splitting. However, if children are the ones being valued /devalued, they are more likely to internalize the splitting as a thought process that persists in other, novel, future interactions, and thus perpetuate the cycle of internal/external oscillations.
If you call me a jerk, I might react angrily because I feel attacked. My anger in turn might result in my behaving like a jerk. However, I would not have behaved like a jerk had I not been reacting to being called jerk in first place. Some theorists would suggest that the person who called me a jerk was actually the “jerk” and that they were “projecting” this onto me. In turn, the theorist might say that I am “identifying” with the projection. Yet such a theoretical explanation only makes things unnecessarily complicated and abstract. “Occam’s Razor” would suggest that I am simply reacting to an insult or to being attacked, rather than “identifying” with something that was “projected” on me. It is a coincidence that my behavior is also jerk-like, as someone else might have reacted in a completely different way.
“Projection” is sometimes a confusing metaphor, and a misleading word for the process we are trying to describe. “Generalizing” is often a better term. I might say that “someone is generalizing their psychology onto others” or say that “they are treating others as they have been treated” rather than say they are “projecting.” Another confusing example of the use of the word “projection” occurs when a doctor feels nervous around an anxious patient (or when a patient feels nervous around an anxious doctor.) This is what has sometimes been called “projective identification.” Some psychodynamic theorists might say that the anxiety has been “projected” from one person to the other, with the second person “identifying” with this projection. However, “resonance” or “diffusion” would probably be a better word for the process that is occurring, especially if the original person feeling the anxiety had not started out attributing it to the second person who later felt it.
It should be noted that “splitting” is not necessarily a pathological or unconscious process. Many forms of competition intentionally utilize splitting as a means of “dividing and conquering.” Business, military, and political processes often intentionally “split” the masses or competitors, so that those who are split are not as effective at competing with those who have instigated the splitting. Moreover, some of the most successful splitting occurs covertly, whereby the splitter is unknown to those who have been split. For example, if someone was framed for a crime that they did not commit as a result of evidence that was planted in their house, a split could occur between that person and the law, even if the person responsible for the planting of the evidence remains unknown. In this case the victim probably knows that someone has intentionally caused his or her plight. However, there is still an even more covert example of splitting that could be given: This occurs when someone is victimized and is completely unaware that someone was responsible for his or her woes. Untrue rumors can serve this function. If someone is going around spreading slanderous, vicious rumors about me, people might begin avoiding me, even though I remain completely oblivious as to why no one wants to spend time with me. This process does not extinguish easily because people feel awkward confronting me about the rumors. A similar process can take place in the business world, in which a competitor slanders someone’s product or service without the victim being aware or present to defend themselves. Nonetheless, consumer worry then creates gravitation towards the product of the person who instigated the covert splitting.