Splitting is a common behavior among people with borderline personality disorder (BPD). It means that a person has difficulty accurately assessing another individual or situation.
Instead, they see something as completely good or completely bad, and their assessment may switch back and forth rapidly. A person typically splits unconsciously or without realizing it.
Rather than seeing people in their lives as complex human beings with good, bad, and in-between characteristics, they may apply intensely polarizing or exaggerated labels. To them, their partner may be the “worst partner in the world” one day and the “greatest partner ever” the next.
Read on to learn more about what splitting looks like in BPD, its symptoms, duration, management strategies, and more.
BPD is a type of personality disorder that causes people to experience intense emotions, self-image issues, and impulsive behaviors. They often lack stability in personal relationships and behave irrationally.
Splitting is a type of black-and-white thinking. It causes a person to perceive others — or even themselves — as all good or all bad. These perceptions may shift rapidly.
People engage in splitting because they have conflicting emotions about something or someone they find difficult to manage or intolerable. They
Often, individuals with BPD have difficulty maintaining a consistent sense of self. This also disrupts their perceptions of other people.
Splitting is a defense mechanism, and it is not unique to BPD. People with other mental health conditions, as well as those without any underlying mental illness, may also occasionally engage in splitting. However, in BPD, splitting is an ongoing pattern of relating to others that may often contribute to relationship instability.
There is no set period that a splitting behavior will last.
A person may alternate between conflicting perceptions of another several times a day, or their perception of someone as all good or all bad may last a very long time. They will continue to split until they find more effective ways to manage BPD symptoms.
Splitting is not always immediately apparent to people witnessing it. Individuals with BPD feel their emotions intensely and may believe that their perceptions reflect reality.
Some signs that a person is splitting include:
- idealizing someone one moment, then later calling them abusive or toxic
- not seeing nuance in the relationships or actions of others
- cutting people out of their life, then expressing feelings of abandonment
Some signs a person might detect in themselves include:
- many chaotic or unstable relationships
- rapidly changing feelings about other people
- feelings that seem more intense than the feelings of others
- alternating between pushing someone away and wanting them to stay
Some examples of splitting include:
- telling one’s romantic partner to leave, then begging them not to leave when they actually do
- attributing another person’s behavior to their fundamental goodness or badness instead of seeing them as a complex person with good, bad, and in-between attributes
- perceiving oneself or others as all good or all bad
- having very intense emotions about other people that shift rapidly according to a person’s feelings or circumstances
For people with BPD, splitting may be a way to manage conflicting emotions.
Experts do not fully understand the causes of BPD, but research points to several different potential causes,
- trauma or stress in childhood
- an invalidating environment in early childhood
- genetic factors
A person who thinks they may be splitting may wish to consider whether this is a pattern of behavior for them. If it is, treatment for BPD may be helpful.
Some prevention strategies include:
- Gaining perspective: Considering whether a more moderate perspective might be helpful and reframing the situation. For example, perhaps a person did not destroy one’s life but disappointed or hurt them instead.
- Considering other traits: Practice thinking about naming other characteristics of the person and about the language contributing to splitting, such as “always” and “never.” Practice using more accurate language.
- Cultivating empathy: Consider why a person might behave as they do.
- Keeping a journal: A person can log emotions and better understand what experiences increase splitting behaviors, as well as one’s own feelings that come up during splitting.
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has not approved any medications to treat BPD. However, doctors may still prescribe medication to manage symptoms.
One of the most effective treatments is psychotherapy.
- Mentalizing-based therapy: This approach cultivates understanding and empathy to help people better manage intense emotions. The goal is to cultivate curiosity, so people make fewer assumptions about others’ behavior.
- Dialectical behavioral therapy: This approach offers mindfulness-based skills to help a person calm their emotions. It also includes social skills and emotion regulation training.
- Transference-focused psychotherapy: In this model, the therapist uses their relationship with the client as an avenue to explore and reframe problematic emotions and behaviors.
A doctor can refer a person to a psychotherapist and may also make recommendations about medications.
Individuals can contact a healthcare or mental health professional if:
- they often experience splitting
- they have a history of unstable, abusive, or chaotic relationships
- they frequently have intense emotions that feel difficult to control
- they have thoughts of self-harm or suicide
- they think they might have BPD or another mental health condition
If you know someone at immediate risk of self-harm, suicide, or hurting another person:
- Ask the tough question: “Are you considering suicide?”
- Listen to the person without judgment.
- Call 911 or the local emergency number, or text TALK to 741741 to communicate with a trained crisis counselor.
- Stay with the person until professional help arrives.
- Try to remove any weapons, medications, or other potentially harmful objects.
If you or someone you know is having thoughts of suicide, a prevention hotline can help. The 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline is available 24 hours a day at 988. During a crisis, people who are hard of hearing can use their preferred relay service or dial 711 then 988.
Splitting can undermine relationships, make it difficult to resolve conflict, leave a person feeling overwhelmed and confused, and cause them to feel disappointed in their relationships. However, the right treatment can ease BPD symptoms, including splitting.
It is important for a person to question their assessments of others, consider whether other explanations might be just as accurate, and cultivate empathy for the behaviors of others. A psychotherapist can help a person manage or decrease splitting behaviors and determine whether or not BPD causes it.