The splitting defense mechanism – how it can damage your relationships without you knowing
By Joy Youell
Medically Reviewed By: Audrey Kelly, LMFT
Defense mechanisms are put in place by us to protect us, but often to the detriment of our emotional well-being. They ward off and defend us from unpleasant feelings such as unpredictability, fear and shame and any other unbearable feelings or needs we may have. They also give us a false sense of control over ourselves, other people and our surroundings. We aren’t aware of how much control they can have over our lives as they can be deeply unconscious but, used frequently, it can result in unhealthy consequences for the individual.
What is the splitting ego defense mechanism?
Splitting is a common ego defense mechanism. It can be defined as categorizing people or beliefs as either good or bad, positive or negative. It is a black and white way of thinking. Individuals who struggle with splitting view themselves and their lives in extremes, failing to integrate the complexities and nuances of life into one cohesive whole. Instead, they tend to polarize the world into opposites.
Splitting stems from the inability to grasp the uncertainties of what we encounter in day-to-day life. Instead of saying, “It is what it is,” people with a splitting ego defense mechanism overly simplify things and believe, “It must be good or bad. There cannot be an in-between.”
Not all splitting is bad. It can help us make sense of the world and make predictions in seemingly out-of-control environments. However, severe splitting can cause damage to not only ourselves but also our relationships.
Who is it most commonly used by?
Most commonly, adolescents, teenagers, and young adults present with this coping mechanism. People who have gone through childhood trauma also tend to use splitting as a defense mechanism; as a child, they were unable to combine the nurturing aspects with the unresponsive aspects of a parent or caregiver.
Those diagnosed with narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) also have a strong tendency to split, categorizing people into either winners or losers. To maintain their self-esteem, they see themselves as virtuous and admirable and those who don’t hold the same beliefs or values as beneath them.
Finally, this trait is found in people with borderline personality disorder, who are caught between the extremes of idealizing someone one moment and devaluing them the next. Like those with NPD, they are unable to integrate the goodness and badness of themselves and others.
Splitting defense mechanism examples
Most of us are exposed to splitting from a young age. It is rampant in fairytales and movies where there is a stark split between the “good” heroes and “bad” villains. You may have also witnessed a friend falling in love and becoming hopelessly infatuated, only to notice that they avoid acknowledging their new love interest’s unfavorable personality traits. It is the “rose-colored glasses” effect of love in its early stages.
Other examples of splitting include political parties that regard the opposing side as purely contemptible, the very religious that categorize people into the saved or damned, and children of divorce who view one parent as exemplary and the other as despicable.
While splitting is common among people and groups in society, the reality is that everything and everyone possesses both good and bad qualities. Even the most detestable person will possess some positive traits. People who have a healthy understanding of the world acknowledge the layered complexities of people and life.
How splitting damages your relationships
Being in a relationship with someone who sees the world in black and white is not easy. The habit of incessant splitting can cause chaos, damage the people involved, and ultimately destroy the relationship.
The individual who uses splitting as a defense mechanism only thinks in extremes and can have intense emotional experiences. They may unpredictably flip between thinking their partner is an angel and a devil. They may be unable to mix or integrate feelings and thoughts about someone into a whole, and there is no room for gray areas. As you can imagine, this can be exhausting for the partner of a chronic splitter and create a feeling of never being good enough for them.
Depending on their needs and desires, an individual with a splitting defense mechanism sees the actions and motivations of their partner as all good or all bad. This can lead to frustration and possibly volatile anger. When an argument escalates, it may result in the splitter losing respect for their partner and thinking that they are not worthy of them or their time.
This pattern of destructiveness causes unhappiness for the splitter, as they are unable to maintain a long-term relationship. They may be on the hunt for the perfect person and the perfect relationship. By denying the intricate layers of the human spirit, the individual finds themselves unsatisfied and always wanting for more, even with a partner who loves them deeply.
Signs you are splitting
One of the biggest signs that you are using splitting as an ego defense mechanism is saying that the flattering, positive qualities of yourself “are me” and the unflattering, negative qualities of yourself “are not me.” This indicates a method of splitting yourself into two parts. You tend to reject and disown the parts of yourself that you dislike. The truth is, you have lovely and not-so-lovely qualities. Splitting only demonizes yourself and those who are different from you while falsely reinforcing your superior goodness. If you have a splitting ego defense mechanism, you think that:
You are either a success or a failure
Other people are all good or all bad
You are all good or all bad
Traits in a splitting ego defense mechanism include:
Intense mood swings and constant emotional fluctuations in a relationship
The tendency to idealize a partner, especially in the beginning of a relationship, then condemn them as time progresses
Pushing toward people and then pulling away
Searching for perfection in a relationship
A victim mentality
Black and white thinking
The belief that you are right and everyone else is wrong
Ways to overcome the splitting defense mechanism
Become aware of your behaviors and triggers. One of the most important steps to dismantling the splitting defense mechanism is self-awareness. Realizing that you are guilty of splitting, whether a little or a lot, and taking note of when you feel most triggered to split is a first step to growth.
Respond, avoid reacting. Becoming mindful of how you react in certain situations will help you respond thoughtfully rather than irrationally. Taking deep breaths, distracting yourself, or removing yourself from a situation are emotionally healthy ways to regulate your emotions.
Remember that people are multi-faceted. When you are tempted to judge someone, remind yourself of all the positive, negative, and neutral aspects of that person. When you think of them as being “bad,” remind yourself of all the good things they do, and vice versa. Empathize and look beyond people’s actions into their motives. Avoid taking people’s actions personally.
Seek help. Because splitting can be an unconscious defense mechanism, many people don’t realize that they are doing it. By sharing your struggle with an in-person or online therapist, exploring why you need to split, and processing how splitting has embedded itself in your life and relationships, you can heal and grow in a safe, emotionally regulated environment.
How BetterHelp can support you
BetterHelp has a team of trained therapists to support and guide you through this process with complete confidentiality and professionalism. You will be able to meet from the comfort of your own home or wherever you feel most comfortable without having to deal with traffic to get to an office. You will also meet at a time that’s convenient for you.
People are not all good and people are not all bad; they are both. And so are you. Being flawed is okay. Having shortcomings is okay. It’s okay that people have different beliefs and opinions. Without this, life and the people in it wouldn’t be so rich, layered, and interesting. By becoming aware of your tendency to split, emotionally regulating yourself, and finding invaluable support in therapy, you can rewire your brain so that it no longer needs to fit things into black and white categories. Rather, you can appreciate the world in its full and vibrant colors. Take the first step.**