Psychological splitting is also known as all-or-nothing or black-and-white thinking. Psychological splitting is an unconscious process whereby a person tends to view themselves and their life in extremes. Everything is either good or bad, and there are no grey areas.
Typically, psychological splitting is about having polarising beliefs. This is where a person will exclusively focus on the positive or negative.
The American Psychiatric Association (2000) defines splitting as:
“The individual deals with emotional conflict or internal or external stressors by compartmentalizing opposite affect states and failing to integrate the positive and negative qualities of the self or others into cohesive images.”
Psychological splitting might seem to be an unhealthy way of thinking, but it is a necessary mental process. It allows us to make sense of the world. As we progress through life, we are bombarded with a huge amount of information and experiences. In order to understand all of this, we need to group all of this information into categories. As we experience more and more, we begin to split all this knowledge into meaningful groups. These groups then help us understand unfamiliar events.
So clearly, we all use psychological splitting at some point, but when does it become unhealthy? Psychological splitting starts to be problematic when a person fails to bring together their opposing views.
Splitting occurs when the only views someone accepts are extreme ones. A person that exclusively focuses on the positive or negative, or one that cannot bring together their opposing views is likely to split off.
Freud believed that splitting was a defence mechanism of the mind in an attempt to defend the ego. Once a person cannot reconcile their opposing views as one whole of themselves, splitting into two different personas is unavoidable.
They will split into the good part and the bad part. Once the person has split, they can only perceive the good part of them and the bad part of them at separate times. Their view of reality, therefore, is particularly skewed.
Examples of psychological splitting:
- Political parties that portray the opposition in a negative light.
- Religious groups that only accept their way of thinking.
- The police viewed by certain groups as abusing their authority.
- Perception in medicine that doctors are hard-working but nurses are lazy.
Those are some common examples, but how easy is it to spot psychological splitting?
Signs of psychological splitting:
- Thinking in complete opposites or absolutes.
- People are either good or bad.
- Not accepting of other’s views.
- Idolising individuals, then condemning them.
- Raising one’s own esteem by belittling others who think differently.
- Constantly changing one’s mind over important issues.
- Employing a changeable perspective of others.
- Switching allegiance quickly.
- Multiple partners with no stable relationships.
- Sudden mood swings.
- Changing one’s self-image to suit the circumstances.
Who is vulnerable to psychological splitting?
Psychological splitting is common in adolescents, teenagers and young adults. This is because around this time, we are exploring and experimenting with self-identity. A person can also experience splitting as a defence mechanism if they have undergone a childhood trauma.
How might you be using psychological splitting?
As previously stated, psychological splitting is a defence mechanism that serves to protect the ego. But if it is an unconscious process, how do we use it?
Someone can use splitting to justify unreasonable behaviour. These days, everyone’s opinions are sacrosanct. We are all entitled to our opinions, but those who have split feel that only theirs are worth consideration. They will not listen to others and genuinely believe that they are right and everyone else is wrong.
Splitting can also be used to push forward unpopular agendas. Think about WWII. Germans portrayed the Jews as the racist antagonists and vilified them. The Nazis maintained they were acting in self-defence to protect their children and businesses. Even though it was the Nazis that committed the most atrocious events in our history, they used propaganda that demonised the Jews and promoted the Holocaust.
Psychopaths and sociopaths also use splitting to portray themselves as the real victims. You will often hear a criminal charged with the most heinous crime complain about how he or she has been affected by it.
Splitting is a common amongst other types of criminals as well. The robber that blames the victim for poor security, the arsonist that accuses others of setting fires.
What can we do about psychological splitting?
A person has to recognise they have this condition before they can hope to deal with it. Once this happens, they can learn to view situations and experiences with an open mind. This allows them to rationalise and exercise more of a balanced judgement.
They should learn that although their opinions are important, they have to take into consideration other people’s views. Once they have done this, they should find that their behaviours and beliefs are less polarized.