What Is Splitting in Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD)?

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Our personalities are defined by the way we think, feel, and behave. They’re also shaped by our experiences, environment, and inherited traits. Our personalities are a big part of what make us different from the people around us.

Personality disorders are mental health conditions that cause you to think, feel, and behave differently than most people. When untreated, they can cause distress or problems in the lives of people who have them.

One very common personality disorder is called borderline personality disorder (BPD). It’s characterized by:

  • self-image issues
  • difficulty managing emotions and behavior
  • unstable relationships

One key behavior shared by many with BPD is known as “splitting countertransference,” or simply “splitting.”

Keep reading to learn more about splitting in BPD and how to cope with it.

What is splitting in BPD?

To split something means to divide it. Those with BPD tend to characterize themselves, other people, and situations in black and white. In other words, they may suddenly characterize people, objects, beliefs, or situations as either all good or all bad.

They may do this even though they know the world is complex, and good and bad can exist together in one.

Those with BPD often seek outside validation without considering their own emotions about themselves, others, objects, beliefs, and situations. This can make them more prone to splitting, as they attempt to shield themselves from anxiety caused by potential abandonment, loss of trust, and betrayal.

How long does splitting last?

People with BPD often experience intense fears of abandonment and instability. To cope with these fears, they might use splitting as a defense mechanism. This means they might cleanly separate positive and negative feelings about:

  • themselves
  • objects
  • beliefs
  • other people
  • situations

Splitting often occurs cyclically and very suddenly. A person with BPD can see the world in its complexity. But they often change their feelings from good to bad rather frequently.

A splitting episode can last for days, weeks, months, or even years before shifting.

What might trigger a splitting episode?

A split is typically triggered by an event that causes a person with BPD to take extreme emotional viewpoints. These events may be relatively ordinary, such as having to travel on a business trip or getting in an argument with someone.

Often, triggering events involve minor separations from someone they feel close to and sparks fear of abandonment.

Examples of splitting

You can identify splitting most commonly through the language of a person with BPD. They’ll often use extreme words in their characterizations of self, others, objects, beliefs, and situations, such as:

  • “never” and “always”
  • “none” and “all”
  • “bad” and “good”

Here are a couple of examples:

Example 1

You’ve been feeling good about yourself, generally. You’re out on a road trip one day and make a wrong turn that gets you temporarily lost. Suddenly, any good feelings you have about yourself disappear, and you get very down on yourself.

You may say negative things to yourself or others, such as “I’m such an idiot, I always get lost” or “I’m so worthless, I can’t do anything right.”

Of course, making a wrong turn when driving doesn’t mean a person is worthless. But a person with BPD can split their perception to avoid the anxiety of others perceiving them as worthless if they do the job first.

Example 2

You have a mentor you deeply admire. They’ve helped you professionally and personally, and you begin to idealize them. They must be without flaw if they’re so successful in their professional and personal lives. You want to be like them, and you tell them so.

Then one day your mentor undergoes turmoil in their marriage. You view this as a sign of weakness. Suddenly, you view your mentor as a complete fraud and failure.

You want nothing to do with them. You completely separate yourself and your work from them and look for a new mentor elsewhere.

Such splitting can leave the person being hurt, annoyed, and confused by the sudden shift in your perception.

How does splitting affect relationships?

Splitting is an unconscious attempt to safeguard ego and prevent anxiety. Splitting often leads to extreme — and sometimes destructive — behavior and personal turmoil in relationships. Splitting often confuses those who are trying to help people with BPD.

Splitting is an unconscious attempt to safeguard ego and prevent anxiety.

Those with BPD often report having intense and unstable relationships. A person who’s a friend one day may be perceived as an enemy the next. Some relationship traits of a person with BPD include:

  • difficulty trusting others
  • irrationally fearing others’ intentions
  • quickly cutting off communication with someone they think might end up abandoning them
  • rapidly changing feelings about a person, from intense closeness and love (idealization) to intense dislike and anger (devaluation)
  • rapidly initiating physically and/or emotionally intimate relationships

What’s the best way to cope with splitting if you have BPD?

Splitting is a defense mechanism commonly developed by people who have experienced early life traumas, such as abuse and abandonment.

Long-term treatment involves development of coping mechanisms that improve your perspective of the events happening in your life. Reducing anxiety can also help.

If you need help dealing with a splitting episode in the moment, here’s what you can do:

  • Calm your breathing. A surge of anxiety often accompanies splitting episodes. Taking long, deep breaths can help calm you and prevent your extreme feelings from taking over.
  • Focus on all your senses. Grounding yourself in what’s happening around you at a given moment can be a good way to distract yourself from extreme feelings and help you better put into perspective what’s happening around you. What can you smell, taste, touch, hear, and see in a moment?
  • Reach out. If you find yourself splitting, consider reaching out to your mental healthcare professional. They may be able to calm you and help ease the split while it’s happening.

What’s the best way to help a person who’s experiencing splitting?

It’s not easy to help a person with BPD who experiences splitting. You may feel at the mercy of their symptoms. If you feel capable enough to help, here are some tips:

  • Learn as much as you can about BPD. It’s easy to get offended by the up-and-down behavior of someone with BPD. But the more you know about the condition and how it can affect behavior, the more understanding you’ll have about your loved one’s behavior.
  • Know your loved one’s triggers. Often, the same events over and over again are a BPD trigger. Knowing your loved one’s triggers, alerting them, and helping them avoid or cope with those triggers may prevent a splitting cycle.
  • Understand your own limits. If you feel unequipped to help your loved one cope with their BPD splitting episodes, be honest. Tell them when they should seek professional help. Here’s how to access therapy for every budget.

The bottom line

BPD is a mental health disorder characterized by extremes in the way a person thinks, feels, and acts. Many people with BPD form extreme characterizations about themselves, others, objects, beliefs, and situations during episodes called splitting.

Situations associated with anxiety often trigger splitting episodes. While it may be difficult at times, coping with splitting symptoms is possible.

Getting professional help can best prepare you to cope with your BPD and splitting cycles.

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