Jan 12th 2023
Borderline personality disorder is a mental health condition associated with a lack of emotion control and a tendency to see the world as all good or all bad . Because people with borderline personality disorder often see the world in black and white, they are likely to show a symptom called splitting, which is described in more detail below.
Individuals who live with borderline personality disorder (BPD) tend to view people and situations in extremes; a person is either all good, or at the opposite end of the spectrum, they are horrible . In the context of relationships, BPD splitting means that people are viewed in extremes.
Mental health researchers have described BPD splitting as shifts in the way that objects and people are perceived. More specifically, splitting is a cognitive and emotional disturbance in which people with BPD fluctuate between idealizing a person or object one moment, and then devaluing this person or object the next moment .
BPD splitting can be a common presentation in borderline personality disorder, because of the fact that this mental health condition comes with extreme mood swings as well as a tendency to view situations and people in extremes .
Researchers have taken an interest in learning the causes of BPD splitting, and they have arrived at some informative conclusions. For example, one recent study suggests that BPD splitting is the result of emotional reactivity and irritability .
When a person with borderline personality disorder experiences shifts in their emotional perception of people or objects, they experience tension. This tension is actually the result of brain activity in specific regions responsible for emotional regulation and the processing of threats. The outcome of this tension is viewing people as either all good or all bad .
Other psychology experts have reported that the tendency for people with BPD to have a paranoid view of personal relationships explains splitting. Individuals who have BPD believe that everyone will eventually betray or abandon them, so while they may have brief periods of idealizing significant others or close friends, as soon as they feel betrayed, they “split” and view the person in a persecutory fashion .
One theory underlying splitting in BPD is the object relations theory. This theory states that our early life experiences shape the way we see the world. People with a healthy sense of self are able to integrate positive and negative aspects of themselves and others into one whole. They accept themselves and other people, flaws and all .
People who experience BPD splitting have not developed this healthy integration of positive and negative. Instead of viewing people and situations as being a mix of positive and negative characteristics, they “split” people into extremes of good and bad. Splitting represents a defense mechanism that allows a person with BPD to protect idealized, “perfect” ways of thinking from negative thoughts and emotions at the other end of the spectrum .
Ultimately, splitting reduces anxiety for people with BPD, but it is a dysfunctional reaction to the environment. Splitting the world into dichotomies results in chaotic, unstable relationships with others, as well as intense mood swings .
Someone who displays BPD splitting behaviors is likely to show some or many of the following signs:
While BPD splitting is used as a defense mechanism against stress or negative feelings, the reality is that it typically leads to worse functioning for individuals who live with BPD.
Ultimately, BPD splitting is linked to the following consequences:
This way of thinking leads a person with BPD to push their partner away as a defense mechanism, later pulling them back in when they shift back to seeing their partner positively. The significant other is likely to end the relationship when the stress of splitting becomes too much for them to manage.
The length of a BPD splitting episode can vary widely, depending upon the severity of a person’s symptoms, the nature of the event that led to splitting, and the person’s unique situation and personality. Episodes can last from a few hours, up to a few days .
For instance, a person who lives with BPD may be triggered by a conflict with a significant other, and view that person very negatively for a few hours. After their mood shifts to positive again, they may abruptly revert to idealizing their significant other. In cases of extreme conflict or distress, a person with BPD may devalue their partner for days at a time. This behavior can understandably be confusing for the partner and damaging for the relationship.
If your loved one lives with BPD, knowing how to manage splitting episodes can be challenging, because these episodes can be upsetting and confusing for you. The following tips can make it easier for you to manage:
Although there is no cure for BPD, there are effective treatments that can reduce the severity of symptoms, including BPD splitting. Therapy is the most well-researched modality for treating BPD, but some medications may be effective in combination with therapy.
Beyond specific therapeutic modalities, people with BPD can benefit from participating in case management services, support groups, and psychoeducational groups to help them learn about their mental health condition and access additional supports within the community.
While not recommended as a standalone treatment for BPD, medications may be used to treat specific symptoms, such as difficulties with emotional regulation and impulsive behavior. Mood stabilizers and antipsychotic medications can be effective for reducing symptom severity, according to available research. Ultimately, medications will be prescribed on a case-by-case basis, with the goal of maximizing benefit while minimizing harm. In many cases, medication is an add-on to other BPD treatment plans, such as counseling and support groups .