Splitting: What is this symptom of borderline personality disorder?
Splitting is a common symptom of borderline personality disorder.
By Liz Talago
Clinically reviewed by Micaela Gonzalez, LMFT●December 01, 2023
Splitting is a symptom of borderline personality disorder (BPD). It causes a person’s view of someone or something to shift rapidly, often going from total adoration to complete hatred in what feels like an instant.
The black-and-white thinking associated with splitting can be understood as a defense mechanism against uncomfortable emotions. However, it can take a toll on a person’s well-being and relationships.
Fortunately, there are effective treatments available for BPD symptoms like splitting, and working with a therapist can help you stabilize your emotions and improve your mental health.
One of the hallmarks of borderline personality disorder (BPD) is the defense mechanism known as splitting. It happens when a person with BPD’s view of someone or something shifts rapidly, often going from what feels like total adoration to complete hatred in what feels like an instant.
To those affected by another person’s splitting, this can be a jarring, upsetting experience. But support for BPD is available.
What is splitting?
Imagine meeting someone new and forming what feels like a fast connection. At the beginning, they make it clear how much they admire you. It’s almost as if they think you can do no wrong. At first, all the flattery and compliments feel pretty great. But you soon realize that you cannot live up to the image that this person has of you in their mind. It’s almost as if they can’t see the “real” you. Because like all humans, you have flaws and make plenty of mistakes — after all, no one is perfect!
Then, seemingly just as quickly as their adoration for you took hold, there’s a palpable shift. Suddenly, this person views you in another extreme, but this time it’s a negative one. They no longer idealize you, rather, it seems like they hate everything about you. Confused and hurt, you wonder what you did wrong and begin walking on eggshells around this person.
This scenario is an example of what BPD splitting commonly looks like, especially in romantic partnerships. It’s an unconscious process by which a person with BPD rapidly shifts how they view someone or something. The American Psychological Association (APA) defines splitting as a defense mechanism in which people, places, or things, are “split” into two rigid categories: either completely positive or completely negative. What results is a polarized viewpoint that can shift in extremes of either all good or all bad.
Recognizing BPD splitting
One of the most common signs of splitting is a rapid change in how a person with BPD conceptualizes someone else. This shift can feel sudden and can occur without an obvious cause. When a person with BPD engages in splitting, they’re viewing another person (often a romantic partner) in black-and-white terms with no in-between.
They either idealize that person, putting them on a pedestal of perfection and believing they can do no wrong. Or they view the person as completely bad, seeing them as lacking any redeeming qualities. This can feel like an impossible situation for the other person. No one can ever live up to the idealized standards of perfection caused by splitting. But at the same time, it can be difficult to maintain a connection with someone who views you in a completely negative light.
Causes and triggers of BPD splitting
More research is needed to better understand the causes and triggers of BPD splitting, but we know that environmental triggers can play a significant role.
Individuals living with BPD often have a trauma history that can make them more susceptible to increased stress. So when challenging events occur (like a breakup or job loss), they may struggle to cope in a functional way and this may trigger an episode of splitting.
There’s also some evidence to suggest that BPD is passed down in families, so there may also be a biological or genetic component to splitting.
Misconceptions about BPD splitting
Unfortunately, there are some common myths about BPD that have led to continued misunderstanding about splitting. This is likely due, at least in part, to the way that people with BPD are often portrayed in the media.
The truth is that splitting is an involuntary symptom of a serious mental health condition. People living with BPD aren’t inherently toxic or dangerous and they don’t seek to cause harm on purpose. Many people with BPD are fully aware of how their actions negatively affect the people they care about and they have a sincere desire to get help to manage their symptoms.
While it doesn’t excuse the negative impact that splitting can have on relationships, it’s helpful to remember that it isn’t a choice. As is the case with other mental health conditions, people living with BPD deserve empathy, understanding, and access to support.
Coping strategies for people with BPD
According to the research, splitting can be understood as an unhelpful coping mechanism that helps a person with BPD feel in control of situations that might cause an increase in anxiety or stress. And while it doesn’t support healthy functioning in the long run, splitting allows a person living with BPD to temporarily avoid painful feelings like a fear of abandonment.
So how can a person with BPD resolve that discomfort in healthier ways? A therapist who specializes in treating BPD will likely recommend something called dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) to help reduce splitting and other BPD symptoms. DBT is the most widely used BPD treatment and it focuses on improving a person’s ability to regulate their emotions and navigate increased stress.
In addition, engaging in self-care and making certain lifestyle changes can help people living with BPD. For example, this may involve:
Strengthening your support network of friends, family, and mental health professionals
Listening to some music or getting some exercise when you’re feeling angry or frustrated
Journaling or curling up with a favorite movie if you’re feeling depressed
Doing some breathing exercises if you’re feeling anxious or stressed
Working with a mental health professional to improve self-regulation and make a plan for difficult days
Find support for BPD with Rula
If you or a loved one is experiencing splitting due to BPD, know that you’re not alone and that help is available. Despite some common misconceptions, there are effective treatments for BPD.
At Rula, we’re here to make it easy to connect with a therapist online who offers the specialized BPD care you deserve. Our therapist-matching platform makes it easy to find affordable, specialized support for BPD and many other mental health concerns. In just a few seconds, we can help you find a therapist who takes your insurance and schedule your first appointment at a time that works for you as early as this week.