The article was last updated by Emily (Editor) on February 7, 2024.

Do you ever find yourself thinking in extremes, viewing situations and people as either all good or all bad? This tendency to see the world in black and white terms is known as splitting in psychology.

In this article, we will explore the causes, signs, and symptoms of splitting, as well as how it is diagnosed. We will discuss treatment options and ways to manage and prevent this cognitive distortion.

Let’s delve into the complex concept of splitting and gain a deeper understanding of its impact on mental health.

What Is Splitting in Psychology?

Splitting in psychology refers to the defense mechanism in which individuals tend to perceive people, situations, or events as either all good or all bad, without acknowledging the complexity or nuances in between.

This concept is particularly prevalent in the context of personality disorders and emotional dysregulation.

This defensive pattern of thinking often arises from intense and extreme emotions, leading to cognitive distortions and an inability to integrate contradictory qualities or characteristics of oneself or others.

When individuals engage in splitting, they may idealize someone at one moment and devalue them the next, creating a significant impact on their relationships and emotional regulation.

This dichotomous view can result in strained interpersonal connections, as well as intense emotional turmoil and instability.

What Are the Causes of Splitting?

The causes of splitting can be multifaceted, including factors such as childhood trauma, unstable relationships, and the presence of personality disorders, particularly borderline personality disorder and narcissistic personality disorder.

Cognitive distortions and dichotomous interpretations contribute to the development and reinforcement of this pattern.

Childhood trauma, such as emotional neglect or abuse, can lead to disruptions in the development of cognitive processes, affecting the individual’s ability to integrate conflicting emotions and perceptions.

This can manifest as splitting, where the individual struggles to maintain a balanced view of themselves and others.

Unstable relationships, characterized by inconsistent support and validation, can also contribute to the adoption of dichotomous thinking patterns. This can create a heightened sensitivity to perceived abandonment or rejection, further fueling the propensity for splitting.

Personality disorders like borderline personality disorder and narcissistic personality disorder are closely linked to splitting. Individuals with these disorders may experience intense fear of abandonment, have difficulty regulating emotions, and exhibit black-and-white thinking, amplifying the likelihood of splitting as a coping mechanism.

Cognitive distortions, such as overgeneralizing, emotional reasoning, and catastrophizing, play a significant role in reinforcing dichotomous interpretations. These distortions can further entrench the individual’s tendency to view situations, themselves, and others in extreme and polarized terms.

Childhood Trauma

Childhood trauma can significantly contribute to the development of splitting as a defense mechanism, leading to cognitive distortions and challenges in emotional regulation.

The impact of early traumatic experiences may shape individuals’ dichotomous interpretations of the world and others, fostering the adoption of splitting as a coping strategy.

This defense mechanism, commonly associated with borderline personality disorder (BPD), involves a tendency to categorize people, events, and situations into all-good or all-bad extremities.

When rooted in childhood trauma, the tendency to split can profoundly influence individuals’ perception of themselves and others, perpetuating patterns of dysregulation and interpersonal difficulties.

Unstable Relationships

Unstable relationships, particularly within the context of borderline personality disorder, can exacerbate the manifestation of splitting and contribute to emotional dysregulation.

The principles of object relations theory highlight the impact of these relationships on individuals’ internalized representations, influencing their tendency to engage in dichotomous thinking.

Individuals with borderline personality disorder often struggle to maintain stable and consistent perceptions of themselves and others, leading to a pervasive sense of uncertainty and fear of abandonment.

Object relations theory provides a framework for understanding how early attachment experiences shape one’s understanding of interpersonal dynamics and influence recurring patterns of behavior and cognition.

Personality Disorders

Various personality disorders, including narcissistic personality disorder, are closely associated with the presence of splitting as a cognitive pattern.

These disorders often involve extreme and rigid thinking, contributing to dichotomous interpretations and severe emotional dysregulation, particularly in the context of transference and internalized representations.

In the case of individuals with narcissistic personality disorder, their tendency to view others as either all good or all bad can lead to turbulent relationships and impede their ability to engage in healthy, balanced interactions.

This dichotomous thinking pattern can further exacerbate the manifestation of splitting, where individuals struggle to integrate both positive and negative views of themselves and others.

Severe depression can intensify the cognitive process of splitting, amplifying the individual’s struggle to reconcile conflicting emotions and perceptions.

This can perpetuate a cycle of reinforced dichotomous thinking, impairing their ability to maintain emotional stability and a coherent sense of self.

Cognitive Distortions

Cognitive distortions, particularly dichotomous interpretations of events and individuals, play a pivotal role in the development and reinforcement of splitting.

These distortions are often rooted in psychoanalytic concepts, reflecting the influence of object relations theory on individuals’ cognitive processes and internalized representations.

In understanding dichotomous interpretations, it’s imperative to recognize that individuals tend to perceive situations in all-or-nothing terms, leading to the categorization of experiences, emotions, and people into extremes of good or bad, right or wrong.

This cognitive tendency heavily contributes to the phenomenon of splitting, where individuals struggle to integrate conflicting aspects of themselves and others, ultimately creating a fragmented view of the world.

The application of psychoanalytic concepts, such as the influence of early attachment experiences and the formation of internal object representations, provides crucial insights into the origins of cognitive distortions.

Object relations theory further elucidates how individuals’ relational patterns and the internalized ‘objects’ from early relationships shape their cognitive processing and interpretation of experiences.

What Are the Signs and Symptoms of Splitting?

The signs and symptoms of splitting encompass various behavioral and emotional indicators, including black-and-white thinking, pervasive fear of abandonment, and impulsive behaviors.

These manifestations are particularly prevalent in the context of borderline personality disorder and reveal the challenges associated with emotional regulation.

Black-and-white thinking involves viewing people and situations as all good or all bad, with little room for gray areas. Individuals exhibiting this pattern often struggle to see the complexities and nuances in relationships and experiences.

The pervasive fear of abandonment can lead to intense efforts to avoid being alone, along with feelings of emptiness and instability in relationships. Impulsive behaviors, such as reckless spending, substance abuse, or risky sexual activities, are common among those with borderline personality disorder.

These behaviors can often serve as coping mechanisms, providing temporary relief from emotional distress but contributing to long-term difficulties.

Black and White Thinking

Black and white thinking, a hallmark of splitting, reflects the presence of cognitive distortions and emotional dysregulation, as elucidated by the concepts of Melanie Klein in psychoanalytic theory.

This pattern entails a pervasive tendency to perceive situations and individuals in extreme and dichotomous terms, devoid of nuanced interpretation.

This cognitive distortion often leads individuals to view people or circumstances as entirely good or completely bad, rendering them unable to acknowledge the complexities and shades of grey inherent in human experiences.

Melanie Klein’s contributions to psychoanalytic theory have shed light on the developmental origins of this thinking pattern, highlighting how early childhood experiences and the formation of internal object relations influence the individual’s propensity for splitting.

Difficulty Maintaining Stable Relationships

Individuals experiencing splitting often encounter challenges in maintaining stable relationships, reflecting the impact of this cognitive pattern on interpersonal dynamics.

The principles of dialectical behavior therapy and object relations theory provide insights into the complexities of relationship management amidst the presence of splitting.

Dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) emphasizes the development of emotion regulation skills and interpersonal effectiveness. It offers individuals the tools to navigate the intense emotional fluctuations inherent in splitting.

Object relations theory delves into the early formation of interpersonal patterns and their influence on adult relationships. It sheds light on the deep-seated roots of splitting dynamics.

Fear of Abandonment

The pervasive fear of abandonment is a common manifestation of splitting, particularly within the context of borderline personality disorder, often rooted in early experiences of transference and attachment dynamics.

This fear significantly influences individuals’ emotional responses and behavioral patterns, posing challenges in interpersonal relationships.

This fear of abandonment can lead individuals to adopt maladaptive coping mechanisms, such as displaying extreme emotional reactions, possessiveness, or withdrawing from relationships to protect themselves from potential hurt.

The profound impact of this fear extends beyond the individual, influencing the dynamics and stability of their relationships.

Addressing and managing this fear within relationship contexts requires a multi-faceted approach, involving therapy to explore and reframe early attachment experiences, learning to regulate intense emotions, and developing healthier communication and intimacy skills.

Impulsive Behavior

Impulsive behavior serves as a significant symptom of splitting, reflecting the challenges associated with emotional dysregulation and cognitive distortions. The principles of cognitive behavioral therapy offer valuable insights into addressing and managing impulsive tendencies amidst the presence of splitting.

Impulsive behavior, in the context of splitting, often emerges as a coping mechanism linked to emotional turmoil and cognitive upheaval.

Individuals experiencing splitting may demonstrate abrupt and rash actions due to their inability to manage conflicting emotions and perceptions effectively.

This impulsive conduct can manifest in various forms, such as sudden outbursts, reckless decision-making, or self-harming behaviors, exhibiting the disruption caused by cognitive distortions and disintegrated emotional regulation.

How Is Splitting Diagnosed?

The diagnosis of splitting typically involves a comprehensive assessment of cognitive and emotional patterns, often drawing upon the criteria outlined in the DSM-IV-TR.

Scholarly resources such as the Journal of Psychiatric Nursing and Mental Health Services provide valuable insights into the diagnostic considerations related to splitting.

When diagnosing splitting, clinicians often rely on established criteria to evaluate the individual’s thought processes, behavior, and emotional responses.

This may include assessing how the individual interprets and navigates interpersonal relationships, as well as their tendency to perceive others in polarized, all-good or all-bad terms.

Clinical guidelines emphasize the importance of considering the contextual factors and developmental history that may contribute to the manifestation of splitting.

Understanding the psychological mechanisms and defenses involved is crucial for an accurate diagnosis and effective treatment planning.

What Are the Treatment Options for Splitting?

The treatment of splitting encompasses various therapeutic modalities, including psychotherapy, medications, and specialized interventions such as dialectical behavior therapy.

In locations such as London, United Kingdom, these treatment options are readily accessible, offering individuals effective pathways for managing and addressing splitting.

Psychotherapy, a key pillar in the treatment of splitting, involves providing a supportive and understanding environment where individuals can explore the underlying causes of their symptoms and learn coping mechanisms.

Medications, prescribed by qualified medical professionals, can help alleviate the associated symptoms, reducing the impact of splitting on daily functioning.

Specialized interventions like dialectical behaviour therapy offer a structured approach to address dysfunctional thoughts and emotions, promoting healthier ways of thinking and behaving.


Psychotherapy, particularly cognitive behavioural therapy and dialectical behaviour therapy, forms the cornerstone of treatment for splitting, drawing upon the insights of renowned figures such as Eugen Bleuler and Anna Freud.

These modalities offer individuals strategies for managing dichotomous thinking and emotional dysregulation, fostering healthier cognitive patterns.

Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) is highly effective in addressing cognitive distortions by helping individuals recognize and reframe negative thought patterns.

By integrating evidence-based practices, CBT enables individuals to challenge and change their maladaptive beliefs, promoting more adaptive coping strategies.

Dialectical behaviour therapy (DBT) has proven particularly valuable in addressing emotional dysregulation, providing individuals with skills to manage intense emotions and maintain stable relationships.

Both modalities incorporate the foundational principles of psychotherapy while being tailored to the unique needs of individuals struggling with splitting.


In cases where severe emotional dysregulation and associated conditions such as severe depression are prevalent, medications may complement psychotherapeutic interventions in addressing splitting. The insights of experts like Heinz Kohut offer valuable perspectives on the integration of medications into comprehensive treatment plans.

Heinz Kohut, a pioneering psychoanalyst, emphasized the importance of addressing the individual’s psychic structure and understanding narcissistic vulnerabilities. His insights underscore the need for a nuanced approach that integrates medications judiciously alongside psychotherapy.

Medications, when prescribed thoughtfully, can help stabilize mood, mitigate overwhelming affective experiences, and enable individuals to engage more effectively in the therapeutic process.

In the case of severe depression, medication treatment may be essential for managing symptoms and facilitating a more receptive mindset for therapeutic work.

Recognizing the delicate balance between medication and psychotherapy, trained clinicians interpret individual responses to medications and adjust treatment plans accordingly, aligning with the patient’s evolving needs and therapeutic progress.

Support Groups

Support groups play a valuable role in complementing formal treatment approaches for splitting, offering individuals avenues for enhancing emotional regulation and sharing experiences.

The principles outlined by experts like Pierre Janet underscore the importance of collective support and validation in managing conditions such as narcissistic personality disorder.

These support groups offer a safe space for individuals to connect with others who are facing similar challenges, fostering a sense of understanding and empathy.

In the context of splitting, the ability to communicate with others who can relate to one’s experiences can be enabling and validating, leading to improved emotional well-being.

The insights of experts like Pierre Janet emphasize that the validation received from peers in support groups can help individuals develop a more cohesive sense of self and manage the emotional turmoil associated with narcissistic personality disorder.

How Can Splitting Be Managed and Prevented?

The management and prevention of splitting involve leveraging principles from object relations theory and the foundational contributions of figures such as Sigmund Freud and Ronald Fairbairn.

By addressing underlying attachment dynamics and internalized representations, individuals can cultivate healthier cognitive patterns and mitigate the impact of splitting.

Object relations theory, established by influential figures like Sigmund Freud and Ronald Fairbairn, offers valuable insights into understanding the dynamics of splitting and its management.

By diving into the intricacies of attachment dynamics and internalized representations, individuals can gain a deeper understanding of the roots of splitting tendencies.

This approach allows for the development of strategies to foster healthier cognitive patterns and reduce the negative impact of splitting on relationships and overall well-being.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is splitting in psychology?

Splitting in psychology refers to a defense mechanism where a person sees the world in black and white, with no grey areas. This means they either see things as all good or all bad, and cannot see the complexity or nuances of a situation.

How does splitting manifest in behavior?

Splitting can manifest in behavior as extreme thinking, where a person may constantly switch between idealizing and devaluing another person or situation. This can also lead to impulsive decision making and difficulty maintaining stable relationships.

What are the potential causes of splitting?

Splitting can be caused by a variety of factors, including past traumas, low self-esteem, and personality disorders such as borderline personality disorder. It can also be a coping mechanism for those who struggle with intense emotions.

How does splitting affect relationships?

Splitting can make it difficult to maintain healthy relationships, as a person may constantly view their partner or loved one as either perfect or completely flawed. This can lead to conflict, misunderstandings, and an unstable dynamic in the relationship.

Can splitting be treated?

Yes, splitting can be treated through therapy and self-awareness. Techniques such as cognitive behavioral therapy can help individuals recognize and challenge their extreme thinking patterns, leading to a more balanced and realistic perspective.

Is splitting always a negative thing?

While splitting can be problematic in relationships and daily life, it can also serve as a short-term coping mechanism for those dealing with intense emotions or trauma. However, it is important to address and manage this defense mechanism in the long term for overall emotional well-being.

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