Often when I am facilitating therapy sessions with complex trauma survivors, statements will be made that are suggestive of splitting. For instance, one day a friend is perceived as the embodiment of perfection, but when a disappointing flaw is revealed that same person is suddenly vehemently unacceptable. Conversely, one week a familial abuser might be described as the devil incarnate and in the next session, they will be defended as a well-intentioned martyr.
The commonly relied upon defense mechanism of splitting classifies behavior and circumstances in all or nothing terms, such as all good (idealizing) or all bad (shameful).
When allowing contradictory feelings and ideas to existing concurrently is too anxiety-provoking, we create dichotomies and think in unequivocal terms. Since ambivalence can be stressful, splitting offers relief by replacing complexity with a simpler more coherent perspective. By excluding variability and nuance from our thinking overwhelming emotions are strategically managed.
Viewing life in polarized terms of good versus evil allows what is deemed repugnant and bad to be neatly compartmentalized, removed from consciousness or projected onto a designated target. Subsequently, the discomfort that is intrinsic to ambiguity and uncertainty is assuaged.
We see splitting evidenced when situations or people are lauded as wholly virtuous or maligned as unconditionally sinful. Language indicative of an irreconcilable absolutist position, such as always, never, nothing signifies splitting.
Alternatively, deeply entrenched toxic shame might contribute to defining personal worth in accordance with unyielding prescriptions of moral decency or unconscionable behavior. Similarly splitting may be externalized in the form of an us versus them mentality, particularly when pondering the cultural landscape. The ‘badness’ is out there and the idealized right and good state of being are reflected in nationalism, a chosen group of people or an ideology.
Although splitting appears to alleviate the strain of unwanted feelings, thoughts and beliefs when unpleasant truths cannot be tolerated the attainment of a comprehensive meaningful understanding of oneself and others is derailed. Steeped in splitting, perceptions become distorted and relational dynamics become volatile.
When splitting is intractable a chaotic, emotionally intense way of being ensues. Perceiving and thinking in extreme ways wreaks havoc on mental health.
Originally addressed in the 1800’s by French psychologist and trauma therapist Pierre Janet, splitting pertained to the presence of two selves that served to partition or dissociate from devastating traumatic experiences. Janet’s theories of structural dissociation of the personality referenced normal (personal consciousness) and secondary (dissociative) parts. According to Janet, this split comprised two individual subsystems of the whole personality each independent of the other. The contemporary psychological terminology for this phenomenon is dissociative disorders.
Founder of psychoanalysis Sigmund Freud elaborated on Janet’s work, adding that traumatic symptoms dissipated as memories that were split off were brought into consciousness. He conceptualized that this splitting of consciousness was a result of an incompatibility between affect and thoughts that served to shield the ego (i.e.- the conscious, reality-based part of the self) from disintegration.
Psychoanalyst, school teacher and child psychologist Anna Freud expanded on her father’s work by emphasizing how ego psychology and defense mechanisms play a role in children’s proclivity to split loving and aggressive instincts. In accordance with her father, Anna Freud viewed defense mechanisms as “unconscious resources used by the ego” to assuage anxiety and control the impulses of the id.
Developmental concepts of splitting were also proposed by object relations theorists such as Melanie Klein and father of object relations, Scottish psychoanalyst Ronald Fairbairn. They imparted that opposing, conflictual infantile drives are repressed.
Fairbairn explained how the attachment processes in severely abused children necessitate the use of dissociation to preserve the good deified parental object. This strategy is crucial to the abused child’s survival. The unbearable betrayal of abuse and rejection must be walled off and denied. Consequently, the child blames themself so as to preserve the parent as good and humane. The child believes it is their badness that is responsible for the caregiver’s cruelty. This use of splitting is referred to as the ‘splitting of the ego.’ This technique offers the abused child false hope, necessary to survival.
Splitting is a critical premise in object relations theory as it emphasizes the mental separation of objects, meaning that which we relate to and invest with emotional energy. In object relations theory, object representations can be internal (one’s personal experience of the person or thing) and external (the actual person or thing). Depending on whether the object is “good” or “bad” largely determines how relational drives are expressed.
As Fairbairn postulated, the child’s inability to converge good (gratifying) and bad (unsatisfying, abusive) object representations of their parents (i.e.- splitting of the ego) results in unbearable contradictions in which both hope and hopelessness assume critical roles. Accordingly, to preserve the ‘good mother’ and ward off the threat of psychological annihilation, the child introjects the indifferent rejecting mother as a defensively internalized sense of badness. The splitting of this introjected object representation into a gratifying exciting object (hope) and a rejecting object (hopelessness) results in a relentless and frustrating infantile pursuit of what is referred to in psychoanalytic parlance as the exciting-rejecting object.
This ambivalent, split attachment style is relationally re-enacted in adulthood and is considered instrumental in the development of borderline personality disorder and narcissistic conditions.
The borderline personality is not able to integrate the good and bad images of both self and others, as the “bad object representation” dominates the “good object representation” (Otto Kernberg). This predicament lends itself to fears of engulfment and overwhelming anxiety that are mitigated through splitting. The ‘other’ is seen as responsible for the anxiety and therefore bad. People who are diagnosed with a narcissistic personality disorder also use splitting as a central defense mechanism. To preserve their grandiosity they view themselves as entirely good and others as entirely bad.
As we can see, splitting ranges from relatively adaptive forms to expressions regarded as pathological. Within this range of what is considered normal to pathological the defensive warding off of anxiety aroused by threatening, contradictory perceptions are inevitable. Irrespective of whether splitting is a defense mechanism, a developmental certainty or a response to trauma, that which clashes with our need for safety and predictability will ignite the impulse to separate from antagonistic stimuli.
Although splitting serves a critical function, as Tibetan Buddhist nun Pema Chödrön wrote in her book Comfortable with Uncertainty, “The root of suffering is resisting the certainty that no matter what the circumstances, uncertainty is all we truly have.”
Indeed, co-existing with uncertainty and precariousness in life is a significant step towards consciously accepting contrary traits and beliefs within oneself and others. To curtail the impulse to split, one must be willing to engage with that which is repressed and shunned so that opposing positions can be consciously held and synthesized. This process opens one up to enduring the paradoxical nature of life and humanity.
While organizing conflictual information into dichotomies offers illusory control, contradiction, uncertainty, and ambiguity are realistic inevitabilities. Holding on to extreme posturing obstructs the possibility of tolerating distress. From this place achieving a stable sense of inner or outer balance and attaining common ground is not conceivable.
We are currently seeing this phenomenon play out on a grand scale.
Founder of analytical depth psychology Carl Jung referred to humanity’s projection of what is unwanted, hidden and repressed as the collective shadow. This form of ancestral, global and culturally determined splitting has far-reaching, damaging implications, as what is split off from consciousness on a societal level manifests as violence and oppression. Thoughtful dialogue and humility is nullified and replaced with righteous indignation and endless sweeping generalizations.
All men are rapists. All white people are racists. All women are nurturing. All Jews are miserly. All Republicans are morons. All people of color are disenfranchised. All feminists hate men. All conservatives lack moral compassion. All liberals are foolishly idealistic.
Along with these narrow-minded judgments, extreme applications of moral relativism occurs. Ironically moral relativism which purports that morality and ethics are always subject to cultural variability and context, and hence rejects the notion of moral absolutes, is an example of splitting. Although there are universal moral absolutes such as honesty or the use of violence (genocide, torture, slavery, child abuse) that are exemplary of ethical values, moral relativism denies the fundamental existence of guiding principles across different cultures. This suggests that a core set of values are never shared en masse. This posturing fosters polarization which stymies a rational understanding of morality as inclusive of both relativism and absolutism.
As Jung wrote in the preface to On the Psychology of the Unconscious,
“The psychology of the individual is reflected in the psychology of the nation. What the nation does is done also by each individual, and so long as the individual continues to do it, the nation will do likewise. Only a change in the attitude of the individual can initiate a change in the psychology of the nation. The great problems of humanity were never yet solved by general laws, but only through regeneration of the attitudes of individuals. If ever there was a time when self-reflection was the absolutely necessary and only right thing, it is now, in our present catastrophic epoch.”
Heeding Jung’s appeal requires us to resist the pull towards polarization and humbly demythologize and humanize ourselves and each other. Perhaps then can we attempt to assimilate conflictual information and perspectives and prevent the danger of arbitrarily assigning pejorative labels to anyone who questions established social orders and structures of power? By responsibly managing our collective impulse to idealize and devalue, we might finally comprehend how opposition or disagreement has become akin to sedition and why we have as a nation become so divided.