What Is Splitting Psychology?

Updated November 29, 2018

Reviewer Wendy Boring-Bray, DBH, LPC

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Splitting is a psychological concept that may seem foreign at first, but odds are, you know someone who has done it. You probably have done it yourself as well at times. In this post, we will discuss what splitting is, why people do it, its history, and how you can cope with someone who splits.

What Is Splitting?

Splitting is probably better known as black and white thinking. It's when someone views aspects of their lives in a false dichotomy. Everything is either good or bad. You're either for the person or against them. Everything is either just or unjust. Life is divided into two parts when in reality, there are many shades of gray and choices to think of.

Many people split things. Some will split everything they believe in, while others may only split some aspects of their life. The person who splits tends to look at only the positive or negative of someone.

Why Do People Do It?

Everyone splits to a certain degree. From the observation table, it seems a bit silly. Why can't people be more nuanced and realize that not everything is divided into black or white? While the process does sound silly, it is necessary for the mind.

See, life is filled with so many gray areas. Morality, actions, and motivations are not always good or bad in entirety. It can be overwhelming for many people, and because of this, we tend to make sense of the information by grouping it. This helps us organize the information, but you can see where it can be a bit troublesome.

Why Splitting Can Be Bad

Dividing life into categories can be useful, but without critically examining the information you've split, it becomes a problem. For example, if you think a concept is bad, you may not take the time to learn more about it, and this can be challenging. If you studied it more, perhaps you would see another viewpoint or be able to realize that your point of view is not much different.

Also, splitting tends to focus on the extremities of a group or concept. For example, someone may make a negative generalization about a group of people because of the violent actions of a few. It's good to point out the problems a group is facing, but you also have to remember that there are likely good aspects as well.

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History Of Splitting

Splitting was first looked at in the late 1800s by Pierre Janet. He believed there were two selves, the normal and the secondary. Other psychologists began to describe it and expand upon it. One such psychologist was, of course, Sigmund Freud. Freud thought that splitting was a defense mechanism used to help protect the ego. Someone's ego may be damaged if they realized their opposing viewpoint has more nuance than just being bad or undesirable. While their ego is protected by being the hero of the story and the other split the villains, it does distort how reality is. Life is rarely good vs. evil, but instead shades of gray piling on other shades.

Some Examples

Here are some examples of splitting.

  • Religion and politics. This is an infamous example known to everyone. If you have a two-party system, people may split the parties. One party is trying to do everything they can to help the people, and the other is trying to undo what the good party is doing. In religion, your religion is the right way while the other religions are opposing you. Few people may think of political parties as having both good and bad people in it, and few may believe that every religion has its purpose.
  • Authority, in general, can be viewed by splitting. There are some who think that all authority is out to get them and should be opposed. Then, there are others who think that authority should always be obeyed and is in the right. Few may look at both the good and the bad aspects of authority and accept them.
  • Thinking that everyone who doesn't care for you or dislikes you is against you. Not everyone in society is going to accept you, but few are your enemies. However, it can be difficult for you to realize this when you split.

How To Know If Someone Is Splitting

It's quite easy to know if everyone is splitting a concept. Here are a few signs.

  • The person thinks in absolutes or divides concepts into two opposing camps.
  • This person believes that everyone is either good or bad. Never in-between or morally ambiguous.
  • Believes that someone with a different viewpoint is against them. They also don't entertain the viewpoint or look into it.
  • Someone who splits can easily turn. They can turn into your best friend who idolizes you, but if you do something they don't like, they may turn you into public enemy number one.
  • They may think that by making fun of those who think differently, they are somehow improving their self-esteem.
  • Someone who splits can change their mind over issues with a drop of the hat. Usually, it takes a bit for someone to change their mind, but someone who divides concepts may sometimes switch them easily. They may switch allegiance easily.
  • They can't keep a relationship, be it a friendship or their partners. This is because if a friend or partner disagrees with them, they are automatically their enemy.
  • They may change moods easily. They may view their mood as either being happy or sad, calm or angry.
  • Someone who splits may present themselves differently depending on the circumstances.

Who Splits?

Splitting can happen at any age, but it's commonly associated with younger people. Teens and young adults may split more, and this may be because they are trying to figure ourselves out, and we haven't developed the ability to split. Trauma may be the cause of splitting as well.

With that said, it can happen at any age. Older people can split, especially when it comes to cherished beliefs like politics and religion.

Someone who splits may have a personality disorder as well. Borderline personality disorder, narcissism, and a few other disorders may be present with splitting.

How People Split To Justify Their Actions

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Perhaps the biggest use for psychological splitting is to justify actions that are often perceived as unjustifiable or unreasonable. Someone may do spiteful actions or cause harm because they believe the person receiving it deserves it and the ends justify the means. Someone may use splitting to justify always being right. Many do not like to be wrong about events, and splitting helps.

Splitting can be used for political agendas as well. Look at our political climate today. Plenty of issues are being pushed with us vs. them mentality. This has been done historically. One such example is the Nazis. The Nazis portrayed Jews as their antagonists. Because of this, they can do anything to the Jews because it was justified. It's quite easy to manipulate and divide the population into opposing one another, even if they all may have something in common.

Elsewhere, psychopaths can use splitting to create a narrative where they are the victim. Someone who creates mass murder may use a "woe is me" story to justify their actions, even if there is no justification for it. This can apply to anyone committing the crime. People who do bad things can always split to be the victim.

Treating Splitting

As we said before, most people split in some way or another. There is probably something in your life that you have divided into an either-or situation, without you realizing it. The best way to treat yourself if you are splitting is to be self-aware.

Once you realize you've split something, look at it critically. Study all sides of the issue and listen to both points. Be open-minded. This can help you realize that most things in life can't be divided into good or bad. We aren't saying you have to always be in the middle of a situation, but perhaps take time to look at the other side.

Seeing in shades of gray can be complicated. The world is rarely black and white. Sure, some actions are bad no matter what, but when it comes to people's actions and motivations, they are often quite complex, and you can learn more by looking at the other side and realizing the true beauty of this world: not everything is boringly divided into black and white. Sometimes, there are many viewpoints on one issue alone, and the people spouting those viewpoints are not good or bad.

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With that said, changing how you look at life can be difficult. A counselor can help you turn your thinking around and let you see parts of life in ways you haven't before. Speak to a counselor and see how you can improve.


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