What Is Splitting Psychology?

Medically reviewed by Elizabeth Erban, LMFT, IMH-E
Updated February 22, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team
Content Warning: Please be advised, the below article might mention trauma-related topics that could be triggering to the reader. Please see our Get Help Now page for more immediate resources.

Splitting is a mental mechanism or pattern of thinking that is characterized by interpreting complex or overwhelming situations in oversimplified, either/or terms. This tendency often provides a narrow perspective that can exclude important details. In general, it’s a limiting way of thinking that can cause issues with one’s relationships, mental health, or other areas of life. Below, we’ll examine examples of splitting, potential causes, and techniques for overcoming or managing this tendency.

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What is splitting?

Splitting refers to a tendency—usually unconscious—to view most or all aspects of one’s life in a false dichotomy of either good or bad.

An individual prone to splitting is typically quick to place this type of polarizing judgment, often leading to either idealizing or devaluing people, things, and situations. It doesn’t allow much room for nuance, and it can set a person up for disappointment. They’re also likely to abruptly change their opinions from one extreme to another, which can be frustrating to those around them because of the endless push-pull dynamic it can create.

One common pattern that can occur in a person prone to splitting is cycles of idealization and devaluation. For example, imagine you have a coworker who you think is an outstanding person, a brilliant professional, and a trusted colleague who is always on your side. However, let’s say that one day, this person gives you negative feedback about a report you wrote. If you’re prone to splitting, you might instantly switch to viewing them as a rude, negative, and vindictive person from that point on and may be cold when interacting with them or avoid them altogether. 

Why splitting happens

Pierre Janet was one of the first psychologists to identify splitting as a psychological defense mechanism in the face of overwhelming situations. Sigmund Freud would later expand on the concept, proposing that splitting helped defend the ego after the experience of trauma, especially in childhood. In modern psychology, splitting is viewed as a mode of thinking that most anyone may engage in from time to time, whether they have a mental health condition or a history of trauma or not. Younger people may be prone to splitting behavior, for instance, because they’re still developing their sense of self and may not yet be capable of integrating polarized viewpoints or feelings of ambivalence. Older people may also engage in splitting at times, particularly when it comes to long-held beliefs such as those related to politics or religion. 

Splitting that is consistent and/or pervasive enough to cause significant problems in one’s daily life is a symptom that’s commonly associated with borderline personality disorder (BPD). This mental illness affects how an individual views themselves and others and is typically characterized by an unstable self-image, difficulties with fixing emotions, and trouble maintaining healthy relationships. Its causes are unclear, but they may relate to genetics and/or childhood trauma. BPD can be effectively managed with appropriate treatment, which typically consists of psychotherapy and/or medication. Psychotherapy in particular can be helpful in treating the symptom of splitting.

How to recognize splitting

The main sign of splitting is typically a polarization of beliefs, with a tendency to quickly sort elements of one’s life into the categories of “amazing” or “terrible” with little room for the in-between, creating a distorted view of reality. Here are a few ways this tendency may manifest, so you can recognize if you may be engaging in it in your own life:

  • Thinking in absolutes or dividing concepts into two opposing camps
  • Believing that everyone is either good or bad with no room for ambiguity or imperfections
  • Believing that someone with a different viewpoint is against you
  • Easily turning on someone close to you (for example, idolizing your best friend and then dropping them if they do something you don’t like) 
  • Making fun of those who think differently than you do 
  • Changing your mind about things or switching opinions/allegiances abruptly
  • Having difficulty maintaining relationships
  • Changing moods easily 
  • Presenting yourself very differently depending on the circumstances

Tips for managing splitting tendencies

There are various strategies you can try to gradually shift a tendency towards group polarization and engaging in splitting. First, know that splitting is often an unconscious mechanism. That’s why developing a sense of mindfulness may help you become more aware of when it’s happening, which is typically the first step toward being able to change a thought pattern. Cultivating a mindfulness meditation practice is one way to develop this type of awareness, and keeping a journal is another. 

Once you become aware of your tendency to split, you might actively work toward viewing people and situations with a broader, more compassionate perspective. You can remind yourself that all humans are flawed and imperfect, that the world is full of shades of gray, and that mistakes and differences can actually be valuable rather than immediately disqualifying. It might also be helpful to try and avoid overusing polarized language such as “always” and “never”.

How therapy can help

If you suspect you may be engaging in splitting as a result of a mental health condition like borderline personality disorder, a qualified therapist can provide an accurate diagnosis and suggest treatment options. Even if not, meeting with a mental health professional can be a powerful way to shift unhelpful thought patterns. Cognitive behavioral therapy in particular is designed to help clients identify and shift flawed modes of thinking in order to positively impact resulting feelings and behaviors. 

If you’re interested in seeking therapy in person, you can search for providers in your area. If you’d prefer the convenience of engaging in therapy from the comfort of home, you might consider online therapy. Research suggests that online methods of delivering cognitive behavioral therapy can be effective, which means that you have the potential to benefit from this format if it feels right for you. With a virtual therapy platform like BetterHelp, you can get matched with a licensed therapist who you can meet with via phone, video call, and/or in-app messaging from anywhere you have an internet connection. Read on for client reviews of BetterHelp counselors.

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Splitting is a tendency to view things in extremes, sorting them into categories of excellent or terrible. This pattern of thinking can be limiting and can cause problems in a person’s life and relationships, but there are strategies you can try to manage it—including meeting with a trained therapist.
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