‘Splitting’ is a primary defense mechanism for coping with identity disturbance and occurs when an individual is not able to integrate the range of positive and negative qualities that exist in the self and in other people into a realistic, cohesive, overall, mental representation.
Because of this, the person prone to ‘splitting’ has a very strong tendency to see themselves and others in terms of extremes which dramatically swing from one polarity to the other (e.g. idealizing a person one minute, then demonizing the same person the next). In other words, ‘splitting’ involves a kind of ‘all or nothing and ‘black or white’ thinking which cannot tolerate ambiguity.
The rest of this article will provide a leading theory as to why a person may (unconsciously) develops the ‘splitting’ defense mechanism, and, in order to do this, it is useful, first, to look at how a person’s identity develops :
IDENTITY DEVELOPMENT :
According to Erik Erikson, the forging of our core sense of identity takes place during our adolescence via the process of being influenced by the values of parents / primary carers, friends, and others, some of whom we identify with, some of whom we over-identify with and some of whom we reject or actively rebel against.
The resultant sense of self, then, helps us form friendships, decide upon and traverse educational and career paths, and generally, comfortably integrate ourselves within wider society.
However, if the young person is not able successfully to complete this process, identity confusion is the result.
A leading theory as to why an individual may not form a solid sense of personal identity and, rather, develop a diffuse sense of self and identity confusion, is that such an individual experienced inconsistent mothering.
WHAT IS MEANT BY INCONSISTENT MOTHERING?
Inconsistent mothering can be said to have occurred when the relationship between the mother and child is dysfunctional, disrupted, and disturbed in such a way that the attitude and behavior she displays towards him or her (i.e. her child) fluctuates dramatically and unpredictably over time (as may occur, for example, when the mother has a personality disorder such as borderline personality disorder or narcissistic personality disorder or is an alcoholic or substance abuser).
So, if the mother is at times nurturing towards her child, but, at other times, cold, rejecting, and hurtful, the child psychologically defends him/herself from this overwhelmingly confusing and unbearably painful reality by mentally ‘splitting’ the mother into ‘two separate mothers’, the ‘all-good mother and the ‘all bad mother, so that s/he no longer needs to experience distressing ambiguity and be constantly in fear of his or her mother becoming unpredictably hostile (all this, for obvious reasons, takes place on an unconscious level). This process of splitting can also be explained as taking place to psychologically defend the child from the impossible contradiction of both loving and hating the mother simultaneously.
Those suffering borderline personality disorder (BPD) are particularly prone to falling prey to the splitting defense mechanism which they learned during their traumatic childhoods and the task of the therapist is to help the individual understand the root cause of the problem and assist him or her in the task of re-integrating good and bad aspects of the same person and accept the reality of others being a mixture of both desirable and undesirable qualities. Dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT) can be very effective in relation to this.
David Hosier BSc Hons; MSc; PGDE(FAHE).