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Moving Forward column: The dangers of ‘splitting’

“You’re horrible. I hate you!” says the four-year-old to his mother.

As he says this, he can’t think of anything good about the parent who just denied him a piece of candy. In the next hour, however, when they are snuggling and cozy, Mom is the most wonderful person in the world.

This kind of behavior is normal and completely age-appropriate. In normal child development, however, as the child grows, she begins to see people in their totality.

For example, she may have a friend and appreciate most of her traits but not all, and those she doesn’t like are not enough to spoil the friendship. Similarly, she would begin to see her parents as not just good or bad, but both, hopefully with the good predominating.

Unfortunately, there are adults who never understand that people are complicated and therefore are unable to hold contradictory thoughts about people or situations. They see people as either all good or all bad. A person may be thought of as all good, only to become a terrible person with one perceived slight. Friendships abruptly end and marriages can be roller coasters, if they last at all.

There is also a tendency for serious problems at work because the person is unable to accurately assess themselves or others. These people may float from job to job, always blaming everyone else for their failures.

Psychologists call this phenomenon “splitting.” A good definition in a recent Psychology Today article describes the following: “Splitting is based on alternating between extremes of idealization or devaluation, all or nothing, and good or bad.

The main problem with splitting is that the way the person sees the world is distorted and minimized to a ‘you’re either with me, or you’re against me’ mindset.”

A healthy adult can love her spouse, for example, but still find aspects of him to be maddening.

Rather than rage against these perceived failings, they would talk about their differences and try to work them out. Healthy relationships are riddled with ambivalence. If they are real, they are neither idealized nor demonized. The cliché “no one’s perfect” is true in life and relationships, but people who split have a difficult time internalizing this.

Do you know someone like this? Do you feel like you’re always walking on egg shells with them?

The one other exception where this behavior might be considered “normal” is with adolescents. Anyone who has ever raised one knows that their abrupt emotional changes can feel similar to the four-year-old. But even a healthy adolescent can reflect on their “splitting” after the fact and realize it was unreasonable. An adult who constantly splits cannot.

In understanding how this evolves, we know that in their most primitive form, animals and babies must differentiate between safety and danger for survival. Separating the world into good and bad “buckets” makes sense. There is some comfort in this separation.

It makes life easier, even though simplistic. But as the brain matures, humans learn that the world is complex, and it is possible to have two feelings simultaneously. The real world is generally not black or white, and a healthy adult learns to live with contradictions and nuance.

How does an individual prone to splitting recover?  Like any psychological problem, the person must first recognize that they have an issue that needs to be resolved.  Unfortunately, “splitters” usually blame others for their damaged relationships. Splitters often say, “He always does this” or “He never does that.” 

More appropriate would be the use of words such as “sometimes” or “often” to describe unappreciated behavior. A caring friend or family member might gently point to the patterns in the person’s life and hope there might be some insight (and not become another casualty of the disorder).

If the individual is able to gain enough awareness that they are part of the problem, they should be encouraged to seek psychotherapy. Treatment generally consists of techniques that help people manage their emotions and help them learn to take a more rational view of the world.

It is not easy because the condition is long-standing and is often associated with early trauma. But with hard work and serious personal reflection, patients can develop a more realistic and nuanced lens. In doing so they can learn the difference between real and perceived dangers to themselves and in the world.

Perhaps this disorder is sounding a lot like what is going on in our country. While this has never been a political column and it continues not to be — I must comment on how this primitive psychological defense has now infected all of us, present company included.

Most people (and I say most) are neither all good nor all bad. So, to completely demonize groups of people taps into a very early stage of child development.

Similarly, to diminish complex issues into “bumper sticker” phrases reduces the world to a childish level of simplicity. Why do we do it? Amanda Ripley, in a column in the Washington Post, writes that during difficult times, splitting can feel comfortable.

“Splitting promises an escape hatch from chaos,” she writes. We can be protected by only reading things that confirm our views and only listening to the people who agree with us. But the more we do this, the more we become entrenched, blocking out information that does not conform, and like the psychologically impaired splitter, we too can distort reality.

Is there a psychotherapy that can heal this?

Like the treatment for individuals with a splitting disorder, society at large needs to start managing emotions better. For example, rhetoric that splits the world into good and evil should be reserved for what is truly good and what is truly evil, and not just people’s differences. Once the bucket of “good” and “bad” encompasses all human disagreements, everything rises to the level of the splitter. Not all disagreements are life and death.

We cannot lose our nuance and perspective.

Psychologist Andrew Hartz suggests that people are often unable to engage in nuanced dialogue because contrary positions to what they “should” think generate too much anxiety. So instead, the cycle of us-and-them thinking prevails. But once people can courageously confront taboo questions, thoughts, and feelings, it can lead to more clarity and insight.

And according to Ms. Ripley, “Beware of black and white thinking and rest your tired eyes on the gray. That’s where the action is.”

Nancy Green is a retired social worker and a member of the Shelter Island Health and Wellness Alliance.