Splitting as a Defense Mechanism: What You Need to Know

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Psychological defense mechanisms are strategies individuals use, often unconsciously, to protect themselves from distressing thoughts, emotions, conflicts, or perceived threats to their self-image or self-worth. 

Splitting, also known as “black-and-white thinking” or “all-or-nothing thinking,” is a defense mechanism that involves viewing people (even oneself), situations or ideas as either all good or all bad. A common symptom among people with borderline personality disorder (BPD), splitting can contribute to significant distress, relationship instability, interpersonal conflicts and other challenges. By gaining awareness of your defense mechanisms and seeking help to address underlying mental health conditions, you can learn to replace black-and-white thinking with new coping strategies.

We’ll talk about what it means to have splitting as a defense mechanism and the mental health diagnoses that it can be a symptom of. Then we’ll discuss the signs of splitting to be aware of.

Splitting as a defense mechanism

Splitting can be a way to avoid the discomfort of holding conflicting thoughts or beliefs by simplifying perceptions as either all good or all bad. In addition to being present in people with BPD, it can be a coping mechanism developed in response to trauma. Splitting allows people to avoid confronting aspects of themselves that they may find threatening or distressing. It arises when a person is unable to handle conflicting emotions that cause mental and emotional distress. Their brain tries to simplify it by thinking in extremes.

People use splitting as a defense mechanism to:

  • Reduce the risk of conflict
  • Cope with overwhelming emotions
  • Avoid cognitive dissonance
  • Protect their self-esteem

Splitting involves a lack of flexibility in thinking as well as a tendency to oversimplify, which can hinder open and honest communication. Friends or partners may struggle to trust each other if they sense that perceptions can quickly shift from positive to negative. These intense emotions can strain intimacy/closeness. 

Splitting as a symptom

Everyone can use a defense mechanism from time to time. But it’s sometimes an indicator of something deeper. Splitting stems from having a distorted sense of self that’s often connected to a mental health disorder that needs proper treatment. Splitting as a defense mechanism is often determined to be a symptom of personality disorders. 

Splitting is a feature of several types of Cluster B personality disorders, particularly narcissistic personality disorder and borderline personality disorder. Here’s some information about each personality disorder and how splitting is a symptom:

  • Narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) — NPD is a mental health disorder characterized by a pervasive pattern of grandiosity, need for admiration and lack of empathy. Individuals with NPD often have an exaggerated sense of self-importance and preoccupation with unrealistic standards or ideals. Splitting can be a defense mechanism used by individuals with NPD to maintain a positive self-image and protect against perceived threats to their self-esteem.
  • Borderline personality disorder — BPD is a mental health disorder characterized by extreme mood swings, fear of abandonment and impulsive behavior. Splitting is used as a defense mechanism for those with BPD when they’re unable to handle their emotions. It stems from their distorted self-image, which interferes with their perception of others.

Signs and symptoms of splitting as a defense mechanism 

Splitting can look different for everyone. Here are a few signs and symptoms to be aware of:

  • Rapid opinion changes about someone or a situation
  • Intense feelings that aren’t fitting for the circumstances
  • Unstable relationships
  • Difficulty recognizing nuance
  • Denial of reality 
  • Hostility or passive aggression toward people you’ve labeled “bad”

Lightfully Behavioral Health can help you address underlying mental health conditions 

While dysfunctional defense mechanisms can provide temporary relief, they can also wreak havoc on your relationships and other areas of your life. If you or a loved one is struggling to develop and maintain productive, healthy methods for dealing with conflict and other stressors, help is available.

At Lightfully, we use process-based therapy to help address the root of your splitting and help you develop proper coping skills. The framework of our clinic consists of evidence-based, clearly defined, data-driven and whole-person-centered care.

Change is possible. When you’re ready to take the first step, reach out to our Admissions Concierge Team. We’ll take the next steps together, toward the fullest, brightest version of you.

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