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In psychiatry and psychology, the term splitting has three different applications.


Within the area of psychoanalysis, splitting refers to a coping mechanism whereby an individual, unable to integrate certain particularly difficult feelings or experiences into the overall ego structure, compartmentalizes his or her reaction to those feelings or experiences. This is also often referred to as ego disintegration or, in extreme cases, dissociation.

Splitting was first described by Sigmund Freud, and was later more clearly defined by his daughter Anna Freud. Splitting can be explained as thinking purely in extremes, e.g. good versus bad, powerful versus defenceless and so on. A two-year-old child cannot see a person, who does something unpleasant to the child (e.g. not feeding him when he is hungry), as possessing just one or a few bad characteristic(s). This is too complicated for the not yet fully developed brain. The other can only been seen as all bad at that moment in time. However, when this person gratifies the child, he will be perceived as all good again. Splitting can be seen as a developmental stage and as a defence mechanism.

Splitting as a developmental stage:

Melanie Klein

In the object relations theory of Melanie Klein, she states that children are born with two primary drives: a caring, loving one and a destructive, hateful one. All humans struggle throughout their entire lives to integrate these two drives into constructive relations. An important step in the development of children is to overcome the splitting of these two drives, which is the central theme of the paranoid-schizoid position. According to Klein, splitting refers to the separation of the things the child loves (good, gratifying objects) and the things the child hates (bad, frustrating objects). Klein refers to these things as the good breast and the bad breast. The child sees these two breasts as different objects, although they actually are united, since they both belong to their mother. The child has to learn that others and objects can be good and bad. When the child realises this, he or she can progress into the next phase: the depressive position.

Otto Kernberg

In the developmental model of Otto Kernberg [1], the overcoming of splitting is also an important developmental task. The child has to learn to integrate feelings of love and hate. Kernberg distinguishes three different stages in the development of a child with respect to splitting:

  • First stage: the child does not experience the self and the object, nor the good and the bad as different entities.
  • Second stage: good and bad are viewed as different. Because the boundaries between the self and the other are not stable yet, the other as a person is viewed as either all good or all bad, depending on their actions. This also means that thinking about another person as bad implies that the self is bad as well; so it’s better to think about the caregiver as a good person, so the self is viewed as good too.
  • Third stage: splitting is resolved and the self and the other can be seen as possessing both good and bad qualities. Having hateful thoughts about the other doesn’t mean that the self is all hateful and doesn’t mean that the other person is all hateful either.

Splitting as a defense mechanism

If a person fails to accomplish this developmental task, borderline pathology can develop. The borderline personality is not able to integrate the good and bad images of both self and others. Kernberg also states that people who suffer from borderline personality disorder have a ‘bad representation’ which dominates the ‘good representation’[2]. This makes them experience love and sexuality in perverse and violent qualities which they cannot integrate with the tender, intimate side of relationships [3]. These people tend to suffer from intense fusion anxieties in intimate relationships, because the boundaries between self and other are not firm. A tender moment between self and other could mean the disappearance of the self into the other. This triggers intense anxiety. To overcome the anxiety, the other is made into a very bad person; this can be done, because the other is made responsible for this anxiety. However, if the other is viewed as a bad person, the self must be bad as well. Viewing the self as all bad cannot be endured, so the switch is made to the other side: the self is good, which means the other must be good too. If the other is all good and the self is all good, where does the self begin and end? Intense anxiety is the result and so the cycle repeats itself.

People who are diagnosed with a narcissistic personality disorder also use splitting as a central defence mechanism. They do this to preserve their self-esteem. They do this by seeing the self as purely good and the others as purely bad. The use of splitting also implies the use of other defence mechanisms, namely devaluation, idealization and denial[4].

Splitting creates instability in relationships, because one person can be viewed as either all good or all bad at different times, depending on whether he or she gratifies needs or frustrates them. This, and similar oscillations in the experience of the self, lead to chaotic and unstable relationship patterns, identity diffusion and mood swings. Consequently, the therapeutic process can be greatly impeded by these oscillations, because the therapist too can become victim of splitting. To overcome the negative effects on treatment outcome, constant interpretations by the therapist are needed[5].

Borderline Personality Disorder

Within the area of personality psychology, splitting is a term referring to a cognitive error that is often considered the hallmark of borderline personality disorder. It is characterized by the propensity to either completely idealize or completely devalue other people, places, ideas, or objects; that is, to see them as either all good or all bad. [1] Anecdotally, persons and professionals experiencing this behavior in those on the borderline spectrum who see someone or something as all bad refer to that object as having been "split black", while someone or something seen as all good has been "split white".

Treatment Milieu

Within the area of treatment milieu, such as residential treatment and inpatient psychiatric hospitalization settings, splitting refers to a patient attempting to manipulate staff members in the milieu by engaging one staff member against one or more others to the advantage of the patient. Such behavior id most successful if staff members are unable to maintain professional distance and control their own counter-transference issues.

See also


  1. Mitchell, S.A. & Black, M.J. (1995). Freud and beyond. New York, NY, Basic Books
  2. Siegel, J.P. (2006). Dyadic splitting in partner relational disorders. Journal of Family Psychology, 20 (3), 418-422
  3. Mitchell, S.A. & Black, M.J. (1995). Freud and beyond. New York, NY, Basic Books
  4. Siegel, J.P. (2006). Dyadic splitting in partner relational disorders. Journal of Family Psychology, 20 (3), 418-422
  5. Gould, J.R., Prentice, N.M. & Ainslie, R. C. (1996). The splitting index: construction of a scale measuring the defense mechanism of splitting. Journal of personality assessment, 66 (2), 414-430

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