Understanding “Splitting” as a Psychological Term

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Splitting refers to the unconscious failure to integrate aspects of self or others into a unified whole. The age old conscious and deliberate game of “dividing and conquering” is not the same as splitting.

I’ve been posting on several terms frequently used by mental health professionals that are not only encountered in mental health settings but also with increasing frequency in common parlance. The term “splitting” is another one of those terms. And, like some of the other terms I’ve been posting on, it’s also been subject to considerable misuse in recent times.

Splitting is a term that came out of classical (psychoanalytical or psychodynamic) schools of thought and refers to an unconscious ego defense mechanism by which a fairly complex entity cannot be accepted into consciousness in its entirety because it contains aspects that are both acceptable to a person as well as unacceptable. Relatively underdeveloped personalities, most especially borderline personalities, have a hard time incorporating into consciousness seemingly contradictory aspects of the same person or thing. So, they unconsciously separate or “split” objects into two categories, seeing the “good” side of a person or thing as the part they find acceptable and the “bad” side of the person or thing as the part they find painful or unacceptable. And, it’s much more than just seeing both a good and a bad side to everything. They actually “split” a single entity into two opposing realities, conceptualizing for example a mother who has both a gentle and a terrifying side as alternately “good mommy,” or “bad mommy.” As a result, they will often alternate between over-idealizing and devaluing the same person. Underdeveloped and poorly integrated personalities not only separate difficult to integrate external “objects” or persons this way, but they also “split” into disparate parts aspects of themselves that are hard to integrate into a cohesive whole. So, extreme degrees of internal splitting can result in a fragmentation of the self through such mechanisms as dissociation or even multiple personality formation.

Now, in recent times, unfortunately, the term splitting has been used to denote the very conscious tactic of pitting one entity against another. As any parent knows, children learn early on how to “divide and conquer” when it comes to getting the things they want from their caretakers. If mom says “No,” then see what dad will say. If one teacher won’t support you, see what another says. That’s the strategy. Children and adolescents in schools, residential centers, treatment settings, etc. also use the same strategy, and that’s how the term splitting began to be misused. It just so happens that some young persons in such settings have certain personality characteristics (e.g., borderline personality characteristics) that predispose them to split their internal mental representations of staff members into “good” and “bad” staff. Sometimes their penchant for wanting to deal only with those they perceived as “good” and their expressed disdain for those staff they perceived as “bad” had the net result of creating some fairly intense divisions among the staff. Eventually, this kind of behavior came to be known as “staff splitting.”

While it is true that divisions can arise in a group of caretakers as the result of genuine “splitting” on the part of some very marginally integrated personalities, most of the time, when people use the term splitting, they’re really talking about a very conscious, deliberate tactic used by fairly well-integrated but headstrong and combative personalities who want what they want at all costs and are willing to do whatever it takes to defeat their “opponents.” The tactic of dividing and conquering is as old as time and is a tried and true, reliable means of achieving those ends. It’s a strategy learned early in life and that gets repeated because it works.

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The divide and conquer strategy is just one of the many effective tactics certain personalities use to get their way. Among the most disordered characters, aggressive personalities are prone to using this tactics. But the strategy is just one in a virtual arsenal of weapons these individuals have to manipulate and control situations and people. In the next several posts, I’ll be writing some fairly in-depth articles on each of the aggressive personality subtypes. Of all the disordered characters, they are the most important personalities to understand and reckon with. After discussing each aggressive subtype in depth, I’ll also be posting on the many tactics besides the “divide and conquer” strategy that such personalities use to manipulate, control, dominate, exploit, and abuse others. I’ll also be posting later on the kinds of distorted thinking and dysfunctional attitudes that lead to such behaviors.

All clinical material on this site is peer reviewed by one or more clinical psychologists or other qualified mental health professionals. This specific article was originally published by on and was last reviewed or updated by Dr Greg Mulhauser, Managing Editor on .

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