People who suffer from Borderline Personality Disorder are subject to experiencing intense feelings of loneliness and isolation, a deep sense of hopelessness or emptiness, and have a deep-seated fear of abandonment. To protect oneself against these feelings, those with BPD may engage in several defence mechanisms, such as idealisation (viewing another person in unrealistically high esteem), devaluation (viewing oneself or another person has completely flawed or irredeemable), and splitting (viewing people and the world as black or white).1 For this blog, we will explore the third defence mechanism – splitting.

Those suffering from BPD often have difficulty entertaining the idea that life, the world, and the people in it can have paradoxical qualities. The mindset of a person with BPD is usually all-or-nothing, or black and white. This ‘absolute’ mindset causes difficulties and challenges for the BPD sufferer when something is a ‘grey area’. As a result of seeing the world in absolutes, or extremes, those with BPD may constantly feel overwhelmed or mentally exhausted.2 BPD does not only affect individuals, it also affects their relationships and those close to them.

What causes Splitting in Borderline Personality Disorder?

When we are born, we generally see the world in absolute terms. Internal and external events are considered as good or bad. As we develop and mature, we begin to understand that good and bad exist and that we can adjust to a life that includes these paradoxes. Paradoxes are integrated into our psychological functioning and world outlook and we can tolerate grey areas.

Those with BPD have struggled to integrate the idea that good and bad co-exist in people. Individuals are subject to overwhelming emotions, and as a means of dealing with these emotions, the mind assesses other people as completely good or bad. When a person is labelled or categorised as good or bad, then the contradicting, overwhelming emotions become easier to deal with.

Types of Splitting

Splitting could take place in the following contexts3:

  • A partner, friend, or family member will be seen as perfect or as completely flawed
  • Life events will be believed to always or never go well
  • A parent or partner will always or never be a source of love and support

For some, the absolute views persist, while for others, they fluctuate and change over time. This can cause significant strain on relationships as partners, and even friends may not know where they stand with the BPD sufferer at any given time.

Effects of Splitting in Borderline Personality Disorder

People suffering from BPD often experience significant emotional dysregulation4 – a reduced ability or inability to cope with stress and manage one’s emotional reactions and responses in a given situation. Due to this inability to effectively self-regulate, when a person with BPD splits, their emotional responses may seem inappropriate or disproportionate to the situation. This can lead to exhaustion and frustration for the individual and their partners, friends, or family.

Seeing a person or thing as completely perfect can have harmful consequences. When a person with BPD idealises a person, they become blind to associated risks, such as the development of unhealthy habits or high-risk behaviours. If a person is viewed as perfect, the person with BPD may become overly-attached and develop a codependency. This can drive their partner away and lead to significant distress, as the individual already suffers from a deep fear of abandonment.5

If some flaw in the person appears, real or perceived, the person suffering from BPD may experience a deep disappointment, a sense of betrayal, and feelings associated with abandonment. Feelings of anger and condemnation may arise towards the other person and oneself.

How can I help my loved one suffering from Borderline Personality Disorder?

Borderline Personality Disorder is a serious mental health condition and should be treated by professionals. It may be tempting for partners, especially those who are in codependent relationships, to want to ‘save’ their loved one, or fix everything for them. Codependency itself is often a barrier to seeking help as those involved are consumed by the maladaptive attachment to the other person.

If you have a friend, partner, or family member with Borderline Personality Disorder, there are several things you can keep in mind to make life a little easier for them.

  • Try not to take it personally – the person suffering from BPD is likely not intentionally trying to upset or hurt you. Splitting can happen subconsciously.
  • Try to remain calm if possible – the person with BPD may be experiencing intense emotions, and sudden conflict is unlikely to go well.
  • Demonstrate your care when possible. Fear of abandonment and loneliness are common symptoms of BPD, so showing that you care may help them feel loved.
  • Set boundaries. Living with a person with BPD can be exhausting for all involved, so make sure you take the time to take care of your own needs before attempting to satisfy those of the affected person.

Most importantly, understand that Borderline Personality Disorder requires professional help to reduce the severity of symptoms and to teach those suffering healthy and effective tools and techniques for coping and self-management.

Professional Help for Borderline Personality Disorder at Addcounsel

While there is no complete cure for BPD, treatment approaches are effective in managing the condition. A combination of talk-based therapies and medication for symptom management is usually recommended for those suffering.

Dialectical Behavioural Therapy (DBT) is often used in BPD treatment to help clients understand the relationship between their deep fears and how they lead to splitting.6 Healthier ways of dealing with repressed fear can be developed, which allow the individual to form and maintain a more positive and integrated world-view so that their behaviours become less destructive.

1 Zanarini, Mary C et al. “Defense mechanisms associated with borderline personality disorder.” Journal of personality disorders vol. 23,2 (2009): 113-21. doi:10.1521/pedi.2009.23.2.113

2 Katsakou, Christina et al. “Recovery in Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD): a qualitative study of service users’ perspectives.” PloS one vol. 7,5 (2012): e36517. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0036517

3 Fertuck, Eric A et al. “Social Cognition and Borderline Personality Disorder: Splitting and Trust Impairment Findings.” The Psychiatric clinics of North America vol. 41,4 (2018): 613-632. doi:10.1016/j.psc.2018.07.003

4 Glenn, Catherine R, and E David Klonsky. “Emotion dysregulation as a core feature of borderline personality disorder.” Journal of personality disorders vol. 23,1 (2009): 20-8. doi:10.1521/pedi.2009.23.1.20

5 Palihawadana, Venura, et al. “Reviewing the Clinical Significance of ‘Fear of Abandonment’ in Borderline Personality Disorder.” Australasian Psychiatry, vol. 27, no. 1, Feb. 2019, pp. 60–63, doi:10.1177/1039856218810154.

6 May, Jennifer M et al. “Dialectical behavior therapy as treatment for borderline personality disorder.” The mental health clinician vol. 6,2 62-67. 8 Mar. 2016, doi:10.9740/mhc.2016.03.62

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