Whenever I hear people talk about splitting in BPD it always seems to be about how it affects relationships, or how difficult it is for other people to deal with and understand. Of course it is difficult for the people we love to be able to do no wrong one minute, and the spawn of Satan the next but, in recovery, I am finding it increasingly difficult myself.
For those who aren’t versed in the joyous symptoms of borderline personality disorder, “splitting” is the term used to denote the ‘black and white’ or ‘all or nothing’ thinking that many borderlines have; we can swing quickly between idealisation and devaluation. This can cause unstable relationships, but also many other problems. Splitting is one of the diagnostic criteria for borderline, but that does not mean that everyone with BPD has that symptom. I do have it, and it’s less than great.
I suspect you can all now see how splitting can cause difficulties in relationships but it may still be unclear how it could be distressing for the person with borderline themselves.
Splitting & cognitive dissonance
This has been an issue that has come up more & more for me while in recovery (how I view recovery). Previously it hadn’t bothered me because I didn’t realise it was a thing and it was, and still is, my normal way of thinking, but since learning more about my disorder and now being able to spot my symptoms, it is becoming increasingly distressing to deal with. The best way I can find to describe it is as a form of cognitive dissonance. I am aware when I am splitting (mostly) and that in itself makes living with it more difficult.
Let’s imagine I have a friend who has been really supportive of me, I have loads in common with, and we get on really well. Maybe that friend says something inappropriate, maybe they voice an opinion that is cruel, maybe they make a mistake that causes harm. Suddenly, to me, they are no longer a good person, they are a bad person. They are the options: good or bad. Pick a side.
Now I’m in recovery I can see that no one is wholly on one side or the other. There are good people who do bad things, as there are bad people who do good things. Life is the grey area. But while I know this intellectually, I believe that it is true, I cannot hold that concept in my head, and that is what causes the distress. I know that my friend is neither bad nor good, just human. I know that they are still the supportive, loving, awesome person they were 5 minutes ago, but I don’t feel it.
For me this then results in further splitting, this time towards myself, along with a side of self blame, self-hatred and frustration. Inevitably this makes me intensely upset, or angry, or both. It also means I question every judgement I make because I never know if my reasoning for being angry or upset by someone is valid & rational. I notice that that means I let a lot more slide than most other people in an effort to not be that “crazy, emotionally unstable” person.
All or nothing
It’s worth noting that splitting does not just occur in relationships. It is the same problem that causes us to, for example, make a mistake at work and instantly believe that we are completely incompetent, or to misunderstand something at school and be convinced that we are vacuous & not intelligent enough to be in education. Splitting permeates every aspect of life and, in my experience, the more you notice it happening, the more distressing it is.
That’s not to say that recovery is to be avoided! As much as my distress around this specific symptom has got worse, my management of my other symptoms has improved and I feel much more confident and happier overall. My recovery is, and always will be, a work in progress, I just wish I could get a handle on this. In the meantime though, maybe distress tolerance is the way to go.
Also published on Medium.