Black and white thinking (also called ‘splitting), is one of the major symptoms of Borderline Personality Disorder. It is often one of the most difficult symptoms to deal with. Thankfully, due to its nature, it’s also easily controlled and understood.
It’s the symptom that I often tell people first, it’s the symptom that I struggle with heavily. It affects daily life on a larger scale than some other symptoms of BPD. I’m also a very stubborn person naturally, besides my BPD, so that makes it worse.
What is splitting?
Splitting is more self-explanatory when you use its more common name, black and white thinking. You can either see in black, or white, but there is never a grey area. This means it affects every situation, conversation, interpersonal relationship, and event in your life. It is absolutely impossible for most people with BPD to be able to see things from a more level-headed perspective.
It’s often heard that people with BPD are no longer able to see the other end of the spectrum, once they’ve settled in the counter end. This includes being given evidence which, quite clearly, contradicts them. It may be the most logical, scientific, proven evidence in the entire universe – but once I’m on my side, I’m on my side.
This massively affects things such as perfectionism, self image, self esteem, and relationships with others. Your self image can very easily go from feeling confident, happy in skin, comfortable with the way you look; to the complete opposite. You suddenly hate yourself, you want to go inside and never come out again. Any level of event can trigger the split, no matter how small or large of an effect you would think it would have.
Interpersonal relationships are especially hard because of this. Splitting ‘on’ people tends to be connected to people quite often within the BPD community, since it’s easier to blame another human for things. For instance, during a small debate about politics, morality, or even the correct way to complete a task. If the person suffering with BPD decides on one way, anyone who then disagrees with them is instantly shut down. You could be that persons love of their love, and they will shut you off entirely.
Splitting can last anywhere from a couple of minutes to days, weeks, months. It depends on the severity of the situation, if the person is undergoing treatment from therapy or medications, etc.
Why do we split?
Splitting is very much a coping mechanism, or a protective cover. With BPD you consistently feel uncertain of everything, nothing is really ever settled in your brain. It’s a constant feeling of being uncomfortable within yourself. Therefore when a chance arises to choose a side, to feel comfortable on that side, to be able to stick with it? You’re obviously going to choose to do that.
You will then do anything to stay on that decided side of your brain, including disregarding any evidence, argument or advice. Logically, you realise that those things probably make more sense. However once you’ve decided, that’s it. It almost feels like a betrayal against yourself to then change your mind.
As for not seeing a grey area, it’s difficult for us to be in the middle of anything. Again, this causes more uncertainty, you’re basically in limbo. That’s not a very good place for us to be, because it means we’re vulnerable. It’s extremely easy for humans to change their mind on something, so if you agree with a grey area decision, they can then betray you in that way.
A quote from this article on The Mighty explains why Dialectical Behavioral Therapy can help this symptom very well:
“That’s why the main treatment for BPD is called Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT). “Dialectical” means the integration of opposites, seeing that two seemingly opposite things can be true at the same time. The therapy and its coping skills intend on helping patients more easily find a balance between these two extremes we are used to experiencing.”
Talking about how the mechanism of splitting develops in children, they also then go on to make an amazing point: Splitting isn’t necessarily the coping mechanisms not working correctly, they may not have developed at all. BPD and other personality disorders are usually caused by lots of trauma in early childhood. Trauma in early childhood stunts development of the accepted coping mechanisms in society. It also prevents children from being able to develop any sort of emotional regulation skill.
Examples of Splitting – How to spot it.
As mentioned earlier, DBT groups and 1-1 sessions are an amazing way of teaching people with BPD how to handle splitting. They are taught how to spot the signs of it happening, and how to correctly look at situations. If, like me, you cannot access DBT – how can you spot it and stop it?
Examples of splitting often include words being thought/said like these: Never, always, completely, love, hate.
- Thinking someone is evil or amazing.
- Hating someone based on a disagreement.
- Things are always completely fine or a disaster.
- A lie, or a fact. There’s no ‘some is truth, some is lie’.
- In a situation where things go wrong, they will feel abandoned, their life is ruined, things will never recover. (This is how suicidal tendencies become more frequent.)
Splitting is often also spotted through emotional mood swings such as furious anger, breaking down, depression, over-excitement and ecstatic moods. They may also try and force and/or spend a long convincing the other person of their way of thinking. It also makes people very good at projecting emotions and feelings onto other people, and consequently blaming those people for that emotion instead of themselves.
I actually found this post on verywellmind.com a while back when I was researching splitting for myself, and the tips helped me a lot. I’m still not very good at dealing with my own splitting, but by using these questions, daily life has become somewhat easier. I think if I never used this questions, my anger would just over boil constantly. I would always be in arguments or fights with people if I never paused to use these questions.
- Is there evidence that supports my thoughts?
- Am I considering all angles or am I leaving things out?
- Could your assumption be challenged by someone else? How?
- Does everyone else see it this way?
- Am I being fair to others in making this opinion?
Sometimes those questions don’t work, and that’s okay. Some days I’m feeling more angry than others, or more stubborn, or I just simply am in too much emotional pain to bother with them. Nobody is 100% emotionally regulated all of the time, so I let myself off sometimes as well.
I fully recognise that splitting from someone’s perspective that does not have BPD may not make sense, or be extremely frustrating. It’s frustrating for anyone to be an argument or dispute with someone who just does not seem to listen. However, it’s also important for the other person to ask themselves some questions.
Does this person have the mental capacity to understand what I’m telling them? If they’re not going to be able to see it my way, should I stop arguing with them? How can I calmly reassure this person? Maybe I should remind this person that everyone has their own views and opinions?
There isn’t a right or wrong answer to dealing with people with BPD, because it’s so volatile and misleading. There are ways to deal with an upset human being however, which is what should be implemented into situations such as splitting. You can read my other post about Empathy in BPD here.