BPD: Understanding Splitting

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“People with BPD are like people with third-degree burns over 90% of their bodies. Lacking emotional skin, they feel agony at the slightest touch or movement.”Marsha Linehan[1]

Borderline Personality Disorder, or BPD, is a common mental health condition characterized by being hypersensitive to rejection and, as a result, experiencing instability of interpersonal relationships, behavior, and self-image. It causes significant distress and is thought to occur at a prevalence of 1.6% in the general population[2].

One of the most common traits of BPD is emotional dysregulation. This is defined loosely by researchers in the journal, Curr Psychiatry Rep, as the, “inability to flexibly respond to and manage emotions.” However, it is important to note that there is variation in emotional dysregulation in people with BPD – some researchers have noted increased emotional sensitivity, whereas others look at affective intensity or emotional vulnerability.

People who have BPD are subject to feeling emotions far more intensely than someone without the disorder. This includes deep feelings of loneliness and isolation, a strong sense of hopelessness or emptiness, and a disproportionate fear of abandonment.

Because these feelings can be very uncomfortable, BPD sufferers may engage in defense mechanisms, which can include idealization (viewing oneself or another in unrealistic esteem), devaluation (viewing oneself or someone else as unforgivably bad), and splitting (viewing the world in purely black and white terms where everyone is either good or bad)[3]. This blog will explore the latter.

People with BPD often struggle to recognize that the world and the people in it can have differing qualities. Someone without BPD can look at a situation or person and ascertain what they like about it and what they don’t because they can recognize gray areas. However, the mindset of someone with BPD may not be able to process nuance because they see the world in absolutes. This may lead to the person with BPD feeling constantly emotionally exhausted and overwhelmed[4] and can have a detrimental effect on their interpersonal relationships.

The Causes of Splitting in BPD

When we are babies, we see the world in absolute terms. Things are either good or bad. As we develop and mature, we begin to understand that good and bad can co-occur, and we adjust to life accordingly. We integrate paradoxes into our functioning and learn to cope with gray areas.

People with BPD struggle to integrate the idea that people can have good and bad traits. People experiencing BPD feel overwhelming emotions, and to help manage this, their minds label people as either wholly good or wholly bad. This is not because those with BPD are inherently judgmental; it’s a self-preservation technique. When the world is simplified as such it is easier to manage and control emotions.

However, idealizing someone can have destructive consequences. When someone with BPD idealizes someone, they will ignore risk factors that would usually be a red flag in relationships. This could range from insulting behavior to violence. It can also lead those with BPD to be more prone to becoming overly attached or developing co-dependency. This in itself can be enough to drive partners away and can only compound the person with BPD’s deep fear of abandonment.

If the person with BPD starts to see the other person they are in a relationship with as flawed, they may experience a strong sense of disappointment or betrayal. This can lead to feelings of anger and condemnation both toward themselves or the other party.

Splitting can take place in almost any situation that can have a value judgment applied to it. It could be a partner, friend, or family member who is seen as completely flawless or irredeemably bad. It could be a life event which is believed to always go well or to always go completely wrong[5].

For some people, these absolute views remain concrete and do not change. However, for some, these views change and fluctuate over the course of time. This can damage interpersonal relationships, as friends, family, and partners may not know where they stand at any given moment with the person with BPD.

How can I help a loved one with BPD?

Borderline Personality Disorder can be a very serious mental health condition. It can be tempting for partners, especially when co-dependency is a factor, to want to “save” their loved one and to try and “fix” them. This can lead to feelings of guilt. Treating BPD is best left to medical practitioners. However, if you have a friend or family member who has BPD, there are certain things you can do to make both of your lives easier:

  • Don’t take their behavior personally. While the behaviors of those with BPD can be upsetting, they are symptoms of a mental health condition. Splitting can happen without their realizing it.
  • Remain as calm as possible. If someone is experiencing intense emotions due to BPD, then reacting strongly can exacerbate the situation.
  • If someone fears abandonment, then showing them that you care in a controlled and measured way can help them cope.
  • Use boundaries. Living with a person with BPD can be tiring for everyone. Make sure that you take care of your needs before you try and help them with their problems.

While there is no “cure” for BPD, there are ways of managing it with therapy, medication, and education. Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT) is often used to help clients with BPD understand the relationships between their fears and emotions and how this can lead to splitting[6]. People can be taught healthier ways of dealing with their emotions, which can lead to a more balanced world view.

If you are concerned about any issues discussed in this blog, please contact Heather R. Hayes & Associates – call 800-335-0316 or email info@heatherhayes.com today.


[1] “Understanding Borderline Personality Disorder | NAMI: National Alliance On Mental Illness”. Nami.Org, 2021, https://www.nami.org/Blogs/NAMI-Blog/June-2017/Understanding-Borderline-Personality-Disorder.

[2] Chapman J, Jamil RT, Fleisher C. Borderline Personality Disorder. [Updated 2020 Nov 30]. In: StatPearls [Internet]. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing; 2020 Jan-. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK430883/

[3] Kramer, U., de Roten, Y., Perry, J. C., & Despland, J.-N. (2013). Beyond splitting: Observer-rated defense mechanisms in borderline personality disorder. Psychoanalytic Psychology, 30(1), 3–15.

[4] 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

[5] 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

[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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