“Splitting” and idealization/devaluation.


Splitting–more commonly known as black and white or all or nothing thinking–is a primitive defense mechanism used by both narcissists and borderlines when they observe a threat–that someone doesn’t agree with them or is challenging them in some way, or when they fear abandonment (borderlines) or exposure/loss of supply (narcissists). In narcissism, splitting is usually referred to as idealization/devaluation, but other than the unconscious motive (fear of abandonment for borderlines, fear of losing a source of supply for narcissists), the phenomenon is really the same thing.

Splitting is normal in a very young child. When Mommy is present and hugging the child, Mommy is perceived as “good.” When she denies the child another cookie or she goes to work, the child throws a tantrum, and Mommy is now “bad.” Because the child still doesn’t see himself as a completely separate person from Mommy, when Mommy does something that makes the child unhappy or fearful, the child rejects her and thinks of HER as all-bad. The child is not yet capable of the concept that Mommy is an individual who can be both good and bad at different times and to different degrees depending on the situation.

The fairy tales we read to young children engage them at a level they can understand: fairy tale characters are all-good or all-bad, heroes or villains, with no in between. Only an older child can fully understand that people come in varying shades of grey, and pure black or pure white in one person is exceedingly rare. Realizing that most people are both evil and good at the same time is a sign of maturity and indicates the child has come to see himself as a completely separate person with his or her own identity who can afford to see others as individuals too, rather than one-dimensional cardboard cartoon characters.

Narcissists and borderlines never make that transition. Due to early attachment issues arising from neglect, abuse, or sometimes maternal smothering, they continue to see others as extensions of themselves, not separate people with their own identities, interest and opinions. If someone is an extension of yourself, of course the other person must be seen as “all good.” If the other person fails to provide adequate supply (for the narcissist) or disagrees with them or has differing opinions, they are perceived as a threat and must be rejected, devalued, and demonized as “other.” The only way a narcissist or borderline can see another person as a separate entity is when they have become “other” and are demonized and seen as “all bad.”


Splitting is common in today’s political landscape. Candidate A believes in health care reform, the legalization of marijuana, the cessation of the outsourcing of jobs, raising taxes on the wealthy–and that a woman has the right to choose whether or not to terminate a pregnancy. Candidate B believes in health care reform, the legalization of marijuana, the cessation of outsourcing of jobs, raising taxes on the wealthy–and that abortion should be outlawed. Candidates A and B, rather than focusing on what they have in common and using that to help improve people’s lives, instead go on smear campaigns against each other focusing on the only thing they don’t agree on: abortion. Candidate A accuses Candidate B of being a throwback to the “unenlightened” 1950s, while Candidate B accuses Candidate A of wanting to legalize murder. Neither acknowledges the many things they agree on–all either can see is that the other is a “murderer” or a “throwback troglodyte.” (Notice too how the accusing labels have become exaggerated and more abusive). That many politicians are narcissistic by nature makes splitting come second nature to most of them. Unfortunately, splitting has become standard in political campaigning and is intended to garner more votes (narcissistic supply) for the accuser while taking them away from the opposing party.

Robin and Tim are madly in love with each other. Robin idealizes Tim–she thinks he is the most perfect man she ever met, and she can’t imagine a life without him. He is the most handsome, smart, funny, sexy, and interesting man in the world, and she can’t believe her luck in having met him. Recently they have started talking about getting engaged. Tim thinks Robin’s wild mood swings are rather charming–but he hasn’t been the target of them yet.

On Tim’s birthday, Robin cooks him a lavish dinner and has a bottle of champagne ready to pop open and enjoy. He is supposed to be home by seven. Eight o’clock comes, and he isn’t home yet. At eight-fifteen, Tim calls and says he got held up. He is in the door by nine, apologizing profusely about his lateness–he was called into an emergency meeting by his boss and couldn’t get out of it. Rather than accepting his apology at face value and proceed to have a nice dinner together, Robin goes on a rampage. She accuses Tim of having a lover and never having loved her. The champagne bottle gets smashed against the wall and the dinner thrown in the trash. After fighting for hours, Robin tells Tim to leave and that she never wants to see him again and that he’d make a terrible husband to any woman who would have him anyway.

In the course of two hours, Robin has turned Tim, a normal man who really did love her but couldn’t get out of a meeting, from “the most perfect man in the world” into an unfeeling monster who is cheating on her and would “make any woman miserable.” Because he disappointed her and she couldn’t handle it or see him as a separate person with his own life and his own needs, she must demonize him and make wild accusations against him, accusing him of doing things he never did and saying things he never said. She has turned the good into the evil, and rejected Tim because he is “all bad” now. Both the “angelic” Tim and the “evil” Tim are creations of Robin’s all-or-nothing, black or white, thinking. Both are fiction.

Splitting is really a kind of blindness–the failure to be able to see any shades of grey in an individual, situation, religion, ideology, belief system, or really, anything at all. It destroys relationships, creates hate and discord, kills community spirit, leads to war and killing, and ruins lives.


11 thoughts on ““Splitting” and idealization/devaluation.

  1. Black and white is also, very abstract and I think abstract thinking, in the extreme, is part of cluster B personality disorders. It runs in my family and though abuse may play a role in their development I don’t think it is the root cause. My dad was the abuser in my childhood and he abused me, my siblings, my mother, his parents, his friends, and anyone he could use. None of the rest of us treated people the way he did. It skipped a generation and then played out again in the third generation, in the same way. In my grandmother’s day, everything was the mother’s fault and I watched her suffer over my dad’s behavior, wondering what she did for him to turn out that way. I don’t think he ever agonized over how he hurt anyone. I think he was born with a limited capacity for empathy and that inability to emotionally connect with others, is the core of the man he became. I think that inability is genetic. The choice to abuse is always just that, a choice and no disability excuses abuse.

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    • I agree about the choice factor and that nothing should excuse abusive behavior, but I’m not convinced these disorders are genetic. It’s true the brains of Cluster B’s are different from normal people in brain scans, but as I told BPD Transformation, that begs the question of whether the brain was wired differntly from birth and caused the person to act abusive, or if they were abused themselves and their reactions to continued abuse caused their brain chemistry to change.

      There may be a genetic factor (whcih hasn’t been proven) but I don’t think having the gene for a cluster B disorder means a person will definitely develop that disorder. However, it could cause a a predisposition toward it. It’s almost a given that cluster B disorders (and all personality disorders) are caused by some sort of abusive parenting so if a child has the gene/predisposition toward NPD, BPD or whatever, they will develop that disorder. If they are raised normally and not abused, then they will not develop that disorder even if they have the gene for it. That’s my take on it anyway, for what it’s worth. There hasn’t been enough research on this, imo.

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  2. I know my dad’s parents didn’t abuse him. He did have other trauma in his childhood and I think it is the way he chose to deal with trauma that set his disorder in concrete. There was always something so fundamentally different about my dad and the grandchild who also, has this disorder is like him in other ways that people commonly regard as genetic. Because of my experience, the genetic factor speaks strongly to me. My grandparents weren’t perfect but if I hadn’t had them, I don’t think I would have survived my childhood at all. I knew them well and they weren’t abusive people. Other people in my family have the same lack of empathy but don’t purposely, abuse. They just don’t have strong emotional connections but they want to be good people and regulate their behavior in other ways.
    I don’t think there is a one size fits all way to understand it. I finally, just had to look at their behavior in a simple and shallow way because they are shallow and their actions simply, cruel. One thing they are good at is sucking those who try to love them into their self-absorption. I spent years trying to figure out why my dad was the way he was, when what I needed to be doing was figuring out the damage he caused in me and doing the inner work I needed to do to heal.

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    • So it does sound like it skips generations in your family, if there really is a genetic factor involved. There is a movie you should check out– “We Need to Talk About Kevin”–the boy is obviously psychopathic from todderlhood and was difficult even from birth, but his mother was ambivalent toward him and didn’t really want him. The movie explores whether or not Kevin’s psychopathy is inborn and his mother’s ambivalence a reaction to an unloveable child, or if her ambivalence caused his psychpathy. The woman in the movie is overwhelmed with feelings of guilt that she may have created a monster, and she is shunned by neighbors and former friends because of the horrible thing he did. But in the movie, he may have been born that way. I reviewed it here:

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  3. Genetics skipping generations can be clearly seen in a lot of cases. My fathers paternal grandfather had sociopathic personality traits. His father was a softie, dominated by his boozing, braying wife. (Mema).

    I personally see two examples of the disordered born with the traits and having fawning, worshipping parents worsen thier condition. My fathers parents treated him like a god as he grew up. Forced his two sisters to wait on him like servants. How much of this was due to his demands I’ll never know , but he certianly responded to this pampering with more potent delusions of grandeur .

    I’ve watched a friend with a narcissist daughter spoil her completely rotten since birth, and after almost ten yrs, it seems the narc tendencies may be gravitating into a more malignant strain. She’s an only child, no sibs to learn from, no father to discipline her or put any restraints on her demands.

    I wonder, in both these cases, if nature had encountered a different nurture, could thier conditions been lessened? Now I think the differences may be only cosmetic, meaning a disordered person simply learns better skills in mimicking emotions, pretending for manipulation ect. , but it is worth looking at.

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  4. Does seeing things — e.g., moral issues — in terms of black and white necessarily translate into seeing other people as either all good or all bad? The reason I ask is that any discussion of black-and-white thinking always reminds me of something I read many years ago, having to do with people in Nazi-occupied countries who rescued Jews from the Holocaust, at great risk to their own lives. Two researchers interviewed hundreds of the surviving rescuers in an attempt to learn what made them different from other people who also knew what was going on but chose not to get involved. What the researchers learned, and what made such a huge impression on me, was that one quality that differentiated rescuers from non-rescuers was that the rescuers tended to see things in terms of black and white, right and wrong, good and evil — disdaining to take the more nuanced, sophisticated view of things that would have made it easy for them to look the other way, as most of their fellow countrymen did.

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    • That’s interesting. Yes, seeing things in black and white can work for the greater good, when the “black” truly is evil (the Holocaust and Naziism, or slavery) but I’m talking more about people who judge others as “all bad’ just because they have a disagreement. Narcissists and borderlines tend to do this–idealize people (put them on a pedestal), but when that person lets them down (as they inevitably will), the formerly idealized person becomes the scum of the earth.


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