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.