What Is BPD Splitting?

A Characteristic of Borderline Personality Disorder

BPD splitting is a symptom of borderline personality disorder (BPD) in which a person is unable to hold opposing thoughts and concludes that something is either entirely good or entirely bad. With BPD splitting, there is no middle ground, and the person will view the nature of people and situations as either black-or-white or all-or-nothing.

An example is declaring a romantic interest "my future husband" or "future wife" and, after then, after the romantic interest is rebuffed, declaring that "I wasn't interested anyway."

But, with BPD splitting, the turnaround is about more than just saving face. It is an unconscious or unintentional reframing of how a person views a situation that turns uncomfortable or uncertain. Splitting is a behavior that is extreme, interfering not only with relationships but with a person's sense of well-being.

This article takes a closer look at the signs and symptoms of BPD splitting, offering examples and describing the various triggers that can lead to splitting. It also explains the impact of BPD splitting on relationships and the treatments that can help a person with BPD better cope.

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What Is BPD Splitting?

Splitting is a symptom of a mental illness known as borderline personality disorder (BPD). BPD is a distinct and disruptive disorder that severely impacts a person’s ability to regulate their emotions.

Although people will sometimes casually declare that someone has a "borderline personality," BPD is about more than just a personality trait. BPD is a mental illness that is diagnosed based on specific criteria outlined in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) issued by the American Psychiatric Society.

Chief among the criteria is the fact that people with BPD experience feelings of hopelessness, worthlessness, anxiety, or depression as a result of their behaviors.

BPD splitting is a common symptom of BPD along with others such as mood swings, a fear of abandonment, explosive anger, and impulsive or self-destructive behaviors.

Definition

In psychology, splitting is a defense mechanism in which a person alternates between extremes of idealization (in which a person attributes exaggeratedly positive qualities to something) or devaluation (n which a person attributes exaggeratedly negative qualities to something).

Splitting is actually a normal behavior in younger children who are not yet able to grasp the complexities of relationships or situations and choose to categorize them as being either bad or good. It is a defense mechanism that helps children better cope.

However, if childhood development is disrupted by, say, an emotional trauma, a person may hold onto this defense mechanism in later life and be unable to find a middle ground between idealization and devaluation.

Splitting is not only a feature of BPD but can also occur with narcissistic personality disorder (NPD).

Signs and Symptoms of Splitting

BPD splitting is characterized by a rapid, extreme change in how a person or situation is perceived. The perception may alternate back and forth between "good" and "bad" or remain static once the altered perception is declared.

In the former situation, the switch is often referenced by the action of the other person. For example, a person with BPD may say that "so-and-so finally came to their senses" or "I finally found out the truth about so-and-so" rather than consider whether the change in their perception is unreasonable.

In the latter situation, a person with BPD may idealize a person and then devalue them and never go back. The inflexibility may serve as proof that the decision was "right" or even righteous.

Other signs of BPD splitting include:

  • Habitually making snap judgments about people or situations
  • Having absolute certainty that the perception is not correct
  • Rapidly switching to the polar opposite view with the same level of certainty
  • Craving attention and needing frequent reassurance from idealized people
  • Punishing idealized people who don't give them the attention or reassurances they seek (such as with angry outbursts or the silent treatment)
  • Describing things in absolutes (such as "so-and-so never does anything right" or "so-and-so always does things to perfection")
  • Using extreme words to describe people or situations (such as "angelic" or "evil," "genius" or "moron," or "ravishing" or "hideous")
  • Expecting others to choose sides when a person or situation is devalued
  • Shutting down or feeling attacked when others don't share those perceptions

Triggers for BPD Splitting

Splitting is triggered by anything that causes a person to take an extreme emotional viewpoint. It may be something that is completely innocent but is enough to spur emotions that a person with BPD cannot deal with.

The triggers for splitting with BPD are more or less the same as those for children or people with narcissistic personality disorder. Splitting is simply a defense mechanism used to counter emotions a person with BPD cannot control.

In people with BPD, splitting is a way of avoiding, deflecting, or sidestepping the characteristics issues that underpin the disorder, including:

  • A fear of abandonment or rejection
  • A low or unstable self-image
  • Chronic feelings of emptiness
  • A lack of self-direction, ambitions, or goals
  • A general lack of empathy for others
  • Hypersensitivity and constantly feeling insulted
  • Impulsivity and acting without thought to positive or negative things
  • Risk-taking when distressed without regard to the consequences
  • Intense but unstable relationships marked by mistrust and separation anxiety
  • A preoccupation with unpleasant experiences in the past or the possibility of negative ones in the future

Any event or action that triggers these emotions, whether perceived or real, can trigger splitting.

BPD Splitting and Relationships

Splitting can cause distress to everyone in a relationship, including the person living with BPD. It can do so in several ways:

  • It can cause stress due to the constant need for reassurance.
  • It can lead to codependency between the person with BPD and the person they think is perfect.
  • It can leave the idealized partner on edge if they feel mistrust or worry that the opinions of them might suddenly change.
  • It can make a person with BPD vulnerable to harm if they are unable to see warning signs of danger in someone they believe is infallible.

Treatment

There is no treatment specifically targeted to BPD splitting. Splitting is treated as part of an overall treatment plan which involves psychotherapy and sometimes medications. In severe cases, inpatient treatment may be needed under the care of a psychiatrist.

Examples of psychotherapy include:

Depending on the nature of your disorder, medications used to treat BPD may include antidepressants. antipsychotics, anxiolytics (anti-anxiety drugs), and mood stabilizers.

Summary

BPD splitting is a symptom of borderline personality disorder (BPD) in which a person sees everything as black or white, good or bad, or best or worst. Splitting is a defense mechanism used to deal with emotions (such as the fear of abandonment) that a person with BPD cannot handle.

Rather than navigating the complexities of relationships and situations, a person with BPD splitting will either idealize them (see them as all good) or devalue them (see them as all bad).

Splitting can be treated as part of an all-encompassing BPD treatment plan which typically involves psychotherapy and sometimes medications.

A Word From Verywell 

Splitting can be overwhelming both for the person with BPD and those who love them. But, with time and the appropriate treatment, people with BPD can identify and change behaviors that interfere with relationships and overcome issues related to the fear of abandonment and low self-esteem. In time, a person with BPD can even pursue and form healthy romantic relationships.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • How do you stop BPD splitting?

    Dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) is a type of therapy that encourages self-improvement and helps people with BPD adopt healthier ways of coping. DBT is implemented in stages with a therapist to explore more effective ways of controlling emotions, mitigating triggers for distress, and improving interpersonal skills.

  • How long does BPD splitting last?

    BPD splitting can switch back and forth from idealizing a person or situation or devaluing a person or person. In extreme cases, this can occur within the span of hours or days. At other times, a person with BPD may switch from idealizing someone to devaluing someone and never turn back.

  • How can I help someone with BPD splitting?

    Encourage them to seek help from a therapist. Borderline personality disorder (BPD) generally isn't something you can treat at home since it is defined by a lack of control over your feelings and emotions. If a person with BPD has thoughts of suicide, dial 988 and put them in touch with a counselor at the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. If they pose a genuine risk of harm to you or others, call 911.

4 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. National Institute of Mental Health. Borderline personality disorder.

  2. The Wellness Society. How to deal with splitting behavior.

  3. Priory Group. Understanding splitting in borderline personality disorder.

  4. Clearview Women's Center. Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT).

By Heather Jones
Heather M. Jones is a freelance writer with a strong focus on health, parenting, disability, and feminism.