What Is BPD Splitting?

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While figuratively, most people see the world in a gradient of greys, many people with borderline personality disorder (BPD) see people, events, and situations as black and white. This all-or-nothing dichotomy is referred to as splitting and is one characteristic or symptom of borderline personality disorder.

BPD is a personality disorder in which people experience an ongoing pattern instability in moods, self-image, relationships, and behavior.

People with BPD often struggle to have healthy relationships with other people. Splitting is both a cause of difficulties within their relationships and a self-protective or defense mechanism to try to keep themselves from getting emotionally hurt within their relationships.

Fortunately, there are ways people with BPD can learn to manage their splitting thoughts and behaviors, and ways their loved ones can help them cope.

woman with border personality disorder

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What Is BPD Splitting?

The common fictional trope of the devil and angel on someone's shoulders is a good metaphor for how most people approach the people and experiences in their lives. They see the good, they see the bad, and they form a well-rounded—usually fairly accurate—assessment.

For people with BPD who experience splitting, only the angel or the devil can appear at any given time, never together. In other words, people who experience splitting think in terms of good and bad, all or none, and always or never. There is no in-between.

Seeing things or people as "all good" is called idealization while seeing things or people as "all bad" is called devaluation.

People who do not have BPD can experience extreme feelings, mood swings, and even splittingf, but splitting as associated with BPD is accompanied by other symptoms of BPD. A diagnosis of BPD would not be made due to the presence of splitting alone.

Symptom or Diagnosis?

Splitting is a common symptom of mental illnesses such as BPD, and a coping strategy for people having difficulty making sense of the world around them. It is not a condition in and of itself or a type of BPD.

Signs of Splitting

People with BPD splitting view people in their lives as good to the point of infallible, or bad without hope of redemption.

For some, this appointed label stays static, and for others, their view of someone can switch from all good to all bad and even back again, often abruptly.

The same is true of situations. A person with BPD splitting believes life events will always go right or always go wrong.

People with BPD splitting also see themselves through this binary filter. If they make one mistake, such a low grade on a test or taking a wrong turn, they may tell themselves that they are stupid, a complete failure, or not good at anything.

Other signs of splitting include:

  • Making a quick assessment or judgment of people without getting to know them first
  • Idealizing certain people from whom the person with BPD craves excessive attention and views as special, powerful, and free of flaws
  • Seeking frequent reassurance from idealized people that they still love, care about, or are friends with the people with BPD
  • "Punishing" people when they don't give the person with BPD what they want, including having angry outbursts, giving the silent treatment, or plotting ways to "get revenge" on someone they deem devalued
  • Expecting other people to "choose sides" between the person with BPD and someone the person with BPD devalues, sometimes asking them to help with revenge, and potentially deeming that person as devalued if they refuse to take sides
  • A strong fear of abandonment
  • A pattern of intense and unstable romantic, platonic, and/or family relationships, characterized by extreme closeness, extreme dislike, or fluctuating between
  • Intense moods and mood swings, including intense episodes of rage or depression lasting a few hours to a few days
  • Difficulty trusting people and/or irrationally fearing others' intentions

BD vs. BPD

Despite a similar acronym and several overlapping symptoms, bipolar disorder and borderline personality disorder are two different conditions. Be careful not to confuse them.

Length of Episodes

Splitting describes viewing the world in binary terms. In this sense, splitting does not come in "episodes" where it exists or doesn't exist so much as the views someone with BPD splitting assigns people and things can change or not change.

A person with BPD splitting may keep their "all bad" and "all good" labels for people and things permanently, or these views can change or fluctuate.

Episodes of anger, depression, and/or anxiety often related to splitting typically last a few hours to days.

With evidence-based treatment, such as certain types of psychotherapy, symptoms of BPD—including splitting—can lessen.

Common Thoughts of People With BPD Splitting

People with BPD splitting see everything as:

  • All bad or all good
  • Always going right or always going wrong
  • Always loving or never loving
  • Perfect or evil
  • Idealized or devalued

People with BPD splitting may say things like:

  • "I hate you" or other hurtful things they usually don't mean and may feel shame for later.
  • "I never do anything right" and other derogatory all or nothing thinking statements, often as a result of making a mistake.
  • "I love him so much" and other big declarations of affection that may seem extreme or disproportionate to the relationship, or switches abruptly to "I hate him". This can cycle back and forth.

Triggers 

The triggers for symptoms of BPD—including splitting—can be hard to predict and vary for each person.

Episodes of BPD can be brought on by seemingly innocuous life events such as a loved one leaving for a work trip.

Splitting is widely believed to be a self-defense mechanism against feelings of hurt, rejection, or abandonment. People with BPD often fear they will be abandoned by people they love and admire, and it is less emotionally stressful to reject someone before that person rejects them.

Deeming someone or something as good or bad can make it feel easier to manage complex, overwhelming, and confusing emotions.

Effects of BPD Splitting

Relationships

Splitting can cause distress to everyone in a relationship, including the person with BPD. A person with BPD-related splitting can switch back and forth between intense feelings of love and feelings of hate.

BPD-related splitting can cause problems with relationships by:

  • Making a person with BPD vulnerable to harm when they are unable to see risks or warning signs of danger in someone they believe to be infallible
  • Forming a codependency between the person with BPD and the person they think is perfect
  • Exhausting both parties from the near-constant need for reassurance from the "perfect" person to the person with BPD
  • A real or perceived slight, major or minor, by the "perfect" person causing the person with BPD to feel disappointed, unloved, or abandoned, often leading to the "perfect" person becoming viewed as "evil" or "bad"
  • The onset of episodes of anger towards themselves and/or others, depression, or becoming withdrawn, following a real or perceived slight
  • Creating hurt feelings and frustration in other people due to the behavior of the person with BPD

Self

Untreated BPD, including splitting, can lead to:

  • A distorted or poor self-image
  • Self-harming behavior
  • Suicidal thoughts or attempts
  • Chronic feelings of emptiness
  • Unhealthy, impulsive, or dangerous decision-making and behavior

BPD and Risk of Suicide

BPD is highly associated with thoughts of suicide and actions related to suicide. If you are having suicidal thoughts, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 for support and assistance from a trained counselor. If you or a loved one are in immediate danger, call 911.

For more mental health resources, see our National Helpline Database.

Difficulties in Treatment

Studies suggest that mental health professionals may have a tendency towards holding negative perceptions of people with BPD.

This bias is believed to be a result of the difficulties surrounding interpersonal relationships experienced by people with BPD, and the unintentional "human" reaction to these difficulties from professionals.

A person with BPD splitting may have problems establishing and maintaining a trusting relationship with a therapist or health care provider, who they may perceive as perfect or evil.

Coping 

BPD should be assessed and treated by mental health professionals, but there are ways a person with BPD-related splitting can help maximize the effects of treatment, and better cope with symptoms.

  • Look for and recognize impulses to harm or discard devalued people. Examine and name emotions being felt when these impulses occur.
  • When experiencing an impulse to seek validation from others, examine how your body feels and which emotions you are experiencing. Delay contacting them while you process your feelings, then reconsider if you still need their reassurance.
  • Make and listen to a recording of things you find reassuring to hear. Go to it instead of seeking validation from others.
  • Listen to angry songs, yell into a pillow, dance, do physical exercise, or other harmless ways to release feelings of anger instead of harming others.
  • Write out your feelings and thoughts through journaling or creative writing.
  • Seek healthy sensory activities such as a hot or cold shower when you are feeling overwhelmed.
  • Practice "both-and" reasoning, such as reminding yourself that people can disagree with you and still love you.
  • Join a support group for people with BPD. Ask your health care provider for resources or look for a group through the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI).

Treatment for Splitting

There is no treatment targeted specifically at BPD splitting. Splitting is treated as part of an overall BPD treatment plan which usually involves psychotherapy and sometimes includes medication.

Loving, living with, or caring for a person with BPD and BPD splitting can be very stressful. Developing coping strategies for your own self-care, and learning ways to support your loved one with BPD can help everyone manage better.

  • Offer emotional support and patience to your loved one with BPD.
  • Encourage your loved one to seek and stick to treatment.
  • Speak with a therapist about your own experiences and feelings about having a loved one with BPD. Your therapist should be someone who is not treating your loved one.
  • Educate yourself about and seek resources on BPD and BPD splitting.
  • Remind yourself that splitting is a part of your loved one's BPD and that their words and actions are not personal, nor intentionally meant to hurt you.
  • Try to remain calm. Take a moment to cool down before responding if necessary.
  • Show your loved one that you care for them, which can help ease their anxiety over abandonment.
  • Set reasonable boundaries and lay out consequences if they are broken, then enforce them. For example, insist that you will not tolerate objects being thrown, and will end the conversation and leave the room if it happens.
  • Set boundaries that respect your own autonomy, such as responding to their request for reassurance by saying you do love them, but will not be saying it again that day, or insisting that you form your own opinions about others and will not end contact with a mutual friend.
  • Use "yes/and" statements such as "Yes I am upset that you did that, and I love you" or "I am going to continue my friendship with Jill, and I respect your decision to end that friendship."
  • Reach out to other people who have loved ones with BPD to share your feelings and frustrations with others who understand your experiences.

A Word From Verywell 

BPD splitting can be overwhelming both for the person experiencing the black and white feelings and those who love them.

Thankfully, with treatment and a team effort, BPD symptoms—like splitting—can become easier to manage and less intrusive.

If you are experiencing splitting or other symptoms of BPD, book an appointment with your health care provider for an assessment and to make a treatment plan if necessary.

If you have a loved one exhibiting splitting behavior or other signs of BPD, encourage them to speak with their health care provider.

With help, the world can look gradient again.

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Article Sources
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