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Most people can well appreciate the world in a gradient of greys, but things may not be the same for those with borderline personality disorder (BPD). Such people develop an all-or-nothing dichotomy called splitting that forces them to see events, individuals, and situations as black and white.

BPD alone can be difficult to manage as a personality disorder due to its symptoms, including mood swings, unstable relationships, and impulsive behaviours. People often struggle to maintain healthy relationships with other people and splitting only adds to this problem. Despite being a simple defence mechanism that these individuals adopt to protect themselves from getting hurt, these splitting episodes can damage all aspects of life. Fortunately, there are multiple ways through which people with splitting BPD can learn to manage their thoughts and behaviours.

What is splitting BPD? How can you recognise and control it before it destroys your relationships and life? Let’s find out in this article.

Splitting is a common symptom for people with mental health issues like borderline personality disorder. Its literal meaning is to divide something, and as a psychiatric term, it means viewing everyone and everything in black and white. Splitting stops individuals from recognising or accepting paradoxical qualities in something and someone and does not allow them to develop any grey areas in their thinking.

But why does splitting occur? Splitting is a defence mechanism deployed by individuals with personality disorders whenever they feel under the influence of immense negative emotions, such as isolation. Its development traces back to experiences of early life traumas, such as abandonment and abuse. Experiencing and responding to the world through a filter of negativity or positivity can quickly leave a person with BPD emotionally drained and exhausted. It may also strain their relationships as the ones close to these people become progressively affected by their splitting behaviour.

For many people, a split usually occurs secondary to an event that triggers the extreme binary emotions characterising BPD. Sometimes, these triggering events are too small, insignificant, or harmless to people without BPD but may relate to previous trauma for the ones with personality disorders. The root cause of splitting in BPD is linked to how one develops as a child.

When babies enter the world, they follow the all-or-nothing principle, perceiving things as either good or bad. As the baby develops psychologically, they gradually understand the grey areas between the two extremes of everything. People with BPD, however, face difficulties in accepting the coexistence of good and bad in someone or something due to the overwhelming emotions they experience. Hence, they eventually adopt the splitting behaviours to channel their emotions or cope with them.

The triggers of splitting among a person with BPD are endless and highly variable. At times, these triggers are pretty obvious and easy to spot, while other times, it is impossible to understand what provoked a splitting behaviour in a loved one.

Similar to the triggers of substance use, the triggers of splitting can be anyone or anything that incites emotional reactions. Some common ones include:

Meeting someone new

New people can be polarising for individuals with BPD. Any new acquaintance for these people is either the best or the most terrible, even if there is no evidence to support this notion.

Receiving a comment

Be it criticism or a compliment, the fragile self-image of a person with BPD can quickly swing in either direction. They may fully buy the compliment or overgeneralise critical feedback into a total lack of self-worth.

Seasons or anniversaries

Certain times of the year, specific temperatures and seasons, and anniversaries of significant events can all trigger splitting in people with BPD.

Meeting people from the past

Any former spouses, parents, siblings, coworkers, friends, and any other people from the past with significant roles in their lives can trigger splitting.

It is typical for young people with splitting BPD to idolise and then quickly devalue people in life. They are very quick to label something or someone as bad whenever they spot a flaw in someone or something and may cut them out of their life. This behavioural pattern affects how they view themselves, leading to poor self-worth and self-esteem.

The inability to form and maintain relationships intensifies for people with splitting BPD by the time they reach adulthood. At this point, most of them have damaged or broken bonds with family and friends. Independent living becomes less attainable as they are expected to quit a job, drop out of school, or get evicted from accommodation on a whim.

With these negative external messages and their internal need to be perfect to avoid any negative labels, life for people with splitting BPD goes down a spiral. Eventually, a sense of loneliness, hopelessness, and worthiness sets in, leading to the following behaviours:

  • Self-harm
  • Anxiety
  • Substance abuse
  • Suicidal thoughts and behaviours
  • Depression
  • Social isolation
  • Low self-esteem

Because these issues are secondary to unstable relationships, learning to establish healthy bonds with others is a primary focus of treatment.

There is no easy solution to dealing with a loved one with splitting borderline personality disorder, especially if they have extreme symptoms. How you cope with them largely depends on the nature of your relationship and the impact of your loved one’s symptoms on you. The following guiding principles can; however, help make a positive impact:

Cultivating empathy

Remind yourself that splitting behaviour is a part of the BPD. While certain actions of your loved one may seem manipulative or intentional, they are purely out of control. Most behaviours secondary to splitting are defence mechanisms that the afflicted turn to whenever they feel defenceless.

Maintaining lines of communication

Discussing a particular situation as it happens allows you to isolate the event instead of piling them on top of each other. On the contrary, a failure to communicate only fuels rejection anxiety in your loved one.

Giving reminders of support

Most people with BPD are afraid of being abandoned and rejected. Constantly reminding them about the love and support you are willing to extend to them helps control their splitting episodes.

Setting boundaries

Supporting your loved one through the challenges of BPD is one thing, but becoming the object of abuse is another. Setting limits with a person with BPD is critical as you continue to assist them in treatment. If they cross your boundary, explain why you are backing away. Even if this move seems dispassionate and rude, setting boundaries to preserve the relationship in the long run.

Taking care of yourself

Amidst the ongoing treatment and support for your loved one with splitting BPD, do not ignore your own needs. BPD can be an overwhelming diagnosis not only for the primary sufferer but also for their entire family. Get in touch with a therapist if needed to balance your needs.

Managing your response

Remember that you are in a better position to control your response, attitude, and temper than a loved one with splitting BPD. Engaging in hostility or yelling back during an active splitting episode will only worsen the situation.

Encouraging and supporting treatment

Seeking professional treatment involving medication and therapy can help your loved one live a better life. Encourage them to start treatment or continue it if they have already begun. Play your part by educating yourself more about the disease to understand better what they are going through. Actively participating in therapy with your loved one can also significantly improve overall recovery. Contact a treatment centre now to begin the recovery process for your loved one today.

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