Splitting - Idealization and Devaluation


Splitting - The practice of regarding people and situations as either completely "good" or completely "bad".

No Middle Ground

Splitting is described in the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic & Statistical Manual (DSM-IV) as “A pattern of unstable and intense interpersonal relationships characterized by alternating between extremes of idealization and devaluation.”

People who are regarded as being “all good” are sometimes referred to as being “split white” or “painted white”. People who are regarded as being “all bad” are sometimes referred to as being “split black” or “painted black”.

When a person or a group of people is “split white” by a person with a Personality Disorder, they may just as suddenly be “split black” (and vice versa). Because there is no middle ground – no shades of grey – it’s an either/or proposition. For the targets, this can be confusing and upsetting.

Consequently, there is usually some justification presented by the person with the Personality Disorder for their actions, decisions or sudden changes of heart but their logic is frequently flawed, contradictory or incomplete

What it Looks Like

A woman praises her husband as a wonderful husband and father in public but accuses him of abuse later the same day.
A mother habitually tells her daughter she is “useless” or “worthless” but when she gets a good grade at school gushes: “We are all so proud of you!”
A friendly co-worker or neighbor suddenly, without warning, begins giving you the cold shoulder.
A person persistently moves on from one social group to another, praising each group at first before becoming harshly critical.

Splitting is an example of Dissociation - or “Feelings Create Facts” - where a Personality Disordered person’s feelings take priority over what the facts actually tell them. If they experience a mood swing and suddenly feel good or bad about a particular person or situation, they can instantly modify their opinions, memories or attitudes to be consistent those feelings, regardless of any apparent contradictions.

How it Feels

When you come into contact with someone who engages in splitting, you may feel threatened by how easily or how quickly they can idealize or demonize you or other people for no apparent reason. Even if you are currently “split white” yourself, you may still feel insecure because you know that your favored “status” may change without warning.

If you are close to a person who uses splitting, you may occasionally find yourself being asked to choose between agreeing with them, or defending yourself or other people whom they have “split black”. This can become a real problem if you feel there is a matter of principle involved or if a valued relationship is suddenly challenged or threatened. You may be very uncomfortable trying to reconcile your relationship with the Personality Disordered individual and your personal values or valued relationships with other family members, friends and co-workers.

You may suddenly come under a lot of pressure to cut off contact with specific people and find yourself sacrificing friendships and social settings just to “keep the peace”. The problem with doing this is while it may seem to avoid conflict in the short term, you may hurt yourself and starve yourself of support and social interaction that you need in order to stay emotionally healthy.

You may also come under sudden pressure to neglect or compromise your own values or principles when they come into conflict with the black and white thinking of someone who is splitting. The trouble with giving in to this kind of pressure is you are likely feel to worse about yourself afterwards.

What NOT to do

  • Don’t argue with a person who is splitting or try to talk sense into them. That’s a recipe for a Circular Conversation.
  • Don’t blame yourself. People with Personality Disorders can easily distort facts to fit the way they feel. That’s their concern, not yours.
  • Don’t act like the Thought Police. Don’t use any tricks, intimidation or ultimatums to try to get someone to see things differently. Everyone is entitled to think what they want to think and believe what they want to believe.
  • Don’t become angry with them or try to retaliate.
  • Don’t yield your own reality about a person or group or isolate yourself from healthy friendships, family, social groups just to “keep the peace”. Don’t try to hide those relationships. It’s OK for you to have differences of opinion.
  • Don’t automatically assume that everything the other person believes or says is untrue. Don’t automatically run for the opposite corner or play “devil’s advocate”. Try to think objectively. Occasionally, like the boy who cried wolf, they may tell you something important.

What TO do

  • Handle disagreements with a person who is splitting as unemotionally, firmly and briefly as you can.
  • Try to “agree to disagree”. Acknowledge that you see things differently.
  • Respect their right to have their own point of view and assert your own right to have your own point of view.
  • Avoid ideological debates. Try to see the gray in each situation and judge on the merits.
  • Maintain and nurture your healthy friendships, family relationships and social groups, so long as they form no substantive threat to yourself or to another individual.
  • Find a support network, a group of people who understand what you are living with and who you can talk to about the tough situations.
  • If appropriate, talk to people who have been split black or white by your loved one to let them know that you are able to see the “gray”.