What is splitting?

Splitting is a defense mechanism often used by people who suffer from BPD or other trauma to turn a situation into a complete black or white situation to cope with pain or suffering. It commonly shows itself in relationships where BPD sufferers will either put a loved one on a pedestal or see them as completely evil when they are hurt.

yellow and and blue colored pencils
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Splitting is a subconscious defense mechanism, not manipulation.

When someone is splitting they are often not aware that they are doing it. If triggered, their mind can distort facts, sounds, actions, and feelings to support all good or all bad perceptions. They are, in fact, being manipulated by their own trauma and often really believe that what is happening in their mind is happening in reality. It isn’t until a diagnosis and therapy makes them aware of this coping device that they are able to start identifying when it happens and use behavioral skills learned in therapy to diffuse their emotional situation. Because people know very little about BPD or splitting, BPD sufferers are often wrongly depicted as manipulative.

Today I was triggered into an anxiety attack

When I woke up today, I was triggered by a loud noise followed by a tone in my boyfriend’s voice that showed that he was frustrated with something the cats did. He didn’t say anything mean and was not angry towards me, but the noise and the tone in his voice sent me into a spiral of traumatic memories from past relationships. My body tensed up as I laid in bed and my teeth clenched as silent tears streamed down my face. My head flooded with memories of people screaming in my face words of deprecation and hatred towards me. I was frozen in fear and shame for my incompetence as an adult with severe mental illness.

When triggered, I usually slip into one of two coping mechanisms:

I am triggered fairly easily and by many different and abstract things, so these symptoms are sadly very common for me, which makes it hard for me to function like a “normal person” in the traditional work structure. Sometimes I’ll slip into dissociation, where I’ll completely disconnect from reality in a hazy daydream-like state for a couple hours to a few days. But today, my mind went straight into splitting.

What splitting looks like for me

I can go from thinking someone is the love of my life and they are the best thing that has ever happened to me, to immediately thinking that they are hateful scum trying to destroy the entire integrity of who I am. Because of intense fear of abandonment (ding ding ding!: another symptom of BPD) I cower at the thought of my significant other being angry or annoyed at me. I think that any sign of unhappiness is a sign that they hate me, are sick of me, and will leave me because I am unworthy of love.

So when I interpret something they do or say as unjustifiably mean or cold to me, it is subconsciously less painful for me to convince myself that I hate them than it is for me to accept that I might have angered or annoyed them. As you can imagine, this causes a huge mess of problems in relationships and can make everything exhausting, especially for me because I have little to no control over the emotions I feel whether they are rational or not.

Today, I immediately sunk into a silent bitterness, thinking that I was being undervalued. I started to have morose thoughts of being used, of being played, or just plain being looked down on and seen as a helpless child. In no way did my boyfriend do or say anything that even hinted at any of this, but my past abuse mixed with my paranoia and low self-esteem convinced me that this must be how he feels, and so I was justified to start feeling negative ugly thoughts about him.

How do I cope?

Environment

Splitting is incredibly tricky to cope with on both ends, but it is important to work at if you want to be able to maintain a healthy relationship. Environment is EXTREMELY important. Splitting is a way your mind has learned to cope with trauma, so if the other person cannot acknowledge that you are in emotional pain and let you have time and peace to use behavioral skills, the situation can escalate very quickly and easily. If you are splitting in a way that may lead you to rage, it would probably be a good idea to walk away to calm down enough to be able to use your skills. The other person needs to be able to let you walk away for a moment without antagonizing you.

Slow down

Here is where I use my DBT skills to slow down my racing thoughts. I don’t try to stop them completely, but my goal is bring myself down from emotional mind so that I can actually understand what it is that I am feeling and why. Mindfulness skills can include breathing skills, senses skills, etc. I’m very visually stimulated, so usually I’ll step outside or look out the window at nature, especially trees and flowers or animals.

Listen to yourself

I spent years trying to bury my thoughts and feelings thinking that they were invalid because I was crazy. This made things worse by making me a ticking time-bomb of invalidated emotions and unfounded shame for my emotions. So what I do now is listen to my thoughts and analyze the situation. I play detective in my own mind and try to figure out every exact emotion I’m feeling and why. My goal is to understand myself, why do I hurt, what am I afraid of, or what is overwhelming me. This can be tricky because sometimes it can trigger more emotions, so it is important to make sure you have calmed down enough to listen to yourself. Try your best to be forgiving and understanding to yourself.

Remind yourself that the other person is their own person

This is very hard but very important to do. It’s easy to write off other people as all bad or all good, especially when you’ve been terrorized by people in the past. But every person has their own history and reason for the things they do and say. It’s important to be non-judging to others as it is to be to yourself. I honestly have an easier time not judging others than judging myself. I often have to force myself to treat myself the way I treat others.

When you are both ready, communicate what happened

Once you’ve come to an understanding with yourself and you have both cooled down if necessary, talk about what happened. Remember to discuss the facts: what happened and how it made you feel. The other person must be willing to listen and validate your emotions for this to work. Remember that validation is not the same as justifying. Even if your emotions don’t fit the situation, they are still valid! If it was a trigger, let them know, and of course let them explain their side and feelings too. This is difficult but I believe that it is immensely important for you both to speak in a very calm, non-judgmental, transparent way so that real communication can occur. Be honest, but gentle, and expect the same from them.

Take something out of the experience

Most of us with BPD are empaths but are so unforgiving of ourselves. Take this experience as something to learn about yourself, how you work, how you think, how you care. Understanding how you work is key in learning how to navigate our emotions in unpredictable situations. We can’t read other’s minds, we can’t tell the future, but we can learn about ourselves so that we can prepare ourselves for situations as best we can.

Coping isn’t pretty, be patient

This all sounds nice and smooth but of course, it will be difficult. Today I spent a chunk of the morning avoiding eye contact with my boyfriend and looking out the window listening to music. Anytime he spoke to me, I forced myself to smile when I replied. And when I left for work, I hugged him and told him I loved him, because I do. At work I cried. I was unproductive and I wrote three poems. I felt ashamed. I felt crazy and I cried more. That is how I cope. But I’m stabilizing now, at 6 pm. It took me 8 hours to come down from a noise that triggered me at 9:30 AM this morning.

It’s progress. I didn’t get into a fight with my boyfriend. I didn’t explode into a rage episode. And I still made it to work. I have hope. It will get better.

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