Whenever I break up with a boyfriend, or end a friendship, my heart becomes instantly cold towards them. It’s almost as if all my memories of them become fuzzy around the edges, and I feel nothing towards them anymore. I used to think that this made me a monster, but I can now see it as a defense mechanism. This is one aspect of splitting, which is a symptom of borderline personality disorder (BPD), also known as emotional dysregulation disorder.
Splitting is when you experience extreme black and white or ‘all or nothing’ thinking. Most people experience this to some degree, but the difference is that you can go from loving someone to feeling nothing towards them or hating them within a second. When I do this, I don’t mourn the loss of the other person anymore, and I emotionally feel like they were attached to a version of myself that no longer exists.
Splitting can also refer to your general feelings towards other people or yourself. You may completely idolise another person, and be unable to see their faults. You may see yourself as completely evil, and cannot acknowledge any positive aspects of your own personality.
Splitting is a defense mechanism.
When a man who I was casually dating told me that I was selfish and a horrible human being for trying to kill myself, I instantly became cold towards him. I discounted every positive aspect of the relationship, and did not mourn the loss of it. I went from caring about him to him instantly meaning nothing to me, and I cut him completely out of my life with no second thought. This could seem desirable to someone who recognises this as an abusive emotional situation, but I also have this response to much smaller stimuli.
I experienced splitting towards my current boyfriend several times when we were dating long distance while I travelled around South America. If we had a fight where I perceived him to be in the wrong, it was like my heart instantly became cold towards him. My brain intellectually knew that I still loved him, but I could no longer feel it. I felt like he was out to get me, didn’t care about me, and was trying to find ways to deliberately undermine me. My brain ignored any rational evaluation of the fight and just decided that the best course of action would be to cut him out completely at that time.
When I look at these events with more compassion, I can recognise that splitting is a way that my brain tries to protect itself. If I perceive a threat to myself, it is easier to cut emotional attachment to the threat rather than address it head on.
This is the same sort of thinking that fuels my strong belief that no one cares about me when I am upset. My brain tells me that I am completely alone and that no one could love someone like me. I think that it partly comes from a place of self-preservation. If I constantly tell myself that no one cares, then it hurts less if that turns out to be true.
Luckily, I can usually recognise when my brain is being unreasonable, because I am constantly on the lookout for flare ups from the symptoms of my BPD. In the case of my boyfriend, I knew that it was wise to outline how I was feeling to him, and talk through it until my mental barriers came down. In some cases, when I see the relationship as worth saving, I can work through the splitting.
Splitting reinforces feelings of shame.
A major aspect of splitting for me is that when I am feeling bad about myself, I completely lose emotional attachment to positive parts of my personality. I no longer feel like they are true or relevant, and that everyone is lying to me just to make me feel better. All I can see is that I am an evil human being who deserves to feel terrible for the rest of her life.
In these times, I compare myself heavily to other people in my life and see them as perfect and faultless compared to my evil and useless. Even though I intellectually know that people are neither wholly ‘bad’ nor ‘good’, all I can feel is my inherent inferiority and wickedness. In this way, splitting reinforces feelings of shame by telling me that I don’t deserve to feel love or kindness from other people.
What might splitting look like in other people with BPD?
- The inability to forgive someone who has wronged them or let them down.
- The belief that their partner, friend, or family member is perfect and faultless.
- The belief that they are evil and beyond redemption.
- The belief that someone else hates them or is out to get them.
- The inability to separate their concept of self from their symptoms of BPD.
- A history of chaotic relationships and abandoning relationships once they are perceived to no longer be perfect.
I feel like as much as I can recognise my symptoms of BPD, that doesn’t make them any less prevalent in my life. I can notice them as they happen, but sometimes I just feel despondent and think that I will never recover from my disorder. Therapy has been the most important thing for me so far to learn how to regulate my emotions better and try to treat myself with more compassion. I don’t know if there will ever be a day when I can address emotional issues in a completely rational manner, but I hope to gain greater control over my pain and suffering.