11 July 2007

Splitting

'Splitting', as a psychological phenomenon, appears to have two distinct meanings - which is ironically appropriate.

The first type of splitting is something all people do as children, but some people continue to do well past childhood. It derives from the idea that people and situations etc. are either all good, or all bad. Including us. If we aren't perfect, then we are utterly without value. If our friends aren't angelic, they are - they must be - demonic. It's the only available alternative.

This is understandable for children. Children are utterly vulnerable. They need strong bonds to their parents, and they need to place absolute trust in their protectors when they are young; their very survival depends on this, and there's simply no room for doubt.

But it's a recipe for disaster if we don't outgrow it. Because if you're only ever all good or all bad, then it's impossible for you to ever admit that you might have a few flaws somewhere, while being pretty darned incredible somewhere else. If you can't admit any flaws are there, you're stuck with them. And can't grow, or change, or heal. Nor can your relationships. A man will relate to women as either Madonnas or whores; a woman will relate to men as exciting 'bad boys' or bores. People are reduced to stereotypes, and the fascinating variety that makes humans so compelling and intriguing is lost in two-dimensionality.

Sometimes, two people in conflict reach the point of exchanging very specific criticisms of one another. These criticisms may contain extremely valuable truth. Setting the need to defend the self aside, long enough to even consider the idea that criticism might be true, can be a major psychological triumph. Hearing that criticism, sitting with it, thinking how it might be true and if so what that might mean, can be one of the single biggest steps a person ever takes towards healing.

But if either person involved hasn't resolved their own tendency to split, they are more likely to feel an overwhelming desire to invalidate the criticism. They cannot see it in context. There is no such thing as 'context' - any shame is total shame. They see X making them all bad, rather than X pointing out some problem of limited scope that might make them even more good - if they could see and address it. As a result, they rush to assure themselves, and anyone else who might be watching, that they are perfect, but X is something else again: anything from a nasty old grouch to Evil Incarnate Walking The Earth, depending on the degree of splitting they are in thrall to, and their own underlying emotional health.

Unfortunately, many if not most survivors of emotional trauma will be tempted towards splitting. It is much less painful to split off the bad, and project it onto others, when you are enduring inescapable emotional pain. People learn to split in self-defense - or rather, never learn how to stop splitting. It's possible to become so trapped in the all-good-or-all-bad dilemma that one eventually overreacts to even the mildest perceived criticism, thus becoming essentially incapable of growth and change. This may carry a terrible price, one that lasts lifelong.

One important point to remember about this type of splitting is that preserving it prolongs conflict, because it maintains enmeshment. As long as we think of someone as all bad, or all good, we have to find another place to 'store' the good, or bad, traits and characteristics they do have, that we are denying them. Often, that storage place is us, especially for the 'good' traits. Thus, we end up despising people from whom we cannot bear to part, and our lives are filled with relationships that cause us pain. This, to my mind, is a near perfect definition of Hell on earth.

Once you stop splitting, however, you can easily relinquish pain-causing people and relationships. You are no longer carrying part of the other person's personality within yourself. You're no longer enmeshed. You return to them what is theirs, good as well as bad; your integrity and theirs - in the sense of wholeness - is restored; that makes it easier for you to own what is yours, separately, and do what you need to do to protect it.

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The other type of 'splitting' I have encountered is a form of triangulation.

Most human relationships involve some form of back-channel commentary, both positive and negative, on 'the people passing by'; this can be anything from comparing notes on someone's fashion sense at the mall, to comparing analyses of someone's inappropriate behavior at the office. It may not always be nice; it may not be ideal; but as long as human beings seek to avoid complete isolation, and have any interest at all in their fellow human beings, it is going to be inevitable.

For a dedicated 'splitter' in this second sense, this aspect of human nature provides hours of fun and entertainment. X tells Y things that Z has said about Y, to X; these may or may not be true. X then tells Z things that Y has said about Z, to X; these likewise may or may not be true.

If X is particularly skilled, X will elicit specific things to tell each of the two parties, entice them to confide, embellish a little here and there for effect, and then claim in self defense that it was all true - sidestepping the issues of how destructively the truths were handled, how confidence was violated, and how intentional the betrayal of both Y and Z by X actually was.

As long as Y and Z regard each other as the main problem, rather than recognizing that the main issue is the game being played by X, they may go round and round in fabricated and externally exacerbated conflict for years. The payoff that X gets in this situation is obvious - a sense of power, and the ability to feel contempt for both Y and Z for not seeing through such an obvious maneuver.

This contempt allows X to treat Y and Z as objects, as playthings. X won't think about how Y and Z are being harmed, or how dishonest the whole interaction really is. It keeps X isolated from any chance of meaningful, vulnerable, authentic relationship with either Y or Z, both of whom might be well worth knowing as real human beings rather than chess pieces.

Of course, if X regards Y and Z as objects ab initio, X will be unlikely ever to consider or regret the loss of relationship. For instance, a man or woman who is deeply hostile to the opposite sex, but unaware of this hostility, may routinely 'split' their opposite-sex relatives or co-workers, encouraging them to confide while using those confidences to create and inflame conflict. Unfortunately, we aren't often savvy enough to recognize this when it is happening to us, or tough enough to forego this specific companion for the sake of our own emotional health.

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