The Psychology of Splitting

How to Recover from a Momentary Lapse of Reason

You are driving along in your car, your mind wandering from one place to the next, when suddenly someone cuts into your lane and causes you to slow down and miss the green light. At that moment, you feel a powerful rage erupt within you. You honk your horn, slam your steering wheel, maybe yell a cuss word or two in order to express your anger. “What an absolute jerk,” you think to yourself.

A moment later, the rage passes, and you find yourself surprised by your own reaction. It was just a mild inconvenience, after all, and for all you know the other car was rushing due to some emergency you couldn’t possibly know about. “Why did I get so angry?” you ask yourself. “Why did I suddenly lose control? Where did all that patience and equanimity and empathy go?”

Don’t worry, it didn’t go anywhere. You simply experienced a temporary state of psychological splitting, a momentary dissociation that all of us have encountered at one time or another.

“Splitting” is a common defense mechanism that allows people to tolerate any number of challenging or even overwhelming emotions, typically by protecting strong negative qualities onto others. Often experienced during adolescence, splitting can also occur in adults during times of high or sudden stress. Typically these states are quickly recognized and regulated by the rest of the self-system after they occur, which are those times when we say to ourselves “whoa, I really lost it there.” For others, particularly people with borderline personality disorder, it can be more difficult to regulate ourselves out of these states, as Dr. Keith explains in this episode.

Although it is often regarded as a pathology, dissociation, says Keith, can also be seen as a human superpower. We dissociate all the time. In fact, you are likely dissociating at this very moment, or else you would be unable to read these words on your screen without a thousand other distractions pulling your attention away. Well-regulated dissociation is what allows us to focus, to concentrate, to locate the signal in the ongoing rush of noise of our day to day lives. The problem, of course, is when we are unable to regulate our dissociative tendencies, which can then lead to conflict, abuse, and harm.

Watch as Dr. Keith and Corey explore the psychological process of splitting, revealing how awareness and regulation of these processes can lead to a more health and healing, as well as to a more integrated and resilient self. By acknowledging the nuanced nature of our emotional responses and learning to navigate them with compassion and mindfulness, we open the door to deeper self-understanding and more harmonious relationships with others.

Key Questions:

Here are some questions you can contemplate while listening to this discussion. We suggest you take some time to use these as journaling prompts.
  • Self-Reflection on Emotional Responses: What are my typical emotional responses in stressful situations, and how might these be instances of psychological splitting?
  • Understanding Triggers: Can I identify specific triggers that lead to moments of psychological splitting or intense emotional reactions in my life?
  • Personal Growth through Emotional Intelligence: How can I develop my emotional intelligence to better recognize, understand, and regulate my emotions during times of stress?
  • Intrapersonal Awareness: What internal dialogues occur during moments of splitting, and how do they reflect my intrapersonal intelligence?
  • Impact on Relationships: How do my reactions during emotional extremes affect my relationships, and what role does interpersonal intelligence play in these interactions?
  • Strategies for Integration: What strategies can I employ to integrate fragmented aspects of myself for a more cohesive self-experience?
  • Empathy and Understanding: How can I cultivate empathy and understanding towards others who might be experiencing psychological splitting or similar challenges?
  • Role of Mindfulness and Self-Compassion: In what ways can mindfulness and self-compassion be tools for managing dissociative tendencies and fostering emotional balance?

Hi Corey

Thank you for your content. You explain Integral so thoroughly it takes away the idea that understanding all of this will be impossible to achieve.

I used to have BPD and splitting was my whole life. Internal Family Systems was very helpful for this. An hour of IFS gave me better results than a year of CBT.

I ended up reintegrating about two dozen parts. For me, each split healed when I realised, “This part dealt with the pain of xyz for me, to keep me safe”

Sometimes there’s a specific memory that triggers that specific response, e.g. I missed the green light a decade ago and therefore didn’t make it somewhere in time and experienced loss. For these, replacing the emotion of the original memory is most helpful for me. Jay Hedley is an Integral practitioner who’s brilliant at teaching this. When I do it, my goal is for the cognitive load to exceed the emotional load so my brain has to choose. I find it takes less than a minute for my brain to choose to drop the emotion.

My favourite strategy is Snap n Snap. I set up the card game Snap with someone I trust (either real or inside my head). I take a snapshot of the painful event in my mind and then I play Snap until I’m in the Goldilocks zone of being barely aware of the memory. If I think about the game too much, I forget about the memory. If I think about the memory too much, I experience emotion. After about a minute, when I go back to the memory, the pain is either replaced with love, or is simply gone. Default 1st person perspective is replaced by default 3rd person perspective.

I dealt with two memories that made me suicidal using one of Jay’s techniques. The first time, I fell in the hole for about 24 hours and when I was numb enough to not notice if I lost a limb, I decoded the memory. The second time, it took me 4 hours to go from suicidal to enraged, which was when I completed the process.

I’m a CSA survivor. After 20 years of dealing with being broken, I met another survivor who had become whole, which was when I started really trying. I took a few more years to figure out what works for me and I now consider myself whole. The tipping point was when Long Covid (Myalgic Encephalomyelitis) took my prefrontal cortex offline and I had to deal with my emotions without trying to think my way out of them.

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I thought of an Integral analogy.

Amber me is travelling along and then gets whiplash.
There’s a magenta thread tethering amber me to magenta me.
A magenta thread cannot be cut.
Magenta me has to choose to let it go.
Magenta me is hurting and will give up the thread when it feels loved by amber me.