Splitting and Borderline Personality Disorder

By Dr. Keith Witt
January 15, 2024

Imagine this:
Sarah’s friend from book club confides that her husband’s coworker said his wife thought Sarah was a bad mother for letting her third-grade daughter walk home alone from elementary school. Sarah feels a surge of shame and anger, and thinks to herself, “How dare she?!” She struggles with a fierce impulse to call up this critical woman and straighten her out. “She must be such an uptight, helicopter mother control freak!” She tells herself confidently, certain of her moral superiority.
Sarah is splitting.
·      She doesn’t know what was actually said, since a message from the wife of her husband’s coworker filtered through four people is likely to be distorted.
·      She has no idea who this woman is other than this distressing fourth hand statement.
·      She is way too confident of her hostile conclusions from one upsetting comment (that might not be wholly accurate).

Psychological splitting is shifting to a distressed state with a distorted story. We all do this daily, because we constantly shift from one state to another with different ideas, self-identities, feelings, and impulses, and some of these shifts are into defensive states involving splitting. Most of us exist in the illusion that we are consistently the same person all the time, but none of us are. Our brains pretend we are the same person no matter what state we’re in, while in reality we are a different person in each state. 

Splitting is particularly intense and crippling in the .4% to 5.5% of the population who suffer from Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD). The signature symptoms of BPD?
·      Disproportionate distressed and angry responses to minor triggers.
·      Becoming lost in a frightened, hostile self, consumed by hurtful stories about whoever triggered the split.
·      No self-awareness of the damage inflicted by ugly stories and self-righteous attacks.

Recognizing the split and reaching for compassionate understanding and assertive action is the formula for success that works for all of us when we split. This is a struggle to learn because we dissociate so much. 

Dissociation into kindness

Splitting always involves dissociation—specifically disconnecting from our proportional and wise self. We can learn to catch this as it happens and instantly adjust to kindness—a major indicator of psychological health. If you mostly notice when you make harsh judgments and start using hostile tones, and consciously try kind understanding, you are likely to be a psychologically healthy person. If Sarah in our I-heard-she-was-a-bad-parent story felt the surge of anger, challenged the dismissive story, and reached for kindness, everything would go better for everyone involved.

The term splitting is most associated with Borderline Personality Disorder, but we all do it to some extent. Any time you generate a distressed state and don’t examine it for distortions, you are splitting from your Wise Self and probably creating negative drama.

Borderline Personality Disorder is splitting on steroids

To most humans, it’s sadistically gratifying to objectify and attack (or consider attacking) people we’re mad at. This is why we like revenge movies.
·      A healthy person can face this gratification-in-attacking-the-bad-guy in themselves and know that attacking others is almost always a mistake.
·      A person with BPD denies, dissociates from, trivializes, and indulges sadistic impulses.

Any of us can grow and transform. It is one of our most beautiful super-powers. We can all grow into lovable, trustable, fun people. All of us can learn to notice splitting and unsplit.

However we split, the huge first step is learning to not trust our emotional spikes and angry stories. Awareness regulates, and just recognizing we’re distorted makes us less distorted. 


All treatments for splitting start with some form of compassionate self-awareness. It is the first skill taught in Dialectical Behavioral Therapy, widely used to treat BPD. Compassionate self-awareness is also at the center of every form of psychotherapy. We all lose compassionate self-awareness on occasion when we dissociate—split—from our Wise Self. We benefit from noticing how unhealthy states of consciousness arise and consciously invoking Wise Self.

The Witness is the Wise Self

Meditation teaches us to self-observe and other-observe with compassion and equanimity. This supports our inner Witness, Wise Self, who chooses compassion and clarity. Splitting disconnects. Wise Self unsplits, connects, and integrates.

If you are dissociated from your Wise Self, you can surrender to painful states and become trapped in misery. Those painful states feel like all of reality. If you learn to notice splitting and focus on states of kindness, joy, and gratitude, you can shift out of states of anxiety, depression, shame, rage, irritation, and self-loathing, and into competency and intimacy. 


A welcome byproduct of learning these skills is increased happiness. Over the years as I’ve increasingly practiced kindness, I’ve gotten happier and happier. I’ve noticed this effect with countless clients over my 50 years and 75 thousand psychotherapy sessions.

Why do we Split?

Why would we evolve such a seemingly destructive capacity as splitting? The answer is that in the ancestral tribes splitting was necessary for many forms of social regulation and self-protection. If someone threatens the tribe and needs to be driven away, tribal members need to split from the person to enforce the separation. If someone threatens me I need to dissociate from him or her so I can fight or flee.

In current society, splitting responses are most often unhealthy. Splitting enables humans to objectify, attack, or exploit other people. If your company’s breakfast cereal is so full of sugar it leads children to become type 2 diabetics, you have split from this knowledge to keep your job. If you’re angry at another’s politics and attack them, you’ve split to enjoy the pleasures of contemptuous dismissal. 

Objectifying another for gratification, protection, or exploitation requires splitting from our Wise Self. Unfortunately, such objectification is addictive since attacking someone we’re threatened by or angry at is gratifying. We see this in Twitter mobs, domestic violence, self-serving corporations, and miserable families—a normalization of emotional and physical violence for gratification, profit, or acceptance.


Meditation strengthens the compassionate Witness and supports our experience of Wise Self as a core identity. The foundation meditation I teach in all my books is Attunement, which is awareness with caring intent of breath, sensation, emotion, thought, judgment, and desire in self and others. Attunement strengthens Wise Self and helps us evolve into greater complexity. 

Splitting isn’t bad, just as anger, shame, fear, and anxiety aren’t bad emotions. Even violence in service of external constraint is not bad. Martial arts are based on necessary violence for protection and social harmony. All human capacities and emotions are necessary and appropriate in certain situations and potentially dangerous in others. That’s why we need courts and judges to interpret laws and behaviors. Luckily, our Wise Self can almost always tell the difference between constructive and destructive stories and actions. The more we stay connected to Wise Self, the less we split and the happier we are.

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