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Disciplines > Psychoanalysis > Concepts > Splitting

Description | Discussion | See also



In its most fundamental form, splitting is the separation of one item into two such that they can be handled separately.

When a person holds two thoughts in the mind that are contradictory or otherwise so uncomfortable, the person will cognitively separate them, not thinking of the separate thoughts at the same time. This is a process of 'psychic economy' whereby a complex situation is simplified by separation rather than resolution.

The lines of division can be any form, from visual appearance to concepts and ideas. A common split is into good and bad. The good part can then be retained, loved and admired whilst the bad part is attacked or repressed.

When a part of the self is associated with both of two separated thoughts, then the person is also split. In extreme, this is a basis for schizophrenia. In more general practice, we all have multiple internal voices which may have appeared from repression.


Splitting was first described by Freud in his work on fetishes and pathological grief, where he referred to a mental process by which two separate and contradictory versions of reality could co-exist (Freud, 1900).

Splitting can lead to polar simplification and classification, such as where an object is assigned as good or bad, rather than considered as something more complex.

Klein considered that splitting could not happen without division of the ego, classically between instincts of love and hate.

Klein describes splitting in the way a child seeks to retain good feelings and introject good objects, whilst expelling bad objects and projecting bad feelings onto an external object, in order to protect the good object from being contaminated by the bad object.

Splitting is a part of ordinary life as well as an aspect of schizophrenia.

"Splitting is a boundary-creating mode of thought and therefore a part of an order generating process." (Ogden, 1986)

Splitting is an essential part of learning, where 'more and more is known about less and less'. To understand something in more detail is to split it. Splitting of ideas is thus a hierarchical process. It may be combined with association of separated ideas to build a network of understanding.

Splitting also is seen as a normal part of development, such as when a child differentiates itself from its context. The child finds that things are not all good or all bad and has to learn to handle this. If this is not completed well, they may grow up with a polarized view of things being either all good or all bad.

In dysfuncational contexts, splitting may be seen as defending against feelings of both love and hate for the same object, for example where a person has two separate mothers, a 'good mother' and a 'bad mother'. The therapist helps the person realize what is happening and to re-integrate the split object and accept the reality of combined good and bad.

See also

Klein, Freud, Compartmentalization, The paranoid-schizoid position, Good object, bad object

Freud. S. (1940). Splitting of the ego in the process of defence. Standard Edition 23:271-278. London: Hogarth Press, 1964

Ogden, T. (1986). The Matrix of Mind: Object Relations and the Psychoanalytic Dialogue. London: Karnac Books

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