Psychological Process: When a System Splits

As a clinical psychologist, I’m interested in how groups of people (referred to here as the system) work with and around a client, and what this tells us about the service user’s personal experience and relationships. As clinicians, or allied professionals, we can get pulled into different dynamics. One of these dynamics, or processes, is called splitting.

When a System Splits Splitting Psychology Process Psychotherapy Defense Mechanism Projection

Splitting, What’s That?

Splitting is a defence mechanism; it’s a way of managing the negative parts of ourselves (or the bits we don’t like). It involves managing incompatible feelings such as good – bad, love – hate, by keeping them separate, rather than integrating them.

When someone has developed as a relatively well functioning child, young person, or adult, they are able to accept and explore their different emotions and perspectives, and any tensions these may present. They are able to acknowledge the different parts of their personality without the need to split them off and project them (place them) in other people. As Briggs (2012) points out, this requires the capacity to know who we are and accept the different parts of ourself.

When A System Splits Splitting Psychotherapy Psychology Process Defense Mechanism

The easiest way to think about splitting is how we, at times, split off our unfavourable characteristics and place these feelings or thoughts in other people. These include negative feelings such as hateful impulses or feeling bad. By disowning them and locating them in others, the feeling becomes tolerable as it becomes associated with someone else. For some, it’s even enjoyable to see these flaws in others (it makes them feel good to think they don’t have them).

What Does Splitting Look Like?

I’ve seen splitting take place amongst staff groups, and I dare say, have been entwined in the process myself. Such a group dynamic usually represents the internal splitting that has taken place within the client. This is re-enacted or played out within the staff group who are trying to hold the person’s psychological distress. Splitting can occur without us noticing and will lead to division and tensions in working relationships, much like the tension and conflict the client is holding about themselves.

When A System Splits Splitting Psychology Process Psychotherapy Defence Mechanism

An example of splitting in staff groups can be reflected in good old professionals meetings, the ones where everyone involved get together. Here, there can be the feeling that a professional (or a group of professionals) aren’t doing their job properly or don’t understand what is needed by others. This reflects the good – bad professional split, where one set of professionals are unable to take ownership of their own lack of understanding or limitations.

To give another example, think of being part of a difficult meeting where the parent is very negative about the care offered by a professional, and this was conveyed in front of others highlighting supposed flaws and shortcomings. Or basically, telling all the other people in the room that one clinician is either no good at their job, or is completely wrong in what they are saying. At the same time, other professionals are seen as competent and understanding. Basically, they can do no wrong. There is no acknowledgement or recognition that we all have strengths and weaknesses.

In these situations, it’s important to hold onto these feelings. They tell a story, and working with children and families, it can reflect something about the child’s parenting or relationship experience. Splitting can replicate relationship patterns and dynamics, with the threat being about people coming together. It’s also important not to take such experiences as a personal attack, although they can feel very personal and condescending. Instead, try and hold on the experience and use it in your understanding of what might be going on.

When A System Splits Splitting Psychology Process Psychotherapy Defence Mechanism

What Now?

With good practice comes open communication. We should be able to come together and share our thoughts and perspectives in order to form a comprehensive understanding of the mental health concerns presented. The service user should always be included in this. Their voice is the most important. Sometimes this integration is easier said than done. People can get split into different roles like good and bad, helpful and useless, brilliant/knowledgable and incompetent. A dichotomy can develop within the system, which ultimately proves unhelpful for the service user.


When A System Splits Splitting Psychology Process Defence Mechanism

For someone who finds it threatening for people, or their emotions, to come together, there is a need to remain curious about this. I think naming what is happening can be useful. Genuinely wondering too why it can’t happen is important  It’s vital to remain open and engaged. If things start to come together, it needs to be made as safe as possible for the service user. It’s a threatening and frightening prospect, and one which is likely to be sabotaged. It’s unknown territory – there are reasons why things have had to remain fragmented.

It’s important to say too that this isn’t being consciously done. People aren’t going around thinking about locating unfavourable emotions in others. It’s a way of coping, particularly in those whose emotional development may have been compromised. Don’t get me wrong, we all do it to some extent. We all project our feelings at times.


When A System Splits Splitting Psychotherapy Psychology Process Defence Mechanism

Splitting reflects a lack of integration within a person’s sense of self, where the good and bad have yet to come together to make a whole (we all have positives and negatives, right?). It emphasises a fragmented sense of self where there is a lack of acceptance, but considerable shame or guilt, associated with feeling certain things. The therapeutic relationship can be a great tool in helping these parts come together to make a whole. As with all these things, it takes time, and many dynamics will be re-enacted within the therapeutic relationship.

But that, in part, is what it’s for.



Briggs, A., (2012) Waiting To Be Found: Papers on Children in Care (Tavistock Clinic Series). Karnac Books.

Author: plbedford

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