A few years ago, I provided psychotherapy to a 20-year-old White female college student whom we’ll call ‘Amanda.’ She had regular conflicts with her parents. She was irritable, unfocused, and depressed — and had little energy for much outside of surfing the web and brooding in her room. She smoked pot regularly. She had friends, but felt socially isolated. At first, our sessions focused on her depression, but she took frequent detours toward politics and race. She was fixated on police shootings, institutional racism, and microaggressions. She “loved” Malcolm X and railed against White privilege. Then, one day, she told me that she “identified” as Black.

She didn’t know where her ancestors came from (“France? Sweden?… I don’t know.”), but she said she felt “Black on the inside” because she “got it” and wasn’t ignorant or hateful. Everything she said about Black people was idealizing and positive. They were always blameless, strong victims, smart and good. In contrast, everything she said about White people was aggressively critical and shaming. They were always ignorant oppressors, fragile, selfish, and guilty. One was framed as proud, the other as ashamed. One was omnipotent, with 100% of the power; the other had 0% of the power. One’s perspectives were always valid; the other’s were invalid…etc. This led me to believe that she “identified” as Black because Whiteness was loaded for her as intolerably negative, whereas being Black was appealing to her because it was idealized as perfect.

At first, I was thrown off guard by these comments and unsure how to respond. If I asked her ‘Do you feel anything positive about your White identity,’ the question in itself would likely have provoked her. If I tried to point out any of her inconsistencies or double standards, I felt confident that she would have accused me of racism and possibly ended treatment.   More to the point, I couldn’t think of anything I myself could say that was positive about White people that didn’t sound racist, even to my own ears. Nor could I think of a shortcoming in another ethnic group that didn’t similarly sound racist. This was shocking to me. Could it really be that everything positive about White people sounds racist? Even exploring the topic in my own thoughts was disconcerting and felt wrong somehow.

As her therapist, I had a professional duty to try to help her reduce her symptoms, but what exactly did that mean here? I could have ignored her comments about race and tried to steer the conversation back to her parents. But would it have been racist to ignore these themes or would it have been racist to explore them? And what would most help Amanda? Additionally, there was the question of how Amanda should understand her racial identity. Maybe she should be free to see herself however she wanted. If she identified as Black, so be it. Or maybe that’s racist, or unhealthy. Should she seek out some healthy way to embrace her White identity? Or should the goal be to somehow reduce the importance of race? What is ‘Whiteness’ anyway?

The case was riddled with pitfalls. I think this is in large part what people mean when they refer to ‘political correctness.’ It’s not that people are frustrated that they can’t say racist or sexist things anymore; it’s that often virtually any comment about race can be framed as racist. It’s maze without any escape. This tension was all the more palpable here because Amanda was exactly the kind of patient who would have loved to call me out as racist for asking the wrong question. She did this frequently with friends and her parents. If I made a comment she perceived as racist, it could have damaged our relationship and potentially impaired her care. Nonetheless, I did eventually find a framework for understanding Amanda—a construct called “splitting.”

On Splitting

Like many concepts in clinical psychology, the term “splitting” originated in psychoanalytic literature. First dubbed “splitting of the ego,” the concept was crucial to the theories of the eminent psychoanalyst Melanie Klein, and it was expanded by other prominent psychoanalysts, including Wilfred Bion and Otto Kernberg. Though the concept is still popular in psychoanalytic circles, “splitting” has since been embraced by mental health professionals throughout the field. Splitting is referenced widely in the literature on personality disorders, particularly Borderline Personality Disorder. The concept also plays an important role in many evidence-based forms of psychotherapy, such as Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT).

Simply put, splitting is the tendency to see things in black-and-white terms. One is either good or bad, a saint or a demon, perfect or worthless, all one thing or all the other. It’s called “splitting” because presumably intolerable thoughts and feelings are “split off” from one’s awareness, leading to a partial view of the world. To see our foes as pure evil, we have to split off the parts of them that are sympathetic, admirable, and well-intentioned. To see ourselves as purely righteous, we have to split off the parts of ourselves that are selfish, ignorant, and hypocritical.

At the root of this process is the distress we often feel about contradictions. It can be painful to think that the people we idealize are flawed and the people we loathe have some virtues. It can be unnerving to accept that we have negative feelings toward the people we love or that the people who love us also have negative feelings towards us. In dysfunctional familial relationships, people often feel victimized and have difficulty acknowledging the role they play in victimizing others. It’s much more comfortable to see people as all-good or all-bad than to sit with these conflicts, nuances, and tensions. By pushing these conflicts out of awareness, splitting reduces anxiety, increases self-esteem, and makes the world appear simpler, more coherent, and more stable—at least in the short term. When people split, they often frame themselves as the good ones and others as the bad ones, but this isn’t always the case. Sometimes it’s easier to see oneself as bad and others as good than to acknowledge the messier truth. Many depressed and masochistic people can understand the appeal of seeing themselves as bad to reduce conflict, confusion, and anxiety.

Splitting is also fundamentally interpersonal. When people split, they misunderstand themselves and their identities, and they also misperceive others. If someone sees themselves as motivated purely by love or justice, they’re probably denying their other, less savory motivations—be they based on narcissism, anger, or desire for economic gain, approval, or power. If they view people with whom they have disagreements as incomprehensible demons, they’re denying the fact that others nearly always have some positive motives and insights.

Splitting is theorized to be entirely unconscious. By definition, people never know when they’re splitting. Instead, they think they’re seeing the unvarnished truth. Just as importantly, because splitting is unconscious, people never know why they’re splitting. They’re unaware of the uncomfortable mix of emotions that arose, created anxiety, and led them to feel the need to split off information and distort reality. They’re oblivious to the fact that they can’t tolerate the nuances of the situation.

Typically splitting is contrasted with another psychological term, “ambivalence.” Healthy identities are ambivalent in that they involve an appreciation of one’s strengths and weaknesses, one’s ignorance and wisdom, beauty and ugliness—all held together in an integrated and coherent sense of self. Healthy relationships also involve ambivalence. Rather than idealizing others as perfect or demonizing them as evil, healthy relationships require that we see our loved ones with their admirable qualities along with their annoying foibles, frustrating shortcomings, and tragic struggles.

As people mature, their capacity to tolerate ambivalence typically increases, and they split less. They begin to understand that problems rarely have easy answers, that most proposed solutions have pros and cons, that social and personal ills typically have multiple overlapping causes, and that there is a lot of information that one is always missing. These are often difficult things for younger people to appreciate, especially if they’re never taught them, which is one reason why teenagers and young adults are thought to split more than older adults. Instructors can help students resist these tendencies by better emphasizing the uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity surrounding many controversial topics.

Splitting and Group Identity

Because splitting is driven by anxiety about complex emotions, it is most likely to occur in the contexts that are the most emotionally charged, anxiety-provoking, and controversial. In the Victorian era, this may have involved issues of sex, but in our present era, the most loaded topics revolve around issues of group identity, particularly race, gender and sexuality.  When most people discuss race, their demeanors shift, their voices change pitch; their body language and word choice takes on a different character—regardless of their political persuasion. The anxiety in the room is often palpable. This is precisely the context in which people are likely to split: they want moral and conceptual clarity, but instead they feel a confusing mix of conflicting emotions—empathic and ashamed, generous and angry, stifled, powerless, hurt, confused, afraid, sad, etc.

For instance, in a racially ‘split’ worldview, White people tend to be associated exclusively with negative qualities such as racism and privilege — never positive qualities. And people of color can only be associated with positive qualities such as cultural strengths and innate talents, never anything negative. It’s not possible for both groups to have a mix of good and bad, blame and praise, guilt and credit. This simplistic worldview is emotionally containing because all the negativity is located in one group and all the positivity is located in the other. Because this reduces anxiety, it feels reasonable and “non-racist” to many people. In fact, accusations of “racism” are frequently leveled against speech that doesn’t split (i.e., doesn’t frame groups as all-good or all-bad). Empirical evidence rarely enters into these discussions because most people’s reasoning is driven by unconscious defense mechanisms. Splitting has a logic of its own that’s stronger than other forms of reasoning like an examination of empirical evidence.

Splitting, driven by anxiety about complexity, is the chief reason why many instinctively oppose nuanced dialogue. If we can address the splitting, robust dialogue might be possible, and improved dialogue could, in turn, lead to better policies and healthier socio-political dynamics. Even more to the point, dialogue is unlikely to improve unless the defense of splitting is addressed directly.

The problem isn’t just others splitting; it’s the splitting in ourselves. Most of us censor our own thoughts and feelings about race, especially controversial and anxiety-provoking thoughts. Many of us are afraid to even privately think about questions that we worry might have non-split answers. This shapes our identities and sense of right-and-wrong, real-and-false. With this in mind, much of the work of confronting splitting starts with us courageously engaging with our own feared thoughts, feelings, and experiences, and working through their implications. This means allowing ourselves to acknowledge taboo questions, thoughts, and feelings, so we can have more clarity and insight.

Ideally, spaces in which people can dialogue with others about these thoughts can lead to better solutions to social problems, healthier relationships, and richer more complete identities. It’s unfortunate that virtually no such spaces are widely accessible at this time. To the extent that colleges and universities can become forums where these kinds of exchanges are not only possible but common – this would likely go a long way towards ameliorating America’s contemporary cultural and civic crises.