When I am speaking to a group about my history, I always list the typical symptoms of borderline personality disorder (BPD), since most people are unfamiliar with the diagnosis. One of the questions I am most frequently asked is “What is black and white thinking?”. Usually, I will tell them sort of about a funny example from my life of the first time I ever saw myself thinking in black and white, which I will share later in the post, but first let me explain black-and-white thinking in detail.
The official psychological term is splitting, though it may be called all-or-nothing, either/or, love/hate, us/them, and most commonly, black-and-white thinking. Splitting is not unique to BPD alone. Most people will experience splitting sometimes, but with BPD, splitting may happen the majority of the time, if not all the time pre-treatment. It’s a constant in my life that I have to check my thoughts for evidence of splitting. Black-and-white thinking is ingrained in me, the natural way my brain works.
So what is splitting? Splitting is the inability to see the dichotomy of both positive and negative aspects of our thoughts, usually associated with how we think about people. Everything is either all good or all bad – there is no middle ground. All of my thoughts are polarized. My life is either absolutely terrible or completely amazing, but nowhere in between…
That’s why the main treatment for BPD is called Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT). “Dialectical” means the integration of opposites, seeing that two seemingly opposite things can be true at the same time. The therapy and its coping skills intend on helping patients more easily find a balance between these two extremes we are used to experiencing.
There is nothing intentional about splitting; it’s an automatic response to intense and/or dysregulated emotions. It’s a natural defense mechanism all humans have as children. What causes BPD is a complicated issue, but most professionals agree trauma can play a key role in disrupting the development of the person with BPD. Due to this, when someone with BPD is acting out, it’s not that they’re failing at using their coping skills effectively – it’s that those skills may never have developed at all.
Most children see everything as all good or all bad. This is especially imperative with relationships, most crucially the relationship with their parents. Young children lack object constancy, meaning if they can’t see something, they think it isn’t there. This is why you can play Peek-a-Boo with babies. So if Mom is another room the child may think “Mom abandoned me! She hates me. My mom is bad.” while later at dinner they might think, “Mom is feeding me because she loves me! I have a good mom.”
As you can imagine, thinking in these extremes causes a lot of the symptoms associated with BPD. Splitting is one of the reasons we can so quickly change from idealization to devaluation, and because of that, we may have chaotic and unstable relationship patterns. It isn’t only about others – we may think of ourselves under these strict guidelines as well. Often “I am a bad person” is an idea we are positive is true. This contributes to our identity disturbance and poor self-image. Splitting also contributes to frequent mood swings as we switch from all good to all bad.
As I said, splitting is something I have to constantly be on the lookout for. I also have to take precautions to avoid situations that cause splitting. For example, I cannot debate or realistically discuss politics with someone I disagree with. You should have seen how upset I was getting this past election season and how many people I unfriended! Splitting says my views are right, so yours are wrong. When I did engage in political discussions, more so when I was younger but occasionally still do, I would do things like argue facts that have been proven to be incorrect, just for the sake of staying right. Splitting says you’re either with me or against me. So I would suddenly hate someone I had liked just based on their political views – which is unfair and immature. But dialectically, I realize I do this and I take measures to prevent it by avoiding political conversations. I wish I could participate and stay reasonable and rational, but time has proven I still can’t, even in recovery – so I don’t (well, I try not too). I don’t feel I’m losing much by avoiding politics, so it’s an effective way for me to cope with splitting.
But I am constantly polarizing my thoughts, and I can’t avoid everything that causes it because then I’d get upset with every person who prefers Miracle Whip to mayo. Even something as irrelevant as that is processed by my splitting thoughts. So part of living in recovery of BPD is constantly analyzing my thoughts to look for signs of my symptoms like splitting. (Pro Tip: watch out for words like “always,” “never,” “hate,” or “wrong,” as signs you may be splitting.)
The best part is once I realize I’m splitting, I’m able to dialectically work it out in my mind so I don’t get so polarized about everything. I try to see the situation from the other person’s point of view. I list out reasons why they might be like that. For example, if I am convinced someone hates me because I haven’t heard back from them in a while, I may remind myself of things like they might not be able to pay the bill, the phone may be broken, etc. As I do that, my thoughts move into the shades of grey I couldn’t see, and my emotional intensity comes down as I move into the grey.
When my therapist first asked me to read the DSM criteria for BPD and see if I found it familiar, I told her that wasn’t me at all. I didn’t think I had black-and-white thinking or pretty much any of the other symptoms that I can now see I obviously had. So it wasn’t until about six months into DBT that I was able to take a step back and notice myself splitting. I remember it very well as it was a huge revelation for me and a leap forward towards recovery. Note, this story does contain adult topics and may be NSFW.
I met L when we were in DBT in 2012, and she is still one of my best friends to this day. At the time, we both were struggling with BPD and quickly clicked when she joined my group a few months after I did. Before L joined, our group would sit in silence in the waiting room until our therapists called us back to the meeting room for group. That changed when she joined, as L is very gregarious, and the dynamic of the group evolved as we became more talkative and closer to one another.
This was about six months into my DBT treatment. L and I were just beginning to become friends. We had just started texting outside of group. That day, L entered the waiting room, sat down, and told the group of women she needed to buy a new vibrator. This led to a lengthy yet funny discussion of the quality of different vibrators and recommendations of which one she should get. I laughed through the conversation, though felt slightly embarrassed by the topic, not really contributing to the conversation. After about five minutes, they let us head back to group, and the conversation died out as we got our binders out and prepared to start. I laughed so much my face hurt and went into group in a jovial mood.
A few weeks later, M, one of the group members, was graduating. Graduation was not a formal event, but when someone felt they knew the program well enough, they would stop attending group, and graduation happened at the beginning of the last class a person attended. The therapists would talk about how much the person has grown since they started DBT, the class members would comment on her successes and send well-wishes, ending with the person making a short speech to say goodbye.
When M was ready to speak, she did not discuss her time in DBT at all. Instead, M quietly said, “So, um, there is something I need to say. I wanted to speak up then, but I couldn’t, but I really want to say it before I leave. A few weeks ago, there was a very inappropriate conversation in the waiting room before group. It made me feel very uncomfortable, but I didn’t feel I could speak up. I–”
L cut M off. “M, I know I started that conversation, and I wanted to tell you I am so sorry. It was a really inappropriate conversation, and I should have been more mindful. I did not mean to make you uncomfortable. I will be more careful in the future and I’m sorry to have upset you.”
“It’s OK, I just wanted to get the chance to speak up…”
M continued on, and L continued to apologize for starting the vibrator conversation, but I wasn’t really listening at this point. Instead, I was seething.
Who does she think she is? I thought to myself. L can talk about whatever she wants and just because M’s a prude doesn’t mean she can be such a bitch about it. And my thoughts kept going, totally trashing M while praising L, when suddenly it hit me. I was starting a fight in my head while the two women were actually apologizing. I had drawn a line in the sand and was intensely angry at M.
This is it! I’m thinking in black and white!
This is what black-and-white thinking is!
I spent a lot of time analyzing my thoughts through the rest of class, curious as to how it became so extreme in my mind when the situation didn’t warrant it. I was creating a fight when there wasn’t one. I complained that M was being a prude for being uncomfortable with the conversation, when I knew that I, myself, was a little uncomfortable too!
I remember I kept saying to myself that I was “on L’s side,” when L’s “side” was actually one that was forfeiting. In my mind, L was right and M was wrong and I had L’s back. Not only was M wrong, but she was a terrible person – in fact, I never liked her anyway.
There I was, totally devaluing someone based on one thing she said that I didn’t agree with. No, it wasn’t that I didn’t agree, it was that she said my friend did something wrong. At the same time, I was idolizing L, thinking about how cool I thought she was and how I was impressed by her candid constitution. Suddenly, she was my best friend and I had to defend her, though I really didn’t know L that much better than M at the time.
It was completely irrational, but it was an obvious display of black-and-white thinking to me — a demonstration I really needed because I didn’t even know I was splitting. I can’t spot it all the time, but I am pretty good at noticing when I’m splitting now. And the best part is once I realize I’m doing it, I can use my skills to talk myself to a middle ground. If I start getting worked up, I will actually ask myself questions about my symptoms, like, “Am I thinking in black and white?” and look for statements that are all or nothing.
Now you all have a more comprehensive understanding of splitting. It’s complicated to explain exactly how it works to people as they have a very elementary understanding of what that is like for the person experiencing it. Luckily, as long as we remain mindful of moments when we do start polarizing, we are able to correct those cognitive distortions before much damage is done. I can’t speak for other people with BPD, but I feel this is something I may never get a hold on. I don’t think I can rewire my brain to not immediately jump to the extremes, but as long as I keep mindful of my thoughts and watch out for splitting, it’s manageable.