Not seeing people as they really are - idealising and demonising
13 November 2023
Sometimes when listening to the radio in the morning I find myself internally commenting on a political story that’s being covered and thinking to myself, ‘That politician is completely hypocritical and manipulative - all they’re interested in is themselves.”
Or, if it’s someone speaking who I feel more warmly towards, I might think: “Thank goodness they’re speaking the truth, if only everyone would listen to them!”
This got me thinking about the psychological term, ‘splitting’, in which we find ourselves focussed on other people, or groups, as being all good or all bad. We do this because it can be uncomfortable for us to accept our ‘ambivalence’ - a psychology term that means being able to have conflicting feelings towards the same person.
Splitting seems to be a growing phenomenon in this polarised age, with many people seeing certain identity groups as ‘good’ or ‘bad’. The more we see a group as ‘all good’ (idealisation), the more we are unconsciously drawn to condemn an opposing group.
Splitting is a defence mechanism that people use in order to cope with the stress or discomfort that can sometimes occur when we struggle to see that people can be both good and bad. Splitting helps us construct a more simple world and can relieve anxiety. But it also creates lots of problems.
Much of our understanding of the practice of splitting comes from Austrian-British psychoanalyst Melanie Klein, who observed infants and theorised that they swing between viewing the mother as ‘good’ or ‘bad’, depending on whether she was satisfying their needs in that particular moment.
Part of child development, believed Klein, was a gradual recognition that people can be both ‘good’ and ‘bad’ at the same time and a move away from a simplistic all-or-nothing attitude.
We can do this with people and we may also do it with groups, with political parties, football teams and so on. Think of the football manager who can only see the ‘mistakes’ the referee has made that affect his team and ignores any mistakes that favour his own team.
It can also be seen sometimes among parents. For example, there may be a child who is behaving in a challenging way and one parent responds in a ‘loving’ and ‘accepting’ way while the other parent wants to impose firmer boundaries on the child. These parents can polarise, with each behaving in a more extreme way in response to the other. And each becoming increasingly judgemental of the other’s position.
It can also arise for the child, particularly where parents fight or have separated. The child can idealise one parent as the ‘good’ parent and see the other parent as all-bad. The more one parent is idealised, the more the other parent must be condemned.
I think this tendency to split has been magnified by the role of social media today, and how many of us absorb a diet of information curated for us by people who share our opinions. This leads to a wealth of information that confirms us in the righteousness of our own views and the stupidity or wickedness of those we disagree with.
It’s dangerous because it pushes us all into the apparent comfort of feeling that we’re right and ‘those other people’ are completely wrong. Not only wrong, but probably evil as well.
And yet it is so tempting to live in this world of good andevil, where what we think and the people who think like us are obviously on the ‘good’ side. It can then feed into a kind of ‘groupthink’, where we feel we need to express the ‘good’ opinions of the group or tribe we identify with.
Splitting is a common trait of borderline personality disorder (BPL), also known as emotionally unstable personality disorder.
We can find ourselves wanting to cut someone out of our life who has made us angry. Or, the opposite, we may seek excessive validation from people who we idealise.
In therapy I try to help people see that I am not all-good or all-bad, that there will be times when I do things that may irritate or annoy them and times (often in the same session) when they experience me as caring or supportive.
For the person prone to splitting it is important that they learn, over time, that they can both feel angry with someone and at the same time value them as a friend or family member, that the other person can both care for them and also have boundaries regarding certain requests.
Splitting in couple relationships
A form of splitting can also be observed in couple relationships. When we fall in love our partner is completely perfect to us, and us to them. We may spend months, or even a year or two, in this state of love.
After the honeymoon period ends, which may be after a year or two, we begin to ‘fall out of love’ a little and no longer see our partner in such an idealised way. By this point we’re probably living together and that bliss of seeing them in the early days has been replaced by the mundanity of picking up their socks or clearing up the mess the mess they’ve left in the kitchen.
For some couples the early period of idealisation can be replaced by the opposite, seeing all the ‘bad’ things about their partner. They ask themselves ‘what did I ever see in this person?’. It’s when we begin to interpret all our partner’s actions as negative that the relationship is in trouble. We begin to make assumptions that attribute the worst possible motives to their behaviour, seeing them as deliberately doing things to upset us, when actually that’s not the case it’s just that in our minds they’ve changed from all good to all bad.
Couple therapy may be able to help such couples begin to recognise that their partner is a mix of different qualities, neither all good nor all bad. The therapist can point out that using words like ‘always’ and ‘never’ to describe one’s partner’s behaviour stops that person being seen in a whole way.
The couple can be encouraged to remember the things they liked about their partner at the beginning and that those qualities are still present, even though they’ve been overshadowed by the negative perceptions.
So, both in our relationships and in life generally it can be valuable to remind ourselves of the human tendency to split and thus to see a person, organisation or identity group as wholly good or bad.