Sunday, June 5, 2011

How to Disarm a Borderline, Part VIII: Splitsville

Before reading this post, particularly if you are going to try this at home with a real adult family member with borderline personality disorder (BPD) (which is not recommended without the help of a therapist), please read my previous posts Part I (October 6), Part II (October 29), Part III (November 24), Part IV (December 8), and Part V (January 12), Part VI (March 2), and Part VII (April 30). The countermeasures described in this post do not work in isolation but must be part of a complex, consistent, and ongoing strategy.

In today's post, I will discuss how patients with BPD get two or more other people to fight with one another, and how to avoid getting sucked into such fights.

The psychoanalytic concept of splitting has been used by analysts in a few different senses.  The different meanings of the term are clearly connected with each other, but the analysts are somewhat vague in describing in detail what this relationship actually is.  The most common use of the term, as I described in my post A Splitting Headache of 4/24/10, applies to something going on entirely inside the heads of patients with BPD. 

As I described in the earlier post, BPD patients are thought by analysts to be either unable to see both the good and the bad in anything or anyone at the same time, or do not do so because they are using splitting as a defense mechanism.

As is their wont, the analysts seem loathe to look at a mental phenomenon in terms of its interpersonal meanings withing the context of the patient's real relationships.  However, one well-known interpersonal phenomena seen with patients with BPD is often spoken about when analytic therapists converse.  This phenomenon is also called splitting.

When individuals with BPD are hospitalized in psychiatric facility, it is frequently noted that professionals will start arguing among themselves about the patient.  Two doctors, or a doctor and a nurse or social worker, will get into what are at times very heated discussions about the patient's treatment.

Sometimes the entire ward staff becomes divided into two warring camps, with one side thinking that the patient is being treated unfairly with the other side wanting to come down on the troublesome patient with the proverbial hammer.  This situation became known as the infamous staff split.

My first clue as to what was happening in these situations came with the realization that a lot of the aggravating behavior of patients with BPD is a big act that can be turned off and on at will, like a faucet, depending on who they were performing for.  The act can also be greatly altered so that they act one way with one group of people and completely differently with another group.

I was consulted on a hospital patient on a medical (not a psychiatric) floor whose medical condition was clearly being affected adversely by her stress level.  When I first met the woman, she was the sweetest, friendliest, and most pleasant of patients.  We were having a nice chat about her stress level when her phone rang. It was the patient's husband. 

Suddenly I witnessed the most amazing transformation short of a caterpillar turning into a butterfly.  She without warning turned into the nastiest, most shrill harridan one could imagine.  Her comments towards her husband were so unrepentently vicious and venomous that I began to feel sorry for him.  After a short conversation, she practically hung up on him.  As soon as she put down the receiver, however, she turned right back into all sweetness and light in a heartbeat.

Amazing.  Patients who have real mental illnesses cannot do that.  They act pretty much the same way with everyone - and even when they do not realize they are being observed.

The staff split is set up by the patient.  To one group, he or she acts like a damaged, pitiable abuse victim in need of kind understanding. To the other group, like hell on wheels.

Eric Berne, founder of the school of psychotherapy known as Transactional Analysis and author of the best selling book Games People Play, had a name for this whole pattern. He called it the game of Lets You and Him Fight. In other words, the patient acts in ways that essentially picks a fight between other people.  If this game had a professional league, individuals with BPD would be the superstars.

Eric Berne
The solution to the staff split is actually simple and straightforward.  First, staff members have to be aware of the fact that their arguments are being set up by the patient, not by the unreasonableness or stubborness of the other side.  They can then ask each other on what patient behavior they are basing their opinion, and compare notes.  They can then decide on a mutually acceptable course of action and present a united front to the patient, and voila, the patient stops trying to split them.

The relationship between the senses of the term splitting is that the patient acts all good with one group, and all bad with another group.  If pressed, the analysts would probably say that the staff split is just an incidental byproduct of the patient's tendency to see some of the staff as all good and others as all bad. 

I, in contrast, see is at a well planned, although sometimes automatically and subconsciously played, interpersonal strategy designed to create staff wars.  Once again, however, I believe such patients are ambivalent about this and down deep hope that their efforts to provoke fights will fail.  The power to play mommy off against daddy is actually very frightening for them.

When seen in individual therapy, patients with BPD will often make a damaging or incendiary accusation about an important referral source, about a colleague who is well respected or who is even a friend of the therapist, or about a nurse with whom the therapist will have to work. If therapists defend the other person without having an impartial account of what actually transpired, they are invalidating the patient.
However, the patient may be exaggerating what happened, making undue inferences about the motives of the accused, or discounting the role of his or her own provocative behavior in the dispute. Also, the therapist should never forget that there really are a few Nurse Ratcheds on psych wards.

Nurse Ratched, "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest"
My solution: I state, "I was not there, and I have a different impression of him from my other contacts, so I am not in a position to make a judgment on this." I just refuse to take sides in the dispute, and the patient will often then drop the subject completely.

One major exception I make to this is when a patient alleges that a former therapist had sexual intercourse with the patient. (This caveat does not apply when the patient just had the opinion that the former therapist had inappropriate thoughts).  I take this allegation very seriously because, in my experience, patients rarely make unfounded allegations about this subject, and unscrupulous therapists need to be taken out of the profession.  The willingness of the patient to allow the therapist to take advantage of her in this manner is irrelevant.

The next time your friend with BPD tendencies tells a story about someone else that starts to make your blood boil - at the person being described in the story - keep these suggestions in mind and do not take sides.


  1. "Patients who have real mental illnesses cannot do that"

    If BPD is not a real mental illness, then what is it?

  2. Anonymous-

    BPD is a set of different character traits that are, in my opinion, highly adaptive in families exhibiting a certain set of problematic characteristics and interactions caused by the family's history as members interact with a changing cultural environment.

    There is also good evidence that the high emotional reactivity seen in BPD is a conditioned response in parts of the brain adapting to a chaotic environment. These changes may be reversible.

    A difference in the brains of people with certain psych diagnoses is not necessarily an abnormality. The brains of London taxi drivers are different than those of others. (More grey matter in the posterior hippocampus if you're a technophile). Guess driving a taxi must be a disease!

  3. Thank you for articulating exactly what "staff splitting" looks like and how to neutralize it. I witnessed it several times while working in a locked psychiatric unit as well as a maximum security NGRI prison unit. You described it perfectly and your article is a very helpful tool in educating my co-workers about this destructive phenomena. Thank You!

  4. "The willingness of the patient to allow the therapist to take advantage of her in this manner is irrelevant."

    My jaw-drop upon reading these words descended below the Earth's core. How have you gotten this far in medicine without a rigorous knowledge of coercion and consent in sexual assault or in any kind of abuse? Please, for the sake of the humans entrusted to your care, seek teducation on this topic.

    1. I'm not sure how you are interpreting the comment. I'm saying that a therapist is being abusive if he or she has sex with a patient no matter how the patient may feel about it.

      If you don't think that patients EVER come on to their therapist and try to initiate a sexual relationship, then I don't know what alternate universe you inhabit. The therapist's job is never to accept such an invitation, and any who do should be put in jail.

  5. For me this type of splitting is sometimes deliberate, yes, but it is also an extremely effective defense strategy. Both of my parents were/are cluster B trait bags, as well, so smear campaigns, triangulation and so on were a relentless part of most of my life until I moved to the other side of the country as an adult, at which point the smear campaigns and triangulation continued *about me* but at least not *with* me. Growing up with them as parents taught me fast and hard that no relationship is ever safe. At any time it could be totally sabotaged by a manipulative third person or cluster, and often before you even become aware that it is happening, and thus giving you not a snowball's chance in hell of saving the relationship that was weak from the start, apparently. Splitting in this particular manner is often a great way to test how someone would probably react if someone told them some exaggerated or outright lies about YOU, basically. Choosing something fairly mild and that can be dismissed simply due to one being cranky that day, means the relationship can still continue to be built, but with a little extra assurance. A response like, "I was not there, and I have a different impression of him from my other contacts, so I am not in a position to make a judgment on this," is a decently strong sign that you could trust that person to say the same sort of response to someone trying to smear you behind your back.