Psychology in Fiction Q&A: Splitting and Alter Egos

This post by Carolyn Kaufman originally appeared on her Archetype Writing site in July of 2010.

QUESTION: My MC (Andrew) exhibits many symptoms of borderline personality disorder, including splitting. With the splitting, he basically thinks of himself as a “good” Andrew and a “bad” Andrew. In his thoughts, the good part of him (whom he calls Leif) talks with the bad part. At first, it’s just jumbled thought, sometimes doesn’t make sense, and as it progresses, it develops two distinct voices. He thinks the bad Andrew is just worthless and a street whore (he’s a prostitute) and the good Andrew is who he is trying to change into, to fix his life. I don’t think this is split personality or multiple personalities because they are aware of each other, and it really is like two aspects of the same thing. Does this make sense, psychologically? Is it still borderline, or is this something else?

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ANSWER: It sounds like you’ve got the gist of splitting, which is pretty commendable, since it’s a tough concept. Typically, though, adult splitting is seen as a kind of defense mechanism, so people aren’t really aware that they’re doing it.

Let me explain splitting a little more, just so that makes sense, and then we’ll talk about what might work well for your story.

According to object relations theorists like Melanie Klein, newborns essentially believe that the world is part of the same entity as them. In other words, they can’t differentiate between themselves and the world. Later, they differentiate between “me” and the world, but Mommy (or Daddy, or whoever the primary caregiver is) is seen as part of “me.” Still later, the child begins to understand that “me” and Mommy are different, but they have trouble seeing “good Mommy” (who acquiesces to them and fulfills their needs) and “bad Mommy” who says “no” or is otherwise frustrating or disappointing as the same person. This is splitting, and it’s natural around 3-4 months of age. As we get older (i.e. around 6 months of age), we learn to see “good Mommy” and “bad Mommy” as part of the same person. That’s why we can love and hate someone at the same time.

 

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