As many survivors of childhood abuse know, part of surviving trauma means wearing emotional “armor.” This armor can take many forms, from denying the abuse to regressing back to a child-like state or “forgetting” what happened to you.
One trauma defense mechanism we don’t talk about enough is splitting, also known as black-and-white thinking. Though it’s commonly associated with borderline personality disorder (BPD), splitting can also affect childhood trauma survivors.
“Splitting is an inner process of seeing oneself and others in absolutes or extremes,” Katya Kosarenko, LCSW, a certified sensorimotor psychotherapist, told The Mighty.
A childhood abuse survivor will often learn to categorize situations or people in black-and-white terms (for example “safe” or “unsafe”) to protect themselves from experiencing further harm or abuse.
Because children have fewer coping skills than adults do, they are more likely to be traumatized when exposed to abuse. Splitting and other defense mechanisms developed in childhood often continue into adulthood.
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Kosarenko explained adult survivors of childhood abuse often have a childlike part of them that seeks care and support, but when they perceive something as a threat, they can shift into the traumatized mindset. In this mind state, the adult trauma survivor may switch abruptly into attacking behavior or an angry attitude as a defense mechanism.
For example, if an adult survivor of childhood sexual abuse gets is touched in a way that triggers memories of his or her past abuse, they may “split” and view their significant other as unsafe, when they normally view their partner as loving and attentive. The trauma survivor might then respond to their feelings of unsafety by picking a fight with their unsuspecting partner.
If you struggle with splitting or black-and-white thinking due to past childhood abuse, you’re not alone. We wanted to know how childhood trauma survivors experience splitting in adulthood, so we turned to members of our Mighty community to share their experiences. You can read what they had to say below.
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For anyone struggling with the impact of past trauma, we want you to know there’s a whole community of survivors on The Mighty who want to connect with and support you. To meet them, post a Thought or Question on The Mighty with the hashtag #TraumaSurvivors.
Here’s what our community shared with us:
- “‘All bad thinking’ would be [about] myself. I think so badly of myself all the time because of the abuse I endured from my father, and ‘all good thinking’ would be other people to some extent, like certain family members, because they have never mistreated or abused me.” — Max U.
- “If I do something wrong, that means I’m a bad person, so I need to beat myself up. If someone I’ve idealized hurts my feelings, I become extremely paranoid that they have the worst intentions and they want to hurt me.” — Raven L.
- “I go from happy to sad or angry in a matter of seconds because they do something or get upset with me and I automatically believe they don’t want me or love me anymore even though it is not true. Then hours later when they show me I am loved, I am all smiles again.” — Tammy Z.
- “I make rude comments. Such as, ‘All men are the same,’ ‘There is no good in humanity’ and so on.” — Andrea W.
- “If people are angry, [I think] they will try to hurt me.” — Jennifer C.
- “I either hate people or love people. Especially family. Mostly my parents and brother.” — Jeff B.
- “I believe that anyone close to me (friends, boyfriend, etc.) or any person of authority (for example my boss) will hate me if I am not perfect or make them happy somehow. Regardless of the abundance of evidence to the contrary.” — Kat W.
- “When I have the slightest disagreement with anyone, but especially my husband, I immediately split. Things are all black and white. My usual rainbow way of thinking disappears.” — Gigi J.
- “People don’t understand the reason I want to leave is because it isn’t safe for me to have people who trust me because the way I love is so intensely that when something changes, someone gives up, takes a break or does their life, it breaks me. I have to leave people to protect myself from the pain I have seen and felt again and again.” — Kita C.
- “For me splitting is about someone I care about a lot or love and I think they’re amazing. I don’t necessarily put them on a pedestal, but I would do anything for them. But then if they disappoint me or hurt my feelings, I’m totally ready to just write them off and never talk to them again.” — Laura L.
- “Splitting for me is when someone you love and trust and does something that makes you feel not close and makes you question your relationship with them, then you get upset with them.” — Dianna P.
- “Being hyper-sensitive to any actions or comments, taking it all personally and overreacting to every situation.” — Gabriela T.
- “I’ll instigate fights. Normally I’m fairly passive, and try to avoid major confrontation and conflict. But when I split, I find things to fight about. And I get over-dramatic like slamming doors and leaving mid-fight without shoes on or anywhere to go. One night I left mid-fight with my ex at 2 a.m., barefoot and in a nightgown… I was randomly walking the streets by my house bawling my eyes out and hyperventilating.” — Ratline C.
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It’s natural to put up defenses when you’ve lived through trauma — a lot of times you may not even realize it’s happening. But once you’ve left your abusive circumstances, the defense mechanisms that once kept you safe may stunt your ability to thrive in adulthood. Part of healing from trauma is taking off the emotional armor and leaning into vulnerability — as scary as that might feel.
If you are struggling with splitting or the impact of childhood trauma, Kosarenko recommends narrative psychotherapy, a type of therapy that views people as separate from their problems and affirms that we are the experts in our own life stories. Kosarenko also recommends body-oriented psychotherapy, which focuses on the interaction between body and mind.
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