Object Relations theory (another post not yet written! Sorry, getting there.) describes an unconscious response to the experience of distress, called “splitting“. Psychotherapists, analysts, often write about babies and being fed, which is like a template for the experience being talked about (see for example this useful article which does not use the term ‘splitting’, but describes emotional processes in children, both the splitting into ‘good’ and ‘bad’ process and the process of integration which can follow). Splitting happens at any age, when what is perceived, input from outside the self if you like, impinges without an immediate way to make sense or comfort from whatever the experience is. Maybe poetry is a better form of writing to enable the expression of what is meant, as in this post on one of my other blogs.
In Object Relations speak, the subject, the “I” who is experiencing something, is not OK, the input is too much or too little for the felt need. Mental pain, from discomfort to chaos or madness threatens, and “I” (the self, or, the ‘ego’, me, myself, etc.) splits. This is an involuntary, unconscious, mental process: it keeps a part which can function, a “good” part, and gets rid of the “bad” part which is deemed to belong to the ‘object’, that is, the “not-I” which is also present to perception. As described in the article referred to above, the kind of continued and continuing relationship offered by the ‘other’, is crucial to the quality and the severity of the splitting.
Survival by splitting is a so-far, so-good process, a short term answer to unconscious emotional difficulty. Remember, unconscious emotional reaction comes first, before rational, mature and conscious response. “I” survived, my ego can continue its job of managing inner/outer complexity, but there have been some costs. The “bad” is lost as experience which can be ‘thought’ about, unless it meets an ‘other’ who can empathise and return it to me in a form I can cope with. The ‘good’ is assumed as an unqualified state. The cost is: “I” do not actually know exactly what is down to me and what belongs to the external environment, and I cannot by myself challenge my faulty view. It seems likely that problems of conscious thought, however rational or however based on firmly held belief, have roots in this emotional process. There are many problems in conscious thought, such as a too narrow focus of attention (tunnel vision), or insisting that a model or ideology encompasses reality, or mistaking or misallocating the range of adequacy of a method, etc. Words are inadequate, so it is easy to pick holes in any conscious argument, as newspaper response comments frequently show. It is harder and takes more emotional courage to discern the spirit of an argument and find the way in which it holds a truthful aspect, especially if that is not in line with ones own previous thought, that is, re-integrating is another process, and may require ‘others’, or resources outside the self to be enabled.
The likelihood of mistaken thought is why evidence based knowledge is not just important, but crucial. A frequent thought mistake made even when referring to evidence based knowledge itself is to think that it means the end knowledge comes from a logical maybe linear sequence of cause and effect, or, because what has happened justifies the belief, that the belief is ‘evidence based’. OH NO, A DIRECT LINE IS NOT AN EVIDENCE BASE. IT DOES NOT MEAN THIS. Evidence based knowledge means that what is known (always partial knowledge) has been seen from more than oneindependent viewpoint. Thus one lot of evidence is affirmed by something else in a multidimensional real world, not just by a linear chain. There is a beautiful quote from Michael Faraday, courageous and truthful scientist, who perceptively realized (in 1833) that the problem was not a matter of intelligence or hard work:
……..the more acute a man is, the more he is bound by the chains of error; for he only uses his ingenuity to falsify the truth which lies before him………..
Splitting is however a necessary process. If the emotional mind is to contain the tensions between ‘good and bad’ in a creative way, it is crucial that the splitting is embedded in a much more complex emotional dynamic, that splitting is only the first part in a sequence of mental events. The experience of a child illustrates this more complex development, the containment and working through to integration, at first, and maybe always, only gained through ‘other’.
Father and daughter, with mother following, are striding out on an adventure. Something happens and suddenly an adventurous little girl is alone on a rather large beach. However, Daddy is not far away, so this ‘split’ does not last long. What has happened? Possibly, for a moment the world contains tension between safety and danger. Just possibly, Daddy has held that, as well as holding his daughter, as she is not overwhelmed, and what she hears with her emotional heart is not just “I am loved” , but, “my world is both safe and unsafe”. The paradox, “a risk is OK”, is perceived, and, psychologically, she grows, so that another time, she may hold the tension for herself.
She learns that an anxious state can even be a welcome way of finding out something new about the big wide world.
As a consequence, this child may be safe by the sea, because she neither trusts it nor fears it excessively, but knows that to find out about it, she has to see different aspects of what she is looking at. Bearing tension, containing, integrating, is a more involved process than splitting.
Of course this particular sequence is all a guess about what this child experiences. It is informed by many many observations and reports of feeling states and changes in mind from which unconscious process is inferred.
One conscious act anyone can make to enable ‘holding’ can be the decision to talk and listen to other people, in dialogue which includes emotional sensitivity. Even though ‘other’ could be a reflective aspect of oneself acquired through previous working through (counter-transference is another ‘big ideas’ post not yet written), we need all the help we can get. Adults can, and do, split. They can also decide to listen to emotional states of mind. Look at many many references from the psychoanalytic world, and from other disciplines also. Try Dan Siegel’s “Mindsight”, or Margot Waddell’s “Inside Lives”.