What Does It Mean to "Split Off" and Attack?

Why we sometimes split off our feelings.

Posted Feb 21, 2020

Imagine two teenage girls, Jennifer and Kathy, who have an "uneven" friendship, as Jennifer is the more attractive, more intelligent, and more sociable of the pair. At a party, both of them have a long conversation with Dylan, a boy to whom they are both attracted. A few days later, Dylan calls Jennifer and asks her to a movie and before long, they are dating.

Not long after that, Jennifer and Kathy’s relationship starts taking a nosedive. Every time Jennifer sees Kathy, Kathy is distant and dismissive. Not uncommonly, she offers a sharp or biting comment. For example, in a conversation about a quiz, Jennifer reported that she got an A-. “You didn’t get your normal A+?” snapped Kathy, with an obvious edge. And when Jennifer was out sick and described her nausea and headache to Kathy the next day, Kathy replied, “Sounds to me like you were faking it to take a day off.”

Most reflective adults will have a good intuitive sense of what is happening here. Kathy is being mean to Jennifer because her feelings were hurt and she is jealous. This very reasonable conclusion raises some interesting questions about the human mind. How can people look at Kathy from the outside and see what she is “really feeling”?

To understand this, we need to understand that human consciousness can be divided into three domains. First, there is the experiential or phenomenological self. This is the felt experience of being in one’s body. It consists of perceptions, drives, and emotional states that energize one’s attention and responses toward particular goals. However, this part of one’s experience is often not explicitly self-conscious. That is, there is much that is going on with the phenomenological self that is outside of full conscious awareness.

Gregg Henriques
Three Domains of Self
Source: Gregg Henriques

The explicit portion of human consciousness is the private narrating or storytelling self. This is the inner “justifying” portion of the human mind that creates a narrative of what is and what ought to be. Finally, there is the public self or persona. This is the part of our identity that we share with others. The term persona relates to “mask,” which refers to the fact that we are sensitive to what we share with others and try to manage our social impressions so that we maintain our reputations and relationships. (For a full description of the model, see here).

However, as the example with Kathy suggests, things don’t always work out that way. Indeed, some times the dark parts of our selves “leak out” in ways we are not aware of. The reason has to do with how we “split off” parts of our feelings from our narrator. When we do that, we can set the stage for trouble.

Let’s return to Kathy and Jennifer’s friendship. They like hanging out with each other, they make each other laugh, and, prior to the incident with Dylan, they seemed to have good reciprocity. Indeed, a sense of reciprocity and equality is crucial in our friendships. If one person in the relationship has all the influence and power, it is usually not much of a friendship.

These principles of equality and reciprocity mean that things become complicated if one person is more intelligent, attractive, and has more social status in general. This will likely create something of an imbalance, which in turn will likely create a sense of insecurity in the relationship (and in Kathy in particular). We humans have a “relationship system” that is very attuned to the "social matrix" and to things like how much social influence we get relative to others. That means that there is an intuitive portion of Kathy’s psyche that will pick up on the fact that when she and Jennifer hang out with others, she seems to “matter less” than Jennifer. The example with Dylan was a case in point.

The question we can ask is: What does Kathy’s storytelling self do with this feeling? That is, how does she make sense of this experience? Feelings like these are some of the hardest things for people to make sense out of. This is especially true for teenagers, as their identity is just coming online. Not only that, but our society often sends incredibly confusing messages about how to understand these dynamics. Consider how often we are told things like “no one is better than anyone else” and “everyone should be treated equally.” Yet anyone who opens their eyes and watches how people act knows that this is not true.

Such confusing messages increase the likelihood that the storytelling self will become confused and frustrated. When that happens, the storytelling self becomes vulnerable to “splitting.” Splitting means that certain feelings are “split off” and either narrated in different modes of storytelling or are denied completely.

For example, Kathy would be vulnerable to a “blame self” and “blame other” split in different modes (see here for a similar description of an "anger-guilt" split). Specifically, Kathy will feel ignored and undervalued, and will thus try to understand why that is happening. One narrative is that she has lesser “social value” than Jennifer. However, this is not easy or comfortable to sit with. In particular, if Kathy feels insecure in general, this experience will potentially make her turn against herself and start to develop a story that she is a bad or worthless person in general. As this starts to unfold, it both is painful and creates all sorts of problems for her. Because of this, it is likely she might try and “defend” against that from happening.

Defending against them means she tries to inhibit them (i.e., split them off) and develop another story to make sense out of things. What she now notices is that she feels bad every time she is near Jennifer. Because her storytelling self does not have a way to understand the real cause of the feelings, she starts to see Jennifer as the cause of her bad feelings. This, then, becomes the split-off “it” that now seems to exist in the external environment.

Now, she consciously starts to experience Jennifer as the source of her bad feelings and it will feel as though Jennifer is attacking her. And so she attacks back whenever she sees a chance to expose a weakness in Jennifer. Thus, she has now "split off" her feelings and projected them into the environment and is now reacting accordingly.

Of course, this likely will not end well for Kathy. Not only will she likely alienate Jennifer, but to the extent that she acts this way in front of others, she will likely come across as mean-spirited and unfair. This will, of course, only create more relationship problems and an even greater fear that she has low social capital because she is not worthy. If that continues, she will likely eventually turn fully on her self and become depressed.

The bottom line is that the storytelling self often can’t generate an effective, integrative narrative of what is going on in the phenomenological self. When this happens, it often is the case that there is a part of the feeling self that is split off and denied, which means that it can be projected into the external environment. "It" becomes an "it" out there in the world, rather than an inside feeling. When this happens, difficult and confusing interpersonal exchanges are highly likely because what is really going on exists "in the shadows" of the psyche.

This is why it is crucial for us to understand our “shadows” and learn how to relate to our feared feelings in a healthy way and incorporate them into a fuller and richer understanding of who we are and where we are in the relational world. If we can do that, we will be able to more effectively and honestly relate to our selves and others and build healthier relationships in the long term. 

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