There are (at least) two psychological phenomenon our brains resort to when we experience something that threatens our internal sense of self: projection and splitting. I was just handed a great opportunity to experience projection and splitting that was so textbook that I was able to identify it and name it clearly. This occurred much to the relief of my poor therapist who said, “Thank god you were able to see that because holy crap.”
Have you ever received a comment from someone that doesn’t align with your internal world at all? You might have experienced projection at the hands of the other person. Projection is placing what YOU are actually experiencing onto someone else. What is true for you might not be true for others. In arguments, when someone says something accusatory, they might be putting words to their internal world and projecting that experience onto you. Projection seems to be a flawed expression of what some might consider empathy, for example, “I feel this way so the other person must feel this way too”. However, reality is rarely so clean and empaths are just traumatized people attempting to read everyone around them (another topic for another time).
Projection can look like “you” statements, such as “you’re cheating” or “you have a lot to learn”, or other condescending statements of perceived fact. However, the reality is that the person making these “you” statements is actually cheating or subconsciously realizes they lack understanding of what is happening. The accuser is projecting their world onto the person they are accusing. Projection might not be intentional, but projection is confusing and harmful to the receiving party if they internalize the projection as reality. This is why it is so important for people in a disagreement to be curious about the internal world of the other person. Ask questions and don’t assign intent based on your limited view.
Now I have seen an influx of therapists and counselors insisting that “you” statements are harmful in arguments. I can agree, but an extent, because some people need to hear, “You have done harm, this is how you have hurt me.” Stating your reality as a consequence of someone else’s actual behavior is not projection. And folks, someone stating you have hurt them does not make them abusive or awful to you. They are stating their internal reality; calling them awful or abusive is a classic DARVO (deny, accuse, and reverse the victim and offender) attempt to escape accountability. Mature disagreements can have “you” statements without projection, as long as accountability and repair are present.
Splitting, which is the declaration of something being entirely bad or entirely good, is a childish and very primitive expression of the internal protection of self. When a child is hurt by their parent who is supposed to be *just* good (to a baby), they experience the first attempts at integrating the “good” and “bad” that exists within their caretaker. For example, one time I banged my kid’s noggin against the doorframe as I walked through it. I mean I shook the frame of the house with his head, completely on accident, because I walked into the room with assertiveness (as one should). My child was serenely laying in the arms of his mother (I am joking, my child has never been serene, but he was at least calmer) before suddenly experiencing pain that caused a thirty minute cry-fest. One minute, safely in the arms of his great and perfect protector, next, pain and deceit from an evil hag. The child experiences internal confusion at experiencing the need to be comforted by their parent, who harmed them, and thus begins the fight for a child to understand (and accept, or integrate) good and bad in others, instead of splitting. If a child doesn’t learn integration, or if an adult attempts to flee from painful emotions that come from experiencing harm from those we love, they will find themselves splitting in their relational views.
Splitting in childhood can look like a toddler thinking their parent is awful for not allowing them to eat ice cream and saying “I hate you!” Splitting as an adult can be insistence that someone is “awful” to you or declaring them to be something so evil that they cannot be near you at all OR insisting that someone is good and beyond reproach. Splitting occurs when people cannot handle the internal emotions that come with nuanced relationships. Living in a world of black and white seems easy enough, but it doesn’t allow relational growth or change. If a person cannot integrate “good” and “bad” within others, they will find themselves alone, because surprise, everyone sucks occasionally. Splitting as an adult can also look a lot like the temper tantrum of a child, with reactions outside the scope of normal when they are faced with the “bad” in others. Integration requires communication and compromise to understand and accept different views. Splitting, on the other hand, is firm insistence on their way (good or bad).
Personally I feel like I am locking up in my interpersonal relationships because I am so afraid of fucking up, projecting, accusing, or splitting. However, freezing relationally seems to be my personal attempts to ignore my own integration, which means accepting the good and bad within myself, taking accountability for both, and realizing that I haven’t been awful to anyone who didn’t deserve it.