Watching the “Guardians of the Galaxy” movie with my stepson and husband recently (hey–good movie, by the way!), I found myself thinking about the classic Good Guy/Bad Guy scenario where you know who the villain is and who the heroes are. It’s pretty black and white in the movies–and in most books.
In real life, it’s not as simple as this. I don’t believe people are all good/all bad. For example, I may take issue with the way my ex-husband has handled our divorce, but this doesn’t make him a bad person. For one thing, he’s an excellent surgeon–I would recommend him to people–he’s incredibly skillful. He just hasn’t treated me kindly–especially in light of our divorce and the alienating behaviors he’s exhibited afterwards which has resulted in Parental Alienation (PA). Same thing with my stepson’s mother. She hasn’t treated my husband very well, the father to their son, Her alienating behaviors have also led to PA but overall she’s not a bad person.
Labeling someone as all bad or all good is called “splitting.” It’s a way of thinking that is also called “all-or-nothing-thinking.” For those of you affected by PA, you’ll recognize that your child thinks this way (adolescents go through a period of splitting as a part of their development–but it’s fleeting–and not generally supported by the other parent). The targeted parent is usually seen as all bad; the alienator is seen as all good. Their splitting behavior (all-or-nothing thinking) is, if this is PA and not abuse or neglect on the part of the rejected parent (but even an abused/neglected child will want a relationship with their parent–as Linda Gottlieb asserts), a reflection of the alienator’s thought processes. The alienator fosters in the child a sense that the rejected parent is all bad, while fostering their image of the all good parent. They may not do it consciously, but the results are clear. The child doesn’t get these thoughts out of thin air–PA isn’t a normal development in children. What is happening is they are modeling the behaviors of the alienating parent. And…the alienating parent’s behavior of splitting is indicative of a personality disorder, namely narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) and borderline personality disorder (BPD). The narcissist thinks in terms of superior/inferior whereas the BP thinks in terms of whether their needs are being met in close relationship terms. They’re either idealizing a person or devaluing them–they aren’t able to integrate both the “bad” and “good” of someone–it’s either extreme.
Black and white thinking, splitting, is a defense mechanism some people have set up in order to see themselves as all good and others as all bad–it preserves their ego (narcissism). Some people (with BPD) have a hard time accepting others who “make mistakes” –they’re suddenly seen as “all bad” instead of just being human.
Can you see how black/white thinking leads to relationship issues like PA, nasty divorces, scapegoating in families, etc.? Black and white thinking is terrible for relationships!
People aren’t all black and white. We have shades of grey in us too. And red, and yellow, and blue…
So let’s get this straight right off the bat: I am not perfect, you are not perfect (and yet, I do like to think we are perfect just as we are, right in this moment). We all “make mistakes.” We all are unique. We all come from one Source. We are all human. We can think of a lot of things that make us different from one another–and that’s awesome! And, we can think of similarities as well–it makes it easier to relate to one another.
When you see someone as all bad, your filter, the way you perceive the world, is skewed to view them negatively–for whatever reason. Try as hard as you can, maybe you just cannot see any good in them. Someone else will find some good in them. And, on the flip side of this, when you view someone as all good–you are placing a lot of power onto them (and giving away your own). You’re looking for a hero/heroine and you will come crashing into reality when this is disproved at some point. No one is perfect. We are all doing our best in every given moment, but we all have moments of “imperfection”–of not being a “perfect” parent or partner; friend or relative. Those people who are so quick to judge others–it’s best to look to yourself first before you put on others your complaints and judgements of them.
Now that you know a little bit about all-or-nothing-thinking, can you see how this limits life? We’re all multi-faceted! These judgments put road blocks in your relationships. Besides, what you may see as “good” in someone, someone else may perceive it as “bad.” Oh boy! Who’s right then? And here’s something to think about: The faults you see in others might just be projections–those things you don’t want to accept in yourself so you project it onto someone else. Recently, I shared with you my process of individuation from my family. My father and younger sister had been very supportive of me when I first went through my divorce. Last spring, unbeknownst to me, they began to first talk negatively about me, stirring the pot with gossip and innuendo, then it culminated in emails sent on the same day telling me all their complaints about me as they perceived them to be (I don’t think they’ve read “NonViolent Communication” by Marshall Rosenberg. It would have helped with our connection–or lack thereof). Recently, after a year’s hiatus, my father emailed me again and the basic summation is that he insisted that I am angry, unhappy, and need to grow up. Meanwhile, my twin is now in their “good graces” and is accepted back fully into the family. This is a pattern that has been ongoing since I was a child (since my mother passed away at the age of 7). I am a twin-and one twin was always the “bad” one in the family and the other the “good.” This is an example of splitting: one twin’s all good, the other all bad. Then there’s the other interrelated issue of projection onto the “bad” twin of really what’s going on with my father. He’s not happy, he’s angry, he needs to grow up (I can’t imagine writing that and discussing that, with one of my kids, to another kid. The process of individuation can be challenging, but it certainly is an enlightening one). What is fascinating is looking back on my life–how labeling me as “bad” and ostracizing me has made me a stronger person. No wonder I’ve dealt with self-esteem issues growing up. My family is still trying to put on me that I’m a terrible person. And you know what? The gift that that’s given me is that I realize that someone else doesn’t define me: I do. I’m the happiest I’ve ever been, and I’ve had an incredible growth surge this past decade, I feel sad that I can’t share this with my family of origin or that they don’t find the positive in my life or in me. They miss out because of their filter of seeing me as all bad.
Splitting doesn’t just have to do with seeing people either as the devil or as angels; it also has to do with your behaviors. For instance, many people diet. When they have a bad weekend of eating way too many sweets and “fall off the wagon,” come Monday they are ready to give up the whole kit and kaboodle of the whole diet thing. They put themselves down, start eating like they had been–or more, and give up. There’s no shade of grey in there that is like “Hey, well, I had a weekend of fun and I ate too much, so Monday I’m right back on it. Maybe if I do a little more cardio this week, I can have a couple treats on the weekend.” Be good to yourself; don’t use it as an excuse to quit.
So if you recognize yourself as splitting, take steps to first acknowledge it then address it as it comes up. No need to judge yourself, just see it as a learning opportunity. If you recognize this in a friend, loved one, relative, your ex or in the PA you may be experiencing–well, you probably blow their circuits when you are your happy, healthy (emotionally, psychologically, and physically) self. You don’t have to prove to them your worth or that you’re good enough. People who have personality disorders have a hard time seeing their behaviors for what they are–I figure it’s like trying to deal with a drunk person–you can’t. So live your life, and live it well. Who cares what others think of you–you go be you! Someone who’s prone to splitting is probably someone who takes a lot of effort and time in a relationship. Instead of ease, it’s discomfort. It’s better to focus on those people who enhance your life, not detract (or distract) from it.