Palo Alto Counseling, Psychotherapist in Palo Alto and Menlo Park, CA, California - Carol Campbell, MFT
706 Cowper Street, Palo Alto, CA 94301 • (650) 325-2576
License MFC 28308
blank image for formatting
blank image for formatting blank image for formatting
Palo Alto Counseling, Psychotherapist in Palo Alto and Menlo Park, CA, California - Carol Campbell, MFT
Palo Alto Psychoanalytic Psychotherapy, Psychoanalysis Palo Alto and Menlo Park, CA, California - Carol Campbell, MFT
Palo Alto Marriage Counseling, Couples Therapy Palo Alto, Menlo Park, CA, California - Carol Campbell, MFT
Palo Alto Object Relations and Psychodynamic Therapy in Palo Alto, Menlo Park, CA, California - Carol L. Campbell, MFT
Palo Alto Anxiety Counseling, Depression Treatment in Palo Alto, Menlo Park, CA, California - Carol L. Campbell, MFT
blank image for formatting
blank image for formatting
blank image for formatting

What Are Splitting & Projection in Psychotherapy?

by Carol Campbell, MFT

Splitting is a term that therapists use to talk about an important way in which the patient is communicating very significant information, but without the patient's own awareness. Splitting can be a defense commonly used by our minds when there is some emotional truth that is too painful for us to have full awareness of it. Splitting is unconscious to the patient, and leads to problems in the therapeutic relationship if the therapist is not able to figure out what is happening.

In order to understand the importance of splitting in a therapy session, it is helpful to know a bit about how splitting gets started in the first place. Splitting is believed to start in the first days of life, when an infant becomes completely overwhelmed by all the new sensations of being alive in the world. When that happens, the baby splits off awareness of some discomfort – perhaps hunger, or being uncomfortably wet, or needing sleep – and unconsciously locates the discomfort in the mother or caregiver. This happens by the infant's desperate crying, which disturbs the mother terribly. Charged with the terrifying responsibility of needing to keep this flailing new creature alive, the mother must take in the projected, split-off elements of anxiety and "digest" them for the baby. This occurs when the mother can calmly say, "Oh my goodness! You are so wet after nursing so much! Mommy is going to get you a nice clean diaper, and you will feel better in no time." Through her tone, facial expressions, and body language, this mother reassures her baby that the world is safe after all, that the baby is not alone, and that he will be cared for properly. There is no language comprehension involved – just an emotional sense of things.

However, not every caregiver responds appropriately to the assault of the baby's split-off anxieties. When the parent continuously fails to receive and process the bad feelings and "feed" them back to the baby in a nurturing form as the mother above did, then the baby is set to become an adult one day who relies too much on splitting and projecting in intimate relationships. The inadequate parent will go through the motions of changing the wet diaper, but without the soothing words, gentle smiles, comforting tone, and focus on thinking about what this must be like for the little baby at that moment. Instead, this parent will be talking on the phone, multi-tasking, complaining about the expense of diapers, yelling down the hall at another family member, and not demonstrating the appropriate preoccupation with gently loving the baby.

Marriage and family therapists are called upon to help heal emotional and mental problems that develop in relationships, so they are bound to encounter situations involving splitting and projection. One important goal of therapy can be thought of as to help the patient to recognize when he is splitting, and to take back the projections he has made onto the therapist. When we are splitting and projecting out feelings, we are not dealing with reality.

Let's look at an example using an imaginary patient. Bob is a 30-something career Army man. After several tours of duty in the Middle East, he has an assignment in the Bay Area. His mother had been a physically and emotionally abusive parent, and his military experience involved living in constant danger. Bob came to me for help in dealing with his marriage. I noticed that Bob found it necessary to think of reasons to call and leave me non-urgent messages on my phone in between his sessions, a sign that he was desperately wanting more time with me, even though I was seeing him twice a week.

My first clue that splitting and projecting were happening was that my heart started beating fast, and I began to feel anxious and in danger. Since these are not usual reactions to what a patient is saying to me, I looked for how I might have started actually identifying with what had been projected into me unconsciously by Bob. I quickly had the thought that Bob must have felt anxious about intruding into my life by all the phone calls he had left. But the guilt and shame engendered by that awareness was too much for Bob's guilty mind to handle. He absolutely had to put the bad feelings into me instead, as a defense against fear and pain so terrible that he might decompensate if he knew about them. He succeeded in getting the badness out of himself and into me.

Just like a gentle and loving mother of a newborn, I needed to let myself feel the bad feelings on Bob's behalf. I needed to talk to him about how scared he was that I could turn out to be just like his mother, and treat him badly. I helped him see that his phone messages were signals that he did in fact need more of my time in order to heal, but that he had learned that it was shameful to ask for help.

This same sort of process had to happen over and over again between us in order for new patterns to begin to grow in Bob's brain, and lack of attention to old patterns allowed them to slowly wither. Over time Bob learned to tolerate keeping his bad feelings inside himself for longer periods, to wait for our next session to share his thoughts with me, and to own his own feelings instead of unconsciously dreaming up ways to make them be mine.

The quality of Bob's marriage also improved over time. He was able to model for his wife how to notice, feel, and talk about his own feelings, from the saddest to the most joyful. Sometimes that can be a contagious process, and that was the case with Bob and his wife. As they each healed from their childhood wounding, they were far more able to be present and loving toward each other as adults.

If your loved ones tell you that they think you have a habit of accusing them of what you are in fact doing yourself, you might want to contact a Marriage and Family Therapist. Another person needs to be part of the solution, someone who cares enough about you that she is willing to feel the depths of your pain and fear on your behalf, and then help transform them to emotional bits that you can take in and use constructively in your life. Splitting and projection have roots in early childhood, and seeing a therapist is your best bet to learn how to reduce this defensive behavior and to start having a more authentic life.

[ back to articles ]

Calls regarding appointments are welcome at my private voicemail: 650-325-2576.

Carol L. Campbell, MFT, is a licensed marriage and family therapist providing psychotherapy and psychoanalysis for individual adults and couples in Palo Alto, California. She has degrees from Brown University and Santa Clara University and has been licensed since 1991. Carol is a graduate of the Palo Alto Psychoanalytic Psychotherapy Training Program sponsored at Stanford by the San Francisco Center for Psychoanalysis and was a candidate at the Psychoanalytic Institute of Northern California in San Francisco from 2010-2011. She is also a clinical member of the California Association of Marriage and Family Therapists and the Northern California Society for Psychoanalytic Psychology.

blank image for formatting

Google+ Author Verification Google+ Publisher Verification