Splitting America (Part 1/3): The new contagion in American politics

© 2012 By Bill Eddy, LCSW, Esq.

The concept of “splitting” in relationships has been studied for decades, especially when borderline or narcissistic personality disorders are involved. Splitting occurs when a person views others as either all-good or all-bad, with no grey areas and with an emotional intensity that is contagious – but uninformed. Others come to believe that a certain person really is all-good or all-bad. Splitting is an unconscious process for those with personality disorders and its contagious nature is generally an unconscious process, unless you know to watch out for it. Splitting is a common dynamic in many high-conflict child custody disputes in family courts. Randi Kreger and I described this dynamic in our recent book: SPLITTING: Protecting Yourself While Divorcing Someone with Borderline or Narcissistic Personality Disorder.

It also is a dynamic in hospital and substance abuse treatment programs, commonly known as “staff splitting,” when there is a patient in the program with a personality disorder. That patient tells other patients and staff that one employee has acted extremely badly and another has been extremely wonderful. Unless staff recognize when splitting is occurring and how unconsciously contagious it is, they start hating each other and viewing each other as all-good or all-bad. They totally disagree over their treatment of that patient, seeing her or him as a total victim or as totally to blame for their own problems. Rumors start flying and bitterness escalates. I have consulted with organizations where this was occurring, and once they learn about the splitting dynamic, they usually become immune to it and are able to work together well again – although occasionally some workgroups become split beyond repair.

The current election climate and attack ads remind me of this splitting process, in that candidates are describing each other in terms of being all-good (themselves) or all-bad (various other candidates), with no grey areas and with an emotional intensity that is contagious. Recent attack ads seem to run along these lines and we will see a lot more before November. Uninformed voters who are not aware of this dynamic will become convinced that the target of the split (the attack ad’s target) is crazy, stupid, immoral or evil. An Op-Ed piece in USA Today on Monday was even titled: “Why U.S. Politics Divides into Good and Evil.” Splitting is an intensely emotional experience, without room for rational analysis or discussion, and can occur in a mob-like manner that supersedes any quest for information.

I doubt that any of the candidates has a borderline or narcissistic personality disorder, since a personality disorder is a long-term pattern of interpersonal dysfunction and internal distress. However, politics is an area that is known to attract people with narcissistic traits and people with these traits can often succeed for a while in their work, even though their close personal relationships usually are marked by chronic difficulty.

In their book, The Narcissism Epidemic, authors Jean Twenge and Keith Campbell, explain that narcissists often are chosen as appealing leaders in groups, until the group gets to know them. They see themselves as leaders with outstanding skills – and the group believes that at first as well. But then, their leadership role is short-lived, as group members catch on to their serious deficits and no longer see them as leaders. In fact, the research on leaders in business shows that the narcissists demonstrate more volatile leadership, which hurts the stability of the company over the long run – and stability is what really adds value to the business. The less narcissistic leaders did the best, according to Twenge and Campbell. The narcissists’ overconfidence eventually ruined them. While they continued to see themselves as superior, their peers saw them as inferior as leaders – and threw them out when they could. Keep this in mind as the elections and attack ads progress. Narcissists and borderlines can’t help themselves, but reasonable people can stop the splitting of America by becoming aware and explaining this dynamic to others. (This is the first part of a 3-part blog. The next one focuses on brain research which may help explain about why we are so vulnerable to “splitting.” The last part will focus on the role of the today’s changing media in increasing splitting in society.)

Bill Eddy is a lawyer, therapist, and mediator. He is the co-founder and Training Director of the High Conflict Institute, a training and consultation firm that trains professionals to deal with high conflict people and situations. He is the author of several books and methods for handling high conflict personalities and high conflict disputes with the most difficult people.

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