Pat McClendon's Clinical Social Work

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"Splitting vs. Dissociation: Definitions"

By: Patricia D. McClendon, MSSW

Date: 1994


Clinically, "splitting" refers to the tendency to view people or events as either all good or all bad. It is a way of coping that allows a person to hold opposite, unintegrated views. For example, the child separates the father whom she depends on for love and protection from the father who abuses her. This allows her to preserve an image of the "good" father, but at great cost. She is left identifying herself as "bad" in order to make sense of the abuse.

"Splitting" also describes the feeling the survivor has when she separates her consciousness from her body, or "leaves" her body (Bass and Davis, 1988, p.42).

Bass, Ellen, & Davis, Laura (1988). The Courage to Heal: A Guide for Women Survivors of Child Sexual Abuse. New York, NY: Harper & Row Publishers (Perennial Library).


Unable to remove herself physically from the abuse, the creative child victim finds other ways to leave. Frequently this leaving takes the form of "separation from the self," or "depersonalization." Many incest survivors refer to this separation as "splitting" (which is different from "splitting off," dividing good and bad into absolute, separate realities that can never coexist) (Blume, 1990, p.83).

Blume, E. Sue (1990). Secret Survivors: Uncovering Incest and Its Aftereffects in Women. New York, NY: John Wiley and Sons.


(T)here is a problem about the difference between splitting and dissociation (Clary, Burstin, & Carpenter, 1984; Gruenewald, 1977; Horevitz & Braun, 1984, Ross, 1985; Young, 1988). I consider splitting and dissociation to be synonyms, and I consider borderline personality disorder, which is based on splitting, to be an Axis I dissociative disorder (Ross, 1989, p.87).

Splitting is a major issue, as Braun (1986a) has pointed out. Splitting occurs within the patient, between patient and staff, staff and staff, other patients and other staff, in fact in all imaginable combinations and permutations. Without processing by staff, chaos will occur. Patients will attempt to recreate the abusive environment of childhood, just as they do in their personal relations outside the hospital. I can't emphasize enough the need to meet and talk, meet and talk, meet and talk (Ross, 1989, p.290-1).

Ross, Colin A. (1989). Multiple Personality Disorder: Diagnosis, Clinical Features and Treatment. New York, NY: John Wiley and Sons.


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This photo was taken just days shy of my 49th birthday. Copyright © 1995 - 2015 by "Pat," Patricia D. McClendon, MSSW

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