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Splitting and Gratitude


by Jennifer Martin Rieck, LCPC

As I was pondering the strange experience of having a Thanksgiving during the COVID pandemic and how many families and friends are social distancing, it came to mind that gratitude is an especially relevant concept this year. Despite the many flavors of hardship that have arisen for many this year, Thanksgiving still remains a day that seems to require a certain level of remembering and gratitude. As I was thinking of all of the things that I am not feeling very grateful about this year, the Psychological concept of splitting came to mind.

Splitting and Object Constancy

Splitting is a term that originated from the Psychodynamic school of thought, which has a lot to do with the unconscious mind. Splitting, in Psychodynamic theory, is considered a unconscious process, a defense mechanism that keeps individuals from being able to successfully integrate the ambiguity of things. Instead of seeing shades of gray, splitting keeps people trapped in seeing everything in extremes: as all black or all white, all good or all bad, all present or all absent. Splitting is something that individuals with personality disorders such as Borderline Personality and Narcissistic Personality wrestle with regularly and something that is at the root of many of the challenges they face, relationally and otherwise. However, all of us are tempted to do this from time to time. Part of emotional growth and human development is the increasing ability of individuals to accept that objects are often more than one thing. Infants only understand their mom initially as part of themselves. Later, they understand that mom is separate, and then mom is present or mom is absent. Eventually they achieve what is known as Object Constancy, where they develop an ability to understand that a relationship is constant despite setbacks, conflict, or temporary absences. This begins with a child’s understanding of mom but eventually becomes the basis for secure attachment with others, such as friends and significant others. Object constancy allows one to tolerate brief disruptions in their normal connections without an over-reaction or feelings of panic over the loss. In a way, it is similar to one’s ability to self-soothe and to

“Object constancy allows one to tolerate brief disruptions in their normal connections without an over-reaction or feelings of panic over the loss.”

remain in situations and with people that cause some level of disappointment and stress. In many ways, this is the kind of Thanksgiving many of us our having.

On this Thanksgiving I wonder if it would be helpful for us to remind ourselves of Object Constancy and Splitting, as concepts that may help foster growth and help us to cope. This year is not a normal Thanksgiving, but we can tolerate it better knowing that eventually normal Thanksgivings will return. Although this Thanksgiving has presented many disappointments and losses, there are also inherent positives. If nothing else, this Thanksgiving has presented an opportunity for us to grow our resiliency and to challenge ourselves to integrate the various aspects of our experience: good and bad, loneliness and togetherness, concerns about safety but physical health that is present, loved ones that we miss and loved ones that are close, Thanksgiving food that we usually get to share but that we can also enjoy the taste of alone. This year I am grateful for many, many things, and I also am saddened by many, many losses, and that is okay. This season is a season, and not my favorite one at that. However, this season is temporary and the growth that I achieve during this time doesn’t have to be.

Integration and Gratitude

To all of us, I wish a season of successful integration of all of the shades of gray in life that we are currently facing, and the ability to not split our experiences into all bad. May we be mindful of the concept of Object Constancy and have an eagerness to learn and grow as we realize that normal Thanksgivings will return. May we all find many, many things to be grateful for this year, while we simultaneously acknowledge and grieve the many, many things that we have lost this year. Here’s to a new year that is just around the corner!

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