There is a concept in psychology called ‘splitting’. It’s a mental heuristic that causes us to avoid seeing the shades of grey in all sorts of areas in our life, including other people. So rather than observing the nuances, we dump them into one of two categories: good or bad, black or white. Splitting is incredibly useful, as it would be difficult for our minds to consider the subtleties of everything we encounter everyday – that would be way too much information to process and store. Instead of doing that, the brain tends to ‘tag’ other objects and categories as ‘all good’ or ‘all bad’. A donut? Well, that’s good. A snake? That’s bad. And so on. Splitting helps us sort an endless array of information according to the implications it has on our survival.
Once we become aware of the pervasiveness of mental splitting, some interesting issues come up. Some of which are, in all honesty, kind of uncomfortable to think about. Consider a person you ‘don’t like’. It could be anyone, but it has to be someone that stirs up a certain kind of anger or dislike when you think of him or her. Most of us have someone like that in our lives – it could be a certain celebrity or your boss or even a frenemy. Now, what if I ask you to tell me all the good things about that person?
“But…there’s nothing good about that person,” you say. “And even if there were, they certainly wouldn’t be obvious to me!”
And if you actually try doing that, it becomes a very uncomfortable exercise. The ‘good’ things you try to come up with, your mind may discount or trivialise immediately. There seems to be a sort of internal protest going on. Why? Because coming up with the ‘goodness’ of that person goes against your internal belief that this person is all bad.
But logically speaking, I know that even in the people I ‘dislike’ (and yes, let’s be honest, we all have those people!), there are undoubtedly good qualities in them. And becoming aware of splitting means I am forced to consider the goodness of these people, even though life would’ve been much simpler if this person was as evil or narcissistic or as psychopathic as I would like them to be.
The positivity bias
This brings me to yet another uncomfortable point. We all tend to have a positivity bias towards ourselves. That is, generally speaking, we tend to think of ourselves as good people with good qualities. We like to think of ourselves as hardworking, or smart, or kind and caring, for example. That’s splitting applied in the domain of the self. Could this be why it’s perhaps so hard to consider the fact that yes, we do have negative qualities about us that might need improving? And that yes, we all have our weaknesses?
As always, awareness is a wonderful thing. What are some of the things you could do, now that you understand that splitting happens so frequently?
Here are some things that I will be reminding myself.
There’s no such thing as a ‘bad person’.
As much as I would like a person I ‘dislike’ to be painted with one coat of evil, I realise that most people are a mixture of both, good and bad. People do tend to demonise people they don’t like. Take Kris Jenner as a random example. For those who ‘don’t like’ her, she transforms into a monster: she exploits her children, she’s all about money, she didn’t educate her kids, she cheated in her relationships. But if you think about it, she’s also a strong entrepreneur, she works hard, and she’s created a strong family culture built on mutual love and support. The flipside is also true: sometimes we tend to idealise our role models and our partners, especially early on in relationships. When the illusion is shattered, such as when a role model gets involved in a scandal or the honeymoon hormones wear off and the imperfections seep through, we have trouble processing it because this person is not as black or white, as much as we would like them to be so.
There’s no such thing as a ‘bad day’.
How many of us have let one small incident spoil our entire day? I certainly have! But it’s such a waste of a perfectly good day that we’ll never get back. Remind yourself of splitting: just because a blip happened at work, or someone told you some disappointing news, it doesn’t necessarily mean that your day has to be all bad. Move on constructively, and try your best to enjoy the rest of your day. Most days are simply a mix of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ moments, and it’s up to you to decide the overall perspective of your day.
My job is not ‘all bad’.
Likewise, how many of us feel like we’re in a rut in our jobs? Or actively disengaged in our 9-to-5s? I know how it’s all too easy to groan and complain and demonise our jobs as well. But maybe it would be useful to take a step back once in a while and consider all the good aspects in our work life. Maybe you have a terrible boss, but a good work-life balance. Maybe you don’t get paid all that much, but you work in a great environment with great colleagues. Every job has its perks and downsides – and of course, if it’s an all too toxic environment, and your health is getting affected, by all means, escape. But it would definitely do good to appreciate all the things in our job that are going right for us as well.
The grass is definitely not greener on the other side of the fence.
The grass on the other side of the fence may look all too green – but remember, that’s an illusion. We might desperately want to go abroad, for example, thinking that life in another country would bring us greater happiness. Or we might think, “I’d be happier once I lost this weight” or “I’d be happier if I were richer”. It’s not about tossing our goals aside but it’s about loving the journey and reminding ourselves that we can find happiness in ourselves right now, just with the way we are and in the environment we’re in.
Happiness won’t magically appear at the end of our destination, or at the other side of the fence. It’s within us, hiding, and it’s up to us to find it, right now, as we are.