March 01, 2013

Mothers evoke Strong Feelings: Splitting as a Psychological Defense Mechanism & Liza Long

The Music Lesson by Lord Frederick Leighton 
Does this tender portrait pluck the strings of your heart? Well, I hate to break it to people, but teaching your daughter to play music doesn't look like that! I wanted my six-year-old daughter to learn piano. After two or three months, she didn't want to play the piano. Mustering motherly patience, we sat on the piano bench together, she and I. She turned her face towards mine, merged both brows in a single battalion and hovered her hands over the keyboard, refusing to move her fingers for half an hour. Paint that Lord Leighton.

So before reading further, set aside idealized notions of motherhood because women won't measure up and putting us down is easy-peasy in a mother-idealizing/mother-demonizing culture. Please know this article does not invalidate strong feelings about narcissistic and abusive mothers. Those feelings are valid. ACoNs might even hate their mother for the abuse she inflicted on them as a child and that's not only normal, it's part of healing. This essay is about anonymous people's intense emotions after the media spotlight focused on the mother of a child with a mental illness. Everyone seemed to have an opinion about a woman they did not know and never would. Their explosive reactions were startling, belying pretenses of rationality and I wondered if their opinions stemmed from unresolved internal conflicts having everything to do with themselves and nothing to do with Lisa Long.

"Intense and volatile feelings are a sign that splitting is at work." ~Joseph Burgo

If you've been learning about narcissism along with me, then you know people with narcissistic disorders are susceptible to splitting defenses. When splitting has occurred, partners become adversaries; friends morph into enemies over the mere hint of a criticism or slight. Narcissists split people into good or bad objects believing they're privy to the truth about that person, even when other people disagree, even in the face of contradictory evidence. They trust their distorted perceptions so thoroughly that attempting to reason with them is a querulous and often futile task. People who split reality are unaware of their self-deception, selectively collecting evidence to support a simplified black-or-white perception that allows them to feel better about themselves.
"Black-and-white thinking reflects the psychological defense mechanism known as splitting. When we feel unable to tolerate the tension and confusion aroused by complexity, we resolve that complexity by splitting it into two simplified and opposing parts, usually aligning ourselves with one of them and rejecting the other."~Joseph Burgo
Holy Grail by Dante Gabriel Rossetti
According to psychological theory, everyone splits reality into right/wrong, good/evil, black/white from time-to-time. An either/or polarization might occur when the complexity of a situation leads to ambiguous, uncertain answers; i.e.: the gray areas. When our normal coping mechanisms are unable to reduce our stress, we're more vulnerable to splitting. But it's not like we tell our psyche to resolve dissonance with a self-deceptive maneuver! Splitting is an unconscious process. You won't know you're doing it. If we're psychologically resilient however, we'll catch ourselves in the act.

I'll cop to occasional lapses during political discussions when it's puh-lain to see that my opponent is an idiot. Which in the black-and-white world infers I'm not an idiot and therefore my reasoning is right. I feel better. I win. No more insecurity or doubt. My lapse into childish certitude only lasts a brief time thank goddess, and then a higher-evolved ego defense kicks in: I  laugh at my behavior and write a post about it hoping my republican family members won't read it. Splitting, to me, is like falling in a Wonderland rabbit hole and you can't come out the other side until admitting you're on a rabbit hunt, not a Grail Quest.

Sometimes people split because they can't tolerate feelings or thoughts they've been taught were wrong or bad. Instead of saying, "I hate your guts!", they split off hatred (which they believe is bad) in order to feel good about themselves. They believe feelings of hatred define them as a bad person. The behavior of someone who has split off so-called bad feelings to make themselves feel good, makes other people feel...well...insane. That's because the THINGS they are DOING are undeniably aggressive AND hateful, yet they insist they love you, they don't hate a soul, and would never hurt a fly lemme stick a FAT PINE TREE in their eye! (Not that I have any residual bitterness or anything).

Splitting. It's not for grown-ups.

Splitting can also be a pathological defense resulting in painful consequences for themselves and others. Probably worse for others. At least the 'splitter' feels great about him or herself. But splitting isn't just for Cluster Bs, and that's a smart thing to remember when you're flooded with intense feelings having more to do with yourself than the other person. Don't overhear me though. The whole world isn't pathological, unless our whole world is kindergarten when splitting is age-appropriate. Psychological maturity eventually integrates the ors with the ands for most of us. So like it or not, mothers are both right and wrong, both good and bad. And, despite the best of her intentions, mothers can make bad decisions without being bad people whose children should be placed in foster care for GOD'S SAKES PEOPLE!

Albert Anker
After the Newtown tragedy, I read an article by Liza Long about her son with a mental illness. It was titled, "I am Adam Lanza's Mother". You've probably read it unless you've been hibernating in a cave and who could blame you? I believe her article was originally titled Thinking the Unthinkable on her mommy-ish blog before a publisher picked it up. I could be wrong about that and even if I am, it wouldn't make me a bad mother---just a lousy fact-checker. Her blog went crazy-town viral inflaming a frenzy of polarized supporters and detractors idealizing or demonizing a mother they did not know and never would. Liza's situation is my Worst Nightmare since my blog discusses family members too, as most narcissism blogs do. She's like many of us: anonymous, divorced, primary care giver to her children, one of whom deals with mental illness. She isn't a daily blogger like most of us aren't either. She blogs about her family a few times a year (yes, a few times a year).  Her sincere angst after the Newtown shootings, inspired her to write an article about her troubled son attracting enough animosity for me to hover my forefinger over the "Remove All Traces of My Blog" key. YIKES

Despite traumatic flashbacks and anxiety, I was glued to my monitor. People pointed accusatory fingers at her mothering calling her abusive, a PSYCHO, the cause of her son's mental illness. Some people said she was a LIAR, they didn't TRUST her. Some said there was nothing wrong with her son even though her son's school employs a safety plan protecting students during his rages. Liza's other children have their own Family Protection Plan from their brother: run to the car and lock the doors. I'm willing to take a wild stance here and say this kid has issues beyond temper tantrums. What do people say about Liza's willingness to talk about her personal life? Well, this is a common example:
"She shouldn't TALK about her son's problems! What goes on in the home needs to stay in the home!!!" 
I think the No Talk Rule applies even in this situation because we're discussing social negligence. A blogging friend describes The No Talk Rule this way: "[The No Talk Rule] is simple and brilliant. Whatever most needs to be discussed, whatever problem is most urgent, pressing and real, is placed under conversational interdict. We Will Not Speak Of This."

Breaking the Silence  makes other people uncomfortable because they'd rather not know the truth. Instead of dealing with the feelings her story triggers, people blame the mother for speaking up. They'd also blame her if she remained silent and her son eventually hurt someone---herself, most likely. Like Adam Lanza's mother. She didn't leave a cyber-trail and people are frustrated by that. Talk. Don't talk. Either way, she's a bad mother.

Liza broke the silence and her family's isolation by writing an article bringing mental healthcare to public attention. She wrote about her son the way women typically write about their reality, revealing the nitty-gritty of daily life. The unsettling truth is that anyone can have a child with a mental illness and it doesn't mean that child was abused or neglected. In fact, that child may have been better taken care of than children who do not have mental illnesses. So it was maddening reading parenting advice from neanderthal idiots insisting "the chastening rod" would fix that boy's psychological problems like corporal punishment fixed their kids. (I'll integrate my either/ors tomorrow folks. For today, these folks are i-d-i-o-t-s.)
"Liza Long is unethical and I'm calling her on it!" a guy with the sword of truth boasted, fueled by the two feelings in his emotional repertoire: righteous indignation and contempt. (Woopee. I feel safer knowing he's keeping that mother in line!) 
"She's an attention whoring opportunist who is latching onto this tragedy for attention and notoriety." (Like we've never heard that before. The Madonna/Whore split?)  
"These children could be in real danger," an academic scholar  named Kendzior wrote, "if her goal was to capitalize on the Newtown tragedy by creating a media campaign designed to give her sympathy."
It's beyond ironic that an academic scholar, would piggyback her journalistic acumen on  "I Am Adam Lanza's Mother's" back. Seriously? A professional journalist takes down a mommy blogger in Boise, Idaho? We've all encountered the sleuthing personality concocting willfully misleading passages from a blogger's archives, cherry-picking excerpts out of context in proof of a judgement preconceived. Every blogger is an easy target when someone WANTS to hate them. Clip a portion here, copy a passage there, start building the gallows. 4 Shame.

As a woman, it was embarrassing witnessing malicious attacks on an overwhelmed mother who was asking for help. Thank heavens that cyber-split ended quickly. This is a link to a joint statement bringing Kendzior's Inquisition to a halt. Frankly, a head-hanging apology would have been appropriate, but I'm a woman who's a mother who blogs about family who loves a child with a mental illness and sometimes I'm overwhelmed, too.

I would hate for Kendzior's website to have a chilling effect on women's freedom to talk openly about their lives. Even when the truth of their lives makes other people uncomfortable. Maybe especially when it does.

Blog On, my friends! Keep talking!

Liza's recent PBS interview explains why she revealed her identity and her purpose in talking about her son. She's resolute in her role as a spokesperson representing thousands of families in situations like hers. "It’s not easy to be an advocate," she writes, "but sometimes our causes find us, even when we don’t expect them. I’m grateful for the opportunity to change a national conversation. Maybe it’s not about guns: maybe it’s about mental health."

Since Liza's blog, The Anarchist Soccer Mom, has served as fodder for a hack job, I hope she won't mind that I've selected a few passages that touched me.

About her divorce:
"His father blames me for all of this. The divorce? 100% my this point of crisis, I don’t really care whose fault it is. To quote the Holy Grail, “Let’s not bicker and argue about who killed who.” I am interested in solutions. I am interested in what is best for the children. I want to do the best I can, as a parent, to fulfill the sacred contract with my offspring, to provide for them, to nurture them, to educate them, and above all, to love them." October 2010 
About her work:
"What happens when paradigms are lost, when, as Archibald MacLeish famously asked, “images, though seen/no longer mean?” That is the point of requiring an Art History class of the world’s future accountants and healthcare administrators. Learning about the humanities is learning about what makes us human. We few, we happy few, the humanities majors, are "the heirs of custom and tradition" that began with a building on a hill in Greece more than 2500 years ago. But we are also the ones who push the boundaries of what is possible in human thought, because that is what humans do. Why General Education? Why the Parthenon? Because we are human. Without a knowledge of our own humanity, without the language of our customs and traditions, we cannot hope to accomplish MacLeish’s call to “Invent the Age! Invent the metaphor!” November 2010
About her father's death:
"On this day, the day of his death, with my small son, I light a candle for my father, imagine him in a community of saints where he belongs. As we walk hand-in-hand from the church, I tell my son the story of a man who knew what it meant to love his neighbor as himself. This is my father's legacy to me, the true meaning of his life’s story. In his too-brief life, my always-late father learned (and taught his six children) to love other as self. What greater story is there than this one?" October 2011
About her children:
"And as I tuck each of my children in bed," Liza says, "I hold them close. I breathe in the scent of their hair; I smile as I see the pieces of their father, of me, assembled in each of them so exquisitely into something new. Then I whisper the secrets of life as I know them, which are these:  Work hard. Be kind. Keep going. If you climb up a mountain, you have to climb back down. Love, even if it hurts. And when it hurts, forgive." July 2011  

Great Resources

Refrigerator Mothers Documentary on the Narcissistic Continuum

Refrigerator Mothers Commentary on The Narcissistic Continuum 

Dr. Burgo's blog: After Psychotherapy


  1. Liza Long is a brave woman and a beautiful writer. As are you, CZ. What you write about splitting is so true. From the outside, it's easy to see when people are doing it. From inside--either as the one who's splitting or the one onto whom the other binary is being projected--it's deeply insidious. As someone whose mother has split her own feelings about her late husband's alcoholism onto me--"You loathed X, a man I loved, because he was an alcoholic," because of her own guilt at "inheriting" his money before their divorce went through, I have been the victim of this kind of dumping. People want to disown their own feelings of shame, guilt, of ambivalence; and alas it seems to be universally true that people seek scapegoats. The best scapegoats are often precisely those who tell the truth. Liza Long told the truth, stirred up virulent discomfort, and people slammed her for it. Your essay here makes it very clear what the logic was behind that smear campaign. On another note, that Leighton painting is so beautiful. Sigh. love, CS

    1. You are too kind, CS. I'm a reluctant writer who has lots to say and no editor. I appreciate my readers dearly because even after ten years, writing an article is painful---excruciating sometimes. It's not my natural "thing" yet writing has been crucial for recovery. It would be very easy to become isolated in this "information", wondering if the whole world was pathological. Then I meet wonderful people like yourself.

      I have read comments on websites replicating the caustic comments on "some" sites about Liza Long. Without applying psychological templates, we might err in giving credence to anonymous criticism. BUT, there is NO credible logic to people's volatile reactions. It's a litmus test of their own psyche.

      Most of the time, people define "splitting" as a polarized mentality. However, it's important to think about "splitting" as a way to offload uncomfortable (or wrong) feelings. And you know where that goes next, right?

      If people are ignorant about psychology, they will PICK UP those off-loaded feelings, often attributed to them by the "splitter." It's a catch and throw game, tossing around the hate ball. I needed to learn this, I needed to see this, and literal examples of this behavior in comment sections is a perfect teacher for real life.

      It's much harder to realize someone has "split off" their envy/anger when we're face-to-face. We're so busy defending ourselves we don't notice the color fade to black-and-white.


  2. This was such a fascinating post. I love the term "splitting" and although I have not called it that I have written about this over and over; about the ability to see the myriad shades of gray in life as being "the mark of mature thinking." It's such a very, very important concept not only to being a grown-up thinker (and feeler!), but in ending the ridiculous superficiality and demonizing that passes for public opinion in a media that thrives on such reductionistic, inflammatory rhetoric. I watched the entire PBS interview with her and, besides my admiration for her for being a thoughtful, honest, struggling single parent/human being, I was surprised at the length. Even for PBS, perhaps the last frontier of in-depth reporting, this was a long, thorough piece. How refreshing.

    On other notes, I agree with Liza Long completely that the discussion needs to be about mental health and not just about guns. Of course, if you have a troubled child in your household, then you need to be HYPERvigilant about guns (just as she is with sharp objects) and take responsibility for that. You don't need to be a rocket scientist to know that troubled kids and guns are a terrible, terrible combination. Beyond that, though, I have always thought that blaming inanimate objects for human action misses the point entirely. While the left and the right take cheap shots at each other about gun rights and gun control, underlying issues are ignored. And that is a big, big problem.

    Having said that, I really wonder what a useful discussion about mental health would look like. In the interview, Ms. Long (and the interviewer too) equates mental illness with physical illness, as in, "if he had diabetes, people wouldn't tell him to just make more insulin!" Very true (and those folks who take such a stance are a special brand of i-d-i-o-t-s, yes). And yet, a few minutes later, she says that they simply do not know what her son's troubles are: "A little bit of autism, a little bit of ADHD, explosive disorder, we just don't know." And not knowing, psychiatrists throw drugs at the "problem" (her son) and "see what sticks."

    This is a very different process than diagnosing a medical condition. Sure, doctors will sometimes try different drugs on physical illnesses, but they tend to be drugs within the same class, and drugs that have some measurable record of success. From what I've read, this is not the case with psychopharmacological drugs. While these drugs can have beneficial short term effects, there is little evidence that long term use has any beneficial effects at all. Many of these drugs can actually increase symptoms, increase severity of symptoms, and bring on new symptoms. And the side effects can be very serious, especially for children. Stunted growth, liver and kidney problems, anxiety, hallucinations, the list goes on--and it also includes violent episodes, which a few subversive bloggers have actually suggested as a CAUSE of the violence. There is some evidence that this may be true. The psychiatrists are silent on that, even though there have been studies to indicate this as a possibility. (I will give links in a blog post on BNK soon.) (cont.)

  3. The psychiatric establishment relies on these drugs even though they have a generally poor track record. Talk therapy treatments and useful methods like CBT, DBT, and even mindfulness practice are rarely the go-to treatments, and although I am not a doctor I can speak anecdotally about what has been most helpful in my own case, in the cases of people I know, about what my intuition tells me, and about what I've read. I think because these treatments aren't scientific in the same way drugs are, they have a lower standing in the psychiatric community. Even though they are at least as effective as most psychopharmacological drugs, and I think in many cases much more so. And certainly with less side-effects.

    So, anyway, mental illness is an extremely difficult thing to diagnose with accuracy. It is often a moving target, with the psychiatrists themselves differing widely on symptoms, treatment, and many other aspects. I think useful public rhetoric about mental illness would also be extremely difficult, and probably just as controversial as the public gun rhetoric. I am not saying it's pointless, in fact I think it's very very important. Just that there are so many unknowns still in psychiatry, and so many opinions (splitting, even!), that I can't quite see how such discussions would go, or how useful, at this point, they would be.

    And I don't have any answers. Just sayin', it's a tough topic. I feel for Liza Long and all parents struggling with troubled children. My heart goes out to each and every one of them. They're in a tough spot, caught in a medical, legal, emotional, and very controversial bind without a lot of options. It is a terrible situation indeed. (And yes, shame on that academic for taking her to task. I wonder what that was about??)

    (FYI, on where some of this comes from: I'm reading a book about the history of psychopharmacological drugs right now called Anatomy of an Epidemic which I'm going to post about in the next week or so. I'm not saying this one book is absolute fact, but it is an alarming premise that I think all people interested in this topic should consider. I know I am.)

    Thanks for a great post, CZ!


    1. What a thoughtful response, Kitty. Thank you so much for adding to our dialog in such a knowledgeable way.

      Having started with psychiatric intervention for my nephew when he was only eight years old, we have over a decade of experiences to draw from. He was not accurately diagnosed until he was 19 which STUNS me even to this day.

      Diagnosis, as they say, is a bit of an art form.

      Bless the clinical psychologist who put my nephew and our family through a series of tests, eventually diagnosing him with autism. One therapist during that decade of treatment, suggested sociopathy. Another bipolar. Until getting the right diagnosis, our family couldn't organize itself in a appropriate manner to best meet his needs. We function well today, but it has been m-i-s-e-r-a-b-l-e. People don't know what families like ours go through, and: they don't want to know.

      I also have reservations about medications which have 'effects' on people. Not "side effects" as if it were small dish of coleslaw; but serious effects on their cognition and biology. The heavy medications some of my family members take erode liver functioning. Far better that psychological counseling were covered by insurance for the patient AND the family than handing out prescription drugs which are NOT a 'be all fix all' solution. I am worried about my loved one's physical health after years of antipsychotic prescription drugs.

      I look forward to your blog post, Kitty! In the meantime, this website was recommended by one of my peers in the Social Context of Mental Illness class I'm taking through Coursera:
      Mad In America


    2. Mad In America was Whitaker's first book on this topic. I haven't read it yet. I'll be interested to hear your thoughts on it.

      Also wanted to say that I loved your reply to CS, about splitting being a way to offload uncomfortable feelings. That is a fascinating thought, one that I am going to be turning over in bed before I fall asleep tonite. Great stuff.

  4. These posts might be useful to readers:

    The Jekyl-Hyde Split

    Chickens in Oz: the Distortion Campaign

    Her Royal Highness is not your best friend


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