The Gray Area – the Value of Nuance

Issues this post seeks to address:

  • What does “splitting” mean?
  • What advantages are there to having a nuanced understanding of personal problems?

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The DSM (the diagnostic tool for mental disorders) has 20 categories of disorders; therapists who identify as “generalists,” like myself, will work with clients whose mental illness falls into almost any of these categories. However, one category of disorders has gained a reputation among therapists as being a particularly difficult one to work with – personality disorders.

One characteristic shared among several personality disorders, which has contributed to many-a-therapist’s headache, is called splitting. “Splitting” is a tendency to see the world in “black and white,” or “all-or-nothing” terms. You’re either my best friend or my worst enemy. I’m either amazingly fantastic or a complete and utter failure. It’s conceptualized as a defense mechanism – something that reduces short-term distress at the expense of long-term disruptions in functioning.

Splitting is similar to a train track – There are only two directions to go, and you eventually end up at the end of the line in one direction.

You can imagine what it would be like to have a relationship with someone who uses splitting frequently. It can be exhausting to try to track how much you’re liked on a given day, especially when it seems to change at the drop of a hat.

People with diagnosed personality disorders can have a lot of difficulty not using splitting. It’s part of what makes therapy with this population difficult. However, people with personality disorders don’t have a monopoly on splitting. In fact, the contextual use of “black and white” thinking is practically universal – all of us do it from time to time.

“Black and White” Moral Thinking

I wrote in an earlier post that I was a very “black and white” thinker in my youth. This type of thinking was especially prominent in how I thought about morality – good and bad, right and wrong. As I mentioned in that post, I grew up in a conservative part of the country within a conservative religious framework. That framework gave me very clear guidelines to distinguish between things that were “good,” and things that were “bad.” At least, that’s how I interpreted it.

“Good things” included getting married and having kids, obeying authority figures, respecting others, being generous, and exercising self-control. “Bad things” were things like leaving your spouse, being selfish, getting angry, and being rebellious. The lines were clearly drawn – all I needed to do was decide what side I wanted to be on. In my child and teenage mind, the choice was clear.

Lawrence Kohlberg was an American psychologist who developed a model for how people make moral decisions. His “stages of moral development” model continues to be a predominant theory about how morality develops.

Kohlberg used a clever method for developing his model – he presented people of various ages with a moral dilemma, and asked them what the person in the narrative should do. The most commonly-known dilemma involves a man named Heinz, whose wife was sick on her deathbed. Her doctors tell Heinz that there’s a certain drug that could cure her; he goes to the pharmacy to purchase it and the pharmacist tells him that it would cost a fortune to buy. Heinz, unable to afford the drug, has to decide what to do – should he steal the drug to save his wife, or should he allow his wife to die because he can’t legally obtain the drug?

Kohlberg was less interested in what the test subjects thought Heinz should actually do, but was more concerned with how they reasoned to their answer. Two people could agree on the same course of action for Heinz, for very different reasons. One observation that Kohlberg made was that, as people got older, their ability to take a nuanced approach to deciding on a course of action also increased. Young children were more likely to see things in “black and white,” “right and wrong” terms, while older adolescents and adults moved toward understanding how social order and universal principles governing ethical behavior could influence Heinz’s decision.

A More Nuanced Approach

As an adult, I’ve let go of my childhood view that most things are inherently good or bad. Certainly, things like being generous and obeying authority figures are frequently helpful and probably important on a societal level. But, is it always good to be generous? Can someone ever give too much of themselves, and end up diminishing their capacity to continue to give in the future? Could unwavering obedience ever cause more problems than it resolves?

I could say the same thing about my understanding of what was “bad” as a child. I suppose I’m at a point now where my list of inherently bad things could be counted on one hand. I’ve now come to  understand that context matters.  Even in LDS scripture, one of the most respected and beloved people steals from and murders another person, for reasons that are justifiable when we take a nuanced view.

I try to encourage my clients to avoid thinking in terms of “good” and “bad” as they work on their problems. These terms create undue feelings of personal inadequacy and anxiety that can inhibit the recovery process. I instead encourage others to think in neutral terms – in terms of consequences. This behavior has this set of consequences. That behavior would have that set. Neither one can definitively be said to be “better” than the other, except in rare cases.

This view enhances the role of choice in our decision-making, since our decisions aren’t made for us – there’s no “right” way or “wrong” way to live, except with some rare, specific decisions, based on our personal values.

We can even view circumstances beyond our control with nuance. It’s not bad to be depressed – it just is. Getting divorced, or being a little “selfish” with your time or resources aren’t bad. The value of these decisions comes from the way they were made, and using nuance to understand our own and others’ problems can help us avoid undue judgment of ourselves and others.



American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.). Arlington, VA: American Psychiatric Publishing.

Mary C. Zanarini; Jolie L. Weingeroff & Frances R. Frankenburg (April 2009). “Defense Mechanisms Associated with Borderline Personality Disorder”. J Pers Disord. 23 (2): 113–121.

Kohlberg, Lawrence. The Philosophy of Moral Development: Moral Stages and the Idea of Justice. San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1981.