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Dissociation is a technical term that refers to a breakdown of the normal associations in our experience: dis-association. This happens when our conscious minds drift away from our present circumstances. Some degree of dissociation is perfectly normal and perfectly healthy; if you are sitting on a train in an uninspiring landscape, your mind may wander to a memory of a past holiday, or an anticipation of where you are going. If you go to the dentist for a filling, you may choose to think about a pleasant memory rather than experience every aspect of the appointment.
You may be prone to dissociation if you experience:
- feelings of numbness in your body
- feeling faraway and unable to engage with the present moment
- feeling as if your surroundings are fuzzy or unreal
- a sense of watching yourself from outside your body
- finding yourself somewhere with no idea how you got there
- long periods of missing time
- feeling like a completely different person at different times
Dissociation can become a problem when people rely on it too frequently to cope with anxiety or stress. It can mean that you are putting yourself in danger by not paying attention to your surroundings. It can also mean that you are spending a lot of time re-experiencing past events that you would prefer to leave in the past.
Dissociated Parts of Your Personality
Have you ever felt as though you cannot agree with yourself about how to solve a problem or deal with a complicated situation? Do you experience frequent internal conflict, and maybe even argue with yourself in your head?
Having different parts of our personalities is completely normal- we are not all completely integrated and “associated” all of the time. Most of us will have a part that likes to have fun and be a little bit silly, and a more professional and serious part that goes to work. We might have a part that is a parent’s voice, internalised so that we can still hear the advice we got as children. These different parts of us help us to play different roles, and to live diverse and interesting lives. As long as our parts get along and can negotiate a common path for us in life, we may not even notice that they are there.
Some people experience more intense dissociation of their different parts. They may find it difficult to make decisions, or notice internal arguments, criticism, hostility, anger and fear. Some people hear their parts arguing as voices inside or outside their heads. Some people feel like they are completely different people in different situations, and may have difficulty remembering what they have done in specific situations. Some people use several different names and have several different dress senses. Some people experience different parts seizing control of their bodies, and acting in ways that don’t feel like them. Some people have out of body experiences, during which they are watching themselves behaving, but do not feel that they are controlling the behaviour. Some people experience periods of missing time, and see evidence that they have been doing things, but they cannot recall what they have done. These experiences suggest that there is a lot of conflict among the parts of the personality system, and that a greater degree of harmony may be desirable.
Through therapy, you can learn skills to manage dissociative episodes so that you can spend more time being alert and safe in the present. You can also learn how to map out the parts of your personality, and help them to communicate in more helpful ways so that you can make the most of your life. All of your parts are trying to help you reach some goal, but they may not know the best way to go about it, and by teaching your parts to communicate more clearly and calmly with each other, you can learn to make better decisions and enjoy more internal harmony.
For More Information
Dell, P F & O’Neil, J A., Eds. (2009) Dissociation and the Dissociative Disorders: DSM-V and Beyond. London: Routledge.
Forgash, C & Copeley, M (2008) Healing the Heart of Trauma and Dissociation with EMDR and Ego State Therapy. New York: Springer Publishing Company.
International Society for the Study of Trauma and Dissociation. (2011). [Chu, J. A., Dell, P. F., Van der Hart, O., Cardeña, E., Barach, P. M., Somer, E., Loewenstein, R. J., Brand, B., Golston, J. C., Courtois, C. A., Bowman, E. S., Classen, C., Dorahy, M., ¸Sar, V., Gelinas, D. J., Fine, C. G., Paulsen, S., Kluft, R. P., Dalenberg, C. J., Jacobson-Levy, M., Nijenhuis, E. R. S., Boon, S., Chefetz, R. A., Middleton, W., Ross, C. A., Howell, E., Goodwin, G., Coons, P. M., Frankel, A. S., Steele, K., Gold, S. N., Gast, U., Young, L. M., & Twombly, J.]. Guidelines for treating dissociative identity disorder in adults, third revision. Journal of Trauma & Dissociation, 12, 115–187.
Krakauer, SY (2001) Treating Dissociative Identity: the power of the collective heart. New York: Brunner-Routledge.