DISSOCIATION – ASSOCIATION
Dissociation and Association – are two sides of the same coin. Or you can say – they are in each end of a spectrum. A spectrum we all move along on a daily, hourly, momentarily basis. But try to imagine the spectrum as circular – or spiral shaped – not linear. There aren’t really any ends. Dissociation and association move in and out of each other – and at times part of you are more associated – or is free to associate – and other parts of you are more dissociated – or free to dissociate.
We all associate and dissociate – and we all have parts. Some parts of us other parts of us are more prone to ignore – dissociate away – or more strongly associate with. Some parts of us more easily dissociate or associate in themselves.
Does this sound complicated? It is actually rather simple, but it is of course nuanced. The confusion I think stems from when people talk about dissociation (very few talks about association) – most people talk about different aspects of dissociation, undefined and un-nuanced – and try to fit it into a pre-existing model. Not to on purpose confuse, of course, the study – and the “treatment” – of dissociation – is fairly new. Hence all the misunderstandings, misconceptions, mix-ups, simplifications – and a strong wish to fit it into a paradigm or system. Which in my opion potentially shuts out other ways of seeing it.
To associate and dissociate is part of being human. It is part of the human experience. We associate to put the dots together, to learn how different steps in a process, how different pieces in a puzzle, how theory and practice – fits together. We use dissociation when we do NOT want things to stick together, do NOT want to see the pattern, do NOT want to remember.
I am highly associative. Maybe that is why I as a psychological defense tend to rely on dissociation. I am also highly dissociative. So much as it actually affects my quality of life (but working on that part – since I firmly believe dissociation can be “learned to deal with” – and not only that, but also can be put into use when it is adding value to a situation).
That said, I have a lot of personal experience of both association and dissociation. And I have thought a lot about it, listened to other people’s views on it (also Porges’ – at a 3-day trauma training in Israel a few months ago). And the more I listen – the more of the confusion I see and the more of the pathologizing I see.
So how does dissociation fit into theories about trauma and trauma coping?
First I think we need to make an important distinction. How you react during trauma might not be the same as how you defend yourself from remembering that trauma or coping with that trauma.
And when I now continue – I want to point out that I am not a therapist, and my view of what dissociation is (or is not) comes from my own experiences, my own studies, my own observations of people (and other animals), as well as my own therapy process. I also want to point out that I do not have any answers. I too am speculating. But I do have plenty of experience to draw from. But not being a therapist, I am not discussing how to “treat” dissociation – I am inviting to a discussion and am merely pointing out the lack of consistency, knowledge, theory etc – in the understanding of what dissociation (and association is).
If we describe dissociation as a disconnect – we need to ask ourselves – what is the disconnect from? What (or who) is it that is disconnecting? Why is there a need to disconnect? What purposes does it serve to disconnect? What would be the motive to connect again?
And if we look at the definitions of dissociation – if it means disconnect – then everything we do in a traumatic situation – is dissociation. Whether we “choose” to fight, flee, fawn, (find) or freeze. Whichever of these strategies we apply – to protect ourselves during a traumatic event – they all entail disconnect. That is the whole point of them – to make you focus on what is at hand – in front of you – just in that moment. Nothing else is relevant (you might hastily take into consideration what will happen next and next and next – so to “choose” the right thing to do now – and not put yourself in an even worse situation than you are in now. But that is not “true thinking”, it isn’t even “true choice” – you are just searching through your option data bank – taking a quick overview of possible consequential scenarios – due to your actions – right here – right now.
This, that you disconnect – in what ever way you do it – will then affect how you remember it. If you e.g. are in tunnel vision mode – which you often are in a frightening/dangerous situation, you won’t remember everything around you as in a visually broad memory. Same goes for your hearing – which will only listen for certain cues. This is automatically disconnecting you from parts of your visual or auditory input. As it will disconnect you from your digestion – and any other natural needs and processes that isn't needed for the moment, but instead becomes a liability.
We also need to recognize how many nuances there are of these reactions/responses. If we look at freeze e.g. Do we mean feigning/playing dead (or asleep, unconscious, too intoxicated…), or do we mean frozen watchfulness, do we mean frozen as in immobilized/unable to move/tonic immobility, do we mean a lighter version as in indecisiveness/lack of executive functioning? What about the time aspect? Do we include everything from a temporary stand still/freeze that lasts a couple of seconds (mini switches, “glitches”, transitions etc to the “give-up-itis” that can go on for years?
And we also need to look at personality types as in – are you prone to being pro-active or re-active? What role does that play in how your dissociation shows up? I am mostly a pro-active “type”. It makes me look re-active though… But in fact I am trying to be one step ahead – I realize it only makes me feel in control, but at least it gave me some sense of empowerment (but it also made me assist in putting the responsibility for what happened on myself)…
But why are we dissociating in a traumatic event? How are we dissociating? And another really important question to ask is – has this person, who are prone to dissociation – had one big traumatic event, several smaller – many big ones?
And was the dissociation “allowed” to go on for so long as to it became maladaptive? Went from being solely a defense mechanism into being a way of structuring the personality?
Dissociation (and association) – can’t be paired up with one part of the vagus nerve and that branch’s functioning, as little as we can pin it on one neuro-chemical, one brain wave, one psychological state…
To dissociate and to associate is part of our human make-up – it is part of what makes us so adaptable and flexible as a species. It is how we turn on and turn off parts of us – to maintain as much growth and restoration as possible.
The Wheel of Tolerance
As a highly dissociative person I have also written about how I have a hard time relating to the Window of Tolerance. I understand that it is a simplification, a tool made to make it easier to asses where a person is in their stress and help them “stay within their window of tolerance” – so the will associate (that is – learn) – instead of dissociate. The problem with highly dissociative people is that they are seldom just in one place at a time. While part of me can be shut down, another part of me is in learning mode, a third is sleepy and resting, a fourth is playing, etc… that is what I had to do as a kid to even be able to attend and learn in school…
So I came up with another version. This is my version of the Window of Tolerance – as what much of what I write about has no real answer… I drew my Wheel of Tolerance more to show a different reality. If you are interested in what I mean and think about it, you find the article here: https://www.facebook.com/notes/live-the-change/the-wheel-of-tolerance/1523799854442310/
Dissociation and the “Pretending”
I found an interesting (a bit older) article about DID in children: https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/talking-about-trauma/201312/understanding-dissociative-identity-disorder-in-children
I know I had “parts” (don’t really like that word) as a very young child. I can actually not remember it being in any other way. Did I pretend I had friends? Yes, of course. We moved so frequently I had no chance to form any lasting friendships. Did I pretend I was somewhere else? Yes. Of course. But what I mostly dreamed and fantasized about – and acted out – was to actually BE someone else. To be anyone but me seemed to be the better option.
So I spent a lot of time altering the reality (of me) – but still living in my reality – handling it the best way I knew how to. To dissociate, to disconnect from my reality of being me was what helped me the most. Was it a conscious decision? No. And yes. I didn’t make a plan for it to happen. But I sought it. What I most of all wanted was to not be IN me. Not in my body, not in my mind, not anywhere near me. But I did not want to be dead (or I did – sometimes, but not as a default wish). So when people refer to “dissociation” – I have no idea which of these many ways I know about – they are actually talking about. And to look for it in one place in our body – as THE Place that generates dissociation – I think is futile.
How did my nervous system take part in this? My neurochemicals – my whole neurobiology? Can one say that dissociation “happened to me”? Did I make it happen? Was someone else – outside of me – making it happen?
The answer is. Yes. To all of it.
Nowadays I hear the term dissociating being used as – one act of doing. Like in saying – you are dissociating now. What that means, from my point of view – is that I use one of the – I would say – if not thousands, so hundreds of ways I have learned to do this.
Association - Connection
The opposite – to be associating – it to be connecting. With people, with your own past, with your own parts, with your story, with knowledge, with your body, with different parts of your body, e.g. your nervous system… And all these ways of associating, connecting - influences each other – as dissociation also does. This is why I advocate for very holistic therapies which takes into account all of a person.
This is also – since dissociation is a protection – I advocate for slowness and kindness – in respecting this need for protection. That is why I don’t think connection can be used as a tool in therapy – but is a byproduct. Why? Many interpersonal traumas is about forced connection – and if you force a dissociative person to connect – you will only get more disconnection… I have written about that too: https://www.facebook.com/notes/mimer-centre/how-to-connect-with-a-horse-the-science-side-of-it/851148381713533/ This article is raising the question – can you feel connected to someone who does not feel connected to you?
In a highly dissociative person – there is the ability to also associate – and then there will be a tug of war in between these to places in the dissociation-association spectra. And my thought is that the more associative you are – that is that you actually are quite good at being in your body and mind, or anywhere else “in you” – in your feelings, in your thoughts, and connecting things, the more dissociation you need to use to keep the traumas away.
To live through severe physical, sexual, emotional etc trauma – repeatedly – made you be too much in connection with experiences that were very overwhelming. So a crux here is – to be able to work with your traumas – you need to be present in the here and now, you need to be grounded – but being present, being grounded feels inherently scary.
When I ground myself – when I connect with my environment, people, different aspects of myself, let my senses take in information without filtering it – I am also much more vulnerable to any trigger that might come along. Which also feels totally counter-intuitive. To expose myself actively to be triggered – or harmed, when the record of when I have done that tells me it is usually a very stupid idea.
So when I have been working in therapy with grounding myself, still do, I am actually working with the main problem of dissociation. I am learning to stay connected – and in an associative mode. I have also learned that my regulating how grounded, how associative I let myself be – I am also learning to regulate my emotions. And it can look like I am taking a detour – but for someone who has avoided her feelings for a very long time – and could not grasp what it meant to be feeling your feelings, but not too much… meant.. it made more sense to think of it in terms of regulating my association-connection. Then feelings just become part of that parcel. And it is also, as I understand it, what containment is. When I choose to NOT go into something, I use my ability to dissociate actively – and put it away for now. I know it is there, nowadays I do not need to totally put it out of my mind, but I don’t go there and open the lid.
Disowning – Owning
Another way of thinking about dissociation or disconnect – is in the term of disowning. When I do not own my emotions, my past, my body, my actions in the now – the whole of me – all my “parts” – physical and psychological – I am disowning a part (parts) of me. Disowning was what was needed in the traumatic situation. To survive it. Telling yourself, this is not me, this is not happening, I am not here, this is not my body this is not me doing this… and sometimes moving on to the next step – I am a mere bystander, observer, someone else, already dead, not present, sleeping, my sister, – at times needing to use more than one of those dis-ownership strategies… to get through it. To own it again – you do not only need to remember it (even if “just” somatically”), you also need to be IN you when you remember it – otherwise you will have retrieved the memory – but still not identified it as yours.
This was my two-cents of the topic of dissociation-association for now… Part of why I write it – is too demystify it – and clarify it – but also to give it the respect it deserves as a very flexible and adaptable both strategy and structure to survive. But it is “just” an everyday human way of functioning. Not much to be afraid of. Since we all do it.
So why do I choose to actively work with my dissociation? At times I really do wonder, it is certainly not pain free… but – I am re-entering life. MY life. That is all the answer and motivation I need. I am getting a chance to live MY life. And this is also part of why I write this – and then go ahead and post it/show it publicly – It is okay to be me. Actually – it is more than okay :-)
Text and picture are copyright protected ©Katarina Lundgren, Live the Change, 2020