What is dissociation?
(From an” expert…” on dissociation – from the lived “inside” perspective – a VERY short introduction)
There are multiple ways of dissociating. You can dissociate from your body, from your mind, from your emotions/feelings, from your memories, from the environment, from time, from parts of yourself (ego states/identity) – from one of these, from several – in different combinations – or from all of them – at once and for shorter or longer periods of time… And the process of dissociation can be all from completely unknown to you – to completely known. It can be a seemingly 100 % involuntary action to dissociate and a 100 % deliberate action – and everything in between.
Dissociation is the opposite of association. You dissociate to keep things, events, situations in your life apart. Because kept together they would overwhelm you. Everybody dissociates. Maybe you daydream, procrastinate, plan your dream vacation, play computer games, shop yourself happy. Everything you do to keep yourself away from your current state – inside – or outside – of you – is dissociation, but the focus is on the inside – the outside situation is often just a reflection of your inside situation. Dissociation is you – hiding from – you.
So it is normal to do it – and helpful. Life can be overwhelming, unpredictable, tiresome etc. It is our human advantage that we can move around in our minds, use our ability to travel between the past, present and the future – and between this world and every other existing and made-up world - in our heads and how we also can imagine how it would be to be someone else. This is how we get ideas, are creative, plan ahead, problem solve and think abstractly – and empathize. You actually dissociate sometimes – so you can associate, in another way, put your inner material together in new, creative and unexpected ways. They are intimately connected – dissociation and association. And I think it is partly a personality trait – how associative (and therefor dissociative) you are/have the ability to be/become.
But dissociation can also be used as a defense system. You can learn to (and be taught deliberately) how to dissociate. Dissociation can become – be an elaborate form of psychological – and physiological protection – from adversities in life, or from memories of adversities. You can dissociate from emotional pain and unbearable emotions/feelings (numbing), from the surroundings (derealization), from your body/physical pain (depersonalization), from your mind (get hazed, zoom out, go blank, black-out – or the opposite – get in “control”), from time (from the now = daydream, fantasize, procrastinate, from the past = denial, from the future = hopelessness, despair), from memory (did that really happened, I am a liar, I make things up), from your identity (I am not here – somebody else is). There is also what could be called the ultimate dissociation – what many trauma experts call “the freeze” – although I see the term freeze being very overused. Physiologically there are a couple of different “freeze” – the death feigning, the frozen watchfulness, the tonic immobility, catatonia. They of course overlap – but the point is – freezing – as a stress response is something you do when you are dying or think/feel you are dying (or are very soon to die). Some trauma experts claim there is no cognitive abilities at work in this phase. I do not agree. And there is emerging research suggesting that our consciousness even continues to work after we physiologically can be declared dead. Our minds – do not easily give up. Not if you are an associative/dissociative person – at least.
As I said, you can dissociate to different degrees. When I dissociate from my mind – I usually describe that as it feels like someone else is in charge of either the on-off switch to my brain – or more often nowadays, to my brain’s dimmer switch. I can be present like 30 % or 90 % - or any other number. It will affect my thinking, my speech, my eye movements and brings with it confusion (and a lot of shame and embarrassment). Usually it happens in therapy – but also when I am stressed in other situations by people. It also happens when I am trying to stay present but am stressed/scared. So that I experience this kind of dissociation more now – is actually some kind of progress. I am fighting my dissociation; I recognize it and I try to chose differently. I try to stay, instead or running away from whatever feels unbearable.
A few words on ego state/identity confusion and switching; it is almost always VERY subtle. You will not pick up on it unless you know the person very well (and few do know these persons well). You could pick up on it not knowing the person very well – but you would probably put it down to dys-regulation, moodiness – etc. If you do meet someone (who you know) who do not really know where they are, who you are, who they are, what they are doing – it could be someone dissociating from their identity (or part of their identity/ego states), also known as switching. It is not meant to be noticed, that is part of the protection. Do not believe any of the descriptions that comes out of Hollywood about what dissociation is (as I presume you would not believe any other description of what it is to be human – that comes out of a commercial film/TV-production). The sense of shame of being a dissociative person is not helped by Hollywood’s contributions to the picture of dissociative people.
I write this because the confusion about what dissociation is – can be – is huge and many hang on to one of the ways a human can dissociate and then extrapolate that to be all that dissociation is. If you only have the ultimate freeze in mind when you talk about dissociation, or the daydreaming, zoomning out – or the dissociation from ego states and identity – and talk to someone who have picked one of those definitions/ideas of what dissociation is that you did not – you will vaguely and in general talk about the overall same thing – dissociation being the opposite of association – but on any other level – you will talk about different phenomena. As I said – if you are prone to use one of the forms of dissociation you are probably more prone to use the others as well, but it is not a fact that you do. And when we talk about it as a dis-ordered thing to do – we miss out on that it is – in fact – a common human ability we all have. To dissociate is not “dis-ordered, sick” per se – it is the overuse of it that stops a heavily and on a daily basis dissociating person from taking part in their own life.
And I want to add. Shame over being very dissociative – makes the dissociation worse. You end up trying to dissociate from the fact that you are dissociating. And then it becomes very hard to ask for and receive help.
So when you meet a dissociative person – who overuse dissociation and you willingly or unwillingly trigger a more substantial and distressing dissociation – be gentle. Stop whatever you were doing (if you are not a therapist and what you are doing is part of a thought through or otherwise well-grounded therapeutic intervention). Ground yourself – and help the dissociating person to ground too. Which is actually quite easy. Ask about what they see and hear – ask what day it is, ask about what they are wearing, just ask about simple ordinary stuff around you. Do not go into breathing exercises, do NOT touch the person (at least not without consent - which can be hard to get in these kind of situations). Just be a stable human presence talking about everyday life and the surroundings. The more boring – the better, the more real – the better. They just temporarily disconnected, help them connect again, not to you, to themselves, and just as much as is needed in the situation. Help them to re-orientate, as you would do with any other temporarily confused person (who are drunk, lost their ways, have a fever, speak a foreign language, is a small kid, is an elderly forgetful person, is very tired, have fainted….) – there is really no difference, and no need to make it a big thing. It is just a stress/trauma response.
Dissociation is a form of hiding, from yourself. From the beginning it was also a form of hiding, from someone, or something else, something that was unavoidable. The unavoidable created overwhelming sensations and feelings – you needed to hide from those, from yourself – for having them. Once learned – it is a genius strategy. The downside is that – once hidden from yourself – you have no agency in your own life. And you can’t take it back, because you do not know how you are, where you are, what you are. To take your life back – you need to have all those emotions, all the overwhelm – and trust that what was once going to drive you insane, kill you – will not anymore. It just feels like it.
Am I exposing myself too much when I write about this? I don’t know. I am writing about it for several reasons, one is the one I mentioned above. It is frustrating to follow discussions where the complex is made very simple and dogmatically is put forward as THE truth. I am not a trauma expert, but I can compare what I hear and read with what I know from my own experiences – and what I see – is missing information – trying to use tools, theories, models, methods – to squeeze reality into. The reality is – complex – and highly individual. I know it is hard to discuss on fb – there is limited time, space etc. But we can all try? To have more open discussions. Where we all contribute with what we know? Have experiences of? – Not saying we have the whole truth.? Or attacking, disrespecting others for thinking differently? Talk about what we think as ideas, suggestions, opinions – not truths, facts – just leave the door open a bit more?
On a personal note, I also write it because am tired of hiding. I am not an expert on trauma, have not treated a lot of traumatized people, do not have the whole picture, the overview. I have not gone to school to study trauma, have no exam – but I do have my own experiences – and they are valid – as such. I hesitate to write this a bit – since I am constantly exploring myself, changing my mind, changing my perspectives of things. But I also have a need to share my growth process. I know my growth process is healthy, good for me – so I can not see how it could hurt someone that I share it, not even myself. But take it for what it is – the things I share, write about, is my perspectives, my experiences, what I have come to learn – and what I do not yet understand. Nothing more, nothing else.
So re-framing the start - (From an” expert…” on MY dissociation – from MY lived “inside” perspective).
Another day – I will – again – write about why other animals, beside the human animal – can NOT be said to dissociate… in my opinion – for the term dissociate to fill its function – it needs to be coupled with its opposite – the other side of the coin – association. And although there are many animals, horses e.g. that are VERY good at associative learning – they do not have the human mind – of course. Do not spend their time daydreaming, fantasizing (neither of vacations, nor of revenge), procrastinating, being anxious of becoming anxious et etc etc… Humans alone have the human mind. To say that other animals dissociate – is taking away from the human experience of being a human – and from other animals and their species specific experiences of what it is to be them – as they have their own wonderful and fantastic ways of experiencing, processing, functioning in – that is not better, not worse – than our human ways – just different. Just different.
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