Dissociation Explained

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Originally posted by @Anna5 - Referencing Bill Tollefson

Dissociation appears as a fixed stare with glazed eyes. People say things to you such as, “You’re dizzy,” “You sure are spacey,” “Where did you go?” or, “Earth to Mary.” Dissociation is used to escape from uncomfortable situations, feelings, or traumatic events, such as sexual abuse, physical abuse, mental abuse, spiritual abuse, emotional abuse, or verbal abuse. However, as adults, we have more and better ways to defend ourselves than by dissociating, and continuing to do so robs us of our vitality and ability to fully experience life.

As a child, when you experience a traumatic event, you have three choices: (1) Die; (2) Go insane; or (3) Dissociate. When you learned to dissociate, your head (thinking) disconnected from your body (feeling). Since then, you have been “living in your head, ” experiencing life intellectually, not emotionally.

It is important to remember that dissociation is not abnormal; it is a normal reaction to an abnormal situation. And you don’t need to have a long history of abuse. It only takes a single event to cause dissociation.

Because you learned how to dissociate, no matter what trauma you may encounter, you will never go insane, and your system will find a way to prevent you from dying. Your system will even sabotage a suicide attempt. All this is because no matter what happens, you want to survive. There is something in your Self which refuses to allow you to be destroyed.

The Dissociative Continuum

There are different stages of dissociation which lie on a continuum:

Daydreaming. Almost everyone does this. If you have ever let your mind wander in class because the teacher was boring, or driven to work and then not been able to really remember the trip, you have been daydreaming.

Imaginary Friends. Many children have imaginary friends. This is neither unusual or abnormal.

Dissociative Episodes. During traumatic events, extreme stress, or overwhelming emotions, you may “blank out,” “get lost in the carpet,” or even fall asleep. When you return you will not be able to recall where you mind went, or what you were thinking about. These dissociative episodes occur to help you avoid dealing with what is happening around or inside you.

Out of Body Experience. During a traumatic event, you may have the sense of being oustide your body, and feel that you are viewing yourself from a completely different vantage point. For example, you may see the event as though you were floating near the ceiling and looking down at yourself and/or your abuser.

Voices with Identities and Functions. You may hear voices inside your head telling you what to do or say. For example, one voice may tell you, “Date that person, he’s really bad for you.” You have compartmentalized yourself out of necessity, because although your abusers do not allow you to think, feel, or act for yourself, you still have to be able to function when you are away from them. Imagine you have put your behaviors, thoughts, and feelings into different drawers in a chest; there are dividers between them, but they are all touching, and you are aware of what is happening.

Fragments with Identities and Functions. If you need greater protection from your abusers, you may develop fragments with names, specific functions, and feelings. Your parents may demand that you be quiet, compliant, and pretend to be stupid. However, you also need to be a good student in school. You may have Quiet Clara who handles situations at home and Suzie Student who takes your tests at school. When a fragment is functioning for you, you may feel as though someone has “taken over” your body and you have no control over yourself; however, you are still aware of what is going on around you. What has happened is the that the “drawers” into which your behaviors, thoughts, and feelings are stored have become separated from each other and are no longer touching.

Note: At all levels of dissociation from Daydreaming through Fragments you are conscious of what is happening. Dissociative Episodes through Fragments are classified as Dissociative Disorders. 1-6 are all conscious and 7 is unconscious.

Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID). This occurs when your need for protection from your abusers is so great you have developed alters, each with their own feelings, functions, memories, and names. You may be a quiet, conservative person, but one day friends might tell you they saw you the previous evening dancing on the tables at a local bar, wearing a see-through blouse, and claiming your name was Lolita. There is some or no communication between alters, but you are not conscious of what happens when an alter is “out” (functioning for you), nor do you have any memory of what the alter has done or said. You have crossed the “amnestic barrier, ” consequently when you switch from being yourself to being an alter, you lose time. You might have alters named Angry Alice, because you are not allowed to be angry in the presence of your abusers; Smart Susie, who is an excellent student despite your abusers’ insistence that you are stupid; and Creative Cathy, who likes to paint landscapes, which your abusers tell you is a waste of time. Nevertheless, all your alters are still you; they are parts of yourself which have become compartmentalized. What happened is that the “drawers” in you chest have become completely separated from each other. You have developed alters in order to protect yourself. Each alter holds memories, qualities, thoughts, and feelings that are perceived as being too dangerous for you to have. In order to develop alters, the abuse must have begun before the age of seven.

Note: All the above dissociative behaviors were developed as a perceived solution to a need. They were a child’s answer to how to survive a potentially life-threatening situation.

Determining Factors

How far you move up the dissociative continuum is based on the following factors:

Age of Onset of Abuse. The younger you are when the abuse begins, the farther up the continuum you may move. In order to go to DID, however, the abuse must have begun before the age of seven, because this is the age at which a child goes from “magical thinking” (for instance, believing in Santa Claus) to “rational thinking” (understanding that Santa Claus is really Mom and Dad).

Severity of Abuse. The more severe the abuse, the higher you are likely to go on the continuum.

Repetition of Abuse. The more often the abuse occurs, the higher you are likely to go on the continuum.

Perception of the Abuse. An event which appears frightening to one person may seem life-threatening to another. This does not mean one person is weaker than another! It simply means each of us has our own perception of individual events.

Sensitivity. Some people are more sensitive than others. As an analogy, think of a litter of puppies jostling each other. One puppy may cower in the corner and whimper, while another may bounce around and wrestle with its brothers and sisters. Again, this does not mean you are weak! This is just the way you were born.

Creativity. The more creative you are, the higher you may move up the continuum.

Intelligence. The more intelligent you are, the higher you may move up the continuum.

Pain Tolerance. Some people are born better able to tolerate pain, both physical and emotional. The lower your pain tolerance, the higher you may move up the continuum.

Experiences/Defenses. The fewer experiences you have (such as seeing how a friend’s healthy family behaves) and fewer defenses you have in place (such as being able to understand how sick your abusers were), the higher you may go on the continuum.

Resources. Not having a positive person (such as a loving aunt, a supportive teacher) or positive activities (such as being on the school newspaper or a member of a church choir) can cause you to move higher on the continuum.

Inconsistent Pattern of Behavior of Abuser. The more unpredictable, inconsistent, or confusing the behavior of your abuser, the higher you may move on the continuum.

Vicarious Abuse. You may develop dissociation from witnessing abuse happening to someone else.

The Origins of Dissociation

When you are born, you have physical and emotional boundaries, represented by the figure of the left, and a Core Self, represented by the dot in the center. *The image is a square box with a dot in the center.

When you experience trauma as a child, your boundaries are penetrated and no longer intact. the perceived invasion causes you to feel helpless, overwhelmed, fearful, and extremely exposed, leaving your Core Self vulnerable.

In order to survive the trauma, you separated into a Physical Self and a Dissociated Self. To prevent destruction of your Core Self, you hid it where your abuser could not find it. You then forgot where you hid it, because if you could remember, there would be a chance your abuser might get the information from you and thereby gain access to your Core Self and possibly destroy it.

Remember that you learned to dissociate in order to prevent yourself from dying or going insane. Everything you did was because you want to survive, and dissociation was the only option you had as a child.

Dissociation does not mean that you are defective, damaged, insane, stupid, or worthless. In fact, you are among the most gifted people in the world because it takes intelligence, creativity, and imagination to learn how to dissociate. Congratulate yourself on your ability to survive overwhelming trauma.
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I learned to dissociate at a very early age. I have experience out of body dissociation when subjected to extreme pain. But I have managed to keep myself as a single person. I believe I have different aspects to my personality that are activated with different triggers. Yet have no blank spots in my daily life, the only blank spots are in my childhood. I never thought of dissociation as an ability that ensured my survival, I find that thought reassuring.
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Deleted member 5760

I think if someone wants to know the difference between DID and dossociation - a great creative example is the song 'Stan' by Eminem.

Please note that whilst people were outside protesting the fact that Eminem was homophobic ELTON JOHN performed Dido's part on stage with him at the Grammy Awards. That's what I believe the song 'Stan' was about. I think it was Eminem's way of saying 'it's a character - don't take it too seriously. When I rap as Slim Shady Im PLAYING A PART', etc. That he is quite aware he's 'acting'.

Someone with DID can't distinguish the difference between the 2.

Deleted member 5760

I feel the need to put a warning on the above song btw - as it does discuss some sensitive issues so if you're that type - maybe best not to listen. I suppose what I meant is - people create alter egos all the time. Especially creative people. How on earth could anyone write a book if they weren't able to 'imagine' being the characters in it. I think a lot of great actors/writers/musicians do it for that reason. Like a lesser form of dissocation.

To sum it up - someone with DID doesn't remember the different parts of their personality from what I've seen and read. It's like they literally are 'multiple people' rather than one person who *taps out* because something is overwhelming, but really stays an aware singular human being despite it.

They don't remember their different alter egos. So, there are varying degrees to it. And I think IMHO that someone with Dissociative Identity Disorder has a much bigger mental health issue than someone who dissociates with PTSD alone.

sky dancer

superjen and anthony--

Good description of the difference between DID and PTSD dissociation. I know I've had dissociative strategies since I was a young child. When my abusive foster mother, (my aunt), would seat me down for a 'round table discussion', which was this very confrontative ritual where I had to 'guess' what had made her mad enough to hit me, I would sit mute and stare at her until she appeared the size of a tiny insect. I would never tell her a thing, because if I guessed wrong, about how I had offended her she might learn something new to punish me with.

I didn't really think about my dissociation much until the onslaught of my CPTSD. I started doing it at work around my boss.

It's hard to give myself credit for dissociating when it's caused me problems. But I appreciate the thought, anthony, that it was my intelligence and creativity that enabled me to survive the horror of my childhood.
In order to survive the trauma, you separated into a Physical Self and a Dissociated Self. To prevent destruction of your Core Self, you hid it where your abuser could not find it. You then forgot where you hid it, because if you could remember, there would be a chance your abuser might get the information from you and thereby gain access to your Core Self and possibly destroy it.

Wow. I had no idea there was a name for what I did or even that it was known. I just thought I was being clever and had very little choice to do otherwise.

Thank you for this article.


Hi everyone. This is my first post.
I feel a bit uncertain as have just realised that I have dissociated a lot for most of my life (am not DID)and I am now over forty. Had no self awareness whatsover and was v disconnected from myself.
I am still trying to grasp what exactly PTS is and can't really believe it applies to me but here I am.

I am wondering if anyone freezes fairly regularly with dissociation; or possibly looses control over specific muscle groups just for a moment or two. For example not being able to speak or on occasion falling if standing or walking.
:( I hope that does not sound very strange.
Many thanks for the information here.
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