Dissociation is Normal… Sort Of

First, you have to understand that we are not one person. After that, who knows?

“Dissociation is when a person experiences a temporary separation from their thoughts, actions, surroundings and even memories.”
Jocelyn Solis-Moreira (2023)

Lincoln Stoller, PhD, 2021. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International license (CC BY-NC-ND 4.0)

This vague definition dissolves on examination because it reminds us we’re never entirely connected to ourselves. If we’re never entirely connected, then are we ever not disconnected?

Dissociation is the separation of parts of yourself. It can be usefully defined, but you must distinguish between focus and separation. Dissociation can be so normal that many psychologists deny it’s unusual. It can also be so subtle and abnormal that poorly connected people—many of whom have gone into the field of psychology to find themselves—deny that it’s real.

“On the mild end, you can feel as if you’re in a trance or foggy state of mind and not consciously aware of your surroundings… On the other hand, a person may ‘split’ off from certain experiences or an entire part of their identity where the mind does not recognize its sense of self.”
Jocelyn Solis-Moreira(2023)

This description highlights the fundamental misunderstanding. Dissociation is not about being disconnected from the outside world, it’s about being disconnected from yourself. Being disconnected from the external world is being in a trance. Spacing out in reverie or concentration is not dissociation.

It’s a psychologist whom Solis-Moreira is quoting who is confusing dissociation with trance. The field has a history of this confusion because it pretends to be objective when the object of its study is manifestly not. This is why psychology’s entrance into the field of psychedelics can be dangerous. Until there is a psychology of the subjective, trance states will continue to be seen as pathological.

One must be careful around psychologists and psychotherapists. They tend to be unusually personally involved with the disorders they study, and this leads them to both insight and blindness. The key to distinguishing a competent voice is a lack of pride: if a person is prideful, aloof, and acts in a superior manner, then suspect their advice is self-serving.

What is Dissociation Really?

You are not one person. Those different moods and urges that sometimes dominate your personality are rooted in your different personalities. They are not complete personalities, there is no complete personality, they exist to respond to such situations as require them.

You have built these personalities in response to emphatic, dramatic, or traumatic situations that required some autonomous action on your part. These autonomous actions, when thoroughly connected with events around you, into the past and into the future, become personalities. They are your attitudes about the world and your coordinated response to it.

Your multiple, normal personalities are a group of specialists tuned to respond to different calls. Some put out fires, others are aggressive, loving, curious, reckless, or innocent. There is no limit to one’s possible personalities, but most people consist of a dominant few, and those few work collaboratively to keep each other informed. In the best of cases, your rumination represents the meeting of your minds. They compare notes, revise opinions, and recast memories. You are an ecology of mind and, in a healthy ecology, certain species stabilize in the canopy while others populate the ground.

Dissociation is not a problem, it’s isolation that’s the problem. When factions of your mind cannot communicate with others, then they cannot collaborate, share, inform, or adapt. These parts of your personality are isolated and unprepared for most situations. They have developed in response to only one.

Most of us are thoroughly dissociated, but our dissociated parts are in such close communication that it causes no problems. The definition of a relaxed state of mind is one in which the whole family is welcome: no personality is excluded, there are no fractious issues, and no adversarial relations.

The Benefits of Separate Parts

Besides the reality of separate parts, they offer many benefits. First, they offer separate opinions based on different memories and reasons. It’s important that we have opposing points of view to help us recognize differences and clarify distinctions. We normally think of differences in terms of opposites, but this is too limiting. Our different personalities can bring nuance to various points of view and establish more than two possibilities.

Because these different “opinions” have personalities behind them, they have advocacy. They are not simply a few talking points, they are heritage attitudes. When one of our personalities argues a point, it can address personal and cultural memories, emotional attitudes, future hopes, and everything in between. We could not do that if we came to decisions based on dryly academic arguments or an attraction to immediate gratification.

Not all our parts are comfortable in each other’s presence. This can lead to problems, but they’re problems that would not be obvious to us. The problems that arise from a failure in the communication between our dissociated parts are subtle forms of personal distress. We’ll find ourselves with ambiguous feelings, compromising decisions, and uncomfortable conclusions. We might identify a few incongruous issues or unjustifiable points, but without a personality to advocate for another point of view, we won’t gain access to the full scope of our reservations.

The therapeutic technique of “parts therapy” involves inducing a hypnotic trance that pushes aside the dominant voices of one’s personality and invites the marginal voices to be heard. It gives the bullied, banished, and normally unwelcome personality full rights and respects, and invites them to speak audibly so that the rest of your mind—your present but now quieted personalities—can hear.

For a person with normal levels of conflict, this opportunity to give audience to one’s recessive parts feels liberating. Balanced people can hear their minority parts without harming themselves. There is a kind of a familial relationship between the parts. The dominant parts may dismiss and overrule the minority voices, but they are not hostile to them.

The external facilitator, who is me, can arrange a conference. To assuage the domineering attitudes of the dominant voice and create a dialog between a client’s deep internal feelings. However, there are people whose parts are hostile, or which work toward such different ends as to be adversarial.

When Dissociation Becomes a Disorder

Dissociative Identity Disorder, or DID, is the new word for what used to be called Multiple Personality Disorder. Why anyone should think a change in name would create new understanding is a mystery to me. DID is no better understood than Multiple Personality Disorder. I believe the hope was that practitioners would recognize the new label as different from the old, and would revise their understanding accordingly. There has been no such revision. The syndrome remains equally misunderstood.

I have clients who have adversarial personalities. One wants to be sober and the other wants to be drunk. My client tells me it’s worth it to let the drunk personality dominate a few days a year even if it leaves him feeling sick, hung over, and useless. He felt good for the duration of his binge, and he felt better while he was drunk than he feels when he is sober. His solution is to binge drink twice a year. His sober self hates doing this, but if he doesn’t let his drunk personality have its way occasionally, then he feels like he is not being his full self.

I tell this client that this is his coping strategy. He’s got two personalities that are in conflict, and he cannot refuse either of them. I suggest that brokering a time-sharing arrangement between his drunk and sober selves is not a solution to the real problem. The real problem is that he has such low self-esteem that he must occasionally admit that he feels like shit and drinks himself into a stupor.

I’ll admit that it’s better that he respects both parts of himself, than he walls off one part in favor of the other. To do that would only assure that his subjugated part would get angrier and be even more self-destructive. But a better solution would be to repair his low self-esteem, which was put into him by an abusive step-father.

Another client in a similar situation takes things further. This client actually injures himself and endangers his personal relationships because of his self-loathing personality. His personalities are not ready to work together and, instead, act to subvert each other. They do this not only by abusing substances, but by abusing their social and family connections as well. I refuse to accept the behavior of his self-destructive self, and this self refuses to release its negative self-opinion. I continue to focus on positive change and improved self-image, and it refuses to do either. As a result, his selves won’t work with me.

The most serious disorder occurs when one’s parts agree to separate completely, have no awareness of each other, never communicate, and have separate memories and attitudes. These are the people who have blackouts and adopt incompatible presentations to the world without knowing it.

The more completely dissociative disorder, which is the more destructive, is that where the alter personalities cover for each other, making up excuses for the other’s missing parts and hiding the division.

This is the case in Robert Louis Stevenson’s “Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.” In this story, the personality of Dr. Jekyll is by turns good and evil, each unsympathetic to the other and each trying to hide the other. In Stevenson’s story, the negative personality results from a chemical elixir, but as the story progresses, the personalities alternate spontaneously. As their conflicts escalate, they become enemies and, in the end, one kills the other. That, of course, is the end of them both.

Amnesia Versus Alternation

This situation can be obvious with amnesia, where the person experiencing the amnesia has some clue that something is missing. Outsiders can tell that parts of their story are missing. But this is uncommon, probably because it is so obvious.

Part of the reasons that complete dissociation is well hidden is because it’s hidden by people we trust. Even when a person is in therapy, which is an admission of a problem, it is estimated to take five years of observation before a diagnosis of Dissociative Identity Disorder can be made.

When someone is lying pathologically, the only way to know it is to examine the evidence carefully. The evidence will be unclear because the person is hiding. Depending on which person you’re talking with, their story might be true. The discrepancy appears only between the stories of the two alter personalities, but those people may appear to separate audiences only.

There are fairly obvious clues if you know what to look for. I didn’t see these in my partner’s behavior because I thought being mercurial was natural for this person. It eventually became dramatically clear that these alter personalities were perceiving and describing to others entirely different versions of reality.

In one reality, I was funding my partner’s travels to foreign countries without me, attendance at a graduate divinity program in the city, a Rudolf Steiner program in a remote community, a business coaching program in another state, and to weekend-long psychedelic ceremonies, all while I stayed home to care for our infant son. In another reality, she told strangers I kept her imprisoned in our house and she was only rarely able to escape. The authors of these two stories lived separate lives until, one day, I bumped into someone who recognized me as The Imprisoner, and I was given a threatening lecture.

The revelation of these two stories caused a great commotion in our social circle, but no one understood they were told by different parts of one personality. It is typical of extreme identity conflict that, when presented with the evidence, both personalities shut down. I assume she has no memory of either being exposed or being called to represent her two selves at the same time.

When a person is in conflict with themselves, their personalities present conflicting views and either sabotage or avoid each other. They will alternate between emotions, attitudes, opinions, and physical presentations. To some degree, this is normal, and we’re encouraged to conform to social expectations.

Dissociated personalities poorly correlate with social expectations. Different personalities come forward in the same situations. Their selective appearance will correlate more with the energy than the context, having more to do with how a person feels rather than what other people intend.

Alters develop to service specific situations. Dissociation reveals itself in its rhythms and triggers. These triggers may not be traumatic to you, but they are probably noticeable. With my partner, sex was a trigger. It did not appear to be negative or traumatic from anything I could see, but over time, I could notice a repeated transformation of personality. This transformation was not negative from my point of view, but it was distinct and out of step.

To a lesser extent, social anxiety was a trigger, but many of these triggers are common and a mild dissociated result is expected. Many people get withdrawn before entering a group of strangers. The question was whether this personality was coordinated with my partner’s other personalities. It was only after years of observation that I surmised it was not.

Healing Dissociation

I think healing needs to be redefined in this case. Since there are normal levels of dissociation, what healing means in this context is improved integration. With complete dissociation, this means any integration at all.

Ninety percent of major dissociation correlates with childhood sexual abuse. The obstacle to integration is not the dissociation, it’s the trauma. The dissociation is only the symptom. The trauma is the cause. In fact, the dissociation was created as a defense, and it continues to defend against the trauma that exists in the form a fractured psyche. The question is how to heal a broken soul.

“Stabilization may take up to a year or more, depending on the client. If the client is unwilling to accept the diagnosis fully, it is highly unlikely she will be able to plunge right into communication among the parts. More likely is that she will approach the system work and then run when faced with internal parts that she does not want to accept as aspects of herself.”
Deborah Bray Haddock (2001, p129)

In her memoir, “My Father’s House,” author Sylvia Fraser (1989) says that her dissociated childhood self remained separate and unnoticed until she was in her 50s and had a mental breakdown. The mental breakdown was not caused by conflicts between her personalities, but by the emergence of the memories of childhood sexual abuse. She did not reintegrate until her psyche was ready to deal with these memories, and these memories were there all along, but they were suppressed.

I believe this is the ultimate answer to healing dissociation: it happens when a person is ready to make it happen. That time can be made sooner by a supporting environment, or later by a lack of support. But it can also be delayed by the persistence of coping mechanisms that are preferable to healing.

This is like addiction: one becomes addicted to one’s coping mechanism. In the way that drugs are used to self-medicate, dissociation is another form of self-medication. Where alcohol might numb one’s emotions, a separated personality will also numb a past too painful to be processed.

I believe my addiction clients must go through a process of recognition, revelation, and a desire to change. Similarly, the dissociated person must see their parts, recognize how this is preventing them from becoming fully enabled, and want to regain wholeness.

With my partner, this has not yet happened, but she is also not yet 50. We have separated and I observe her, but she lives in a psychically closed mind-space. I suspect that many people who are seriously dissociated never recover. I also suspect that many people who are never recognized as being dissociated do recover. I continue to look closely at my “normal” clients and wonder whether their problems are logistical, as they often claim, or dissociative, as they could not claim.

“If someone with major dissociation does not seek help, Dr. Hunter says it could get worse over time. She explains that you may find it difficult to feel safe or maintain a healthy long-term relationship. You may lose confidence in your identity, struggle to remember what happened the day before or find it difficult to be present in the moment.” — Jocelyn Solis-Moreira (2023)

I’m not sure how much we should make of this comment. Dr. Hunter’s failure to distinguish trance from dissociation makes me suspect they may confuse the outcomes of different issues. A person who has problems being present in the moment has little in common with a person whose alter personalities are in conflict.

Awareness is much more general in its effect than trauma. We can enhance awareness with lifestyle, diet, and brainwave training. Addressing trauma is a wholly different matter.

“We are all at various stages of integration or psychological maturity. DID is simply the most extreme form of disintegration… For the dissociator, (what’s important) is to be able to eventually reach the ‘Aha!’ type of realization that is not so much ‘I am different’ as it is ‘I am the same.’”
Deborah Bray Haddock (2001)

Consider whether your own alter states are working in the best interests.

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Fraser, S. (1989). My father’s house: A memoir of incest and healing, Harpercollins.

Haddock, D. B. (2001). The dissociative identity disorder sourcebook, McGraw-Hill.

Solis-Moreira, J. (2023 Feb 2). What Is Dissociation? Causes, Symptoms And Treatment, Forbes Health. Retrieved from https://www.forbes.com/health/mind/what-is-dissociation/

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