What do you think of when you hear the word “dissociate”?
Do you wonder what it means, or think “I never do that” or maybe, “that’s my go-to reaction”, or anything in between?
What is dissociation?
The dictionary tells us it is separation, disconnect of parts (dictionary.com). So how does it show up in our psyche?
Dissociation can be any moment you might disconnect from the present moment.
Generally, in psychology, it is discussed within the context of extreme trauma cases as a full separation from reality leading to disorders. Yet it is in our daily life as well. When you’re sharing a story with someone and they look like they’re listening, yet they have that glaze over their eyes, and you know intuitively they are far away and not really with you, they’ve dissociated. Or maybe as you’re listening you’re doing it where you can see but not really focus and look at the person. You feel a bit far away from what’s really going on. Like you’re watching a movie as opposed to being in it.
When we are not in the present, we are elsewhere. We are disconnected from the now, from our potential to experience ourselves and our environment fully. It is a powerful skill and defense.
Why would we build such a defense?
Dissociation is formed when the living present moment becomes unbearable. This can be a traumatic event such as war, rape, car accident, death…etc. These experiences can be excruciating for an adult, let alone a child. For a little child’s nervous system, this unbearable feeling can come from feeling unwanted by a parent, or terror from a parent’s rage. Many parents in current Western cultures don’t get much familial support to help relieve some of the pressure and overwhelm associated with taking care of a newborn. Mothers can often get postpartum depression. They’re in their own trauma and overwhelm so they may dissociate from connection. They’re trying to survive what feels unbearable to them. The child may experience this dissociation as a rejection of themselves. That feeling of rejection is painful enough for a child to start developing this survival skill. We perfect it with age and time. Life in the now doesn’t stand a chance.
We all use this defense to different degrees. We check-out on a regular basis throughout our day in myriad ways. Pretending to be busy or keeping ourselves busy is one way we dissociate. This “busyness” can range from going over the grocery list in your head to wondering if your kid is having a good day at school. Perpetual busyness has other defenses mixed in with it, but once again, the main goal is to not be in the now. Can you look within, see if and/or when you disconnect? Maybe Facebook or your workout is a part of your check out from your present?
What makes our present moment not okay for us to want to be in? It has to do with pain and suffering, be it emotional, physical, or spiritual. The beauty of dissociation is, we can let this defense become our guide to our true essence. When you claim yourself, own your wounds and scars, your longings and strengths, you can move from dissociation to social engagement and connection.
How do we go about doing that?
Notice when you dissociate or “check out”. Is it at a certain time of day/night? In the presence of a person maybe or certain situations? Do some situations or people trigger a more intense check out for you than others? How do you know you’ve dissociated? Was it that you just didn’t hear what you were being told or does your body give you different signals? Do you feel numb, or hot or cold when it happens? Tense or relaxed? Maybe you notice only your neck, or maybe some other part of your body is tense and everything else gets less tense, or collapses. Do you notice thoughts? fantasies? plans?
Sometimes, when we dissociate, we can run into open doors or edges of chairs and tables. I used to be good at that. If you’re not truly in your body, your body cannot truly align itself through the spaces it goes through. When I first started doing my personal growth work, I noticed I often felt “fine.” It was because I was so numb that I didn’t realize there was so much going on; I was actually numb from overwhelm. So, I said I’m doing well. My body was aware of the situation though. My big clue for a while was how often I ran into things. Even in large open doorways I randomly hit the doorknob. Coffee tables were my nemesis! To an untrained eye, I was just clumsy. To my surprise, the more I worked on my wounds around this survival skill and I became more present, I was less clumsy.
Don’t get me wrong, I still have my clumsy moments. One of my passions is ballroom dancing and I still find myself kicking my own foot at times and use that as my cue to ground and find my body and myself again. Personal growth and self-empowerment is a lifelong practice. We get to keep fine-tuning our skills.
When we explore dissociation in our lives, we begin to see that it is a painful ‘survival skill’ that keeps taking us out of our present living moment. But, today, how does it support you where you are? And, just as importantly, how does it inhibit you from living your potential, where you are in your life?
The great news is that you are an adult now. As an adult, your nervous system (safety vs fight or flight) can tolerate more discomfort and pain than you could as a baby or a young child. You get to decide if you want to challenge this defense system where it doesn’t serve you. If there is a painful place that you know it is helping you stay away from, you can reach out for help. We are social creatures and our pain can come from lack of connection or unhealthy connection. And thankfully, our healing can come from healthy supportive connection.
Do you dare take a chance and create the change you want to live a thriving life?
Defne Dinler is a licensed Somatic Counseling Psychotherapist who uses action-oriented therapeutic modalities that lead to a deeper understanding and achievement of goals for teens and adults. She specializes in behavioral challenges, depression, anxiety, and trauma. As a Body Psychotherapist her belief is that to heal the mind one needs to connect to their body first.