ON BEING (ONE)SELF: The discontinuity of experience.

by Velleda C. Ceccoli Ph.D. on August 23, 2010

Modern psychoanalysis thinks of the self as having multiple states or narratives. Patients walk into our offices and present us with their story, but as analysts we know there are many stories to one self, and many experiential states to that self. Furthermore, we know, that depending on the day, event, mood, and situation, we may meet and come upon a different self, one who can narrate and/or be in touch with a different set of experiences. I am not speaking about Multiple Personality Disorder, as in The Three Faces of Eve or Sybil, where the psyche fragments due to severe trauma. I am referring to normal experience. Our “sense of ourselves” is discontinuous from the very beginning.

Psychic experience begins as a chaotic state consisting of physical sensations, which start to take shape through the modulation of our experience by our caretakers. It is further assisted by language development and our ability to begin to use words to label our experience and communicate it to others. This continues to evolve over time incorporating the impact of our experiences. We develop a more or less cohesive sense of ourselves that comes about as we mature, and continues to evolve and elaborate itself as we knit together who we are from our experiences: the good, the bad, the traumatic. This allows us to entertain the illusion of one self: coherent, consistent, and authentic. Yet there are many self-states that are part of that oneness, and we are not always aware of them. In fact, we cannot be. Our experience is necessarily discontinuous and fragmented to various degrees.

For instance, have you ever been driving and suddenly wondered whether you actually stopped at the last red light? Chances are you did, but you do not remember or have a mental picture of doing so. You “blanked out” and some other part of you, hopefully the part that knows how to drive, took over – automatically filling in. We might consider this momentary ‘spacing out’ as a dissociative moment in normal experience. These moments occur to all of us. They help filter and titrate experience and the demands that life and circumstances place on our psyche.

Consider now a more emotionally loaded situation. Years ago, when I gave my first psychoanalytic presentation, I remember watching the entire event while sitting with the audience. I knew I had been nervous prior to the presentation, yet I did not expect what happened next. I could recognize myself at the podium, and could hear my voice clearly, but I was not presenting, some other I was (and it knew how to address an audience!). Thankfully, when it was over and I was talking to my friends and colleagues, I was back, and we could laugh and commiserate over my performance anxiety and my out of body experience during my talk. This “out of body experience” constitutes a dissociative state. Both these examples highlight dissociation in service of the ego, that is, in the service of maintaining our ability to function.

We flee or dissociate when we cannot hold two conflicting states of mind at the same time, so one part of us goes away while another tries to get on with the situation at hand. Yet, we are indeed not fully there. In the example above, I was more nervous than I cared to admit on the day of my presentation and rather than panic in front of my colleagues, potentially blowing my presentation, I ‘went away’ leaving the podium to a calmer me. In this instance, dissociation kept me from experiencing acute anxiety and potential shame while allowing me to finish my presentation. Dissociation is the psyche’s response to the threat of fragmentation. It is the psyche’s attempt to protect us from conflicting and overwhelming information and experience. The degree of dissociation is often determined by the degree of the threat to our psyche. Thus, on a continuum of experience we can space out at one end, have fugue states or amnesia, and experience discrete and separate self-states, as in multiple personality disorder at the other: With many and multiple dis-variations of experience in between.

Dissociation can take many forms, individually crafted by our history and personality. Think of it as our psyche’s way of maintaining and supporting our sense of ourselves, of shuffling our various self-states into our experience of one self.

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