by Velleda C. Ceccoli Ph.D. on August 31, 2010

Last week I wrote about the fact that our experience is discontinuous in nature. I also said that despite the fact that we experience ourselves as one, unitary being, we actually have many self-states or self configurations which help us along, are not always in our awareness, and are often dissociated. Then, a patient who read that blog, told me that in my attempt to address dissociation as part of normal experience, he felt that I may have trivialized it. Definitely not my intent. So here comes part two – dissociation as the result of trauma.

What happens when we experience severe trauma? When our mind is assaulted by something it could not have thought of or conceived? At its most basic, psychological trauma consists of an experience which comes too unexpectedly to be known, or fully processed and understood. Trauma interrupts our minds’ ability to think clearly and make sense of what has happened. Since we are unable to understand it and process it fully, traumatic experience overwhelms us and fragments our experience of being, of selfhood. It strikes at the very nature of who we experience ourselves to be. Traumatic experience demands that we deal with conflicting and incompatible ideas, thoughts, perceptions, emotions and sensations. That is where dissociation comes in: it holds the incompatible and conflictual for us. Out of our conscious awareness, but replete with information about the trauma and our experience of it.

Psychological trauma is and remains unassimilated experience, and it comes back to haunt the survivor experientially. Survivors often feel that they are no longer themselves and have been changed forever. Even Freud, in his early studies of hysteria found that the experience of trauma repeated itself, unremittingly, through the unknown acts of the survivor and against his/her will. Psychological trauma remains alive in the unwitting reenactment of an event that one cannot leave behind. It involves a breach in our experience of time, self, and our connection to the world. This is where dissociation operates. Our survival is predicated on it. Dissociation attempts to protect our psychic integrity  by isolating traumatic experience and un-linking it from conscious awareness. In the process, it may alter our perception of time, our memory, and our ability to be present in the here and now.

Sometimes, a traumatic event and its sequelae is exiled (dissociated) and carried by another part of us (a self state), leaving a rumbling trace of itself in our conscious mind, which can be triggered in part or in its entirety by life events and/or intense emotions. Or, as in the case of Multiple Personality Disorder, where self-fragmentation has occurred, many self states (or full personalities) will hold parts of the original trauma and the reaction(s) to it, as well as feelings, sensations and memories. It is precisely at the intersection of knowing that something has happened, and not knowing (what, how, when, if ) – that dissociation envelops the traumatic event, creating a psychic lacunae. In the dissociative space brought on by psychological trauma, it is action through behavioral repetition and re-enactment that narrate the story, and become the voice and language of the original trauma. Think of repetitions, particularly of painful experiences, as attempts to get it right and heal. Psychological trauma and the psychic wound that it creates is often felt but not consciously accessible, -it remains dissociated- except as it imposes itself again, in the nightmares and repetitive actions of the survivor. The repetition itself offering an opportunity to face the trauma anew, to prepare, to respond differently, and to be finished with it.

Psychological trauma is not healable in a simple, straightforward way. Often healing and integration of traumatic experience  requires a re-processing of the original event(s), feelings, thoughts and sensations. It is not only a matter of locating psychological trauma in the original event(s) in an individual’s past, but also of discovering the way(s) that it returns to haunt them: In the way it seeps into their lives and the very fabric of their experience. In the way that it helps to construct and destruct their relationships. The dissociation that accompanies psychological trauma holds the story of a reality that is lived, experienced, and survived by the self and its many configurations, but at a very high cost. It is the story of  tragic past experience that continues to impact its survivor in search of  resolution and finality.  It is the story of psychic survival in the wake of catastrophic experience.

* For more on this topic please look up and read  Philip Bromberg (in the suggested reading list in my resource section).

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

kathleen June 9, 2014 at 2:42 PM

thank you so much- appreciate the clarification of a term i heard and wasnt sure i understood- also helps me to understand myself better


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