DISSOCIATION – Part One and Three Quarters.

by Velleda C. Ceccoli Ph.D. on September 20, 2010


Several weeks ago, I wrote two blogs on dissociation: On Being (One)self and Dissociation and Trauma. Both pieces described the process of dissociation on a spectrum of severity. Today’s blog, part one and three quarters, is meant to address a crucial difference in how dissociation is enlisted by our psyche, either as protective or defensive, and the point at which it shifts from a normal psychic activity to a more entrenched part of our character and way of functioning that becomes pathological.

In On Being (One)self, I wrote about dissociation as a normal, adaptive aspect of mental functioning, which protects us against potential disorganization. As a protective mechanism, dissociation is enlisted by our psyche automatically, much as an alarm system that alerts and protects us from incoming danger. As such, it is used as a protective device that proactively keeps us from becoming emotionally overwhelmed from the potential return of past experience that remains isolated from our conscious mind. As a normal psychic process, dissociation takes care of our daily and customary way of being, as well as any crisis that could threaten our experience of oneness.

In Trauma and dissociation (part 2), I described how trauma changes everything. Particularly our brain structure, and thus, our experience of ourselves. When we are exposed to trauma, dissociation is enlisted as a defense, which protects the psyche from being overwhelmed by more than it can process on the spot and in that moment. It provides, as my colleague Dr. Philip Bromberg states, “an escape when there is no escape.” With psychological trauma, dissociation is used as a defense from knowing. Its’ primary purpose is to keep us from knowing what has happened directly. It becomes the psyche’s way of enfolding the trauma, segregating it and exiling it into various parts of the self. As a defense, its primary purpose is to keep those self- states from communicating and linking the traumatic information. Think of it as a psychic army, which by dividing itself, contains the enemy in an attempt to conquer the trauma. But this psychic division is costly to psychological functioning and health. Survival, in such cases, is predicated on the dissociation of the traumatic experience from conscious states of being.

In the aftermath of trauma, what remains unconscious is not just the event, or affect, but a self-state (or many) with its own way of relating and being. These dissociated self-states provide a sense of selfhood, but again, at a cost. The traumatized psyche exercises an eternal hyper-vigilance on itself, destroying the ability to live creatively and spontaneously because it has lost its ability to move fluidly within itself.  Where psychological health requires the ability to experience all of our various self-configurations and conflict, and move within and between them.

To use a quote of Adam Phillips, describing what is curative about psychoanalysis, which I find appropriate to mental health: “it is the ability to meet and own all of those parts of ourselves that we spend much of our lives avoiding. “

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