Dissociation is something we all experience from time to time, ranging from tuning out briefly to operating on autopilot and zoning out while driving. However, for individuals with complex developmental trauma and/or PTSD, dissociation can be much more disruptive and affect daily functioning in significant ways.
Dissociation can involve being very aware of oneself cognitively, but being disconnected from one’s feelings and environment. In fact, individuals with somatic dissociation are often very insightful and self-aware on many levels, but are unable to sense their own bodies. Functional freeze is a common management strategy when relationships or being present and embodied were unsafe and emotionally overwhelming. To touch into that much activation is too much, so it remains bound in the system, just out of reach.
Dissociation can be an odd experience, ranging from lapses in memory, to feeling comfortably numb, to feeling terror at feeling disconnected from reality and any concrete sense of oneself.
It can also manifest as fragmentation of the personality, resulting in different self or ego states that have distinct ages, emotions, sensations, behaviours and ways of relating. For some, each of these “parts” has an important role to play, either in terms of protecting more vulnerable parts, suppressing rage that wasn’t safe to express, or carrying and compartmentalizing traumatic memories that at one point overwhelmed one’s capacity to cope. Occasionally, there can be a lack of awareness of the younger parts when in an adult state, or lack of awareness of the adult state when in a younger part. When structural dissociation is this extensive, it can sometimes result in a diagnosis of Dissociative Disorder Not Otherwise Specified or Dissociative Identity Disorder.
The concept of the inner child resonates for certain people. These earlier, younger emotional states can surface when triggered, insecure, or when we are disconnected from our own internal “wise adult”, “self-coach” or “kind inner parent”. Learning to shift from disowning, shaming or criticizing those younger parts of ourselves – our old wounds – to gently embracing and integrating these tender parts is a core part of healing and recovery.
As we build a curious and loving adult witness and develop co-consciousness of these various parts, this can relieve the pressure on these younger parts to continue to subconsciously act out in distorted ways to feel heard or to protect the whole self. Learning to acknowledge, name and validate our early raw emotions and needs helps develop greater adult emotional regulation and sense of self/spirit. The more we can work through activation in a titrated way without fear or shame, extend self-compassion to ourselves, nurture and self-soothe, the more our younger parts can trust that they are no longer alone in their distress. Reclaiming these split off aspects of the self is a courageous, gradual process.
Dissociation and parts work is inspired by the inner child work of Dr. John Bradshaw, the Transactional Analysis model, and Structural Dissociation model. For additional reading on this subject, click here.