Dissociation Isn’t a Life Skill

“Dissociation isn’t a life skill.” ~ Sandra L. Brown, M.A.

Dissociation is described as:

  1. The splitting off of a group of mental processes from the main body of consciousness, as in amnesia.
  2. The act of separating or state of being separated.
  3. The separation into two or more fragments.

Let’s talk about dissociation a minute… it’s technically a defense mechanism—we separate from our memory things that we don’t want or can’t deal with. In trauma (like abuse or rape), that’s helpful at the time. If dissociation becomes your major defense mechanism, it can become one of several full-blown dissociative disorders which are very intense types of disorders. But outside of full-blown dissociative disorders, there is still the ability to heavily rely on dissociation even if you don’t have a disorder.

We can unknowingly learn to dissociate and use it against ourselves! Dissociation is when we separate the details of an event from our awareness. I think this happens with dangerous men as early as the first date – when we choose to not pay attention to our screaming red flags. We are dissociating their messages away from our awareness because, if we truly became aware, we might ditch them early on and we don’t want to.

Dissociation can become a primary defense mechanism if you grew up in a dysfunctional, abusive, addictive, or violent home. That’s because children can easily go on ‘overwhelm mode’ and check out—or dissociate—because they can’t handle what’s going on. If you never learned adult coping skills, it’s likely you use the ones you do know, which are from childhood. And, if your primary skill was dissociation, you’re probably using that now and it probably has gotten you into a lot of trouble in your patterns of relationship selection.

After a while, you don’t even know you’re dissociating. It’s just automatic. So you can dissociate away a lot of IMPORTANT stuff early on—like discrepancies in his stories, the not-so-nice words he says to you, the tone of his voice, or other behaviors that SHOULD cause concern but don’t.

Any time you separate a memory from all its components, you are dissociating from the whole memory, which is why remembering ALL the relationship issues—not just the good times—is important. The bad times are a part of the memory or the memory is merely a fragment of what REALLY happened. You can also separate other parts of the memory like sensations, words or phrases, physical or sexual pain inherent in the memory, things you tasted/smelled/saw, and various emotions that were prevalent in the relationship. That’s why women get these very skewed ‘snapshots’ of just the good times long after those times have passed. The whole snapshot would look very different indeed if it incorporated all the senses into the memory.

Sometimes women can dissociate—or fragment—the meaning, motive, or intent as well. So he uses all your money and your response is, “He meant well; he just doesn’t know how to handle money.” That’s not likely the situation, so the motive or meaning of what he was REALLY doing is fragmented so you don’t have to take action.

Dissociation can become an unconscious reason to say, “I didn’t notice…” because underneath, dissociation was naturally at work and it also worked for the ability to stay in the relationship and not notice. How long can you live on the reasoning behind dissociation which is, “I didn’t know, I didn’t notice”? This is why I say that dissociation is not a life skill. It doesn’t help you move forward. Instead, it keeps you frozen in time.

Women describe dissociation as a numbing or spacey feeling. They either don’t feel something or they are too spaced out to do much about it. In the middle of a traumatic event, spacing out and numbing is a good thing. Even as adults, I still advocate that there are times for ‘therapeutic dissociation’—like during a root canal. Who wants to be present and aware for that? But the problem is that dissociation becomes largely unmanaged. Then it becomes downright dangerous to you, robbing you of your ability to be aware, in tune, and vigilant.

Look back over your childhood for patterns of dissociation. Look back over your adult relationships and see how influenced your choices were by dissociation. Look at your life NOW for signs of when you check out, become aware, drift off, or stuff feelings at the speed of light so you don’t have to make a decision about something. These are all aspects of dissociation.

While it may have helped you in a time of trauma, as an adult your recovery is about growing healthier and developing stronger coping skills than mere dissociation. All of real life is happening now—are you missing it?

(**If we can support you in your recovery process, please let us know. The Institute is the largest provider of recovery-based services for survivors of pathological love relationships.  Information about Pathological Love Relationships is in our award-winning book, Women Who Love Psychopaths, and is also available in our retreats, 1:1s, or phone sessions. See the website for more information.)

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