This is Part II of Matt’s excellent articles on Dissociation. survivingmypast.net
This is Part II in the two-part series, talking about how Perfectionism and Dissociation can fuel Anxiety. Part 1 can be found by clicking here; a look at how Perfectionism in healing leads to Anxiety and self shame.
Dissociation is something close to my heart, not only because I live with it, and it saved my life during the childhood sexual abuse, but also because it’s fascinating to research and learn about. It’s just like anything else, the more you educate yourself, the better you understand how it affects you and in turn you gain more tools for your survivor tool box to increase the effectiveness of your healing efforts.
So what about Dissociating then, how does that give Anxiety an extra boost? (as if it needed one anyway), and for that matter how does Dissociation fuel Perfectionism, which in turns gives Anxiety even more power?
So, you’re sitting at home and reading a book, or doing some research. Perhaps you’re working on some homework that your helping professional gave you. You know you need to do the task you’ve set out to do because it’s important to your healing journey.
You’re reading along and without notice or warning, you’re suddenly wandering off to never-never land. Your mind leaves the book, leaves that blog post, and takes you away to blank space. You sit there for a few seconds, a few minutes, and then suddenly you snap back and you have no idea what you just read. You now have to go back and re-read that page, or start that worksheet over because non of what you just did makes any sense.
You shame yourself, you feel anxiety rising because “you did it again”. Now something that may have taken 15 or 20 minutes now is taking 45 minutes.
“Why can’t I concentrate”?! “What is my deal?” “Why should I even bother when this happens ALL the time”?
Now Anxiety really cranks up its intensity and fills your head with lies; you don’t deserve to heal, you can’t possibly hope to ever feel better, and your life is doomed to be one of misery and despair. All because you Dissociate so often that it makes even the most normal seeming of tasks, incredibly difficult.
How about this: You make a list for the grocery store, and set off to fill that list and stay on your budget. You’ve got the list in your hand as you walk around the store finding your items and going about your merry way. Then you start to star blankly at your list, everything seems overwhelming, you forget why you’re there, and questioning why you have a bunch of stuff written down.
Then you get triggered, taken back by a memory of a sight or smell you encountered while walking throughout the store. Your mind recognizes it instantly as a traumatic thought and you begin to Dissociate again as a defense mechanism. Your mind wants to protect you again, just as it did when you were experiencing the abuse in real-time all those years ago.
You end up leaving the store and not buying anything, leaving your cart sit in the middle of the aisle, because you just have to get out of there as soon as you snap back to reality. Or you decide you’ve had enough and check out without filling your list, and then shame yourself because you couldn’t do something as simple as a routine grocery store run and you know you’ll have to go back again later.
Anxiety now has more fuel as it feeds you the lie that you can’t handle what everyone else can. You aren’t worthy of beating Anxiety, so don’t even bother. Your life is so screwed up that you can’t stay on task when you have a list in front of you telling you what you need to do.
What about sitting in your therapist or helping professionals’ office for a session each week. Perhaps you are working your way through a workbook, or talking about a recent memory you had, and you are suddenly triggered; your mind takes you away. You find yourself staring blankly into space yet again, looking your therapist right in the eye but seeing nothing. Their words run together into some foreign language that you can’t possibly comprehend, and after snapping back to the present you realize you have totally lost the last 30 seconds to several minutes.
Now you are shaming yourself, and Anxiety continues its onslaught: You are just wasting your time, wasting your money. You can’t possibly understand what that person is telling you, you can’t heal. Just give up already.
We know that Dissociation happens as a defense mechanism, our brain takes us away, not allowing us to be fully present at the time of trauma, to protect us. If we didn’t Dissociate, we might not survive the trauma as it unfolded real-time.
While the act of Dissociation is something that saved us, it can also fuel self shame and Anxiety if we aren’t careful, and mindful of how we react to these types of situations.
There are countless other examples that I’m sure you can relate too in your life, and I encourage you to share them in the comments or contact me anytime with your thoughts.
When we understand how Dissociation, Perfectionism, and Anxiety can all play off each other and feed each other, we are then 1 step closer towards releasing the self shame, and stripping Anxiety of its power. We may not be able to head off every single situation before it comes, but with time and understanding and self compassion, we can better equipped to handle it and minimize its effect on us.
So what are we to do then? Well the answer lies in what we may already be doing in our healing journey, we just have recognize and embrace it.
- Self-Compassion: Let go of the incessant need to beat ourselves up, and let’s give ourselves a break. Love yourself and understand that these things are natural for trauma survivors but it doesn’t mean that it’s a life sentence of misery.
- Acknowledgment: Recognize that Dissociating helped you when you needed it. Thank your mind for protecting you, but let it know that, You are OK now, you aren’t in danger, and you can handle this situation.
- Mindfulness: Be fully present in everything that you do, as often as you can. If you find yourself slipping away for a minute, just gently remind yourself that you are OK and then go about your business. Don’t dwell on it and give Anxiety a chance to take hold of you again. Keep a stress ball handy, or a worry stone, or trace the corners of a wall. Something that you can concentrate on to keep your mind from drifting off. Practicing meditation is a great activity as well, as it helps you focus and train your mind.
You might also be interested in a podcast that I did on the topic of Dissociation, which you can check out by clicking here.