Understanding Dissociation

Dissociation is a word that is used for many different symptoms, and at times, it is understood differently by various professionals. Firstly, I think I would like to explain Integration which is what you strive for as a major part of your healing.


To understand dissociation, it is helpful first to understand a bit about its opposite, that is, integration. In the context of dissociative disorders,  integration can be understood as the organisation of all the different aspects of personality (including our sense of self) into a unified whole that functions in a cohesive manner. Each of us is born with a natural tendency to integrate our experiences into a coherent, whole life history and a stable sense of who we are. Our integrative capacity helps us to distinguish the past from the present and to keep ourselves in the present, even when we are remembering our past or contemplating our future. It also helps us develop our sense of self. The more secure and safe our emotional and physical environment as we grow up, the more we are able to further develop and strengthen this integrative capacity.

Each of us develops typical and lasting ways of thinking, feeling, acting and perceiving that are collectively called our personality. Of course, personality is not a “thing” that can be seen, or that lives and breathes, but rather is a shorthand term that describes our unique characteristic responses as complex, living systems. Usually, people function in a coordinated way so that they make smooth transitions between there response patterns to adjust and adapt to different situations, like shifting gears in a car. They can go from home to work and smoothly shift their thinking, feeling, decision making, and acting, yet still experience themselves as the same person. In this sense, our personality is stable and predictable. Yet, to be most effective in our lives, we are always subtly changing, adjusting, ada[ting and reorganising our personality as we learn and experience more.  In this sense, our personality is flexible.

Sense of Self

Over the course of our development, we gradually learn to connect our life experiences across time and situations with our sense of self. We can then have a fairly clear perception of who we are, and we can place these experiences in our “life history” as an integral part of our autobiography. Each of us has a sense of self that is part of our personality and that should be consistent across our development and across different circumstances: “I am me, I am myself as a child, as an adolescent, as an adult, as a parent, as a worker. I am me, myself in good, in difficult and in overwhelming circumstances. These circumstances and experiences all belong to me. My thoughts, behaviours, emotions, sensations and memories, no matter how pleasant or unpleasant – all belong to me.”


Dissociation is a major failure of integration that interferes with and changes our sense of self and our personality. Our integrative capacity can e chronically impaired if we are traumatised. It can also be disrupted or limited when we are extremely tired, stressed, or seriously ill, but in these cases, the disruption is temporary. Childhood traumatisation can profoundly hamper our ability to integrate our experiences into a coherent and whole life narrative because the integrative capacity of children is much more limited than adults and is still developing.

Of course, not all failures in integration result in dissociation. Integrative failures are on a continuum. Dissociation involves a kind of parallel owing and disowning of experience: While one part of you owns an experience, another part of you does not. Thus, people with dissociative disorders do not feel integrated and instead feel fragmented because they have memories, thoughts, feelings, behaviours and so forth and they experience as uncharacteristic and foreign, as though these do not belong to themselves. Their personality is not able to “shift gears” smoothly from one response pattern to another; rather their sense of self and enduring patterns of response change from situation to situation and they are not very effective at adopting new ways of coping. They experience more than one sense of self, and they do not experience these selves as (completely) belonging to them.

Dissociative Parts of the Personality

These divided senses of self and response patterns are called dissociative parts of the personality. It is as though there are not enough links or mental connections between one sense of self and another, between one set of responses and another. For example, a person with a dissociative disorder has the experience that some painful memories of her childhood are not her: “I did not have those bad experiences; I am not that little girl. She is scared, but that is not my fear. She is helpless, but that is not my helplessness”. This lack of realisation, this experience of “not me” is the essence of dissociation.

The function of each dissociative part of personality or self may range from extremely limited to more elaborate, The latter is especially true in cases if dissociative identity disorder (DID). Dissociation takes many forms. Many dissociative symptoms are common in people with dissociative disorders but each individual may also have his or her own unique subjective experience of dissociation.

The Origins of Chronic Dissociation

Dissociation generally develops when an experience is too threatening or overwhelming at the time for a person to be able to integrate it fully, especially in the absence of adequate emotional support. Chronic dissociation among parts of the personality or self may become a “survival strategy” in those who have experiences in early childhood trauma. To some degree, dissociation allows a person to try to go on with normal life by continuing to avoid being overwhelmed by extremely stressful experiences in both the present and the past. Unfortunately, it leaves one or more parts of the person “stuck” in unresolved experiences and another part forever trying to avoid these unintegrated experiences.

It is important for you to know that in your journey toward understanding and coping with your dissociation, you do not need to focus immediately on the painful past. Rather, the first goal is to make sense of the dissociative aspects of yourself and to learn to deal more effectively with them so you can feel better in your daily life. Resolving the past comes after you learn to cope in the present both with your external and with your inner world.

There are biological, social and environmental factors that make people more vulnerable to dissociation. Some people may have had a biological tendency to dissociate if perhaps they have organic problems with their brain that make it more difficult for them to integrate experience in general. Young children have less ability to integrate traumatic experiences than adults because their brains are not yet mature enough to do so. Their sense of self and personality are not yet very cohesive, and thus they are more prone to dissociation. And it has long been recognised that those without sufficient social and emotional support are more vulnerable to developing chronic trauma=related disorders, especially those who experience chronic childhood abuse and neglect. Finally, many families simply lack the skills to deal well with difficult feelings and topics; thus, they cannot help children who have been overwhelmed to learn effective emotional coping skills. Such skills are needed to overcome dissociation and resolve traumatic experiences.

If you need support or would like to connect with like-minded people join our Private and Closed online Facebook Group for Child Abuse Survivors and those with CPTSD. Click here to join

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