March 11, 2011

Emotional Abuse and Dissociation

Posted in Emotional Abuse tagged , , , at 4:18 pm by rainbowgryphon

Most people who delve into the topic of abuse run across the concept of dissociation sooner or later. Often this is in the context of dissociative identity disorder (DID), formerly called multiple personality disorder. Since the 1980s, we’ve heard about more and more cases (such as Eve, Sybil, Billy Milligan, etc.), and the apparent bizarreness of this condition draws readers in. Actually, there’s nothing bizarre about dissociation. It’s a tendency to zone out, which we all do on occasion.

Research tends to differentiate between nonpathological and pathological dissociation (although I’m personally not fond of those terms). The nonpathological type basically doesn’t interfere with normal functioning. It includes things like nurturing creativity, exploring solutions to problems, and the ability to be hypnotized. I’m referring in this article to the pathological type, which can make it difficult to concentrate on our daily tasks and connect with our feelings. Of particular interest to me are findings linking dissociation with emotional abuse.

The Experience of Dissociation

In an article written for the Colonial Academic Alliance Undergraduate Research Journal last year (Vol. 1), Geoffrey Hunt describes the experience of dissociation. He defines this condition as a feeling of unreality, as if we’re separate from our body, thoughts, emotions, and environment. This doesn’t have to involve identities that take over our mind. There’s something called depersonalization disorder, which involves frequent dissociative symptoms that interfere with normal functioning.

It can be very disconcerting to zone out frequently. We have trouble concentrating on what we need to do in our lives, from the complex to the simple. Hunt states that this may influence perception. In other words, we may see things out of focus or distorted. I know I have this experience when I don’t make an effort to remain in the moment. I suspect we all do this, but perhaps people with dissociative tendencies do it more easily and thus it can get distracting.

The International Society for the Study of Trauma and Dissociation has a detailed FAQ about dissociation and dissociative disorders. They cite Paul Dell, who wrote that “[d]issociation may affect a person subjectively in the form of ‘made’ thoughts, feelings, and actions. These are thoughts or emotions seemingly coming out of nowhere, or finding oneself carrying out an action as if it were controlled by a force other than oneself.” These feelings of being controlled by thoughts, feelings, and behaviors that we’re not connected to doesn’t have to be full-blown DID. I personally have moments when I’m doing dishes or walking to the store and zone out so completely that when I “wake up,” I find I’ve accomplished my task or arrived at my destination without remembering the way I did it.

In a previous post, I talked about the fantasy prone personality, including the link between abuse and excessive fantasizing. Some of us easily slip into an alternative world within our imagination and get absorbed in it. For abuse victims, this kind of intensive daydreaming can provide comfort and help us cope with a hostile environment. Problems happen, though, when we find it tough to remain in the moment and deal with what’s in front of us. We may escape situations that we can and need to change or stunt our potential by remaining in our fantasies rather than making the leap into concrete action.

Emotional Abuse and Dissociation

Hunt tells us that the most common dissociative symptom is emotional numbing. Not all people who dissociate were abused, but for those of us who were, I think emotional numbing is a natural reaction to our painful upbringing. He also cites Daphne Simeon, Orna Guralnik, James Schmeidler, Beth Sirof, and Margaret Knutelska, who published an article in the American Journal of Psychiatry in 2001. They state that their research “suggests a unique relationship between emotional abuse and depersonalization disorder, while other more severe types or combinations of abuse may contribute to more severe dissociative symptoms, such as amnesia or identity disturbances.”

In other words, their findings suggest that dissociation isn’t just one type of experience. It’s a continuum, and the degree of zoning out gets more intense as the abusive environment gets more threatening. We experience intense emotions (anger, fear, despair, frustration), but often showing them got us into even more trouble, and this triggers dissociation in some way.

This may turn into a habit that lasts well beyond the abusive environment. We develop a knee-jerk tendency for protection even when there isn’t apparent danger. It becomes a preventive measure. For instance, I often find myself daydreaming after beginning some activity that requires me to use new skills or skills that make me feel incompetent. I really have to struggle to maintain my attention on what I’m doing. I like to escape from the feelings of discomfort into dissociation.

One of my favorite films of all time is the 1947 film The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, starring Danny Kaye, based on a short story by James Thurber. In the film, Walter has an oppressive mother. In the story, it’s his wife. In any case, we get a perfect description of what it’s like to live with dissociation and how emotional abuse plays into that situation. Both film and story are comical, but we can see how the intrusiveness of a controlling abuser can drive us to zone out and how that can become a habit.

The Dissociative Experience Scale (DES)

There’s something called the Dissociative Experience Scale, which is often used to test for DID. Just in a general sense, though, answering these 28 questions can give us an idea of how we might dissociate. A higher score supposedly indicates greater disturbance. For instance, Kathy Broady, a licensed clinical social worker who wrote about scoring of the Dissociative Experience Scale, stated that “[s]cores over 30 will indicate a high likelihood of the person having dissociative identity disorder.” She admits, though, that DID has been diagnosed in people who got 20 or less, so this isn’t a definitive test.

I got a score of 29, which is really close to the threshold that Broady defines, but I know I don’t have DID. I wouldn’t even say my dissociative symptoms interfere with normal functioning. I do have to struggle to maintain my attention sometimes and avoid getting too absorbed in fantasies so that I can move beyond them and actually take action. However, I don’t feel like my daydreams are constantly overwhelming me and I can’t get anything done. I can usually choose how I handle them.

I know, though, that dissociation, even if it’s not DID, disturbs a lot of people. If you think you might have DID then please seek counseling (see my disclaimer page for ideas). Broady also wrote a post about choosing a counselor for trauma-based dissociative identity disorder. For those of us who suffer from mild symptoms, like me, I found an article about dealing with dissociation from John Knapp, a licensed master social worker who specializes in ritual abuse, which is a horrifying type of abuse that commonly leads to dissociation.

As I stated in my introduction, this type of behavior isn’t bizarre, but it can be intrusive. Milder forms of dissociation can also be more common in emotional abuse survivors. It’s best, though, to learn to tame this coping mechanism that served us well in our abusive environment but can interfere with daily life.


  1. Astrid said,

    Thank you for covering this subject. When I learn about dissociation, I so often read about sexual abuse, which I didn’t go through. It is interesting to read about dissociation as a consequence of “milder” hurting. I have a diagnosis of DID, and often think that my experience was not bad enough to dissociate over. Thanks for validating me.

    • rainbow said,

      Hi Astrid,

      Welcome to my blog. I’m glad you found this post interesting. I too found validation in discovering the research link between depersonalization/dissociation and emotional abuse. It made so much sense to me intuitively, but it’s good to see researchers supporting that.

      Even though I’m fairly sure that I don’t have DID, I definitely have identity issues (which perhaps explains why I got 29 on the DES?). For example, when I was living with my abusive family, and that includes as an adult, I really felt like I was two different people: the person on the outside that they expected me to be and someone totally different on the inside. Now, I realize that many of us have this kind of conflict, but I really felt detached from both, like I was this walking robot who assumed that there was this totally different person within who I didn’t really know. Add to that the totally different person that I was in my fantasies, and we get a lot of fragmentation and confusion!

      Part of what I’ve been struggling with now so much is discovering who that authentic person within me really is and letting go of everything that’s false. Which means I have to stop being emotionally detached from myself and my life. Which means sometimes I just feel crappy about everything!

      I checked out your blog, too, and was really amazed at your honesty. You clearly haven’t had an easy life! I’ve subscribed to your feed and look forward to reading more of your thoughts. I hope to see you commenting here again.

      Stay strong!

  2. Lothlorien said,

    Just stumbled upon this particular blog post. Very well written. I plan to read more of your posts. You blog a lot like I do. :) Your writing is similar.

    • rainbow said,

      Welcome Lothlorien,

      I’m pleased to see you visiting my blog. I agree that we have a similar approach to these very difficult topics. I see we both include academic research where we see a place for it. I see a lot of survivors blogging about their experiences, thoughts, and beliefs without bothering much with academic research. I totally respect this, especially since the more I do academic research, the more I realize how limited it can be.

      I do, though, see a place for including academic research, particularly when it supports our own experiences. It’s also good for us to see what academia, which drives policies and practices, is saying about our experiences. For instance, the fact that research shows a strong link between “milder” forms of dissociation and emotional abuse was enlightening to me and I think an important finding.

      As an abuse survivor who’s also “got a foot” in academia and social work practice (note that Lothlorien is studying for a master’s in social work), you’re in a unique position to see both sides. I once toyed with the idea of studying to be a therapist and helping survivors that way, but I’ve since learned that this isn’t my calling.

      I’ve got your blog bookmarked and will check it regularly. Do come by again and comment if you find something here that’s of interest.

      Stay strong!

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