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Dissociation: Greying out the Mind

Since finishing my therapy degree 6 years ago, dissociation has haunted me. 

The image I often use to describe dissociation is the ‘greyed out’ options you see on your computer when you click on a tab. You really want to press it but, for some reason, the system has greyed it out. For humans, dissociation is the mental process by which the conscious mind ‘greys out’ material that doesn’t serve it.

Sometimes this is a good and adaptive thing. For example, we need to grey out the expectations of the crowd if we’re focused on playing a good game of tennis. We can healthily shave away the sound of a ticking clock in a room while we’re working on something complex. And in moments of danger, we need to blank out anything that’s going to distract us from getting to safety.

But the ability to disregard phenomena that are occurring becomes a real problem when that dissociation is so habitual that it distorts our reality. 

Trauma is any event that is too much for the experiencing mind to process

These sort of long term ‘blind spots’ usually come up as a result of trauma.

We often associate trauma with very extreme things that happen to people: car crashes, near-death experiences, rape or abuse. But in the psychological sense trauma is any event that is too much for the experiencing mind to process.

So a little child who is left alone, crying in his cot, experiences unbearable levels of anxiety. That’s too much for a little person, so they zone out of the experience and go into a frozen state. They freeze out the trauma so they don’t have to experience it. 

The frozen tongue is not able to speak its grief.

Like ‘fight’ and ‘fight’, ‘freeze’ is the defence that comes from the long distant past of evolution. In some senses, freezing is the oldest of defences. It’s common to the reptiles and survives like an ancient relic in our mammalian and primate minds. But it’s also the most costly. Because freezing cuts us off from the lively possibilities of group care and communicating our distress. The frozen tongue is not able to speak its grief. 

And for that little boy in his cot, it’s as if he is not experiencing the awful anxiety. It’s separated off into a frozen or dissociated state. His parents will not see his distress because it is dissociated but they will experience a ‘weirdness’ or an absence when they engage with their son. He’ll be oddly quiet or uncannily still. 

And if the neglect is repeated over and over, then the dissociation becomes the little boy’s ‘personality’: “Ah, he’s such a quiet boy”. 

In this way, patterns of dissociation give birth to our ego-personalities. By this, I mean the conscious, “visible” part of ourselves that we acknowledge, work with and from which we engage the world.

When our trauma peeks through we feel weird and anxious.

All humans grow up this way – since no human life is free from moments of unbearable experience – but for many humans the ‘greying out’ works. We bumble through life, zoning out the things that upset us or threaten to remind us of trauma. And we have enough ‘colourful’ life left to make our existence worthwhile. 

But for some people, the amount of trauma they experience (and particularly those who experienced trauma early on) means they have to grey out almost everything to get by. This is what the great 1950 psychotherapist Harry Stacks Sullivan called ‘safety operations’:

“In the process of being brought up by humans, and as a result of experiencing anxiety and learning how to avoid it, dissociative gaps in consciousness inevitably form.

The self is organized around dissociative gaps, such that when these gaps in self-experience are in some way prevented from being sufficiently obscured by security operations, extreme anxiety can follow.”

When our trauma peeks through we feel weird and anxious. When the adult man who was once that crying boy in a cot, feels like he’s being neglected by his partner then the dissociative fog comes down. But if the partner calls him out on it, then the ‘security operation’ is being unmasked. And the anxiety gets much worse.

The mind becomes a desperately rigid maze of hedges filled with psychic thorns

This is the moment, in fact, that many people come to therapy or to meditation. The childhood security operations that had kept them safe through teenage and young adulthood are becoming too costly. As Richard Chefetz, another big name in the dissociation field puts it: 

“The mind becomes a desperately rigid maze of hedges filled with psychic thorns that unconsciously prod, poke and consume so much mental energy that there is little left over for living each day”.

When we find ourselves overwhelmed by vague anxiety and paralysing inertia then an overwhelm of dissociation could well be the cause. 

The beach ball and the rock

And the eery thing about dissociation is that we, of course, are unaware of it. Dissociation is different from repression, for example. Repression is like someone trying to push a big, inflatable beach ball under the surface of the water. We know that the beach ball is something we want to hide and we have to exert a considerable amount of effort to get it out of sight. 

Dissociation is much more like a large rock on the bottom of the sea. If we paused or someone pointed to it, we could definitely see it. But it requires effort to see it and it certainly requires effort to lift it up into the bright light of consciousness.

And when we do see it, it can be weirdly eery to connect with something that has always been there but never acknowledged.

“You think you’ve been meditating all these years but you’ve just been dissociating.”

So how can we see something that we’re unaware of?

Well, there are two main routes.

One is through the presence of an “Other”. Like the man who was left, untended in his cot, it takes a partner who we trust to point out what we are papering over. Or we can have a therapist or a support group who reflect back on these hidden aspects of ourselves that we have greyed out at such great cost. 

The second is through a particularly embodied form of meditation.

It’s alarming that more cerebral forms of meditation can actually mimic dissociation – as when the veteran teacher Rob Nairn called out a group of very ‘advanced’ meditators and said: “You think you’ve been meditating all these years but you’ve just been dissociating.” When we use sitting practice to grey out all the ‘unwanted’ parts of our experience we are definitely engaging in dissociation.

Being in our bodies cushions us from the fall-out of ‘association’

So we need to be completely in our bodies and use our somatic awareness as the main source of experience if we’re to get underneath the mental template of dissociation. At first, it might be just a hazy inkling of something. But over time  – and especially in parallel with one-on-one therapy – that sense of something emerging becomes stronger and stronger. And if we’re very strongly grounded in our practice, then the returning material doesn’t have to overwhelm us. 

Whether we are meeting our dissociated material through therapy or through somatic mediation. The return of the dissociated will often come with anxiety and with shame. It feels shameful that we have hidden this part of ourselves. Even while other people might be able to see it. But if we can work through this shame/anxiety of “association’ then we end up feeling much more integrated. And with a lot more energy. 

Podcast of the public talk from Scarborough, March 2018

I spoke at length on this subject in a talk I gave in Scarborough in March 2018. Talking about the various ways of understanding dissociation and about the fascinating but – ironically  ‘dissociated’. The lineage of therapists and thinkers who have been exploring this them over the last 100 years.  

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