When we feel different than the person we are projecting to others, it can cause stress and sometimes shame. Most of us have felt that way at times, and the ability to integrate again is usually fluid. But when we feel fragmented and fake most of the time, it can be extremely painful and debilitating. The desire to feel centered and authentic is a healthy longing. For those who have either come from a background of abuse or have experienced extraordinary trauma as an adult, a fragmentation of personality may have occurred that – whether conscious or not – emotionally isolates that person.
In the past, it was believed that in the case of extreme trauma some people would split into alternate personalities – or “alters”. The term applied to it was Multiple Personality Disorder. That diagnosis was never empirically proven, and so it evolved into the less dramatic Dissociative Personality Disorder. Dissociating from ones feelings, and therefore acting differently than you feel, is a state of being that is more identifiable and also more conscious. And while those who dissociate shut down their feelings, they can, at a later point, recognize their behavior without totally losing a core sense of identity.
For the rest of us there is a wider – less obvious – spectrum of “dissociation” that occurs. While it may seem as if the little girl who mentally removes herself as she is being sexually assaulted by her father is worlds apart from the adult female who tempers her personality and pretends to be confident, relaxed and engaging in a tense professional situation, they are both putting up false fronts in order to survive the circumstances they are thrust into. The more conscious and subtle the transformation, the more widespread and socially acceptable it is. But feeling fake is troubling. Feeling afraid to be, or unacceptable as you are, is painful. And it is exhausting as well. Are there people who are constantly themselves – who sit in a centered core place of emotional reality no matter what the circumstances? Perhaps, but I personally don’t believe there is such a person among us. Not because we are not capable of such connected and empowering behavior, but because we live in a “civilized” society, governed by a particular set of rules, which force us to regularly navigate situations that don’t necessarily feel instinctive or honest.
While each society’s rules can be slightly different, the need to conform to them in order to survive is similar. Does that make civilized society psychologically unhealthy for human beings? No, it is, in and of itself, a necessary structure from which the species has evolved and which remains necessary for continued survival and development. So while not instinctive, natural, or even always emotionally healthy, we must grapple with its existence and adapt to it in ways that embellish not paralyze us.
Working predominately with trauma, many of my clients exhibit the most dramatically negative results of the impact of society on their core being.
What for one person can be intermittent social anxiety, for another can be painfully paralyzing anxiety or panic, which isolates them from daily life. Or they can immerse themselves in a false front, which is so rigidly constructed that it is always on the brink of being fractured; while sudden uncontrollable outbursts, keep others at bay. Regardless of the degree of dissociation, there is always an emotional price to be paid- an intermittent depression (exhaustion) from keeping up the front.
What are the alternatives and how do we take charge of these different degrees of dissociation? I believe that the first step is consciousness. Becoming aware of what you do and why you do it. Becoming aware of how it affects you. Discerning what works for you emotionally and what doesn’t. Taking your own emotional temperature, and not shying away from your findings. Suppression has been your first line of defense; awareness becomes your first line of psychological growth. Once we look at ourselves unsparingly, we begin to take care of ourselves in a new manner, a stance that neither depletes nor distances us from others. A new way of interacting in the world that feels empowering while also appearing attractive to others.
We are never going to be perfectly honest creatures; we are never going to not put up a front or a slightly different personality in more challenging situations. But we can be aware of what we are doing, why we are doing it, and how it is making us more socially and personally effective communicating, building relationships and achieving intimacy.