Dissociation and Fantasy

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 people in. Actually, there’s nothing bizarre about dissociation. It’s a tendency to zone out, which we all do on occasion.

Research I’ve seen tends to differentiate between nonpathological and pathological dissociation (although I personally don’t like those terms). The nonpathological type basically doesn’t interfere with everyday 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, 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, as in DID. There’s something called depersonalization disorder, which involves frequent dissociative symptoms that interfere with everyday functioning.

It can be very disturbing 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 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. They cite Paul Dell, who wrote

[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. It can just be moments when we’re surprised by what we think, feel, or do.

Some abuse survivors easily slip into an alternative world within their imagination and get absorbed in it. When we were or are being abused, 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 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 gets us into even more trouble with our abusers, 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 escape from the feelings of discomfort into dissociation.

One of my favorite films is the 1947 version of 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 Fantasy Prone Personality

There’s one particular kind of dissociative behavior that’s been shown to happen to abuse survivors in particular. Researchers refer to it as the fantasy-prone personality. This is a tendency to lose ourselves in our imagination. Though this does have some benefits, such as fostering creativity and lifting our mood, it can all too easily encourage us to turn away from real life.

Daniel Goleman wrote an article in the New York Times in 1987 about the fantasy prone personality. Everyone daydreams, of course, and it can create a kind of mental vacation in the course of our busy day. However, the people who are fantasy prone tend to daydream more often and more deeply. Goleman writes

[t]he fantasies are not mere fleeting daydreams but something of a cross between a dream and a movie, where an elaborate scenario unfolds once a theme is set.

My research on this shows that people who have this tendency to a high degree are more likely to have a history of abuse. In the 2001-2002 edition of Imagination, Cognition and Personality, Ross Levin and Hugh Young wrote an article discussing how dreams and waking fantasies are related. They cite studies that indicate many people who are “high fantasy prone” report an abuse history. Although they mention specifically “physical abuse and early punishment in childhood,” other research I’ve read indicates that any type of abuse, including emotional abuse, can lead to more intense daydreaming.

I think this finding makes perfect sense. Intense fantasizing is an effective coping mechanism in an environment that’s constantly threatening. When we made ourselves seen and heard by our abusers, we suffered retribution in some way. If, for instance, we got excited over something, our abusers took the wind out of our sails through unsolicited advice, criticism, or manipulation. Better to lose ourselves in a fantasy world where we could get as excited as we wanted without being emotionally attacked.

Research also shows that those who tend to get absorbed in their imaginations report a history of feelings of isolation and loneliness. Isolation is a common abusive tactic because it lets our abusers maintain control over what we think, believe, and feel. It feeds their mistrust and jealousy and disempowers us by making us feel alone with our pain. In the face of real-life alienation, we can generate a world full of allies where no adversaries can triumph over us.

Because we can become completely absorbed in our fantasies, they give us comfort from our painful daily life. I can think of three main types of daydreams that can do this. The first are cathartic. They cleanse us of strong emotions that could otherwise be destructive if they wouldn’t come out in some way. We might, for instance, daydream about humiliating someone as a way to get out our anger towards them.

The second type of daydreams are triumph stories. They help us feel a sense of self-worth because we achieve important things. We’re big successes or we help people or we stun them with our brilliant work. We’re strong and confident, the way we’d like to be in real life. Thurber’s story and the Danny Kaye film of The Secret Life of Walter Mitty features these types of fantasies.

The third type of fantasy is about unconditional love. This was a rare thing for many of us to experience in our abusive environments. We can imagine that we’re receiving the love and warmth we need without having to be someone we’re not to get it.

The Dissociative Experience Scale (DES)

There’s something called the Dissociative Experience Scale, which is sometimes 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. Licensed clinical social worker Kathy Broady suggests that a score over 30 may be cause for concern.

If you think you might have DID then please seek counseling. Broady strongly recommends finding a trauma therapist for this because a counselor not trained in trauma may not be able to really understand what’s going on or how to deal with it. For those of us who suffer from mild symptoms, we can work with a therapist and on our own to lead ourselves back to the present when we dissociate.

Dissociation is fundamentally a way to numb ourselves emotionally. We can work on gently bringing our mind back to the situation and allowing ourselves to feel whatever we have to feel without judgment. For the fantasy-prone personality, we can allow ourselves, whenever possible, to do things that engage our interest when the fantasies begin. For instance, if we find ourselves starting a fantasy during work because work bores us, we can take a 5-minute break to read an interesting article online. That zaps us back into the present and makes it easier to get back to our work.

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 because it can interfere with our daily lives.

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