Dissociation is a physiological response to not feeling safe. It’s not a personality defect or mental illness. If anything, it’s a sign of mental health. It’s the psyche’s last-ditch effort to create some semblance of safety in your world by any means necessary.
If your brain preferred helpless, hopeless, powerless, unendurable pain and suffering over dissociation, I would then be very concerned about your mental wellbeing.
Dissociation can look like spacing out, being daydreamy, forgetful, clumsy, off-task, super sleepy, unemotional, lethargic, procrastinating, etc.
It can also resemble hyper-productivity, over-functioning, workaholism, substance or process addictions of numbing and escapism, compulsive busyness, etc.
There are many reasons to dissociate and innumerable ways to get the job done, but at the very core, it comes down to “I don’t feel safe, so I’m going to LaLa Land.”
I vividly recall pulling into the gravel driveway of a house where an unhealthy couple lived. He was a badly broken human being and extremely abusive. She was much more of a hostage than a wife. In fact, they were separated, but when she became homeless with nowhere to go, he allowed her to live with him in exchange for carte blanche violence and psychological warfare.
This woman was standing in the front yard, maybe fifteen feet from the driveway, facing me. She was tending to some plants and flowers in a small plot. When I pulled into the drive and cut off my engine, I noticed she was completely undisturbed by my presence.
Fascinated, I observed her for some time and started to wonder if perhaps I was literally invisible. I got out of my car, slammed the door, and slowly approached her. It wasn’t until I was standing immediately in front of her that she snapped out of this trance-like state in a genuine startle.
“Oh my God! Adam. What a pleasant surprise!”
That shit was creepy as hell, but I intuitively knew what was going on. Her existence had become so traumatically unbearable that she was completely separating from herself. I’m certain this was the only possible way to continue living under those circumstances without slashing her wrists.
This may seem like an extreme example, but it’s not uncommon, and it clearly illustrates the fundamentals of dissociation. It’s not safe inside my body. My sensory organs usually have nothing but bad news. I’m outta here.
The Most Important Thing
Beyond our physical needs for food, water, and air, a sense of safety is the single most important psychological need for the human organism. Without it, we cannot live or function with any degree of health, sanity, or joy. Life quickly becomes miserable and unbearable, and we must find a way out because failure means death.
Drugs, alcohol, control, achievement, codependency, sex addiction, depression, self-abandonment, etc. — all various flavors of dissociation. Desperate attempts at generating safety from a place of powerlessness.
What About You?
Take a look at your childhood. Did you feel safe?
Physically, mentally, emotionally, verbally, sexually, financially?
Was there screaming and fighting in your house?
Were you picked on, bullied, criticized, micromanaged, abused, neglected, enmeshed, or abandoned?
Did you have someone you could go to when you were afraid, and they could soothe you, nurture you, and protect you every time?
How about right now? Do you feel completely safe?
Safe to live, love, laugh, be and express yourself? Safe to play, work, and rest? To connect with others and get your needs met?
Or do you have a lot of fear and anxiety around those things?
If so, what are you doing to dissociate? How are you coping? What are your “bad habits?”
The truth is, I don’t believe in bad habits. Chances are good that any such behavior is simply a yearning for safety in a place where you feel none.
You cannot hate the bad habits out of yourself. And I don’t recommend trying to stop doing what your nervous system has decided was your best shot at survival. This can do nothing but exacerbate a war already raging inside of you.
Instead, simply work at cultivating safety.
Safe people, places, and things. Safe friends, safe relationships, safe communication and boundaries.
And if you don’t know what any of that looks like, please speak with a trauma-informed coach or therapist. They have a profound understanding of the vital importance of safety and how to create it in your life.
Dissociation is synthetic safety, and it’ll do in a pinch. But you can’t live off that shit.
Not a life worth living, anyway.