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Structural Dissociation: How Complex Trauma Causes A Split In Our Being

Structural Dissociation Complex Trauma Causes Split

Have you ever experienced structural dissociation due to childhood trauma, or any other kind of emotional trauma that you went through?

Structural dissociation is a lack of cohesion and integration of personality. We are conscious of who we are, but inside, we feel completely different from moment to moment. In the case of BPD, this causes a high degree of emotional dysregulation.

Unlike the commonly perceived idea of dissociation as being cut off from reality, in structural dissociation, our personality is split into different parts. Each of these parts has a unique sense of self, memories, bodily feelings, emotions, thoughts, and behaviors (Van Der Hart). Although they seem to behave independently, they are also interdependent and form a larger system that constitutes us as a person. 

Trauma affects intense people differently.

Like any other of our reactions to stimuli, intense people’s trauma reactions are also more intense than most.

Because of our receptivity, we see, hear and know what others don’t.

Our empathy means we take in more and feel more. We cannot help but be affected by toxic family dynamics, overt or covert abuse and manipulations.

Being different by default, we need extra love and support to counteract isolation, alienation and despair.

Our sensitivity to existential issues and intolerance of injustice mean we are susceptible to depression.

Our need for emotional attunement means we are wounded by emotional neglect.

Things that do not affect our siblings or peers traumatise us.

In other words, our sensitivity and overexcitability make us susceptible to trauma responses.

Unfortunately, few mental health professionals understand the emotional intensity and chronic childhood trauma (also known as Complex PTSD). We are more likely to be over-diagnosed and medicated for mood disorders or personality disorders than to get the understanding we need.

We have previously outlined some of the traumatizing family dynamics intense children tend to get locked into. In this letter, we discuss the mechanism of dissociation, which is a common reaction to complex trauma that affects many of us for life.

Nobody heard him, the dead man,
But still he lay moaning:
I was much further out than you thought
And not waving but drowning.

— Not Waving but Drowning, Stevie Smith

Structural Dissociation And Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD)

The usual reaction to pain is to withdraw. But, as children, we had little options, even when our parents hurt us, we could not leave. So instead of physically exiting, we psychologically withdraw. This is called dissociation.

Dissociation is mostly unconscious. Like the circuit breaker in an electrical system, it is hardwired into us to protect us.

Unfortunately, when we dissociate, we do do not only withdraw from external harm, but also our expressions, our bodies, our passions, and our soul.

Many chronically traumatized individuals, without knowing, suffer from a form of dissociation known as ‘structural dissociation’. This is also a core part of what is known as Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD).

Structural dissociation is a split in our personality. It does not mean we have psychosis or suffer from schizophrenia. In structural dissociation, we are conscious of who we are, but we feel completely different from moment to moment from the inside.

This split in our being started as a coping strategy for overwhelming experiences.

When stressful events such as parents’ arguments, physical violence, verbal abuse, or prolonged neglect happened, we had no choice but to cut off.

Chronic childhood trauma is different from PTSD from a single incident. Under normal circumstances, we would want to avoid our abuser and never go back to them. When they are our family members or parents, however, we have no choice but to stay. We could not deal with the trauma in a healthy way, so instead, we create a ‘separate self’ in our mind to survive the invasion.

Related: The Reason Emotional Trauma Doesn’t Heal and How to Overcome It

Taking this split into adulthood, we feel an internal conflict almost daily.  For instance, a part of us may be like a child that is easily hurt and acts impulsively, while another part of us manages to be a resilient adult. A part may dominate home life, another work life. When triggered, we flip from one mode of being to another.

To a degree, having different personas is normal. For instance, it is considered healthy to be different at work and at home. A traumatized person, however, experience the split and the ‘taking over’ of various parts to be unmanageable. We do not know why we are triggered, but before we knew it, we have reacted in ways that we later regret.

Come, said my soul,
Such verses for my Body let us write, (for we are one,)
That should I after return

– Dedication, Walt Whitman

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Imi Lo

Imi Lo is a consultant for emotionally intense and highly sensitive people. She is the author of Emotional Sensitivity and Intensity, available in multiple languages, and The Gift of Intensity. Imi is the founder of Eggshell Therapy and Coaching, working with intense people from around the world. Imi has practiced as a social worker and therapist in London (U.K). She has trained in mental health, psychotherapy, art therapy, philosophical counseling, and mindfulness-based modalities. She works holistically, combining psychological insights with Eastern and Western philosophies such as Buddhism. Imi’s credentials include a Master in Mental Health, Master of Buddhist Studies, Graduate Diploma in Psychology, Bachelor of Social Science in Social Work, Certificate in Logic-based Therapy, and an Advanced Diploma in Contemporary Psychotherapy. She has received multiple scholarships and awards including the Endeavour Award by the Australian Government. She has been consulted by and appeared in publications such as The Psychologies Magazine, The Telegraph, Marie Claire,and The Daily Mail.View Author posts