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

Structural Dissociation Complex Trauma Causes Split

The Apparently Normal Part And The Traumatised Part

People with Complex Trauma carry an unspeakable burden. Despite carrying a painful past, we have to maintain a facade to go on with our normal daily life. If our lives involve people who have hurt or abuse us, we could not afford to let the memories, pain, and anger surge up. We carry a pandora box with us wherever we go.

Trauma experts Van der Hart and colleagues (2004) labeled the parts of the personality-driven by daily life priorities the Apparently Normal Parts and the parts driven by our trauma the Emotional Parts. Janina Fisher calls them ‘Going on with Normal Life Parts’ and the ‘Trauma-Related Parts’.

Usually, there are more than two subpersonalities. The more severe the trauma, the more complex the split becomes, and the more ‘separate’ these parts feel. But for this article, we will simplify the picture and discuss these two parts.

Apparently Normal Part navigates daily life with little or no emotions. We might feel empty and numb. In this mode, we might not at all recall our painful past, or we remember what happened but feel as though it happens to someone else.

While the Apparently Normal Part gets on with life, the Traumatised part holds the traumatic memories. It sometimes bursts through and catches us off guard.

Our traumatised part reacts to situations with fight, flight, or freeze.

Our traumatized part reacts disproportionately to situations and sees danger, criticisms, and abandonment everywhere.

Our traumatized part is frozen in the time of the trauma- likely when we were a child. While in an adult body, we are reliving our childhood aloneness, fear, and despair over and over again.

Our traumatized part is always on guard. When people come close to us, we immediately assume we would be harmed or betrayed.

When our traumatized part is running the show, we are filled with tension, paranoia, and avoidance.

Sometimes the traumatized part will intrude on the Apparently Normal Part, where we suddenly experience sensations or hear critical voices that seem to come from our inside but feel alien.

Our Apparently Normal Part dominates our mind; it is numb and appears to be in control. The traumatized part controls our body and emotions in ways we are not always conscious of. For instance, when we grind our teeth at night, or when we burst into an uncontrollable rage.

“Dissociation is adaptive: it allows relatively normal functioning for the duration of the traumatic event and then leaves a large part of the personality unaffected by the trauma.”
― Bessel A. van der Kolk

Related: Dissociative Identity Disorder: Everything You Need To Know About DID

A Phobia We Carry

In structural dissociation, we live a life designed to avoid our traumatic memories.

Our symptoms get worse as we mentally pair more and more ‘cues’- sound, people, certain things others say, places— with the trauma. For instance, someone not looking into our eyes reminds us of the years of being neglected by our mother. Or, crowded places remind us of the time we were left alone in public, feeling helpless. Or, any sudden and loud noise reminds us of the door slamming at home when we were little.

We shut out the past as a way to survive, except occasionally the trauma will breakthrough, and we suddenly become flooded with fear and pain.

To keep our normal facade going, we must take on various avoidant strategies.

We fear potential rejection or betrayal, so we must avoid relationships.

We fear criticism, so we ought to inhibit our natural expressions.

We fear disappointment, so we would rather say no to hope and opportunities.

One of the most common avoidance is that of intimacy. Because we have been hurt in the past, either by our parents, siblings, or bullies, we experience any attachment to being threatening, and the fearful part of us would want to avoid becoming attached at all costs.

Of course, the healthy part of us yearn for love and connection and would seek out touch and relationships. These two parts then evoke each other in a vicious cycle, resulting in what on the surface looks like confusing push-pull behavior. One moment we are loving and giving, another remount we are fearful and numb.

In dissociation we even avoid our bodies- and then we lose touch with our internal signals of hunger, tiredness, and stress. We even lose our passion and sex drive.

As we craft our life desperately trying to avoid our past, our lives become increasingly restricted.  In the end, we build a wall against both the outer and our inner emotional life and ended up feeling empty, numb, and our lives left barren.

Blocking is, unfortunately, not a long term solution. Our traumatized part has a strong need to be heard and seen and sooner or later it will come back in full swing, and we could not neglect it any longer.

“There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.”
― Maya Angelou

Related: 8 Reasons Why People Deny Childhood Trauma and Its Results

Symptoms Of Complex Trauma

Here are some of the dissociative symptoms that interrupt our day-to-day lives. These symptoms might not always be present, but only when certain parts of the personality takes over.

1. Selective memory loss

We are unable to recall parts of a memory, or may know what happened intellectually but does that feel that it happened to us.

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