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What have I learned from using dissociation as my first coping strategy?
Well, I feel it in my cells when someone else is leaving their body in this way. I can feel how their life force is freezing, escaping to a safer place than the situation they are in. And because I feel it, I can act.
We dissociate all the time. Sometimes we freeze parts of ourselves or we cut off our thoughts from the emotions or body sensations. Sometimes we can’t remember how we were driving from one place to the other, we simply arrived. At times, we come out of it without any help, but there are other times when we get stuck in a place—a different universe, far away from our embodied existence.
It takes me a moment to understand those somatic markers within me, the resonance that clearly tells me that someone needs help, because their nervous system has shut down.
And also, dissociation can feel amazing. You’re letting all the intensity of being an embodied creature go. It can even be confused with bliss and become an addictive escape. Trust me, I got addicted and felt the manipulative power one can gain by not feeling or caring at all.
First, I’ll characterize dissociation and show why and when we choose to freeze ourselves. Then, I’ll tell you about my story of dissociation and those many safe spaces my psyche has created in order to leave my existence. To wrap it up, I’ll give you an insight into the super power I’ve built through all of this.
Our species is inherently intelligent. Even prenatally, we gain a subconscious understanding about safety. There is this mechanism called neuroception, which checks all the time whether or not a situation or person is safe or in danger—as a soul and as a socially interwoven being.
Safety is felt, not told.
For my nervous system, it doesn’t matter if anyone tells me I’m safe if I don’t feel it. How I understand it, this is not about looking for a predator to appear out of nowhere in order to kill me, but a process that profoundly depends on my societal and biographical position in the system. Safety is not just about an actual life threat, it’s also about belonging; about being heard and accepted and getting access to things that one needs to live.
Lack of safety can leave us in a vulnerable position to experience actual violence, which can be physical or mental, coming from individuals or from a highly discriminative system. In a system like ours, some people are much more vulnerable to violence than others and this obviously has consequences on the decisions we make in life. For me as a white, queer woman, with a strong passport, no visible disability, coming from a working family, situations will feel threatening or safe according to those categories. Being less privileged on a social level means, in most cases, feeling less safe in more situations.
The part of our brain, which is called the reptile brain, reacts according to those permanent safety assessments—and the consequences are massive. It entirely determines how I see the world, how I connect, and how I can unfold or not. If I feel safe, I’m wired to connect, to be creative, to speak out what I feel. However, if some danger is detected, my nervous system will activate very different modes: fight, flight, or freeze.
The main difference between those two is that in fight or flight, self-agency is felt. I feel able to fight against the threat or flee a situation. In human contact, this state means that I’m not in a state of connection and creativity anymore, but discussion and justification. However, if I choose to freeze, there is no felt hope to be able to escape the situation with my own power. This means the best my body can do is to freeze. I leave my felt body, and those parts of me that are in danger are in secret places, like psychosomatic safe houses where no threat is close by. And for a while, I will forget about those parts, because the safest thing is not to remember.
This freeze reaction is dissociation, and evolutionarily, it means pretending to be dead. Physically, it can result in not being able to speak, in global numbness, spontaneous sleep, and many other things. Our psyche is immensely intelligent in making us survive even by hiding parts of us. And those parts can be thoughts, sensations, behaviors, movements, emotions, and images. To break it down, whenever a part of me is not safe to belong somewhere, it’s likely that it is residing in this second safe house in my psyche.
“I’m good with pain” was something I repeatedly said, when I got my first tattoo and also when I pierced my own body. How I would frame it now is: I was numb to my emotions instead of feeling them. I didn’t sense much physical pain and I wouldn’t agree with my past self, claiming that numbing means being good with pain. Life didn’t touch me much. I had plenty of accidents because I subconsciously wanted to feel anything and went too far. I learned to dissociate early, because the love I got from my surrounding was, even though named unconditional, deeply conditional.
The infant can see and sense it in the eyes of their relatives, children are shaped by the conditioning of their first teachers, and so on. And the collective, transgenerational values and rules are speaking through those people in our lives.
I’m very sensitive. I understood early that I will be more accepted if I function within those unspoken, often denied rules. I learned to embody a chauvinist female, a white arrogant person, the white savior, the victim from the working-class that would never climb the social leader, the sweet object of desire. The price I needed to pay was numbing and orphaning all that did not fit in. When those parts were touched, especially in connection with men, I dissociated. I couldn’t speak anymore and wanted to force myself to function as a sexual object. Horribly violent.
Luckily, there was one part inside that I could never freeze, that always melted when I was about to let myself be violated, because I thought that’s how it needed to be. This part saved me. It told me there is another life, that connection feels different than the violent power games I thought I was condemned to play. This part held all things together when my father passed away, and with his death, gave me the biggest gift I could have wished for: I lost the fight with vulnerability (how Brené Brown puts it) and I gained all what was numb back—and I got flooded. My identity, all that I thought I was, broke down with this outpour.
And then a long, humbling journey began; after years, I realized that through my mastering of dissociation, fertilised by studies of trauma, I gained a superpower: I feel people dissociating.
I can clearly sense the difference between being calm and peaceful, and shutting down.
I reckoned that this was actually a rare thing. How often have we heard sentences like: “They didn’t resist! They didn’t say anything against it, so they must fine.” How often have I heard that people love my calmness and peace, while I was frozen and helpless all along? Countless times.
So, I use my superpower in 2 ways:
1. If I feel people dissociating, firstly, I trust their nervous system. I don’t need to argue—what feels safe for me doesn’t necessarily have to feel safe for someone else. Sometimes, it is possible to find the triggers and remove them in the particular moment, but also with an eye on long-term solutions. And what feels unsafe can be aspects that I’m ignorant to, like internalised racist behaviours, looks, gestures that might cause non-white people freezing. I try my best to talk and write about those institutionalised stressors that are invisible for most of those who are in positions of power at the moment.
In every group, the first priority should be that everyone feels safe or at least has the space to figure out what they need in order to feel safe. And this should be the responsibility of those who were gifted with privileges, so that they can act and interact from a place of parasympathetic safety. I hope in my heart that we’ll learn to honor this language of our body and get the messages it is delivering in order to create felt safety. In my roles as body therapist and experiential educator, shedding a light on the state of the nervous system is a game changer. We sink into an unexpected depth when those parts that we are holding back get some space.
2. The second thing I do is much more subtle. When the trigger is removed, I use methods from trauma therapy to bring people back into their bodies and into the moment. Most of the time, with minor dissociations, I do this by merely speaking to their nervous systems. It feels like a secret mission where I only talk. It sometimes takes seconds to bring someone back, but I know it’ll change the entire day for that person. Sometimes, it’s a loving smile, a question, a distraction, an impulse to move their bodies, or something to think about. I feel that this is how I can give something back and use all the gifts I’ve received in this life.
I believe that all the difficult times and intense suffering, and the survival strategies we use to cope, carry a potential to give birth to a superpower.