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Dissociation, shame and relational healing

The last 6 days have been pretty horrible. I’ve been swinging between dead and non-existent to dissociated (extreme DP/DR) and unable to work or focus and back to dead again. At it’s worst I was dead and dissociated. Wanting to cut to feel real. Wanting to die to not feel dead.

And seeing K helped again this week. I’m still fuzzy and spacey but not like I was when I arrived at my session. And it makes so much sense, suddenly, that the dissociation I experience is shame. I dissociate because of shame, which sweeps in automatically the minute I have big feelings or relational needs. And shame is only healed in relationship, K has said this so many times, and so this means dissociation can only be resolved in this way too. I kind of got this before, but I didn’t really get it. And it has only been so recently in therapy that I have left feeling more connected and less dissociated than when I arrived. It has taken so long to get to this point and for K to be able to break the cycle, because every time I showed big feelings or needs to her, or even aspects of the real me, I would automatically feel ‘bad’ and get triggered and either get plunged into extreme shame-based terror and distress, or dissociate even more.

What I’ve realised over the past few days is that dissociation is, at its heart, a loss of connection; I lose my connection to myself due to sensing a perceived loss of connection with someone else because I am bad (i.e. because feelings of shame are triggered). It is therefore only possible for me to “come back” and reconnect with myself through someone else. I cannot end the cycle alone. It is not biologically possible I don’t think. And this is the horrifying paradox at the heart of disorganised attachment isn’t it, that craving for connection with others to overcome dissociation and distress and yet at the same time genuine connection and empathy triggers me and causes me to dissociate even more (and need connection even more to overcome it, and so it continues). As I said, it is only recently that K has been able to intercept this cycle and provide a healing connection that is beginning to untangle the chronic shame I experience.

This is a chart I drew last week on why therapy now (at last!) helps my dissociation:

IMG_9411

So basically by K accepting and validating my feelings and (relational) needs OVER and OVER again she is now able to trip the switch so that my feelings can come out and my shame (which causes dissociation) can reduce. It feels like I am doing some really big work in therapy lately and it is definitely only possible now I can see the bigger picture of our work and am not quite so lost in the horrifying and terrifying feelings of transference (on a side note I am also beginning to be able to distinguish between transference and the feelings of young parts around her as their attachment figure, making it a little easier to separate my own adult feelings from theirs and I guess, ultimately, to hold and soothe young parts’ feelings and needs around her from an adult place).

I never thought the day would come when showing my feelings, showing myself, young parts coming out and chattering, crying about not having a mum, wouldn’t send me into a shame spiral. And yet it is starting to happen. Does this mean maybe one day, through therapy and my relationship with K, the levels of shame-driven dissociation I experience will also reduce? I so hope so. I actually feel hopeful on this because things are happening in therapy in the past 3 months that I never in a million years dreamed could be possible. I think K and I both feel quite triggered and traumatised when we think about the absolute state I was in during the early days/years of therapy. Wouldn’t it be amazing if through our work I can stop dissociating so much?!

The chart also shows where somatisation (extreme pain and muscle tightness) fit into the whole cycle for me: I somatise my emotions because I can’t feel and release them because I am cut off from them, and so the energy cannot escape my body and instead remains trapped, causing energy blocks and tension which manifest as pain and other physical symptoms.

Things are really starting to make sense on an even deeper cognitive and felt-sense level this weekend and today. I said to K earlier how weird it is that even after 3 years of working so intensively I am still making sense of myself and uncovering and understanding new things. She said ‘no stone unturned’ which is something she promised we would do when I first started therapy and was worried that I would have to keep coming back to these dark places in me over and over throughout my life. We are still unturning stones together but we are also using them to build a path out of the darkness together now. And it’s wonderful that this evening I can feel her walking beside me again, having lost her and myself and everyone else over the weekend.

Engulfment, shame and loss of self

Another post from my old blog, this time one I wrote in May as I was piecing together some things about shame and being engulfed by a narcissistic mother leading to a loss of self.

In May 2017 I remember feeling as though I was on the cusp of something huge, cognitively at least – a new understanding. I was starting to realise just how many of my triggers are shame-based, how much of my behaviours are driven by shame; fear of not being good enough, terror of not doing everything perfectly and people thinking badly of me or worse – people seeing who I really am. I feel shame for needing K, anyone, anything. I feel shame when people let me down. I always thought I had high expectations of people but I don’t think I do, I think I just feel ridiculously triggered when people aren’t there or say no to me because I feel so fucking bad about myself and it just confirms how bad I am – of course they don’t want to see me or spend time with me, how could I have thought otherwise? I said in therapy how I don’t even know what it is about me that I think is so bad. K said the shame is probably formational; I have a core of shame.

And I had some big realisations at this time about my ‘core of shame’ and I made the link between my lack of boundaries and my dissociation – my dissociation into parts/alters, and the other type of dissociation I experience – depersonalisation (DP) and derealisation (DR). Near the start of therapy I had said I experience two types of dissocation – alters, and DP/DR – and I remember K saying you’ll probably find they are quite closely linked, and I believed her but I didn’t know what she meant until that time. Then all of a suddenly it made sense – my alters split off to hold feelings and needs and behaviours it was unsafe for me to experience – feelings and needs that would cause my mother to disconnect from me further and therefore put my survival at risk. So the parts hold the feelings of the real me, who needed to split off so the core me could survive. That’s why my parts aren’t just emotions, but are also ways of being in the world that would have got me into trouble and caused my Mum to disconnect further. And this is why I have many coping parts/ANPs – different selves were needed for survival depending on what my volatile and emotionally abusive mother needed at the time. I was genuinely a shape-shifter, reflecting back whatever my Mum needed in the moment. My lack of boundaries is REAL – I BECAME my mother, I held her feelings for her. She didn’t just eclipse me, she genuinely engulfed me and took me over.

‘What comes before the mirror is the mother’s face. So when one looks in one’s mother’s face, one sees oneself. To be seen and to be held by the mother are the defining events of childhood – our mother’s embrace confirms we exist, and the adoring mirror of her eyes confirms who we are’.

This doesn’t happen for infants with narcissistic mothers – their existence is never confirmed and they remain enmeshed with their mothers, unable to distinguish between themselves and others. Their mother is an empty mirror – as a baby they looked at their mother/the mirror and didn’t see themselves reflected back. How could they grow up knowing they existed? So my Mum couldn’t actually see me, for her I did not exist as separate from her. She engulfed me as in I had no sense of self. My true self was annihilated, killed off so I could be her mirror – if I showed my real self I risked death because to be real and distinct is dangerous for an infant with a primary carer like this. And so I had no mirror to learn who I was and that I existed as separate from others.

And at this point I realised how entrenched my lack of boundaries are; I don’t just not say no or not ask for what I need/want, I literally AM that other person and responsible for how they feel. I unconsciously pre-empt and take responsibility for all the feelings and thoughts of whoever I’m with or relating to. I take on their feelings and I automatically try to work out what they need from me to prevent them feeling bad, embarrassed, disappointed, etc. I don’t do this to make them ‘like me,’ it is more complex that – I AM them. I must protect them from their own feelings and sense of e.g. embarrassment if they say or do something silly. This is why I tell people I’m fine when I’m not and don’t correct them when they say something factually wrong, and it is why I accept offers of things I really don’t want, and why I am desperate to soothe people when they say self-deprecating stuff. I’m trying to protect them from feeling their own stupidity and so on. I shape-shift constantly, trying to say and do the right thing so they don’t feel bad. It’s why I find groups so hard – I cannot be who I perceive everyone needs me to be all at the same time. It is exhausting and overwhelming. These reactions are automatic. This dance is invisible but also in it I am invisible. And I’m starting to see how all this comes from being enmeshed with and engulfed by my narcissistic mother.

 Depersonalisation, shame, engulfment and loss of self

I’ve started to see how my constant DP is related to this engulfment and this core of shame. Constant DP such as I experience is not about anxiety (lots of people get the symptoms occasionally when they are triggered, overwhelmed, and anxious, mine has a different cause because it is there all the time and it is not helped by grounding and so on). I read about how it is caused by disorganised attachment; abuse and disorganised attachment lead to DP because DP results from conflicts in the unconscious mind, it’s a defence to cover up inner conflict in the psyche. This inner conflict then is because I have had to hide my own feelings and project/mirror by mother, in order to survive. I made myself unreal by dissociating so that I could survive all the shame I felt from having feelings and needs I wasn’t allowed to have.

My Mum loved me when I reflected well on her. She didn’t love ME. She couldn’t, because she couldn’t see me. She could only see herself reflected back in me. For years now I’ve lamented that my Mum told me who I was and what I felt and what I wanted. My feelings and needs and wants were confusing to me because so often my internal experience didn’t match what my Mum told me it was. So I learnt to switch off from it and ignore my internal experiences. I shaped myself into someone who would please her.

I’ve said before that I was engulfed by my mother, that she is an engulfing narcissistic mother, but I never really understood it, or why it was so bad. Daughters of engulfing narcissistic mothers were literally engulfed; we became our mothers, we split off ourselves so they would see themselves reflected back and love us and not abandon us to die. I think I thought engulfing us meant controlling us and smothering us but I’ve just understood on a deep level that it has literally meant we had no sense of self. Our self was literally engulfed into their sense of self and our true self was annihilated. I used to understand that when we looked into their eyes we didn’t see ourselves reflected back, so we had no mirror to learn who we were and are, but I never got what this truly meant – it meant we did not exist.

So she obliterated who I was, what I felt and wanted and needed. My fear of annihilation is a fear based on experience. I am not afraid of something that might one day happen, but reliving an experience that has already happened. Annihilation: complete destruction or obliteration. This is what she did to me – my true self was destroyed. This is why I am so scared of being invisible – I was to her. And this is why I have cut off from all my feelings, it is why I am dissociated all the time – to protect me from this. I am terrified to show my true feelings, to show who I really am. I feel embarrassed and ashamed when I feel anything or show anything about myself, positive or negative – I turned my self bad as a BABY to protect her and keep her good to protect me. I dissociated all my feelings (literally – with the DP and DR I stopped existing). I feel shame around all my feelings (good and bad, happy/sad, positive/negative) because she engulfed me, I mirrored her, I absorbed her. My needs and wants were BAD – I saw in her face they were bad/inconvenient and I became that badness. I made myself bad for having needs, for existing, for having a self.

So when people SEE ME I feel shame, and TERROR. When I feel connected to someone I am afraid of annihilation. The two go hand in hand. Being connected to my mother annihilated the REAL ME. This makes real attunement, like I get from K for the first time in my life, a threat – it means I have been SEEN and being seen is dangerous, literally I could have died as a result of being seen. Disorganised attachment means connection is a source of terror – the abuse triggers the natural drive to attach and seek safety but because the caregiver is also a source of fear it triggers the fight/flight drive at the same time. It is fear without solution which defines disorganised attachment – both innate biological survival drives are activated at the same time and neither can be soothed without activating the other.

And all this also means a child never learns to process their own emotions with safe other validating and reflecting them back to them – the child is not allowed a sense of self with feelings and needs and so their only option is to avoid feelings by dissociating them and making themselves unreal, i.e. depersonalised, to avoid the inner conflict. So I continue to dissociate ALL feelings, because showing myself and my feelings was so unsafe. I experience huge internal conflicts between what I feel and experience and what I express. So the alters hold the feelings, leaving me with no feelings and no self.  This is the work of therapy – not discovering my real self, but creating her from all the split off parts of my psyche.

Nothing

I see the world through frosted glass. I am swimming under water. Far away. Everything is blurry and thick and distorted. My eyes sting from trying to see through the hazy fog in my head. I cannot connect.

In this place I do not exist. I am not real. I have no substance. I try to feel my body, notice what sensations arise, but I draw a blank. I cannot think of a single thing about me that distinguishes me from the empty space around me. I watch my hands typing and they don’t belong to me. I look in the mirror and do not recognise the person who stares back at me. My brain doesn’t register my reflection as me. Who even am I?

I feel nothing. And at the same time I feel everything. A deep turmoil I cannot reach or soothe. I know why I come to this place now and yet still I cannot stop myself from ending up here. It is a bad habit I have no control over, automatic and unwelcome. I want to cut myself just to know I am real. I want to cut to feel something. I don’t feel real. I am an empty shell without edges. There is no line around me and nothing within me.

I want to live but this place pulls me away from myself and the world. I spend so much time only half alive. Dead inside. Non-existent. Struggling to pretend I am here but I’m not. My internal world is a place most people have never been. It is caused by a shame that can only be healed in relationship and yet this place comes between me and the people I want to love. I want to exist but my brain still automatically hides me, even from myself. What defence mechanism is this? What did I endure as a baby that this place is more familiar to me than anywhere else? I know the cause but it seems there is no cure. I do everything I can to connect but this place clutches at me and drags me down and cuts me off from myself, holds me here until there is nothing of me left within my reach.

“I will be here”

We raised our fears with K about whether she will change her mind again and feel much better now because she gave us all the reassurances we needed. She said whatever happens she will be in [county we live in] next year and that we don’t need to worry every week that she will tell us she is going away again. She will be here. She isn’t planning any time off. And she said she is glad and relieved that she will be here, that it feels as though it is meant to be. I could feel young parts pricking up their ears when she was talking and I felt them sigh with relief when she said those words, letting out the breath that had been tightly held for quite a while. It used to take so long to get the courage to tell K when we were worried about things like this, we would be so curled up with shame over our needs and fear over being ‘too much’ and driving her away that we would try not to say anything and it would grow into a giant but invisible barrier between us. Now it is so much easier – we say it and feel a bit worried but we don’t get flooded with shame, and then K says soothing and reassuring things and everything is okay.

Last week during our session I was really dissociated and then by the end, through connecting with her, the level of dissociation had dramatically reduced. This didn’t used to happen and isn’t something I ever believed could change. When I got home I made a flow chart of my dissociation (DP and DR) process – why it happens and why therapy helps when I am like that, how being in that space is linked to shame (fear of loss of connection because my feelings and needs are bad) and so reduces through connection and having my needs and feelings validated (although the switch couldn’t be flipped by K till very recently – it has taken years of her validating my needs and feelings over and over again for it to have any effect on my dissociation levels). So often DP and DR are seen as being caused by anxiety and reduced by grounding and becoming present in the room and so on, but for trauma survivors where that state is chronic it is not triggered by fear/anxiety but by shame and the desire to become invisible, and so, as K agreed, grounding and becoming present doesn’t really help. Anyway, K said the chart was really helpful and clear and that I should put it on my blog because it shows how dissociation works and how therapy can help it. So I think I am going to publish a couple of posts from my old blog later this week because they are about shame and depersonalisation, and then I will add the chart and an explanation of it. Basically though, I also realised that with K now I don’t automatically get triggered into a place of shame and dissociation when my feelings come out. THIS IS HUGE. We laughed that it has only taken 3 years. And it is why I don’t want to end therapy yet because things I thought were impossible are ALREADY HAPPENING.

It was a really busy session. As happened last week, I switched out basically as soon as I got there and then came back suddenly and had missed the first part of the session. It is so weird when that happens. It’s like I am there but not there. When she was talking us through the meditation we do at the start of every session I could see young parts giggling at the big and confusing words she was using, like ‘profound wisdom’ haha. And when we had finished breathing together suddenly everything I’d noticed from the body scan had disappeared. The past ten minutes was a total blank. I said I’d just got there and looked down and there were a cuddly hedgehog and a wooden fox in my lap which made me puzzled as I wasn’t really sure why they were there!! K asked where I thought I had been and I was like ‘err, at the back…’ and she asked what I meant so I was like ‘there were others at the front – Esis, Scarlet and Miffy’. She said probably they were there because they needed some space today, and how it was good we know about them now. Dissociation is so weird. It’s sometimes like I am watching the alters, like when you’re in the back of a car watching people in the front seats talking and doing things but with no control over what is happening. It’s really quite weird because it’s not always obvious, especially to people who don’t know me well, but it is like I am watching myself do things I cannot control and I can hear my voice is child-like (I have a quiet voice usually though and sound quite young even in my adult, so I think this is why people other than K and sometimes Nina don’t really notice when it’s not adult me). In the past the parts used to wreak havoc, often via text and email to K, and all I could do was watch in horror as events unfolded. I would know what they were sending was really a bad idea, but couldn’t stop it. Luckily that happens less now, but parts do still hijack me and it is… weird. There is no other word for it to be honest!

It is perhaps unsurprising that parts have been much more active since K dropped her bombshell two weeks ago. There has been a lot of switching in and out in session and I’ve been a lot more aware of them at home too. Provided they are not causing difficulties then this is okay with me! It’s sometimes too quiet when they are not around, I’ve got used to them now and they make me laugh. And overall I would definitely say the level of distress the alters experience is reducing. K and I talked today about how sometimes with therapy we can only see the progress when we can look down from above and see the bigger picture. She said how it was hard to see the progress when we were so ‘in it’ and so focused on her and on her and I. And I completely agree on this. Not being so lost in the horrific transference has definitely made it easier to see the complete picture and all the progress I am making. All the pain I was in for the first three years of therapy was so all-consuming and horrific and it really felt like I was getting nowhere – it is strange now to look back on those incredibly dark times and see that I was actually getting somewhere because it really didn’t feel like all that pain and desperate desire to die could have actually been ‘the work’ and been carrying me to a better place. I remember during the most intolerable times, when the fear and pain was genuinely killing me and I was frozen in some kind of disorganised attachment hell and causing K huge pain in the process, she told me we just needed to hang in there together. I couldn’t see how that pain could ever subside even a little bit, how it could possibly work just to hang in there – the pain and turmoil was there all the time and I didn’t see how it could ever not be there in that way. Yet it did subside and now when it comes around it does make more sense and whilst it is awful and still makes me want to die, at the same time I can usually hang in there with it and remind myself it will pass. To be aware of this level of progress and at the same time know K is and will be here to support me and guide me and parent me and help me heal further…Well, it all feels pretty magical to me right now!

Dissociated

I don’t want to be here. In part this is a wish that I didn’t exist, but it is also a wish to just not be here, at this point in my life, about to end with my therapist and with a life that I struggle so hard to live.

I went to bed last night feeling okay and have woken up feeling like I’ve been hit by a truck. Yesterday was a really full on day at work and it was draining, but it was good – I felt motivated and reassured about the contribution I am making to the world and the things I believe in through my work. I managed to sleep on Tuesday and Wednesday nights so that helped a lot, and even though I felt tired still, I was beginning to feel more human. I slept last night too, but tumultuous dreams disturbed me and I got woken up by the four year old next door screaming at 6.30. And today I just feel heavy and overwhelmed by an unbearable sadness hiding under the surface that I cannot even reach so I am hugely dissociated and work is impossible. I am scared to let the sadness out because it is so big and it will engulf me. It is about K and not about her. As always. I get that. I get this is a pain bigger than her and I and from a time before we met, but it is also so much about losing her.  She is who she is to me because I didn’t have a mother who could see or love me for who I was, I know that, but she is still who she is to me.

I want to ask K for a phone call, either ten minutes instead of our Friday email (which is what we always used to do) or a paid half hour. We’ve not spoken on the phone since April, and I just really need to hear her voice today to ground me and steady me. I have typed the message asking for this on my phone, but I’ve not sent it. I am scared she will say no. Scared of what that will do to me. Maybe I need to get triggered though, to let some of these tears out. I don’t want to spend the day feeling like this but I don’t know how to pull myself out of it. I wish I could cry and return to the present but that feels too unsafe.

I don’t want to be this person, struggling so much with the end of the therapeutic relationship. I am though. I am struggling. It is always there these days, a heavy presence, an uneasy sense that however okay things are they are not really okay. Ahead of me is the biggest and saddest goodbye I’ve ever had to say. There is nothing about my relationship with K I wish was different or I will be better off without (well, apart from the paid element of course). When I’ve said goodbye to others I’ve been able to see that my life will be better without them, but with K it is not like that. And when a friend moves away there are other ways to stay in touch. With K there is none of that. On December 17th I will walk away and fall through time and space away from her, maybe for the rest of my life.

I am not ready to lose her. It hurts too much. I still need her and want her. I want her to take me with her but I don’t belong to her. The same words over and over because nothing about this changes.