In the past, it was thought that traumatic events, especially repetitive ones, caused a child’s personality to fragment or split into different parts. Now many theorists instead conceptualize that trauma impairs the ability of integration of the self to begin with. This leads to the experience of having separate parts of the self, or personality states, each with their own independent way of relating, perceiving, thinking and remembering about themselves and their life. They may experience themselves as people, with or without any awareness of each other. They may serve distinct roles in coping with problem areas or in holding traumatic memories and associated affect. In DID, these parts have not yet learned how to function together in a cohesive and flexible way. One task of therapy is to help all understand that they are actually connected, that all parts together make up a whole person and that they can learn to work together as a collaborative team.
Just like with amnesia, the way a person with DID experiences identity disruption varies greatly. Sometimes it is very subtle and sometimes it is very obvious to an observer, although the person with DID may not be aware that it is happening at all. They may just have a sense of losing time but no awareness of what happens during that lost time. The awareness of each other also varies across parts. There may be a part of you (sometimes referred to as the host or ANP) who does not know about the existence of any others. Other parts may know and communicate easily with at least some of the inner system. Some people may have parts that assume executive control, meaning that they are in control of the person’s body and behavior for a period of time. Other systems have parts that operate more behind the scenes. Some parts present with different names, mannerisms, gender identity, sense of age, etc. Even before you are aware of other parts, you may have glimpses or experiences that hint at their existence.
Those experiences can include things like:
- Being a depersonalized observer of what you are saying and doing, feeling unable to stop or control what “you” are doing. Some clients describe this as floating above or watching from a distance.
- Hearing voices, identified as coming from within. These voices may be unintelligible or clearly understood. Sometimes instead of hearing a voice, a person with DID may experience intrusive thoughts that are experienced as “not mine”. The voices or thoughts can be experienced one at a time, or more often, many talking all at once.
- Having strong impulses, feelings, speech, or behavior that seemingly come out of the blue. They are often described as confusing and ego-dystonic. You may have the sense that you did not chose to do something but could not control it happening anyway.
- Feeling like your body is “not mine”. Different parts of the self may also report that their bodies feel and look different ( in size, age, gender).
Many different terms have been used to describe the separate parts of the self: parts, parts of the self, selves, identities, personalities, personality states, self-states, alter personalities, alters, alternate identities (see Van der Hart & Dorahy, 2009). This list is not exhaustive! In therapy, I want to know about the language a particular client uses. When necessary I may help them find language that acknowledges or moves us a bit closer to understanding the connection and interrelatedness of all parts.
Why does language matter? I see it as playing a role in how we approach the treatment of identity disruption that has resulted in dissociated parts of the self. If you understand that you are all in this together, that you are the sum of all your parts, you will be more apt commit to working as a team and cooperating. If you instead believe that you are each separate personalities or people a “every man/woman for him/herself” attitude may prevail with much chaos ensuing, or continuing.