Yesterday, my daughter asked me if I was not feeling bored while walking. I told her my truth: no, I am never bored while walking. I have all these thoughts in my head. Even when my brain is not focused on doing something, like working, organizing an evening out, or talking with someone, these thoughts and dreams are still here and keep me busy. I don’t even remember the last time I felt bored.
My daughter’s consciousness is apparently less overly active than mine: when she’s not busy doing something, she does not have all this activity in her mind. So, she explained, while walking she’s bored. I assured her boredom has never killed anybody and it’s a normal part of our experience. I also felt secretly happy: she does not dissociate like I do.
What is dissociation ?
Being lost in one’s thoughts from time to time is normal. Spending lots of time in one’s head, thinking or dreaming about stuff, sometimes to the point of preferring alone time to living, is not. We can call it being very distracted, suffering from maladaptive daydreaming, being lost in our thoughts, and even sometimes being an introvert. What it really is, is life avoidance. It is a form of dissociation.
Dissociation is a big, scary word. It conjures up images of people having multiple personalities, hearing voices or other spectacular symptoms. So we do not feel dissociation can apply to relatively normal folks (whatever normal means). Well I did not, until relatively recently. I since changed my mind: sometimes it is about multiple personalities or hearing voices, sometimes it can be utterly non spectacular, as simple as being often lost in one’s thoughts or daydreaming a lot.
Broadly speaking, it is a way of not being present to our current reality. We are not fully engaged with the world. We are in our minds or imagination. It can be rare , or it can take a huge portion of our time. For me at times it has been the latter.
It took me a surprisingly long time to realize this. Now I see it everywhere in my life. To my credit, nobody talked about it despite several years in therapy, and several years of training as a psychologist. That’s why I think an explanation about dissociation could benefit you, dear reader.
Very “normal” signs we are dissociating:
No memories of chunks of our life
Huge parts of my memories are missing. I don’t remember much from my childhood, only a few scattered memories. As for my adult life, events or moments that were really important to me are here (like cherished moments with people I love), whereas less important stuff has not registered at all. It can seem weird to people around me.
I could be sad about this, but not really. I do know why I don’t remember a lot from my childhood: because most of it was so traumatic, I checked out from reality. A telling sign is how I remember pretty well weeks spent outside of my family, with friends or my beloved grandmother. These weeks were normal. I do remember. For the rest, I’m not keen.
As for my adult life, it is of course more complicated. I spent a lot of time not really participating in my own life, lost in my thoughts or in daydreaming especially as a young adult. But I also was not feeling safe then, even if my reality had changed. Life was unpleasant and scary.
This is what trauma does to us: it changes us, how we perceive the world and ourselves, our reactions, our emotions, our whole experience even when the trauma has stopped. We can heal, but without taking active steps to do so, we remain trapped in our traumatic world. We dissociate a lot, even once safe.
Daydreaming can be a positive thing: it can show us where we want to go with our lives. Visualization can be an important tool to attain a goal.
Maladaptive daydreaming, on the other hand, is when daydreaming takes so much of our time and energy that we are not really living our lives. I did this for months on end: going through the motions the whole day, waiting for my moments of alone time. Turning down opportunities to socialize, do fun stuff and meet new people in order to be absorbed in my own dreams.
I was not engaging with reality because I was scared, from other people mainly. Of course this is not the way I felt at the time, but this is how I see it now.
Limerence is a form of obsessive love for someone. It seems it can be the first step towards a long term relationship. For some of us, it can be a sure sign a relationship will not work, or in my case, will not even start. It can become total preoccupation or obsession with someone who is not available to us for whatever reason.
When this happens, we turn to maladaptive daydreaming, with endless variations of one central scenario: how we will be so awesome that the object of our obsession will fall madly in love with us. The whole time, this person is actually living his or her life, not caring at all. It totally sucks.
I spotted this was not what it appeared (falling in love) very early in my life, when I realized I was not interested for long when the guy reciprocated. Deep down, I did not want a relationship: I wanted to obsess about someone and avoid a real relationship. For me limerence is a dissociative tool.
Being lost in TV, social networks, video games, or whatever
Again, playing video games or watching netflix series is normal. Spending several hours a day doing so is preoccupying. And if these activities are the centre of our world, then, we simply use them to keep the world and other people at a safe distance. When we do this, we take the risk of looking back after a few years, and see that we did nothing, lived nothing. A big blank. The activity itself is not the issue. I did it with books, for heaven’s sake. It is culturally more valued, but it was still a way to hide.
What can we do when we dissociate a lot ?
Compassion and self love are key here.
Often our default setting, when realizing we are not so healthy, is self hate and criticism. You know, the “what is wrong with you?” question, followed by shoulds along the lines of “You should stop dissociate”. There is a reason why we react like this of course, but we are being unfair. Even more problematic, this type of reaction is making things worse.
I had a long habit of dissociating when verbally or emotionally abused. It helped me survive my first years, but it has created very problematic situations in my adult life. I sometimes did not perceive I was attacked, or only far too late; I could not protect myself adequately.
Well, I discovered this pattern of dissociation also happens when I am the one verbally attacking myself with harsh and unfair criticism. So reacting with anger towards myself about dissociation will further dissociation. It does definitely not help. Does it ever ?
This does not mean we should not resist gently our tendency to dissociate. We can not change from one day to the next, but what we can do is push a little bit more towards life, each time we have a choice. Over time, small decisions and small changes can lead to a very different life. I’m glad I pushed myself to be a little bit more adventurous and social than what I felt comfortable with initially.
And then of course, let’s understand dissociation is a consequence of trauma. Trying to treat maladaptive daydreaming, repeated limerent episodes, or a video game addiction is like treating a fever. It is sometimes helpful on the short term, but real, lasting improvements will only come with starting a recovery process addressing our traumatic past. Once again, it is not about what is wrong with us, more about what happened to us…
You can find more information on dissociation on this excellent podcast episode: Trauma rewired on Dissociation.
In the meantime, take good care of yourself and have a nice week…