Psychoanalyst Philip Bromberg, an expert on dissociation, suggests that the ability to "stand in the spaces" between different and conflicting mental states is a sign of good mental health. Modern psychoanalysis suggests that no one can establish a unified, stable, singular identity. Multiple self states continually pursue their different interests, goals and preoccupations. By learning to stand between these differing states or self-fragments, people can allow multiple versions of themselves to coexist with a sense of personal continuity. But as Bromberg notes, some people never learn to stand in the spaces between different mental states -- dissociation replaces the mechanism of repression in these individuals.
In a dissociated state, one part of the self remains, for example, in a perpetually alarmed, enraged or oppositional frame of mind, while the conscious self may feel calm and relaxed. Contemporary psychoanalysts suggest that a degree of dissociation in mental life is normal -- no one can stay constantly aware of all their mental activities at once. But when extreme, dissociation causes radical switches in mood and behavior which then get instantly forgotten. A mother with a severe dissociative disorder can cause enormous distress and confusion in her children.
Dissociation Blocks Internal Communication
Parental Dissociation and Childhood Trauma
Dissociation breaks the link between one mental state and another. A mother unable to stand in the spaces between different self-states cuts communicative links between one part of her mind and another. This can result in apparently wild and incomprehensible switches in behavior and mood, as one part of of the self gets pushed aside in favor of another. In the blink of an eye, calm affection can suddenly morph into cold indifference or hair-raising rage. Just as rapidly, calm affection can return. For a child, these radical switches feel deeply traumatic.
Learning to Dissociate
The British psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott described a mother's capacity for emotionally "holding" her child through potentially distressing events. By calmly soothing and comforting a distressed child, a parent helps effect a transition from pain and fear to safety and love. Through repeated exposure to parental holding of this kind, children learn to manage their own intense emotions like pain, fear or excitement and restore a more benign equilibrium. But severe emotional lability in a dissociated parent teaches the exact opposite: no meaningful links exist between one emotional state and another. Dissociated parents often raise dissociated kids.
The False Self System
One consequence of traumatic failures in consistent maternal holding caused by severe dissociation was described by Winnicott as the development of a "false self system." A daughter whose mother unknowingly frightens or perplexes her through dissociation cannot perform the emotional holding so vital to the restoration of calm and safety. The little girl must learn to manage her mother's emotions, rather than the other way around. A compliant, docile, submissive self, or a compulsively caring self, may come into being, functioning as an attempted shield against a dangerous or unstable environment.
Winnicott often referred to the false, compliant self as a "caretaker" self: in the absence of consistent, loving parental care, a child is forced to prematurely manufacture pseudo-care. A woman may find herself drawn to abusive or traumatic relationships, adopting a submissive and compliant role in relationship to a dominant partner. She attempts to cure the abusive partner of violence or wildly impulsive behavior. This effectively repeats the original childcare failure -- too painful to remember consciously and think through; such scenarios often get re-enacted (Freud had noticed that those who cannot remember the origins of their problems find themselves doomed to repeat them).
Dissociation and Sexual Life
Daughters of dissociated mothers often experience profound confusion over the development of their own sexual identity. Some forms of lesbianism, for example, might more properly be considered quests to find a healing mother-figure who can finally repair or soothe the woman's hurt feminine identity. Equally, some forms of compulsive promiscuity or defensive aversion to sex may simply be endeavors to cope with a dissociated maternal accusation. The good news is that psychotherapy can help recover the lost (or never developed) capacity to stand between the spaces of different self-states, enabling a richer and freer way of life.
- "Standing in the Spaces: Essays on Clinical Process ..."; Philip Broberg: 2001
- "Ego distortion in terms of true and false self"; D. W. Winnicott; 1951/1975
- Photo Credit Thomas Northcut/Lifesize/Getty Images
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