Repression and Dissociation

What is it? Explanation of terms and probable causes

Repression is a form of censorship, the conscious or unconscious denial of an aspect of the perceived reality so that it is kept out of conscious awareness. Dissociation is the effect that can be brought about by repression, it is a fragmentation of the psyche into different parts or aspects. As dissociation can be understood as an unconscious attempt to protect the individual from experiencing what is perceived to be the threatening impulses, emotions and memories that are being repressed, it can be seen as a defence mechanism in response to experiences, memories or thoughts which the individual finds too difficult to cope with.

It is like having a picture of an experience and cutting out the bits we donÂ?t like or that donÂ?t conform to our view of the world. A frame is then placed around the picture as we like it and the cut out parts are left outside. With time, we only learn to be aware of what is in the frame and leave out the frame and its surroundings. The problem is that, sometimes, the parts which have been cut out try to re-enter the picture and re-claim their space, thereby attempting to affect the whole picture and change it. We can have many frames, each containing what we feel should be in the particular experience we are going through in the moment. So, for example, we have many roles (personas) in life (father or mother, friend, teacher, son or daughter, co-worker, manager, labourer, etcÂ?) and whilst we play each roles, we will leave out aspects of ourselves which we feel may not be acceptable in the particular situation where the role is being enacted. A teacher may not want to show some anxiety in front of the class and may act as if he/she is confident whilst attempting to repress that anxiety; a daughter may want to please her parents so much that she will block out from her behaviour anything that doesnÂ?t conform to what she feels her parents will accept and like, thereby suppressing many aspects of her personality, etc. And as we move from one role to another in the normal course of a day, so we alternate the pictures we use and the aspects of ourselves which we allow to come to the surface.

To a greater of lesser extent, we all try to not think about some aspects of life, either because it is too painful or unpleasant or because some parts of what we perceive do not fit with what we think life should be. Repressing such aspects from our awareness doesnÂ?t deal with the problems but generally allows us to get on with life without being too bothered and to be generally accepted by our peers. Because, as we grow up from childhood to adulthood, we learn about what is acceptable and what isnÂ?t in our society, we create a public image that will leave out everything that we feel will get us in trouble or lead to uncomfortable feelings. We fear not being loved or accepted and therefore limit the way we express ourselves. None of us want to be rejected and this is why we all tend to present to the world a persona which we feel will be accepted and thereby repress those parts of ourselves which do not conform with what we feel is expected from us.

Those repressed aspects can be conflicting, or not, and can lead to feelings of confusion, anxiety, etc. An ideal state of mind is when all the aspects work as one, towards the same goal, using the best path forward. Unfortunately, this is very rare, and very often we feel that we are being pulled towards different directions even thought the ultimate goal may be the same.

In some rare occurrences, the dissociation can become so extreme that it results in a case of dissociative identity disorder (DID) or multiple personality disorder as it used to be called. A person is said to be suffering from DID when at least two or more distinct and mostly independent personalities are present within the psyche of the individual.

But what makes us try to avoid unpleasant events, feelings and memories. The answer, I feel, is fear. Our fear of pain and suffering and the fact that, sometimes, it can be easier in the short term to not notice or acknowledge upsetting experiences, to deny a reality we find too difficult to confront. Repression is an attempt by our mind to hide a painful perception and a looming anxiety is therefore appeased by diverting the attention towards more pleasant experiences or thoughts. The more painful an experience is perceived to be, either consciously or unconsciously, the more likely our mind will attempt to repress it simply because we are generally afraid of pain. Another way to express it, is to imagine our psyche to be like a vast city. As we begin our lives (start our exploration of the city), we go through different events and experiences, some pleasant, some not. If we feel that we do not have the ability to cope with a particular experience, then we will want to escape from it and not repeat it. The mind will attempt to erect a wall around it, to close off that particular region of the city so that we will not enter it again. Little by little, different parts of the city that is our mind become more and more closed off and we start to feel that our choices are being restricted, that we are limited in our abilities. We sometimes feel that our path has become very narrow and do not realise that it is only because we have chosen "consciously or unconsciously" to not live fully but to restrict ourselves to the perceived reality we feel we can accept and cope with. We tend to only keep to the paths that we know are safe and not too unpleasant.

But all the parts of the city which have been walled off, like ghettos, still exist within our psyche. It is just that we do not want to think about them.
 
Because we are generally receiving much more data through our senses than we can generally cope with at any moment, our mind has to filter through the information it receives and only keep that which it considers relevant or acceptable in the given situation. This means an exchange of information between the sensory apparatus and the unconscious, in order to check against our model of the world for that which is perceived to be acceptable and reject that which doesnÂ?t fit. The result is a process of censorship that only allows to consciousness that which either fits with our past experiences or doesnÂ?t threaten life as we know it. Everything else is denied access to our awareness but may illicit an unconscious response such as being afraid or anxious about something, without knowing why, or turning up the radio without realising that it may be a response to shut off something that is being heard, etcÂ?

This process of censorship happens every moments of our lives and is so fast that we donÂ?t generally notice that it is taking place. There can be censors in our perception as well as in our reactions, so that an unconscious and/or conscious process takes place to decide what is the best way to react to a given set of circumstances. All this filtering mostly goes on outside awareness and only the messages and responses relevant to our momentary mental state are allowed to pass through. So for example, if I am looking for a book shop, I will not particularly notice signs for furniture outlets. Only that which is perceived to be useful and/or safe will occupy our awareness.

It is a process which is constantly repeating itself in every moment of our lives and without which we wouldnÂ?t be able to cope with the amount of information reaching us through our senses. But, as explained before, this same principle will not only be triggered because of the sheer amount of information we have to process, but also as a result of fear. The fear that our lives may be rocked by an unpleasant experience or that our view of the world may be challenged, may lead to a denial of the experience and the application of the same principles of censorship, the extremes of which can lead to cases of dissociative identity disorders.

It is generally accepted that the more likely causes of dissociative identity disorders are sexual, emotional and physical abuse in early childhood, especially before the age of seven. The child, finding it almost impossible to cope with the experience, "escapes" mentally and emotionally from the trauma. It doesnÂ?t mean that the child isnÂ?t touched mentally and/or emotionally, but that a sense of detachment is created, a dissociation from the traumatic events (survivors of abuse will sometimes talk about leaving their body and watching the abuse from a distance). Re-integration after the event would mean feeling all the pain and hurt in a very direct way and for that reason, it may not be possible for the child to return to her self for a while, thereby attempting to repress that which cannot be faced and dealt with and making it more likely that a split in the personality will occur. The fragmentation can then continue with, for example, a part that is angry about what has happen, a part that will just want to please other so that he/she will not get hurt again, a part that wants to hurt, a part that tries to control everything, etcÂ? The individual usually ends up with a dominant part, one that is prominent most of the time but that can take a back seat if another dissociated aspect is being triggered. Each of these parts or personalities will alternately inhabit the individuals awareness and sometimes even to the exclusion of any other parts. This can lead to symptoms of amnesia when a part, that was unaware of the existence of other parts, takes control for a while.

2) What impact can repression and dissociation have on our lives?

As stated before, repressed aspects of our personality will, ultimately, tend to re-surface and manifest themselves into the life of the individual in many different ways. Some of the symptoms are listed below:

Conflicting impulses: the individual feels him/herself pulled towards different and sometimes conflicting directions or ways of thinking.

· Feeling younger: sometimes, a "part" or memory can be so divorced from the rest of the personality that it doesnÂ?t change any more, it doesnÂ?t benefit from new experiences and doesnÂ?t grow. It will always manifest in the way it has been "created" like a pattern eternally repeating itself. When such a part re-surfaces, there can be a feeling of being much younger, sometimes being as a child.

  • Watching oneself reacting to an event without any power to change the reaction.
  • Sudden mood shifts
  • Obsessive behaviours
  • Self-destructive impulses: it may be a way to punish a part which is perceived to be "bad" or "evil" or "dirty" and may also be a way to create a alternative pain to take the individualÂ?s attention away from a part that is too painful to face.
  • The manifestation of distinct, alternate personality states: this can lead to lapses in memory, missing time, changes in tastes, handwriting, etc.
  • An individual may describe a troubled childhood one day and an idyllic background the next.

This list is by not means exhaustive and the symptoms here described do not automatically indicate a dissociative disorder. Also, the symptoms can vary greatly in strength.

I personally believe that many physical and psychological symptoms have their roots in the process of repression and are the manifested aspects of dissociated parts of the psyche. Problems such as depression, panic attacks, skin complaints, migraines and many other symptoms which respond well to psychotherapy, can be the result of repressed experiences whereby the parts that have been denied a complete "role" in the daily life of the individual make themselves felt in ways that canÂ?t be ignored, so that the individual has no choice but to attend to the problem.

3) Possible therapeutic ways

Any therapy that will respectfully help the individual acknowledge the repressed aspects should help the person move towards a more unified state of mind. By respect, I mean a need to listen to all the parts that are present and recognise their needs. Because repressed aspects will often manifest themselves in one way or another, either by way of symptoms as described above or as personality states, it is often enough to take the time to listen, acknowledge and recognise the experiences that are coming to the surface for a healing to begin. It is also important to understand what the various aspects are trying to achieve through their manifestation and help them reach that goal in a way that is not going to damage other aspects of the psyche or the life of the individual. I have always found that the ultimate goal of a personality state is always positive, but that the way it takes to reach that goal can sometimes be negative and destructive. It is just that it doesnÂ?t know any other way to reach that positive outcome and needs help in the process.

The individual therefore has to learn how to value the parts and their needs, understand better the source of their existence and help them achieve their desired outcome but in a way that is non destructive. It is essential for the therapist to be respectful of the individualÂ?s own process and abilities (or lack of) and to show a great degree of empathy and genuineness in order to facilitate the process of reintegration. Through the process, the individual learns to have a better, more positive relationship with him/herself and the different aspects that compose his/her psyche. Instead of running away from him/herself adopting an attitude of denial towards whatever is uncomfortable, the individual learns to work with him/herself, striving to understand and promote positive growth.

An acknowledgement of the various aspects present can lead the individual towards a greater understanding of the causes of repression and of the future the aspects try to create for themselves. What I mean by that is that the past has shaped the present which contains the seeds of future development. In the present manifestation of a repressed aspect, the individual can know its history and its ultimate goals which, as I have stated before are always positive. The individual can then work with the different parts of his/her mind, towards that goal, whilst taking a less destructive path.

Author: PB
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