Posted by: Marie | November 29, 2010

(454) Enlightening conversations

Post #454
[Private journal entry written on Saturday, June 12, 2010]

Over the past several days, I’ve had an interesting dialogue via the comments feature with my friend, David, about masking and dissociation. The conversation is in response to a blog post that was published a few days ago (on June 8th):


FWIW, it is entirely possible to carry on a normal conversation with eye contact and physical contact, and to appear completely calm and at ease while having a profound experience of dissociation. Mark knows nothing about dissociation. It’s the dissociation that *allows* the appearance of normalcy. If you were in your body and panicked, that would be visible.



I’m glad you provided some input on this topic . . . I am still rather confused about it.

When I read about dissociation in clinical books, it is described as a “zombie state” (that’s my paraphrase) where the person seems to not be aware of their current “real” environment.

However, when I read client accounts, more often I read about them behaving in a “normal” way while feeling disconnected and with inappropriate emotions or no emotion . . . like they are on auto-pilot.

So . . I am confused. My experience is more like the latter while I think Mark was thinking more along the lines of the former.



Well, both of those things are true. :-)

It’s possible to dissociate from reality to the point where it is visibly obvious to another person; and it is possible to do it and not be visible at all. Partly it depends upon how strong the individual’s “masking” or self-management is. Mine, for example, is so extraordinarily strong that my therapist couldn’t detect my dissociative episodes in her office even after I’d seen her weekly for three years. My girlfriend, on the other hand, can tell immediately, because she is so completely attuned to my body language.

Photo by Martin Chen

If you think about it, though, the out-of-body experience fits the definition of the person not being aware of the current “real” environment. You may be functioning, but you are not fully cognizant of what is happening to your body in real time. Psychologically healthy people frequently dissociate in this way under extreme stress, in order to be able to continue functioning at optimum levels — if you think of a fireman, for example, in the middle of a rescue … if he were truly completely aware of his reality, he wouldn’t be able to function. The brain and the body split temporarily, so that he can perform his job without being distracted by fear or pain. Then, when the crisis has passed, he is back in his body. This is a classic example of healthy dissociation — dissociation is not, in and of itself, problematic; it’s a survival mechanism.

It becomes a problem when someone is conditioned to react to common everyday events as though they are a life- or sanity-threatening crisis. But the primary purpose of dissociation in the healthy brain is to enhance function, not to destroy it. So it is quite possible to be entirely dissociated and still functioning at a very high level. For those whose dissociative episodes are strongly tangled up with their “fight, flight, or freeze” response, they may dissociate and also become visibly nonresponsive. But not always; and some people have high-functioning dissociation under some circumstances, and nonfunctioning dissocation under other circumstances.



Now that’s the best explanation I have come across! Thank you for explaining it so clearly!

The “masking” thing makes total sense, now that you’ve laid it out this way. All of my life people have commented on my extraordinary ability to be calm and collected, and to show no fear when in tough corporate negotiations, emergency situations, fist fights, etc. (I’ve been in at least a few of each.)

In my next session with Mark (next one coming up on the blog), he mentions my strong ability to “mask” . . . I hadn’t connected that with dissociation before . . . but it makes sense now!

Every time Mark and I got into the religion debate, he’d raise his voice and I’d raise my voice, he’d argue a point, I’d come back with a better one . . . I’d match him lick for lick. So, on the outside, I looked like I was a warrior. In that moment, I wasn’t afraid because I was in “fight” mode.

But, then, I’d go home and fall apart. And, I’d be so afraid we were going to “go there” again in a future session . . . I hated it because it made me feel unsafe. But, on the outside, I never let it show.

So . . . in case you didn’t notice, I’m connecting some dots here that haven’t been connected before.

Thank you for the clarification!


And then, today . . . I had an email conversation with my therapist:

Hi, Edward –

Something is weighing on me and I’d feel better if I can clean it up.

As you know, I left my coffee mug at your office two sessions ago . . . and you called to ask me what you should do with it . . . and I called back and left a message saying I would get it from you at the next session.

When I was leaving my message, I said I first missed the mug the morning after my session.

Then, at this last session, when you pointed out that the mug was on the end table waiting for me, I said I first missed it on the car ride home.

The latter is true, not the former. I lied to you in the phone message because I was afraid you would think I left it on purpose as a way to maintain a sort of connection with you. I thought it was less likely you would think that if it took me a while to miss the mug.

I would be horrified if you thought I was that emotionally attached to you.

Anyway . . . I know this a really small, dumb thing . . . I doubt you even noticed the inconsistency in my statements. But, the fact I told a lie during the voice message has been bugging me (because I don’t like that I sometimes lie) . . . and the fact that you may have caught the inconsistency (and therefore now know I told a lie) has also been bugging me (because I may have gotten caught). It feels like a blemish in the space between us.

I’m afraid it will cause you to not trust and believe what I say, which would be devastating to me.

So . . . I am sorry I contaminated our relationship with a lie.

– Marie


Dear Marie,

Thanks for taking the time out to share.

I do want you to know that I don’t feel our relationship has been contaminated, and I very much look forward to seeing you this coming week.

We can take a few minutes this coming session to process this together, making sure we take the time to attend to your feelings in a caring manner.




Thank you, Edward, for your quick and kind reply . . . I’ll see you Wednesday.

– Marie


  1. Dissociation is an interesting thing. It’s only happened a couple of times for me – I had a pretty benign upbringing.

    I’ll be interested to see if you post about clearing up the coffee mug thing – that seems to me that it could to really interesting places.

    • Hey, Evan –

      I think the dissociation has been confusing for me because it can take so many different forms and can occur to such varying degrees. My concern has always been if my experiences with it were within the “normal” range or not. David’s information helped me with answering that concern.

      About the coffee mug thing . . . you’re in luck . . . it is addressed in an upcoming session and the way it is handled has a significant impact on me . . . thanks for staying tuned!

      – Marie

  2. I too have wrestled with this whole issue of disassociation. In my mind people who disassociated – went spacey, zoned out, went away in their head, closed their eyes, shut down…all that kind of thing and that is totally not what I do. I become massively aware of tiny details in a room – the curtain pattern, the colours in the room, every single noise, every single detail of whoever else is in the room, I start putting the books on the bookshelf into alphabetical order in my head (this I later realised was something I did at the time of some of the bad stuff as a kid). I become almost MORE in the room. And so therefore often people didn’t realise anything had happened at all. In fact people often joke about my ability to take an exact photo in my mind of rooms and situations. I am always the one people come to when they can’t remember where they put their keys!! To some extent it wasn’t bothering me, but when I started to want to work on some stuff, of certain feelings, I would get frustrated because I couldn’t. I couldn’t stay with it. But I didn’t realise what was happening. But my Therapist helpfully reminded me one day that dissociation is to dis-associate. To de associate from. To disconnect from. However you do that. And for me I disconnect from the feelings in my body and thoughts in my head when they get too much, but focussing on everything around me – by becoming hypervigilant, by becoming totally overloaded by current innocuous stimuli. But it is still dis-associating from the stuff inside. And in some ways it was a highly adaptive mechanism for me – I needed to be hypervigilant to survive. If I had zoned out I probably would have been in more danger. This awareness has helped me now, because when I catch myself doing it, I realise that there is something I’m trying to disconnect from, and I try and get back to it. Anyway sorry for the ramble, I just wanted to say I agree with David, that dissociation is normal and healthy, and only becomes a problem if it is in excess in that you are reacting with dissociation to events that aren’t life threatening etc or it is stopping you from doing something that you want or need to do.

    In terms of the coffee cup …..I saw it a bit like a transitional object – reminding him that you still exist – that he is holding onto a part of you. I don’t think that is bad or horrific. I often leave my Therapist with the piece of paper I brought with stuff written on – so that it feels like she is too now holding onto the stuff – literally as well as metaphorically. I am interested by your belief that to be emotionally attached to him would be horrific. I think that sadly attachment has become something that is seen as pathetic, bad, associated with dependency, with an almost unhealthy need for someone. But I disagree! I would hope that, and have seen evidence of in your writing, that you have emotional intimacy with Edward. I would say that you have connected, have linked on that level. you see, I think of attachment like a dance. 2 dancers on the ballroom floor. In a good dance they will be in hold, and then move apart, and then come back together again. They will be in attune with each other. Sometimes the movements will mirror, sometimes they will be synchronised and other times they might be independent. There is closeness but there is also space. If she was stood on his feet the whole time and wanted him to dance around with her on his feet (over dependent one might say), that wouldn’t be a good dance – that wouldn’t be healthy. If she does her own dance and doesn’t really need or use her partner at all (i.e. there is no connection – or attachment), that wouldn’t be a good dance. If they are trying to dance together, but both pulling in different directions, or aren’t listening to the movement of each other, that wouldn’t be a good dance. But a good dance is about good attunement and an attachment. Attachment in itself isn’t bad. It is healthy. It is what we are designed for. Does any of this make any sense?! Sorry I’m feeling very verbal today!

    • Hey, Beautiful Stones –

      I would have to say my experience with dissociating is more like yours . . . extreme concentration on the small details around me. I, too, take a “photograph” of my surroundings and often even an auditory recording.

      About the coffee mug . . . I really like how you described the dance between two people! While my leaving the mug didn’t have meaning attached to it (I finished my coffee within the first few minutes of the session, set it on an end table off to the far end of the couch so I wouldn’t spill the remaining grounds and then forgot to pick it up on the way out — it wasn’t a thoughtful decision to leave it), the incident did bring up my fear around the dance you describe. Somehow, along the line, I learned it was bad — even sinful — to feel emotionally connected with a man.

      Stay tuned . . . Edward and I look at that fear in the near future . . .

      – Marie

  3. Interesting stuff about dissociation. I actually think it’s very common when looked at from the perspective of trying to escape the body or thoughts or painful emotions. I think, in fact, it’s a matter of degree. Maybe I just do it more then other people and assume that everyone does it as much as me.

    But my breath-work that I practice is very much about finding a way to stay present with my experience and in my body by connecting to the breath, which is a physical process. By noticing my breathing on a moment to moment basis and also working to relax, I try to keep my body in a more healthy state and to not so easily go into fight or flight mode or just drift away into some kind of fantasy or anxious state.

    I would assume that the more trauma I’d gone through as a child, the more often I would be trained to dissociate from my experience. I happen to have done it quite a bit, but perhaps less severely than those who have been terribly abused…

    • Hey, Aaron –

      It sounds like the breath-work is a great way to learn a new way of responding!

      It has come to my attention that more severe abuse does not always translate into more severe damage. If a group of people (children) were to experience the exact same trauma and have the exact same resources for dealing with it, some people (children) would come through it far less scarred than the others. For whatever reason, some people are affected more than others.

      So . . . the amount of dissociating a person might or might not do may have less to do with what happened to him and more to do with how he processes trauma.

      – Marie

  4. Hi Marie,

    Well that’s probably true. Although i used to admire how my brother had gone through a difficult and dysfunctional family upbringing that we had with very little negative baggage….but in the end, sadly, it seems he just hid that negative baggage far better than I did. And that hurt him, whereas I realize far more how much the traumas we dealt with as children impacted me. So I’ve had to find ways to deal with it.

    I guess what I’m saying is, sometimes you have to dive very far under the surface to see how or where someone is hiding or impacted by trauma. It can be very deep indeed.

    Breathing for me has been a great way to deal with very powerful emotions and anxiety and anger. It is by no means a magic bullet and takes a tremendous amount of work, but I find it quite helpful to say the least (and the scientific studies seem to back it up as well).

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