How I Deal With Dissociation as an Abuse Survivor
I have a hard time feeling my feelings. I often don’t know they are there, until several of them gang up and perform an intervention on me — and then suddenly it’s all too much.
Abuse survivors are well known to dissociate. It’s a fairly common maladaptive response to trauma.
For me, dissociating from early on in life was what saved me. I could leave my body, and exist in a dialogue-only part of my mind, where I could comprehend what was going on, but it didn’t break me.
I could stay quiet and small, and that kept me safe.
While it was an essential life skill for me as a child in an unsafe home, today as an adult trying to make it in the ‘normal’ world, I find myself lost from time to time.
I miss important cues that most people would get from their feelings, because mine are locked away.
I can go for days, weeks, and sometimes months without connecting with my feelings, especially the negative ones.
I’ve been hearing the term ‘toxic positivity’ a lot lately, in relation to other people forcing their need for positivity onto others. But personally, that’s something I’ve been doing to myself for as long as I can remember.
When something goes wrong, my immediate response is “It will be fine.”
Then I tell myself to suck it up, and I press on.
At the root of it all, I’m scared that if I acknowledge an emotion it will carry me away, and I will stop being an independent and functional adult.
In my early 20s I slipped into a period of low functioning depression where I didn’t get out of bed for many months. I don’t remember how I got out of it, but I just know that I can’t go back.
For abuse and trauma survivors, our fear of feeling our feelings can be related to our fear of losing control and efficacy over our own lives. We know that our grief will engulf everything if we let it, and so we don’t.
We march on, chanting our mantra of “It will be fine,” because that is the safest way for us to be. But this is only effective in the short term.
So what happens when we get so emotionally constipated that we can’t breathe anymore? What if life has become black, white and grey because all of the joy has slipped away?
And most worryingly — what happens when we fail to read the warning signs that our life is going in the wrong direction.
Take 2020 for example. I think most people accepted that something was very off about this year long before I did. While our economy was shutting down, I ploughed on with my self employed freelance lifestyle, while friends of mine who are more rooted in reality were applying for any jobs they could get.
Looking back, I wish I’d started that process sooner. Now my freelance work has dried up, and I still don’t have a job.
I also haven’t been processing my anxiety about my lack of income, at least I wasn’t until it started coming out as anger.
How to feel feelings again
So now that I am finally awake to the fact that I have been floating about in a dissociated state for most of this year, I intend to do the work to get unblocked emotionally, process my feelings, and join the rest of the population on planet Earth — and also to sort out my lack of income.
I need to be present, aware and feeling everything to make better decisions.
Step 1 — getting back into my body
The thing about dissociating is that it takes me out of my body, which is full of aches and pains, bad memories and horrible feelings. I don’t really want to be in there.
But I know that my body can be a good place too. It’s also where I feel joy, love and light. But I have to be prepared to take the rough with the smooth.
We can’t cherry pick the emotions that we want to feel.
So in order to begin feeling — all of it — I first have to get back into my body.
I have to remind (or convince) myself that today I am physically safe, and so my body is a safe place to be too.
In a previous post, The Law of Attraction for Abuse Survivors, I said this:
Getting into an abused and painful body is like stepping into a freezing cold and rapid river. The current is strong and it will take your breath away!
I want to raise this point again just as a reminder not to force yourself to get back in to your body, or do it too quickly. Take your time and stay calm.
As for the how part, I find anything tactile can help me with this, from petting my cats to having a hot bath. Touch is a great way to reconnect with ourselves.
But it has to be done mindfully — and this really is the key. If you are attempting this process too, then just focus on being in your physical form, and notice sensations like hot and cold, soft and rough.
You might find that a mantra helps too — try a few things and see what works for you.
Step 2 — Let a little out first
Whether at this point you are still reaching for any scrap of emotion within you, or you find yourself now suddenly holding back the flood gates, it’s again important to go slowly.
Processing your feelings isn’t another task or chore for you to power your way through. This is deep work and should be done carefully.
Try just letting a little out at a time. Try to focus on just one feeling, or just one situation in your life that you had been avoiding, and not the whole bigger picture.
Have a trusted friend on standby if you need somebody to support you. This is always a smart move.
If you are trying to feel but still nothing comes, then maybe music will help you. This usually works for me. I go for a walk or a run with a well chosen playlist of songs that make me feel, and I usually manage to cry a little.
It feels great to finally vent some of the pressure.
Final step — have a way forward
So, if you have reconnected with your body, felt your feelings and vented them a little, you will now need to know what comes next.
This is important for everyone, but perhaps feels even more important for abuse survivors. We can’t stand not knowing what to expect — for obvious reasons.
So making yourself a plan to deal with whatever you have been bottling up or avoiding is the smartest thing you can do now.
Don’t just think about it, writing it down and making it your official plan will give you a sense of security that you will likely need to avoid dissociating and floating off again.
Try and stay down here on Earth for as long as you can. You are more effective at solving problems and keeping your life on track while you are here, in your actual life.
Finally, remember that any habits we form in our early years, such as dissociation, are incredibly hard to break. So keep working at it, but don’t beat yourself up when you drift off again — because you likely will.
We all need reminders to stay on track. For me, I remind myself best when I write or talk about my dissociation. Maybe that would help you too?
Be gentle with yourself. You have come a long way and this year has been especially challenging for us all. But if you read to the end, then you are clearly thinking about processing your own emotions and that’s a great first step.
Just take one step at a time and keep being brave.
DeWees & Lerner (2020) Uncertainty Avoidance. Encyclopedia of Personality and Individual Differences. https://link.springer.com/referenceworkentry/10.1007%2F978-3-319-24612-3_806
Elliot D. Cohen Ph.D. (2011) The Fear of Losing Control. Psychology Today.
Mind (2019) Dissociation and dissociative disorders.