I don't know where that came from - Dealing with psychological splits

A number of clients tell me how they sometimes experience a part of themselves that takes over and how it is not like them; they don’t feel themselves when this happens.  They describe how they become  ‘a crazy person’, angry and destructive, clinging and needy or insecure, when they don’t feel that most of the time in their lives.  They often can’t understand how they could behave in these ways and feel terribly ashamed of themselves when this happens and the problems it causes in their relationships. They have come to see these reactions as ‘not them’ and the ‘normal’ calmer in control self as who they really are. They may come into therapy looking for a way of getting rid of this part of them, that somehow there may be tools that they can learn to control themselves. The split between these two parts of a person and how that develops in our family of origin, is the focus of this article.

A split occurs to deal with the psychological pain we experience from relational trauma when those who we are dependent on, betray us.  Pain, whether that is physical such as touching something that is hot or emotional when we feel hurt by someone’s reaction to us, can inform us about how to proceed in life. We learn not to go near things that are hot, or not to walk on a broken leg. Pain can give us information about how to survive. When we are hurt emotionally by someone we are dependent on our survival is attached to a continued relationship with them.  The pain we feel may be telling us to avoid that person or get angry about what has happened, but our survival (especially as a child) relies on us getting along with this person. The emotional pain we feel is therefore not useful to our survival in this case. The limited choices we have is the basis for the split that occurs to remove the pain from our consciousness in order to carry on in this relationship.

From research into early relational trauma it is well documented that dissociation is the psychological defense mechanism that creates splits. Dissociation is defined as ‘ a lack of normal integration of  thoughts, feelings, and experiences into the stream of consciousness and memory’.  It is this ability to dissociate that makes it possible for a child to split off the painful experiences and feelings  and carry on with life as ‘normal’. The two sides of the split have been identified rather aptly as between the ‘apparently normal personality’ (ANP) and the ‘emotional personality’ (EP).  Very simply, the ANP is how the child continues to interact with the world and the EP holds the unresolved traumatic response.  As a result of  relational trauma the EP carries shame around those emotions,  bodily actions and reactions, behaviour and desires that have been dissociated in order to continue a relationship with those they are dependent on.

So it may be easy to see how this part that people describe as ‘not me’  is the EP described above. Let’s take an example to illustrate how this happens. A mother is suffering from depression, she has a hard time responding to her daughter’s need for attention. Her daughter feels rejected and hurt because she can not get the comfort or attention that she needs. She feels that she is alone most of the time which builds up fear that no-one is there when things get difficult. She learns that if she complains her mother gets angry and more rejecting. In order to be as connected to her mother as she can she has to dissociate from these needs for attention; she comes to believe that she is someone who doesn’t need attention.  The need for attention and feelings of insecurity become part of the EP and associated with feelings of shame. They don’t disappear they just lay dormant and hidden.  She may feel angry with her mother but never expresses it and may even begin to feel that her anger is not ok.

So as her life continues these feelings are kept at bay most of the time, until she comes into a situation where the feeling of someone not being there for her is triggered. It is these situations in adult life that many clients are referring to when they feel like a ‘crazy person’ and not themselves. It can be difficult for people to see these feelings as legitimate as they are associated with being rejected or shamed. When a person’s EP is activated the emotion is conflicted causing behaviour that will illicit responses in others that are more likely to be rejecting. For example,  if someone’s feelings of  betrayal are activated but they feel ashamed about needing that person or afraid their feelings will get a negative response, it becomes difficult to express those feelings.  Whenever we feel shame around a feeling or experience the most common way of defending against that feeling is to shame others.

The first task in therapy is often to work at reducing the emotional overwhelm when these feelings come up so that they can be tolerated. When we can tolerate the feelings it is easier to validate needs for attention, or comfort, or support. When we can tolerate emotions they can be expressed in a calmer and less reactive way .  Then we work to release the emotional pain in a manageable way that begins to put current relationship difficulties into perspective and heal the shame we carry. It is important to realize that even though you may want to ‘get rid of’ this part of you, it is a vital part of who you are that needs attention rather than rejection.