The Haunted Self: Structural Dissociation and the Treatment of Chronic Traumatization

Pixabay: PublicCo

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The first category of action systems that make up personality involves action systems that support individuals in efforts to adapt to daily life; the second category pertains to the action systems for defense from major threat, and recuperation.

Whereas evolution has prepared us both for tasks of daily living and for survival under threat, we are not able to engage with ease in both simultaneously.

Thus when both are necessary, particularly for long periods of time, some individuals develop a rather rigid division of their personality to deal with these very discrepant goals and related activities.

For example, Marilyn Van Derbur (2004), the former Miss America who was molested as a child, described her personality as being divided into a “day child,” that was avoidant, numb, detached, amnesic, and focused on normal life, and a “night child” that endured the abuse and focused on defense.

The lack of cohesion and integration of the personality manifests itself most clearly in the alternation between and coexistence of the reexperience of traumatizing events (e.g., a “night child”) and avoidance of reminders of the traumatic experience with a focus on functioning in daily life (e.g., a “day child”).

This biphasic pattern is a hallmark of PTSD (APA, 1994) and is also observed in patients with other trauma-related disorders.

It involves a division between action systems for defense, those which guide us to avoid or escape from threat, and for functioning in daily life—systems that are primarily for seeking attractive stimuli in life that help us survive and feel well.

This division is the basic form of structural dissociation of the personality.

Trauma-related structural dissociation, then, is a deficiency in the cohesiveness and flexibility of the personality structure (Resch, 2004).

This deficiency does not mean that the personality is completely split into different “systems of ideas and functions,” but rather that there is a lack of cohesion and coordination among these systems that comprise the survivor’s personality.

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