We assume we are a unified, integrated self but the truth is all of us have parts. It is more the exception than the rule that all parts of us will feel the same on any given issue. Most of us have some conflicting parts which is often why we can’t move ahead on a particular issue, but we might not realise that this is the reason why. For example, a part of you wants to give up smoking and another part needs to smoke because it helps with anxiety. It’s not scary when you think of having parts, or subpersonalities, like that, is it?
Like many things in mental health, normal processes are often pathologised, which creates a lot of shame and secrecy. We hear stories of people with multiple personality disorder (now called dissociative identity disorder or DID) and we think “That’s not me” and we go out of our way to prove how normal we are and to distance ourself from any of that weird stuff.
People with DID can have parts who do not remember what one part did, called dissociative amnesia, and it can cause havoc in their life. However, rather than being afraid of this, if we know what’s going on (psychoeducation), we can have understanding and compassion instead. One of the most common reasons for the lack of integration in DID, is the trauma that various parts hold. People with DID have often suffered horrific trauma, particularly early in their life, and dissociation is often the only means of escape from horrible situations. This creates not just spaces but chasms between parts in order to survive the unbearable.
Every single one of us is on the dissociation spectrum, it is just a matter of to what degree. It is really important to normalise dissociation, especially when we are going through traumatic experiences, as it is often the only coping mechanism we have. Problems arise when the divisions that persistent, long term dissociation creates, cause problems for the person and the people around them.
We often think of dissociation as a purely mental or psychological process, but dissociation is also a somatic process, which means it also affects the body. People who have suffered sexual abuse for example, can have parts of their body that they just don’t feel. A more common occurrence for all of us, are difficult sensations arising in our body that overwhelm our capacity to feel them, so we dissociate from them. Short term, this can be a great solution, but long term it causes all sorts of health problems, both physical and psychological.
A good place to start if you want to learn more about parts is Internal Family Systems, developed by psychologist, Richard Schwartz.