One of the most commonly reported side-effects of being abused by a narcissist in a relationship of any kind is C-PTSD (Complex Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder), and one of the most common ways this can manifest in the victims and survivors of narcissistic abuse and gaslighting manipulation is in the form of dissociation.
Dissociation on a metaphorical level looks a lot like being a passenger in a car rather than the driver. Like, you’re seeing all of the turns and the journey, but you’re just along for the ride. The ride is happening TO you rather than you choosing the route.
What is dissociation, exactly?
In the most basic sense, dissociation is a disconnection from your physical surroundings. It's when you feel like you're sort of watching the world from somewhere deep inside your head, or above it or somehow disconnected from it. Like you're "not really there" or like you're watching life through a movie.
It feels like you’re “not really real” or like you’re watching your life through some kind of fog. Some people describe it as feeling sort of like a robot or having no emotions or connection whatsoever to the people around them.
What was once familiar now seems somehow unfamiliar, and this includes people, places and things.
A Clinical Definition of Dissociation
A more clinical definition, according to the International Society of the Study of Trauma and Dissociation (ISST-D), says that dissociation is “the disconnection or lack of connection between things usually associated with each other,” and that in its most severe forms, those who suffer from it report that the “disconnection occurs in the usually integrated functions of consciousness, memory, identity, or perception.”
So, for example, a person who suffers from dissociation may experience something that most people would be extremely upset and affected by, and they may have no feelings about it.
According to ISST-D, it’s clinically termed “emotional numbing,” and it’s one of the hallmarks of PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder), a common and unfortunate side-effect of experiencing narcissistic abuse in a relationship. It’s also a very common complaint seen in people who seek mental health treatment according to a 2002 study published by Maldonado et al).
How does dissociation as a result of gaslighting and mental abuse affect your life? What symptoms are involved?
Though it may initially seem harmless, your ability to “tune out” the world, and though some people may almost find your “spaciness” rather adorable, the truth is that there are plenty of less than desirable consequences that come along with dissociation.
There are five pretty common symptoms of dissociation that can significantly affect your life, and there’s one that is less common but potentially more devastating in some ways.
- Depersonalization: the sense of being outside of or disconnected from your body - feeling like you’re not in your body. You might even feel like you don’t recognize yourself in the mirror. You feel detached from yourself.
- Derealization: when the world feels “fake” or contrived. People who are affected by derealization often describe this symptom as a “fog” or like they see the world from “far away” or through a veil. Some say it’s like watching a movie rather than actually participating in life.
- Dissociative amnesia: a particular type of amnesia that is specific to people with dissociation that blocks out personal details, such as incidents of abuse and manipulation, blocks of time - from minutes to years - and more. Often, people say that they just forget what they’re talking about - but it’s not just your standard forgetfulness - it’s a significant issue that may even become embarrassing at times.
- Identity confusion: a condition in which you experience seriously conflicted feelings within yourself; for example, you might find that you’re doing things that aren’t like you - such as driving recklessly or doing drugs; and while part of you find this behavior thrilling, the other part of you is disgusted by it.
- Identity alteration: a shocking condition in which parts of you are very defined and separate from other parts - this is similar to a condition that used to be called multiple personality disorder. It’s far less common but does occasionally manifest in victims of narcissistic abuse.
What does dissociation have to do with being emotionally and mentally abused by a narcissist?
When it comes to dissociation due to narcissistic abuse in your relationship, it’s a whole other ball of wax. The thing is that learning to dissociate can be something that begins as a survival technique for someone who has experienced the soul-crushing emotional abuse of a narcissist.
The ability to “dissociate” can actually sort of save you - it’s really a coping mechanism.
What happens is that you begin to feel so overcome by fear, anger or any other emotion that doesn’t make sense to you, and you probably find yourself doing things that you wouldn’t normally choose to do on your own.
For example, you may cut off your best friend, or you might stop calling your mother or Aunt Sally, even though you’ve talked to them both every day of your life up to now.
You do things like this, and potentially even more damaging things, because you are attempting to keep your narcissist happy and avoid an episode of narcissistic rage, gaslighting or any number of other ways a narcissist likes to manipulate his victims.
When all of this becomes too much for your rational mind to handle and you’ve become isolated, or at least emotionally isolated in that you don’t talk to anyone about your problems, you have to figure out a way to deal.
And, a lot of times, you have to decide NOT to wish you were dead - and the only way to do THAT is to simply stop feeling the things that hurt you so deeply. You might begin by rationalizing it in your head (he doesn’t really mean it, or he will apologize later, so I can just get through this and help him with his anger or self-esteem or whatever is bothering him, according to your perception).
When that doesn’t work, you give up and you stop feeling anything at all. At first, this is a freeing feeling, but eventually it sucks not only the pain from your life but also the joy - and that’s when you’ve dissociated. When you feel literally almost nothing.
Why should you bother to get help with dissociation? Doesn’t it just make life easier in some ways?
It might seem like that at first. Some people even say that the best way to avoid being hurt emotionally is to avoid feeling anything at all. But the problem is a little thing psychologists call “affect dysregulation,” which is defined as the inability to tolerate and manage intense emotional experiences.
This happens because we lose the inability to soothe ourselves for whatever reason - or we were never given the opportunity to learn how.
This can cause us to have terrible mood swings, lack of emotion and on some occasions, the sudden reliving of painful memories. It’s like when a veteran with PTSD has a war flashback, except it’s the reliving of tragic events we’ve personally experienced, such as the verbal and emotional abuse of a narcissist in a relationship.
You should get help because dissociation can absolutely ruin your life - it can cause you to become someone you’re truly not. And what you deserve is the ability to discover (or re-discover) who you truly are - not to be a basket-case shell of your true self.
Why do we dissociate when it’s so unhealthy for us?
Like I said, dissociation is a direct result of subconscious mind’s attempt to protect us from the intense and painful emotions we can’t handle. It’s our mind’s last-ditch attempt to preserve our sanity - and it initially happens when all of our other methods of protection are exhausted. We sort of “artificially” adapt our personalities to manage our fear, anger and other intense emotions. In this way, we control them and temporarily save ourselves.
How do I start to heal from dissociation and feel things again?
If you’re self-treating, you’re going to have to work really hard. Most psychologists will tell you to get professional help. Though I am a certified life coach who has herself experienced and overcome narcissistic abuse, I am not a mental or physical health professional, so before you try anything I suggest, you need to consult with your healthcare professional.
The process of healing from dissociation begins first with understanding and awareness. Once you understand the problem and can identify it in yourself, you can begin to develop coping techniques and habits that can help you learn to live again, to take back your life.
The next thing you need to do is to start working on your own confidence in yourself and your ability to make this change. Then you can just focus on learning to become aware of and to tolerate and handle your feelings - which, of course, can lead to your growing as a person and learning so many new things.
Your turn: have you experienced dissociation as a result of being abused by a narcissist? Share your thoughts, feelings and experiences in the comments section, and let's discuss this.
Ready to start the healing? Here are some resources to get you started.
- Download my free Post-Gaslighting Emergency Recovery Kit or visit this free resources page for more help and support with gaslighting and narcissistic abuse in relationships.
- Coaching Program for Victims and Survivors of Narcissistic Abuse in Relationships: One-on-One Narcissism Support Coaching with Certified Life Coach Angela Atkinson
Books & eBooks on Narcissism and Relationships
- Take Back Your Power: How to End People Pleasing, Stop Letting Life Happen to You and Start Getting What You Want