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Dissociation Explained

. Written by Marleen Filimon

Dissociation is going to another room and forgetting what you were going to grab; it is driving and arriving home without memory how you got there or the exact route taken; it’s getting up to make a presentation and freezing up, unable to remember what you had practiced; it is detaching from oneself or the environment under significant stress; it is difficulty identifying who we are after major decisions in life; and it is the donning of different hats that we put on in different situations.

Dissociation is something that we all do without always realizing we are engaging in it. Sometimes however, this dissociation can go beyond these everyday instances and impair our ability to function on a day-to-day basis.

What Exactly Is Dissociation?

Dissociation takes on many forms and many definitions that can sometimes make it murky and difficult to understand.

Using Steinberg and Schnall (2010) as a guideline, dissociation is an adaptive defense in response to something that is deemed as high stress, traumatic, or life-threateningly dangerous and can involve instances of memory loss as well as a sense of disconnection from ourselves and our surroundings (p. 18).

It is a failure of integration that can impact how we choose to view ourselves and our personality (Steele, van der Hart, & Boon, 2011). As much as dissociation can impair our day-to-day functioning, it is often used as a survival strategy for many who grew up having experienced trauma as a child.

The goal of dissociation is to allow the individual who experienced this terrifying event to continue with their normal life by avoiding the stressful experiences that exist in both the present and the past. These experiences can sometimes result in an individual having one or more parts of themselves that are trapped in past experiences that continue to be unresolved and another part trying to avoid these unintegrated and scary experiences.

What Does Dissociation Look Like?

According to Steinberg and Schnall (2010), core dissociation symptoms involves five different symptoms. These include:

Dissociative Amnesia

This often presents in the form of gaps in memories or in lost time where an individual is unable to account for specific periods of time. Examples are going into a room and not remembering what the reason, or forgetting what we wanted to say in an important meeting.

More severe forms of dissociative amnesia can present in the form of memory blanks that are longer than 30 minutes, or finding oneself in a strange or unfamiliar place without memory of how you got there.


Examples include not being able to recognize yourself in the mirror, observing oneself outside their body, a loss of feelings of part of their body, or feeling invisible.

Depersonalization can be brought on by stress or a sense of being in extreme danger.


Derealization is a sense of detachment from our environment and can involve a perception that the world around is unreal or events are not happening. It often involves an unfamiliar feeling such as that friends and relatives are not real or that colours are more or less intense.

Identity Confusion

An uncertainty or potential conflict that we can develop regarding our sense of self, such as a sense of confusion that is tied to a major event or life decision such as marriage, divorce, or career.

Identity Alteration

Experiencing the self as multiple, for example having a professional image and a private image of oneself, or in more severe cases feeling that someone else can control or influence your behaviour.


  • Boon, S., Steele, K., & Van Der Hart, O. (2011). Coping with Trauma-Related Dissociation:
  • Skills Training for Patients and Therapists (Norton Series on Interpersonal Neurobiology). WW Norton & Company.
  • Ferentz, L. (2014). Letting go of self-destructive behaviors: A workbook of hope and healing. Routledge.
  • Knipe, J. (2015). EMDR toolbox: Theory and treatment of complex PTSD and dissociation. Springer Publishing Company.
  • Steinberg, M., & Schnall, M. (2010). The stranger in the mirror: The hidden epidemic. Harper Collins.

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