Understanding Treatments for Structural Dissociation
Chronic trauma, particularly in childhood through some form of ongoing abuse or emotional neglect, can lead to structural dissociation. Structural dissociation a self-defense mechanism employed in situations where the survivor is not able to avoid the abuser and must instead live with them or interact with them regularly over long periods.
In this situation, the survivor can turn against themselves, creating a split that allows them to turn their anger, resentment, and hurt not against the person responsible but toward themselves. Anger transforms into unbearable guilt and shame, and a separate self (separate part) is necessary for survival. The structural dissociation of the personality will be more complex the greater the intensity, frequency, and duration of the traumatization and the earlier the trauma started in life.
What Is Structural Dissociation?
Structural dissociation is the psychodynamic process of creating a separate self/selves that deal with the different aspects of chronic trauma. The personality becomes split into different parts, and each part has its own emotions and behaviors, leading the individual to feel different from one moment to the next. It manifests as rapid mood swings, with the individual moving from happiness to rage or even a sense of numbness within a short amount of time.
Over time, structural dissociation can lead to incredibly detrimental results. The individual will usually experience worsening symptoms and start to withdraw from their lives. Even intimacy with loved ones and/or spouses can become painful as the different parts clash. Symptoms of structural dissociation can include:
• Amnesia for the past, “memory gaps”
• Feeling numb or empty, chronic loneliness
• A sense of disembodiment with little or no hunger, thirst
• A lack of motivation
• A lack of stamina
• The rise of the inner critic
Thankfully, several treatment options can help survivors of structural dissociation, including parts work therapy, which can also be implemented within specific treatment modalities, like IFS and EMDR.
What Is Parts Work Therapy?
Parts work therapy is precisely what it sounds like – a therapeutic approach designed to help patients deal with the different parts of themselves created through chronic trauma, eventually bringing a sense of peace and wholeness to the person. For instance, a therapist might have us begin working through a particularly traumatic memory. Part of us might want the release and relief offered by working through it, but another part interferes with the process to protect us from the threatening emotions that will arise.
Most people have different parts of themselves. This does not mean that we have multiple personalities or that everyone suffers from structural dissociation. For instance, when we make a mistake doing something, the voice of our inner critic could sound like a disapproving family member from our past. The critic is part of us, but it is also that family member’s voice, and can also feel separate from the part making the mistake.
Chronic trauma is often held within specific parts of ourselves – usually, a “younger” self that is roughly the same emotional age as we were when the trauma occurred. Parts work therapy strives to resolve those memories and ease the emotional burdens, by erasing the lines between the different “parts” of ourselves.
Parts work is usually integrated into a specific therapeutic approach. IFS and EMDR are two popular approaches that can both accommodate parts work.
What Is Parts Work in IFS?
IFS stands for Internal Family Systems and uses a model that identifies three common types of parts within us. These are exiles, managers, and firefighters. Each part operates differently, with the exile responsible for carrying emotional burdens, managers controlling vulnerable feelings, and firefighters preventing exiles from emerging by submerging them in addictive or self-harming behaviors. Through IFS, patients develop a stronger relationship with their inner self, which is the individual’s core.
Parts Work Use in EMDR
EMDR stands for Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing and is a psychotherapy that helps people heal from emotional distress and chronic trauma. It pairs very well with parts work because both modalities focus on creating a sense of wholeness and functional integration. EMDR can help with parts work because it helps to reprocess and integrate memories that may not be resolved, held by the younger parts of the self.
These unresolved memories are often painful and are pushed away and hidden by various parts of ourselves. EMDR breaks down the walls that isolate painful, disturbing, traumatic memories while also allowing us to focus on the things that stem from those memories, such as beliefs about ourselves and even how we process sense perceptions. EMDR can be instrumental in integrating those memories and reducing the fight or flight response.
Parts work is a critical approach for healing chronic trauma. However, it can also be integrated with other treatment methods, including IFS and EMDR, which help integrate the various parts of us and create a sense of wholeness.