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Compassion, Trauma and Dissociation
Posted by amyc
11th Nov 2012


Have you ever been talking to someone, and listening to what they are saying and felt a huge rush of compassion for them, one that feels like you are just going to burst, and it is such a nice feeling even though what they are saying may be distressing you get the real urge to smile? Recently I was talking with my therapist about self-compassion, and I thought of that situation and it made me think about how rarely, if ever I feel the same way towards myself. I find it very difficult to show myself any compassion, even when I need or deserve it, it seems an impossibility. I can logically and rationally feel compassion for myself “I self-harmed, it was a horrible thing to do and resulted in me having to go to hospital which was distressing” but I feel nothing. I couldn’t be more numb if I tried. I can tell you about some of my past experiences and tell you they were awful, but I don’t feel they were awful. Now this isn’t because I am thick, I think after a lot of thinking the last few days that the real reason I cannot get in touch with any compassion for myself is because of dissociation.

I often describe myself as having been split into different parts through the trauma I suffered as a child. I feel the reason I have no compassion for myself is because the different parts of my personality all disown their actions. I always have the feeling it wasn’t me or I didn’t do that, even when I know I did. When in different situations I cannot get in touch with things I have done in other situations, everything gets lost in translation and I am in touch with nothing. I am aware of thoughts, feelings and actions but most of the time they do not feel they belong to me. How can you act compassionately towards something you experience yourself but do not feel as your own? In a way you may think it would be easier as I clearly demonstrated at the start of this piece of writing I can feel compassion for others so if I am separated from myself all of the time maybe it would be easier to feel compassion? It does not work this way however, all the different parts of me, of which I estimate there are four hate each other and work against each other and have no respect or compassion for one another. In fact I have just come to believe this is the reason I hear four female voices, I think it could be the different parts of me competing for attention and begging me to do whatever they want. I find each different part of me has a very individual view of myself, the world and others around me. However the view of myself is always similar, filled with self-hatred. Some parts are more compassionate than others but you couldn’t describe any as empathetic towards myself as a whole.
Within dissociation you can find yourself experiencing too little or too much. I suffer from both ends of the spectrum. On the too little end, I suffer from loss of memory from the past and in the here and now, I can often find myself not having a clue what I have done for the last few hours, even days. If for example I forget one night to fill in my DBT diary card, I will have to make it up the next day because a lot of the time I have absolutely no recollection of what went on the day before or how I really felt (even if I did know how I felt the day before which is rare). For me an hour often feels like a day, which is part of the reason I struggle with being in hospital so much, it seems to go on forever. My memory is like a Swiss cheese….Full of holes. Another example of experiencing too little I have a problem with is the loss of feeling emotions. Ninety nine percent of the time I cannot tell you how I’m feeling, I really struggle. I know how I should feel and where I should feel it, but no matter how hard I try I just can’t FEEL it. I can rationalise things, and think logically “I am upset, I have just been told my discharge has been delayed” but I do not feel it. It is very frustrating, particularly as I often feel nothing until something else within me takes over and acts out. When I feel too much however, through flashbacks and hallucinations I still have no compassion for myself. I feel I am letting myself down by having these experiences, “How could I let myself revisit these times in such a nasty vicious and real way?”

I often feel like I am watching myself from outside my body, and I find this very difficult to cope with, as I watch I feel like I am part of a play and I am completely dead inside, I’m just on autopilot in the role I am supposed to play. I often cannot feel whether I am hungry or tired, I just don’t know what is going on. How can you feel compassion if you don’t know the situation?

There are two younger parts to myself, one the same age as me (which I most often describe as me if I am asked questions such as what are your good qualities etc) and one part who is older and wiser. The young parts are the ones who most struggle to stay in the present, and are the ones who drag me back into trauma through flashbacks, they are focussed into the trauma, whereas the older parts are more focussed on daily life and avoiding any triggers to trauma like the plague. The young parts think, feel and perceive things as if I am still in the traumatic situation, and have no regard for me or how I’m feeling, they just try to sort the situation out in the best way they can, which is often to self-harm, have a strop, cry, or become very infantile to elicit care and protection from others. These parts of me are highly emotional and not rational. All the emotions, beliefs and sensations they experience are all related to the trauma. I find the young parts of myself need comfort, help and safety, they are often distrusting and have a strong fear of abandonment, they have feelings of longing, loneliness and dependency. No matter how hard I try I cannot provide the young parts of myself with the compassion and acceptance they crave, I find their needs embarrassing and shameful, so they seek the approval they need elsewhere through becoming attached to people. They cannot get anything from me, so they find it somewhere else. I need to create a helper part to my personality, who can be helpful to all the different parts and empathetic and compassionate, that will ultimately help them integrate. Although no one knows this I have secretly named the different parts I feel there are to my personality, and could quite easily tell you who I am on different occasions. Although if I create a helper part it will be a conscious choice to name and create someone who takes over my body at different times, I think it would help me and I can create them tailored to what the other parts need…Anyway I’ll get to work on that.

To become compassionate we must no longer be dominated by fluctuating and discriminating emotions (Dalai Lama) it is particularly difficult with PTSD to learn compassion for yourself however it is necessary as a self-critical dialogue combined with shame maintains the limbic system thinking there is a current level of threat which will cause hyperarousal and tendencies towards flashbacks. Attachment (to yourself as well as to others), mutual support and safeness leads to feelings of compassion, which are so important, because compassion combined with a self-soothing dialogue ends the feeling of being under threat, and therefore leaves you less vulnerable to flashbacks and other PTSD related symptoms.

Finally what does it mean to try and foster compassion for yourself? Well, to put it briefly some ways you can improve your self-compassion are by being sympathetic and empathetic towards yourself, being non-judgemental and by tolerating distress not ignoring it. Another crucial way you can develop self-compassion is by caring for your wellbeing as a whole. Trauma and dissociation can severely hamper your path to self-acceptance and compassion, but it is by no means impossible.

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