Structural Dissociation and the Necessity of a Well-Balanced Life

A craggy Cherry Blossom tree stands bare each winter in my neighbor’s yard, until spring when it bursts with blossoms. Eventually the tissue-thin petals cover the sidewalk and parked cars, as if Nature was hungover from her own carnival.

That tree reminds me to use my energy wisely. The grandest achievements require continuity of care and periods of dormancy. How sad it would be if the Cherry Blossom tree wasted its energy longing all year for spring.

Many of us who have been sexually abused long for who we were or who we might have become had the abuse not happened. When we long to be other than ourselves, we waste precious energy trying to escape our traumatized parts. We may try to prove our worth at the expense of living a nurturing, balanced life. Or we waste time on distractions — like bingeing on computer games, social media, or TV — avoiding painful thoughts and memories and the shame that haunts so many of us who have been sexual abused.

Longing may be a natural reaction to structural dissociation, and perhaps integral to recovery. Longing to be who we were can kindle desire to find parts of ourselves we feel we have lost. But longing becomes crippling when it blinds us to the actual life we are living and genuinely caring for ourselves so we too can blossom when the time is right.

The best way to nurture a psyche fragmented by structural dissociation is to maintain high levels of mental energy by avoiding stress and exhaustion, both which increase the likelihood that traumatic memories or emotional parts of the personality (EPs) will be triggered. Creators of the model of structural dissociation are adamant on this point:

“[Survivors] must practice regular self-care through adequate rest and recreation, sleep hygiene, exercise, good nutrition and a healthy diet, disease prevention, stress reduction, and relaxation training. [They] should become more aware of the need for breaks during the day, regular time off each week, and some type of vacation.”[1]

Some feel guilty when they lapse at self-care, and the guilt can create it’s own cycle of bingeing (food, drugs, social media, etc.) and other self-defeating behaviors. Yet self-care isn’t about being good or bad; there’s no reason to feel guilty when not achieving healthful living. A guilt-free way of thinking about self-care is as an opportunity to maximize energy. Feeling integrated and whole requires energy. And mental energy is fostered by stability, self-nurture, and routine (a bit like a well-tended Cherry Blossom tree).

At times, all of us blunder self-care. Yet by making self-care your first priority, and continually returning to good habits whenever you diverge (and without judgment), the likelihood of triggering traumatic memories and EPs is greatly reduced.

Creators of the model of structural dissociation also found that survivors of trauma increase mental energy when they:

1. Establish and maintain safety. After sexual abuse, it’s tough regaining feelings of safety. Feeling frightened can become an ongoing emotional subtext to all experience. Yet even while worrying constantly about the possibility of being assaulted (or entirely dissociate feelings of fear), many of us fail to take actions that might actually make us safer.

If this sounds like you, rather than assuming you should be fearless, or that you’ll never be safe again, identify what you can do to ensure your safety. This may include taking a self-defense class, ride sharing with a reliable friend, or getting an alarm system for your home. Sometimes safety requires ending a relationship, finding a new place to live, or switching jobs. It may even help to have a therapist or someone you trust to help you evaluate your situation.

Treat safety as something you deserve and an inalienable right. Commit to assessing for safety in all aspects of your life, rather than worrying about it. And use methods from the Window of Tolerance Guide (or your own stress reduction skills) when you notice you are safe yet excessively worrying about your safety.

2. Simplify daily life. There are primarily three ways to squander energy on a daily basis: a) too many obligations, b) attending to one activity to the exclusion of all else that must be done to live a balanced life, and c) trying to be perfect.

If you tend to take too much on, you may need to clearly articulate and limit your goals. Productivity experts recommend having no more than three major goals at a time. Want a challenge? Try not to have more than three things on your To Do list each day.

If you are prone to focusing on one activity (e.g, work, computer games) to the point of ignoring other important aspects of your life, begin to rebalance by using your phone’s timer to remind yourself to shift attention every hour, and perhaps stretch and move around. Even five minutes can be restorative. Also get in the habit of scheduling time for other facets of your life just as you might schedule appointments with others — and keep your appointments with yourself.

If you are prone to perfectionism, set aside some time to assess how you approach tasks. Perfectionism can lead to anxious busy work, which can expend energy unnecessarily and interfere with reaching goals. It’s important to recognize that mistakes are integral to learning. And human!

3. Addressing unfinished business. Posttraumatic stress, depression, and other reactions to sexual abuse can interfere with completing tasks like paying bills, routine healthcare, or keeping up with chores. Other commitments also get neglected, like getting an education or a preferred career, maintaining a hobby, or staying in touch with friends. Conflicts or breaks in relationships can feel too overwhelming to address, yet continue to linger in memories of what transpired or fantasies about possible future interactions.

Some projects and relationships deserve to be revisited. For others, you must give yourself permission to let go of them. It may also help to donate or store items that have become clutter and are sources of guilt or stress for a life not lived. Similarly, some relationships are worth repairing, while others must be chalked up to life experience.

One of the most difficult ‘unfinished businesses’ for sexual abuse survivors is whether or not to seek legal action against their perpetrator(s). I have found (both as a survivor and as a therapist) that a lot of uncertainty is resolved when you understand the laws and judicial processes concerning sexual assault. I also recommend that you have professional psychological support should you decide to seek legal action.

4. Set limits on demanding relationships. Traumatized people often find themselves in relationships with what the creators of the model of structural dissociation referred to as difficult people:

“Survivors often surround themselves with difficult people who are insecurely attached, affectively labile, argumentative, guilt inducing, and exacting. These relationships are unusually demanding because they not only require excessive activation of sociability, attachment, and caretaking, but they also trigger the [survivor’s] defense action system (e.g., fear of abandonment and rejection, hypervigilance when others are unpredictable).”[2]

(They also note survivors can be difficult too.)

In her book The Artist’s Way, Julia Cameron referred to difficult people as crazy makers:

“They are often charismatic, frequently charming, highly inventive, and powerfully persuasive. And, for the creative person in their vicinity, they are enormously destructive. You know the type: charismatic but out of control, long on problems and short on solutions.”[3]

Cameron noted crazy makers can be seductive to those who like projects: “To fixer-uppers, they are irresistible: so much to change, so many distractions….”

Setting limits on difficult relationships can be complicated. If you are dealing with a crazy maker, the best approach may be reducing your exposure to him or her, since unhealthy narcissism has its own approach to energy expenditure. Every perceived threat to the ego must be repaid and the scales of power rebalanced. Wounded narcissists are also incapable of taking responsibility for their actions, and if you try to make them do so, you will likely waste your emotional energy on their need to regain control, if not make you suffer for having brought attention to their imperfections.

Yet if you are in relationship with someone who also has a history of trauma, and she or he is committed to her or his own recovery, you can learn how to grow together as well as support each other in your individual recoveries. (Emotionally Focused couples therapy is particularly good for survivors of trauma.)

Although self-care should be relatively simple and straightforward, when there is structural dissociation, attempts to implement new habits can be upended because of resistance to change. Life coaches (whether in person, online, or through courses) can be especially helpful for staying on track for issues as varied as dealing with clutter, starting a business, and losing weight.

Longing for a different past, or being a different version of oneself, is a common reaction to sexual abuse, especially when there is structural dissociation of the personality. To fully recover, we must root ourselves in our lived realities and trust that there are many wondrous seasons still left to live.

Questions to ponder: Of the four ways of self-care listed above — creating and maintaining safety, simplifying daily life, addressing unfinished business, and setting limits on demanding relationships — which one would you most benefit addressing? What one step towards better self-care would you like to make?

See you next week,
Laura

References

[1] Hart, Onno van der, Nijenhuis, Ellert R. S., & Steele, Kathy. (2006). The haunted self: Structural dissociation and the treatment of chronic traumatization. New York: WW Norton & Company, p. 244.
[2] Ibid., p. 245.
[3] Cameron, Julia. (1992).The artist’s way. New York: Penguin Putnam Inc., p. 44.

 

© 2018 Laura K Kerr, PhD. All rights reserved (applies to writing and photography).