Self-Deception Part 3: Dissociation

The third installment in a new 10-part series on ego defenses.

Posted Feb 01, 2019

Source: Pixabay

In this new series on self-deception, I will spotlight 10 of the most important ego defences. After examining denial and repression, I'm looking at dissociation.

The basic form of dissociation is called isolation of affect. This involves a dissociation of thoughts and feelings, with the feelings (the affect) then removed from conscious attention to leave only the thoughts. 

Isolation of affect is probably most apparent when someone refers to an emotionally loaded event or situation in a casual, matter-of-fact, or otherwise dispassionate way. This can be called for in certain circumstances, for example, in providing the distance and objectivity that a physician needs to make the right or best decisions about the care of her patients. On the other hand, too much detachment does not make for a good physician, and, like most psychological processes, detachment is best if it can be conscious and pragmatic rather than rigid and defensive.

Isolation of affect is very common. When I catch it in conversation, I often find myself interjecting with something like, “Wait, hang on, what did you just say?” Other forms of dissociation, while much more dramatic, are correspondingly less common. They are usually precipitated by an intensely traumatic event, leading to a disruption in the normally integrated functions of consciousness, memory, identity, and perception. These dissociative disorders, as they are called in modern classifications of mental disorders, may involve overlapping phenomena such as amnesia, possession trance, and stupor.

In dissociative amnesia, the person suffers a loss of memory, most commonly for the period surrounding the traumatic event. Such a condition has long been recognized. Already in the first century, the naturalist Pliny the Elder remarked that, ‘Nothing whatever, in man, is of so frail a nature as the memory; for it is affected by disease, by injuries, and even by fright; being sometimes partially lost, and at other times entirely so.’

In possession trance, the person reacts to the traumatic event by entering a dissociative state in which her identity is replaced by that of another person, animal, or inanimate object, or, more commonly, by a ghost, spirit, or deity. In many cultures, certain forms of trance are recognized, accepted, and even exalted as expressions of religious fervor or manifestations of the divine. Possession trance, therefore, should only be considered problematic, or potentially problematic, if it is not sanctioned by the person’s culture or sub-culture.

In dissociative stupor, the person reacts to the traumatic event by becoming immobile and mute, failing to respond to stimuli such as the human voice, bright lights, or extremes of hot and cold. Dissociative stupor—that is, stupor as a reaction to a traumatic event—is but one form of stupor, and it is important for the medical team to rule out other causes of stupor such as severe depression, schizophrenia, and organic brain disease.

A fourth kind of dissociative disorder is dissociative fugue, in which the person embarks on an unexpected journey that may last for up to several months. During this journey, there is memory loss and confusion about personal identity or even assumption of another, entirely different identity. And once the fugue ends, the memory of the journey is lost.

The celebrated mystery writer Agatha Christie disappeared from her home in Berkshire, England, on the evening of December 3, 1926. Her mother, to whom she had been very close, had died some months earlier, and her husband Colonel Archibald Christie (‘Archie’) was having an affair with one Nancy Neele. Archie made little effort to disguise this affair, and on the day that Agatha disappeared he had gone to the home of some friends in Surrey to be reunited with Nancy.

Before vanishing, Agatha had written several confused notes to Archie and others: in one, she wrote that she was simply going on holiday to Yorkshire, but in another that she feared for her life. The following morning, her abandoned car, with headlights on and bonnet up, was discovered in Surrey, not far from a lake called Silent Pool in which she had drowned one of her fictional characters. Inside the green Morris Cowley, she had left her fur coat, a suitcase with her belongings, and an expired driver’s license.

Fearing the worst, the police dredged the lake, organized as many as 15,000 volunteers to beat the surrounding countryside, and even (for the first time in England for a missing person) flew airplanes overhead—but all without any trace of Agatha.

In fact, Agatha had checked into a health spa in Harrogate, Yorkshire, not under her own name but—significantly—under that of ‘Teresa Neele’. Her disappearance soon made the national headlines. Several people at the spa thought to have recognized her, but she stuck to her story of being a bereaved mother from Cape Town. Only when, on December 14, the police brought Archie up to Harrogate could she be reliably and conclusively identified. As Archie entered the spa, Agatha simply said, “Fancy, my brother has just arrived.”

Agatha never discussed this perplexing episode and also excluded it from her biography. Perhaps she contrived it as an act of revenge, maybe even as a publicity stunt, but a dissociative fugue is an equally likely explanation and also the one upheld by her then doctors.

In any case, it should be borne in mind that, just like dissociative fugue, revenge and fame can also be construed as ego defenses. In Agatha’s own words, ‘Most successes are unhappy. That’s why they are successes—they have to reassure themselves about themselves by achieving something that the world will notice… The happy people are failures because they are on such good terms with themselves that they don’t give a damn.’

Denial is, of course, an important component of any dissociative disorder. Although commonly described as a ‘compartmentalization of experience’, dissociative disorders are, perhaps, nothing more than an extreme form of denial. 

As our journey into self-deception has begun to reveal, ego defenses do not, for the most part, exist in splendid isolation, but involve a great deal of overlap between mutually reinforcing ego defenses. 

Ours is a very dirty business.

If you have any examples of dissociation, real or fictional, that you would like to share, please do so in the comments section.

In the fourth installment in this series, I will be discussing the ego defense of rationalization.