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REPRINTED WITH PERMISSION from the Florida Jewish News
There was a spate of books some time ago about women who had been severely emotionally abused and sexually molested as children and grew up with “split personalities.” The Three Faces of Eve was even made into a movie. Another well done and true story was The Flock.
While a complete barrier to conscious awareness to the extent described in these books is very rare, there are degrees of everything, including the tendency to split off, or dissociate, feelings or information. In fact, disconnecting oneself from painful feelings is rather common. What’s scary about it is the fact that the person doing it is usually not aware that he or she is doing it. That’s a problem. I’ll give you several examples and you’ll see how prevalent this problem really is:
You’ll see how prevalent this problem really is:
1. When going through a divorce, the nicest people frequently can shut down any feelings of compassion for someone who they now consider an adversary, even if they had presumably been in love at one time. When you talk to them about this phenomenon, they deny that’s what they’re doing and tell you they never had any positive feelings for that no-good so-and-so.
2. Mothers who went through all sorts of tribulations to nurse their babies manage to turn off that feeling of connection to those same children six years later when the children get wild. Not only does the mother feel intensely angry, but they often cannot recall or recreate those warm, fuzzy feelings they once had toward their own children. Ten years after that, they are so terribly disconnected that they feel no hindrance to insulting those same children or even kicking them out of the house.
3. Women—usually this happens to women—who are desperate for love are capable of tuning out all incoming data that tell them the men in their lives are selfish, unkind, inconsiderate, or have tempers. This data just whizzes off the radar screen. Later, much later, they say, “I should have seen it coming.” If you say, “You did see it coming,” they usually heave a deep sigh and say, “You’re right, but I didn’t really pay attention to it.” Sometimes, they still don’t see it later.
4. People who tune out their environments so well that they deny their own actions ever happened make up a fourth illustration. Have you ever passed your exit on the highway because your mind wandered? Sure, we all have done that. Take it to the next level and you have an individual arguing, perhaps very angrily, and not remembering what he or she said. That person might deny saying something you’re sure you heard. On the flip side, the listener could be unable to remember what she or he heard.
What happened? In cases 1 and 2, where did the feelings go? In cases 3 and 4, where did the information go?
The feelings and the information were cut off from awareness. To the degree that the divorcing persons in case 1 continue to deny past positive feelings, they are susceptible to making the same mistakes again in the future with other partners. They will find people who they think they love because they have strong positive feelings—and forgot that they once felt the same way about their first spouse. Because of this, they will not be prepared for any curve balls that get thrown to them in the new relationship. It is only after the third time this happens that they may realize that the one unaccounted-for variable in the equation had been themselves all along.
To the degree that a parent in case 2 can not stir up previous feelings of connection and compassion for a wayward child and reacts only to the present misbehavior rather than to the whole person, the child is doomed to receive the wrong messages, messages of hate and rejection, for many years. That’s because the parent’s anger and rejection will bring out the child’s rebellion and added negative behavior, leading to a long-term—and very sad—cycle.
To the degree that the lonely lady of case 3 refuses to admit data to awareness that doesn’t conform to the picture she wants to have of her present beau, she is unprotected and vulnerable to being used and abused. Eventually, the abuser drops her but she is afraid to learn her lesson for fear that the real truth of the universe is that all men are really bad. If that is true, then in seeing their faults, she will end up alone and lonely, something she can’t bear. She is headed for years of pain and rejection which she accepts because the fantasy she creates in between gives her temporary relief and pleasure.
To the degree that the person in case 4 continues to spew forth angry words that he or she can’t remember later, he is doomed to wrecking his relationships with his spouse, children, parents, workers and employers and employees—and denying that he is the one doing so. To the degree that the listener doesn’t want to focus on the bad things said because they hurt too much, she or he will too easily forgive the speaker thereby opening herself up for repeated insults and pain.
Dissociation always begins as a way that a child copes with intense pain but it ends up as the wrong coping mechanism for adults. God gives us forgetfulness as a mercy to cope with pain that is too strong to keep present, but a time comes when we have to face the reality in front of us so that we can adequately respond to it. Children can tune out because they don’t know how else to respond; adults really do have more choices.
Disconnecting from your own feelings or not absorbing and using information that you’re getting are serious hindrances in relationships. They may have helped the dissociating person to get through bad times but the repercussions—both to themselves and their loved ones—are enormous.