Dissociation, emotional significance and why going through the motions is not enough

One thing I have come to appreciate so, so much is the power of emotional significance. I think it is the main reason why not a single therapy I attended before I came to live with my family did me much good. Thinking back on those years, I think I spend them in a state of near permanent dissociation. Which is the smart ass way of saying I was feeling numb and emotionally dead inside most of the time. In therapy, I listened, occasionally I was even willing to try and make sense of what we talked about, willing to try and get better, but nothing ever worked.

I did DBT. I learned about states of mind (wise mind, emotion mind, rational mind), emotional regulation and stress tolerance. I was taught “interpersonal effectiveness skills” (how fancy sounding). I learned “what” skills and “how” skills and whatnot. And didn’t improve. I did other therapies, too. In group settings. In one-to-one settings. Learned relaxation techniques. I don’t even remember all the stuff I did. And it doesn’t matter because I didn’t improve. After everything I tried I just felt like even more of a failure than before.

I think today I understand why. Because I only went through the motions. I tried to do what was asked of me, but nothing really reached me. Not on an emotional level. How could it have? I was not even emotionally there. I either felt like my feelings had been cut off – a painful, overwhelming inner emptiness – interspersed with triggered episodes that felt like a flood of emotion was pouring down on me like fiery rain, burning me up. Nothing in between. I went through the motions of therapy, but the feeling part of me wasn’t even there.

The feeling part of me only returned after I went to live with my family. Therapy never managed to retrieve it. I know the aim of good therapy is to make the people feel safe, but I never felt safe in therapy. I never felt safe with anyone. Not truly. And it took a long time until I felt safe with my mom – over a year. But as I started to feel safe, feelings returned. That in itself was enough to scare the shit out of me, but my mom helped keep it safe for me. Kept me safe. And suddenly stuff became meaningful.

Today I still dissociate easily. Ever so often I will just fade out. Most of the time I will keep on reacting, but I am disconnected. I don’t feel anything. I’m not aware of what’s going on in the same way. I have no emotional reactions whatsoever. I often don’t recall things, even if they happened only a moment ago. I kind of notice them when they happen, but then they fade. Or they don’t fade, but I feel indifferent towards them.

The difference is that today mom can tell whether I’m in a state of dissociation or not. She doesn’t ask me to learn new stuff when I’m not even fully there. When I’m not feeling anything, nothing is meaningful. Even when I go through the motions of doing something helpful, the new information doesn’t register where it is needed in the brain, because the emotional part is shut down. Some people say “fake it ‘till you make it”, but that doesn’t work for me. I used to fake it in therapy. I tried to follow the techniques that I learned, but they were empty, meaningless shells. Or I was the empty, meaningless shell. I don’t know.

When my emotional part is shut down, the only thing my mom focuses on is helping me get access to it again. Sometimes by making me feel physically safe by holding me, because that makes me feel safe. Sometimes by finding something that can penetrate the fog, like music or something she says to me or does. And sometimes by directing my attention at stuff. Or at dissociating itself. Helping me become aware of how “spacey” I am, so I can do my part to get out of it.

My plan for the future is that I want to try and be more aware of where I am at, emotionally, and to communicate it. It’s the first time I actually WANT to do that, instead of feeling indifferent towards it, and that makes a big difference. It is the very same skill that DBT tried to teach me, and I knew of its relevance, yet it was never relevant to me. Now it is. Because I can see in my mom’s face it’s meaningful to her. That makes it meaningful to me. Emotionally meaningful. I don’t just go through the motions anymore. Now it feels important and like it actually changes something. Yay for emotional significance.

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