Dissociation has been defined differently in different contexts. Merriam Webster defines it as “The separation of whole segments of the personality… or of discreet mental processes… from the mainstream of consciousness or of behavior”. Google Dictionary defines it as “The disconnection or separation of something from something else or the state of being disconnected”. Better Health defines it as “A mental process of disconnecting from one’s thoughts, feelings, memories or sense of identity.”
Most of the time when we get around to talking about dissociation the first thing that comes to mind is trauma induced dissociation where people loose time, loose memory and possibly even have split parts of their psyche that don’t communicate with each other. But there are far more subtle forms of dissociation and some can be quite toxic. Dissociation is a way for the psyche to protect itself from emotions that may be intolerable to the system. And while it is an important defense mechanism for many, the ultimate hope is that we can begin to integrate all parts of us into a united whole—one that can be tolerated by the system and held with compassion and love by the self and others. The how of this is certainly for another post. Here and now, my hope is to challenge an idea that has become so popular that it is almost taken as fact- and it’s doing damage.
You Choose How You Feel
The idea here is that we can hand pick which emotions we feel in which circumstances just by thinking about it differently. So, if you are unhappy, it is certainly because you’re choosing to feel like shit. You lazy, stupid person, you! You’re just not trying hard enough to feel good. There are so many troubling things about this statement “We get to choose how we feel”. First being that it is simply not true for all people that they can choose their emotions. Our defense structures are like a fingerprint and for some people, turning off their emotions so that they are no longer felt is not part of their defense structure. Trust me, they try! So to tell people that they get to choose what feelings to have is deeply invalidating and even shaming. It is the opposite of what people need to feel better. It is a turning away from empathy when what is needed is connection.
The second problem is that we are pedestalizing dissociation. We are actually saying that those who can turn on and off certain emotions at will are healthier than those who feel all of their emotions. This leaves people believing they are balanced, healthy, and well when they truly need help to integrate. They need help to be able to tolerate those feelings that they are disconnecting themselves from.
Why is that wrong, Lara? Isn’t this the ideal… to live in ignorant bliss where we don’t have to experience what causes us pain and suffering? No, and I’ve seen it too many times to think otherwise. People who dissociate from their feelings in this way suffer in many ways. First and foremost, they rarely have deep connections with people because they often struggle with empathy. If you’re going out for a drink with a friend after your mom died, are you going out with the friend who touts the idea that you can choose your feelings or the friend who will get down in the mud and feel with you? These folks also often don’t metabolize their feelings properly when they come up. So when the body experiences anxiety, but the psyche dissociates from that anxiety, the body still knows. It holds onto this and typically shows up as physical ailments (that are often then treated with extreme diets that become eating disorders or medications that become addictions). These folks are also not exploring their psyche to understand and so they often create damage unwittingly. The search to change their feelings instead of understanding and feeling them becomes all encompassing. It becomes a drug that is sought out in spirituality and yoga classes—memes and self-help books. But they are so unaware of what is really happening for them that they unconsciously wound themselves and others and justify it in the name of “being evolved”
In short, choosing your emotions is not being evolved. It is not healthier. And it will not make your life better—it just may make it seem less painful. But so does heroine. Choosing to stop and understand your emotions deeply… that is evolution. That is a search for health.
So Is Positive Thinking Ever Helpful?
Of course, there are often benefits to be found in things that so many people identify as the solution to suffering. Positive thinking is no exception. When we are being truly mindful and noticing all of the things in our environment and feelings in our inner environment, we can experience an emotional change. There is good research that noticing that which is beautiful, inspiring, connecting, or hopeful will change your brain chemistry. But only if it is in an attempt to truly be mindful of your surroundings— pleasant or not. If it is, instead, a way to distract the self from difficult feelings it winds up being a way to dismiss whole parts of ourself.
So when we tell ourselves “I should appreciate all that I have” or “This is hard, but I’m grateful for…” or “At least I’m not…” as a response to feeling really bad, we are not being mindful— we are being dismissive. And when we say those things to others when they are in pain, it is also dismissive and deeply lacking in empathy.
So if you really want to harness gratitude or mindfulness, don’t use it to get out of another emotion. Take time to take photographs of beautiful things. Take a hike and notice what you smell. Start a meditation practice. Write a song… write a poem. Not because it will stop you from suffering, but because it will put you more in touch with everything you feel— and possibly help you to be more resilient when you do suffer. Because life is suffering. It is joy, and grief. It is anxiety and peace. It is envy and pride. It is anger and forgiveness. It is hope and disappointment. It is love and it is heartbreak. The human experience is inescapable, but we can aim to feel alive and connected through it all.