Late last week, and over the weekend, I was having an email discussion with an online acquaintance about child abuse, and dissociative disorders when she said something that sparked further conversation. She mentioned that “everyone dissociates and for good reasons, it’s just a matter of degrees”.
That got me thinking about the coping skills we develop as children and whether anything good ever comes out of them. Certainly, in my own past, that ability to emotionally remove myself from a given situation, to no longer be “present”, helped me deal with what was happening at the time. As an adult, however, that being my only stress-coping mechanism was dangerous, because not being present in your own mental state and having access to a car leads to some bad consequences. (Hmm a week ago I was there, and it was very stressful, now where am I? lol)
It should be noted that I am talking about dissociation in a general sense, developing multiples is a form of dissociation that can be fairly common in abuse victims, but is also beyond my own experience. I never developed another personality, I simply stopped being in my own life and watched it, as if from afar, but it is an extreme form of dissociation. One that I have no experience with and thus don’t tend to write much about.
Clearly, I needed to learn better stress-management as an adult, but still dissociation is part of my normal life. As it turns out, in a technical career, sometimes it can be very beneficial to have to ability to sharply focus on the job in front of you, and ignore all other distractions. Sometimes things just need to get done, no matter what else is going on in the world. Obviously, I am exceptionally good at this. 😉
The ability to dissociate is a powerful tool when used properly. To some degree or other, when you see an athlete able to focus and not feel the pressure of a game-winning situation, they are dissociating. The pressure, the crowd, the noise, etc. becomes nothing as they focus on simply doing what they need to do. That’s what makes them successful. We all use this tool to get through times where intense focus is needed, or even to get through times that we simply want to get over. How many times have you simply let your mind wander away from your current situation while in a dentist chair, or doctor’s office, simply because you don’t want to be there? Do you daydream and forget where you are during a particularly dull lecture? That’s a mild form of dissociation, and a perfectly safe form. In fact, it’s a learned skill, that we all develop to one extent or another.
I’ve known some people who have an incredible ability to focus intently on their given project, (Insert random story of geeks who forget to eat, shower, sleep, etc. while working on a project. We all know someone like that!), yet it was simply a skill learned as an adult, not the leftovers of a childhood coping mechanism. Clearly, it’s not a bad thing in and of itself.
In fact, I’d say that very few of the things we did to cope as children, or learned later to help get through, are bad things in and of themselves. It’s the inability to keep them in proper perspective that gets us in trouble. Having a beer is not in itself a bad thing, having 12 because you feel sad and that’s how you stop feeling sad, probably is a bad thing.
So, as you go forward and look at your own coping mechanisms, remember that it’s not about getting rid of them completely, it’s about adding more and better tools so that you don’t have to over-rely on the one or two tools you developed as a child. Being an adult means having the proper tools available to you when you need them, it does not mean never needing any tools!