DISSOCIATION

The unconscious defense mechanism of keeping conflicting attitudes and impulses apart.This is the common human tendency of not letting the left hand know what the right hand is doing. We may assert a belief in co-operation but behave competitively, protest love but act with hate, proclaim good will but practice discrimination—without being aware of our inconsistency. The reason for this lack of awareness is that it is the only way we can satisfy two opposing urges and still maintain our sense of integrity and self-esteem. Even if our inconsistency is directly pointed out to us, we can still deny it by using another mechanism of defenserationalization—which provides us with poor excuses and distorted reasons designed to soften the conflict and justify our actions.Dissociation, then, goes beyond mere social expediency, in which we adjust our attitudes and behavior to different situations. When it functions as a defensive technique, we actually isolate one set of ideas or impulses, or one part of our personality, from another because it would cause us emotional distress to bring them together. This tendency may take unusual or pathological forms. A recent first-person account of a nymphomaniac contains this passage: “I was such a good little girl,everybody expected me to be, and when I wasn’t, like when I kissed, or other things, I started blaming it on something inside, a bad me, she made me do it. I really got to believing that, so I didn’t lie when I kept quiet or said I hadn’t done it.”In some cases, a fragment of the ego may temporarily break away and gain control. In obedience to hidden impulses, a person may not only walk in his sleep but perform some outlandish act. In response to unconscious forces, an individual may spontaneously enter a dissociated state in which his hand writes by itself, without conscious control. A woman using the name Patience Worth wrote entire novels in this way. The phenomenon of “automatic writing,” as it is called, can also be used as a psychiatric technique. The process of dissociation may go even further in certain poorly integrated personalities, where it may take the extreme form of loss of personal identity, or a splitting into two or more contrasting personalities.

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