face, faces, dialog, Structural dissociation theory

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Structural dissociation theory

Structural dissociation theory is a psychological framework that explains how trauma can lead to the fragmentation of the self into different parts or identities. According to this theory, the self is composed of two types of parts: apparently normal parts (ANPs) and emotional parts (EPs). ANPs are responsible for daily functioning and adaptation, while EPs are associated with traumatic memories and emotions. When a person experiences overwhelming trauma, the ANPs and EPs become disconnected from each other, resulting in a lack of integration and coherence of the self. This can have negative consequences for the person’s self-esteem, as they may feel confused, ashamed, guilty, or worthless about their dissociative experiences. In this article, we will explore how structural dissociation theory can help us understand the link between trauma, dissociation, and low self-esteem, and how this knowledge can inform therapeutic interventions for people who suffer from these issues.

What is structural dissociation theory?

One psychological theory that addresses the link between personality dissociations and low self-esteem is the structural dissociation theory (SDT). According to SDT, personality dissociations are the result of traumatic experiences that overwhelm the individual’s capacity to integrate different aspects of their self and emotions. These aspects are then split into separate personality states, each with its own sense of identity, memory, and behaviour. The theory proposes that there are three levels of personality dissociation: primary, secondary, and tertiary.

Primary dissociation involves the separation of two basic states: the apparently normal part (ANP) and the emotional part (EP). The ANP is focused on daily functioning and avoids traumatic memories, while the EP is stuck in the trauma and expresses intense emotions.

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Secondary dissociation occurs when there are multiple ANPs and EPs, each associated with different traumatic events or contexts.

Tertiary dissociation is the most severe form, where there are multiple ANPs and EPs that have developed their own sense of self and agency, resulting in a fragmented personality.

The interaction between ANPs and EPs varies depending on the type of dissociation:

In primary dissociation, the ANP tries to avoid any reminders of the trauma and suppresses the EP, which may result in phobic reactions, flashbacks, intrusive thoughts or somatic symptoms. The ANP and the EP are not aware of each other’s existence or have a distorted perception of each other.

In secondary dissociation, the ANPs may switch depending on the situation or context, and the EP may influence or take over the ANP in response to triggers. The ANPs and the EP may have some degree of awareness or communication with each other, but they do not share a coherent sense of identity or history.

In tertiary dissociation, the ANPs and the EPs may form complex systems of inner relationships, alliances, conflicts or hierarchies. The ANPs and the EPs may have a high level of awareness or communication with each other, but they do not experience themselves as parts of a whole person.

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What does this mean to you?

This theory suggests that many of our negative thoughts, voices, overwhelming emotions, anxiety, even psychical pain original from the idea that somewhere along the line we rejected an aspect of ourselves, and it became a hidden negative aspect of self.

Some of us have it worse than others, but to understand if it affects you, just ask yourself – “Do I have negative thoughts?”, “Do I have intrusive thoughts?”, “Are my emotions and feelings sometimes out of control?”. If the answer to any of these questions is yes, then it’s highly likely you have at least one dissociated aspect of self, sitting in your brain and giving you problems.

The impact on self-esteem

Low self-esteem can be seen as a consequence of personality dissociation, as the individual loses their sense of coherence, continuity, and identity. The ANPs may feel detached, numb, or empty, while the EPs may feel ashamed, guilty, or worthless. The individual may also experience internal conflicts, confusion, or amnesia due to the switching between different states. Furthermore, the individual may face difficulties in forming and maintaining healthy relationships with others, as they may not trust themselves or others, or they may fear rejection or abandonment. Therefore, personality dissociation can impair the individual’s ability to cope with stress, regulate emotions, and achieve personal goals, leading to low self-esteem and reduced quality of life.

Mental health conditions potentially explained by SDT

According to this theory, some mental health conditions can be explained by the presence and interaction of these dissociative parts. For example, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) can be seen as a form of primary structural dissociation, where there is one part that is stuck in reliving the trauma (the emotional part) and another part that tries to avoid or cope with the trauma (the apparently normal part). Complex PTSD, dissociative identity disorder (DID) and other dissociative disorders can be seen as forms of secondary or tertiary structural dissociation, where there are multiple emotional parts that are associated with different traumatic experiences, and one or more apparently normal parts that try to maintain daily functioning. These parts may have different memories, emotions, beliefs and behaviours, and may not be aware of each other or communicate well. Structural dissociation theory can help clinicians understand and treat these conditions by addressing the underlying trauma and facilitating the integration of the dissociative parts.

Potential therapeutic intervention impacts

Therapeutic interventions based on SDT aim to help trauma survivors achieve a more coherent and integrated sense of self, by addressing the following goals:

  • Establishing a safe and trusting therapeutic relationship, where the therapist can validate, empathize, and support the client’s different parts.
  • Enhancing the client’s awareness and understanding of their parts, their roles, their needs, and their interactions.
  • Promoting communication and cooperation among the parts, by helping them recognize their common goals, respect their differences, and resolve their conflicts.
  • Facilitating the processing and integration of traumatic memories and emotions, by helping the parts access, share, and regulate their experiences in a safe and gradual manner.
  • Fostering the development of new skills and resources, such as coping strategies, self-care, social support, and personal values, that can enhance the client’s functioning and well-being.

Some examples of therapeutic interventions that are informed by SDT are:

Further reading

here are some weblinks for further reading:

Structural dissociation | DID-Research.org:

An examination of structural dissociation of the personality and the implications for cognitive behavioural therapy | the Cognitive Behaviour Therapist | Cambridge Core:

Structural dissociation theory in trauma My self Improvement:

Structural dissociation Theory – Jennifer Copeland:

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