When FSA adult survivors are chronically traumatized within their family-of-origin, they can develop a form of dissociation known as structural dissociation, whereby the personality lacks integration and expresses itself through ‘parts’. But it is never too late to experience your innate wholeness…
The research I conducted over a ten-year period on what I eventually named family scapegoating abuse (FSA) suggests that it is often the family empath or highly sensitive person (HSP) that ends up in the family scapegoat / identified patient role.
Because children who are emotionally sensitive tend to have stronger reactions to adverse life events, they will be profoundly impacted by toxic family dynamics, resulting in their possibly developing complex trauma (C-PTSD) symptoms. If the toxicity and trauma experienced is chronic and severe, structural dissociation within their personality may result.
How Structural Dissociation Develops
When FSA adult survivors are chronically traumatized within their family-of-origin, they can develop a form of dissociation known as structural dissociation, whereby the personality lacks integration and expresses itself through ‘parts’.
As discussed in my book on FSA, Rejected, Shamed, and Blamed, the child victim of FSA is dependent on their scapegoating caregiver(s) to survive. Instead of seeing the caregiver as acting in scary, harmful, and unjust ways, the child will turn the (suppressed) rage or hatred they feel toward the caregiver against themselves, as this is a psychologically “safer” thing to do, given the dependent position they are in. This is how the ‘false’, or ‘survival’ self, with attendant self-alienation, first begins to develop.
As the child continues to operate from their ‘survival self’ within the threatening, traumatizing environment they find themselves in, various survival ‘parts’ may begin to take hold within their psyche, parts which are rooted in the trauma responses of ‘fight’, ‘flight’, ‘freeze’, ‘fawn’/’submit’, and ‘attach’ (“cry for help”).
These non-integrated survival parts of the child’s personality are emblematic of structural dissociation. The personality has, in a sense, fractured into different ‘parts’ as a means of coping in a hostile, frightening, and shaming environment. There also remains a functioning, ‘normal’ part that “keeps on keeping on” as it goes about the business of ‘normal’ (everyday) life, such as school, household chores, socializing, etc.
How Structural Dissociation Manifests in Adulthood
In my FSA Recovery practice, a client with structural dissociation may have difficulty regulating their emotions and will report experiencing chronic feelings of emptiness within. Previous mental health providers may have diagnosed them as having Borderline Personality Disorder, Bipolar Disorder, an Anxiety or Depressive disorder, or Bipolar disorder, although they may not relate to the diagnosis given as it fails to capture the full scope of what they are experiencing.
Nearly all trauma survivors will have dissociative symptoms, and experiencing structural dissociation does not mean that you have Dissociative Identity Disorder (having several distinct identities that seem to exist and operate separately from each other).
As a trauma-informed clinician, I am likely to assess for structural dissociation if a client reports experiencing some of the following symptoms during the intake process (or later on during treatment):
- Feeling disconnected from their body, like they are outside of themselves or “far away”
- Feeling separate from everything around them
- Feeling like the world around them is distant or unreal
- Unable to make decisions
- Feeling chronically numb and emotionally detached
- Compartmentalizing information
- Frequently losing / misplacing things
- Finding themselves somewhere with no idea as to how they got there
- Operating from two or more streams of consciousness (e.g., showing up in therapy as distinctly different people from week-to-week)
- Lack of motivation and stamina (leaves tasks uncompleted; self-sabotages)
- Feeling confused about their identity (“I don’t know who I am”)
- Doing things they have no memory of doing later
- “Zoning out” (escaping) via addictive / self-destructive behavior
- Isolating and counter-dependency (lacks trust in others and fears doing so, which can look like paranoia)
- Somatic symptoms (e.g., migraines; unusual tolerance to physical pain)
- Experiencing partial amnesia (gaps in the recall of events; unable to remember personal information)
- Having several distinct identities that seem to operate separately from each other (as with the very rare condition, Dissociative Identity Disorder).
The ‘Normal’ or ‘Taking Care of Business’ Part
In structural dissociation, each ‘part’ can have its own unique personality with its own feelings, thoughts, and behaviors. This can result in the appearance of instability and emotional dysregulation as the adult survivor swings rapidly between different states of being – one minute happy, excited, confident, or hopeful; the next minute depressed, empty, helpless, or numb.
With that said, most FSA adult survivors who struggle with structural dissociation have a strongly developed high-functioning, ‘normal’ part that helps them to carry on with the routine and necessary aspects of their lives. This part may be incredibly competent and efficient, as it exists separately from the parts that feel little, vulnerable, hurt, shamed, helpless, and sad.
However, even while everything seems fine on the surface, parts that are rooted in the traumatized self can be activated in the psyche when ‘triggered’. This can lead to unexpected and (at times) regressive and uncontrollable thoughts, feelings, or behaviors that can be highly painful and confusing to the high-functioning FSA adult survivor.
Complex Trauma and Dissociated Parts
I searched long and hard for a complex-trauma treatment method that would help both me and my FSA adult survivor clients. My search eventually led me to the work of Janina Fisher, who was an early colleague of trauma researcher and author Bessel van der Kolk (author of The Body Keeps the Score). If you haven’t yet read Fisher’s book, Healing the Fragmented Selves of Trauma Survivors: Overcoming Internal Self-Alienation, I strongly encourage you to do so (I use Fisher’s workbook, Transforming the Living Legacy of Trauma, with the FSA adult survivors in my practice as well).
In addition to the seminal work of Bessel van der Kolk, Fisher’s understanding of trauma has been informed by the work of various respected trauma researchers and theorists, resulting in her adapting a Structural Dissociation model as the basis for her trauma treatment methods.
This Structural Dissociation model theorizes that trauma (including complex trauma) results in the personality splitting off into a “going on with normal life” part, while non-integrated trauma-based parts of the personality form as coping mechanisms in response to overwhelmingly stressful or harmful environmental or relational experiences. These (unconscious, traumatized) parts are driven by the fight, flight, freeze, fawn/submit, or attach (“cry for help”)’ responses.
Per Fisher, traumatized clients with structural dissociation symptoms identify with one part or another at different times to the exclusion of their other parts, believing that they are that part, rather than a larger, ‘whole’, integrated self that contains all the parts. Such clients may feel anger (a ‘fight’ / attack response) one minute and an urge to flee / escape (the ‘flight’ response) the next. Their internal world feels chaotic and confusing, and is distressing for not only the client, but sometimes their therapist as well!
A Healing Pathway for Structural Dissociation
Drawing upon Schwartz’s Internal Family Systems model (IFS) and from Sensorimotor Psychotherapy, Fisher teaches her clients how to “unblend” from their parts by helping them see their parts through their ‘noticing’, witnessing, and non-attached mind.
Using this mindfulness-based approach, Fisher then assists her clients in getting to know and befriend their (traumatized) parts so that these parts (which are regressive in that they exist as the age they were when first traumatized) can join the client’s adult Self and eventually receive from the client what they so desperately needed when they were young: Love, compassion, understanding, nurturing, and acceptance.
Via this method of first witnessing, then integrating, their traumatized parts, the client’s personality gradually re-integrates, resulting in their being able to experience a sense of internal wholeness, inner continuity, and stability. This in turn helps the adult survivor to feel safe within themselves, giving them the strength to mourn their various losses and begin to come to terms with their traumatic memories.
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Rebecca C.Mandeville, LMFT, CCTP, is an internationally recognized expert in family systems. She is a psychotherapist, certified complex trauma professional, researcher, author, and media contributor on child psycho-emotional abuse and its effects on adult survivors. She specializes in helping victims of ‘invisible’ family abuse reclaim their life narrative and so that they can live freely and joyously as their true self. Rebecca is the author of Rejected, Shamed, and Blamed – the first research-based book on what she named family scapegoating abuse (FSA).