States

I have an idea about what being in parts is actually about.

Crittenden’s attachment theory talks about two basic states, which lie on a continuum. She discusses them as strategies, but a mental state underlies them. In a “preoccupied” state, people use expressions of emotions to get their needs met by other people. What is lost in that state is sequence and cause-and-effect, so that people who use preoccupied strategies can be observed to retrace the same experiences in a kind of loop without seeming to achieve any resolution. They are highly expresssive and talk in a very emotional way (“his eyes were popping out,” rather than “he was very angry.”) It comes across as dramatic, but repetitive.

The other state distances the self from sources of danger in order to cope, rather than attracting attention to oneself to gain support in coping. So dangers are minimized or denied. People in this state tend to lack detail in their stories.

One example she gives is that someone who had been assaulted as a child at night by someone in a red jacket would remember this in a different way depending on their dominant style. A preoccupied person would remember the red jacket–an unimportant detail. A dismissive person may not remember the event at all, or might know it happened but not remember how frightening it was.

I have noticed these states in the people around me. Preoccupied states are very expressive of the self, but not necessarily aware of it. People in these states seem to operate under the assumption that if they emote more forcefully–but not necessarily more clearly or specifically–they will get the cooperation they want. It can come across as being very self-absorbed. It tends not to be a state in which one can maintain an awareness of other people, and it doesn’t allow for thoughtful reflection.

Dismissive states can lose focus on one’s own experiences or inner states, but are aware of others and aware of social mores.

So that’s the background. I think someone in parts uses dismissive strategies most of the time. The learning over childhood is that one’s internal experiences are bad are wrong–likely because a parent lacked empathy or mentalization skills and couldn’t understand the child’s felt states, why the child had them, or what was causing them.

Periodically, one’s dismissive strategies are overwhelmed by intense emotional responses, usually to reminders of trauma. The other state of being very expressive of the self takes over, but then cause-and-effect get lost.

What this means is that the reasons behind the emotion are lost. So in this state I may not know I feel overwhelmed by shame, because someone has, for example, criticized me. I only know I feel like I am “bad.” Because of that, it then seems that this state is only about me, not about a transitory experience happening to me.

These times when one’s dismissive strategies are overwhelmed by the nearness of danger feel both ego-dystonic, because they aren’t one’s usual self, but also as though they are intrusions of authenticity. They feel both like “not-me” and like secret “mes” which are shamefully overwrought, impulsive, and self-absorbed. Because the emotions of being in a preoccupied state are felt more intensely than the numbness of being dismissive, it can feel that these experiences of being in very negative emotional states are what you might discover to be your “true self.” Which can seem pretty dreadful.

In the end, what I have felt over my lifetime is both a sense that my self and my life are fragmented and that I may, in the end, discover I may be concealing from myself an authentic self which is fairly dreadful.

Actually, these experiences of being overwhelmed by emotion are not more real than myself in a dismissive state. Both of them are unbalanced mental states, caused by the perceived nearness of danger. They are, in a sense, illusions.

I think integration involves actually knowing how to be safe. I think it’s common for people from abusive backgrounds to learn coping strategies which actually make the people around them less safe: I see The Boy humiliating The Girl (did I mention I have two children living with me? I may have…) in situations when he feels hurt or sad or ashamed.

There are other reasons, too, which can lead to a life that is actually not safe. Difficulties in being able to mentalize make other people seem unpredictable even when they are, but not knowing how to respond effectively also leads to less predictable or stable interactions.

My thought is just that until life is safe, it’s very difficult to achieve a balanced state of mind which makes a more coherent experience of the self possible.

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2 thoughts on “States

  1. Victoria May 14, 2018 / 9:01 pm

    Hi. I commented on some of your posts years ago.

    We have similar pasts. Just in attempt to identify myself, I think you said you never thought you would communicate with someone who could relate to things like (trigger warning) trafficking, murder, etc.

    There is an aspect of what happened to me and what you have briefly mentioned if I remember correctly. Ritual abuse.

    I know it’s a ridiculous request. I know it can translate as insensitive, but I feel like we might be able to help one another and others by piecing together those parts of what happened to us. From what I’ve gathered in my research and memory work, I have reason to believe that whatever similarities we may have are important on a larger scale.

    I know ritual abuse is one of the more difficult aspects of your trauma. It is the same for me. In the simplest of terms, I’m asking if we can compare stories and try to sort through it together. Again, I know this is a ridiculous request. It’s only an idea.

    I’m sorry if this crossed any lines.

    • Ashana M May 15, 2018 / 12:30 am

      Yes, I remember. The ritual abuse is very hazy and I am not clear what happened or didn’t. The other elements are somewhat clearer. My dad was a very strange person, and his abuse has a quality of strangeness to it that is his own special stamp. I think the strangeness may be more important than the specifics. His mother was schizophrenic, and I think he was enacting the terror of his incomprehensible childhood. I’m focused in my healing on understanding how things felt and what I thought rather than the specifics of what happened. Sometimes the specifics are important (there was a kitchen sink incident which affects my experience with all other sinks, for example), but a lot of times they may not be so crucial. The vaguer impressions matter, because other situations give me similar impressions, and our minds need to have connections between events in our lives. If I I know something else is an experience with similar qualities, it does help. If you have a jumble of sensory memories, you have more specifics to organize, but I don’t really.

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