A human being's ability to live a life with both authenticity and selfawareness depends on the presence of an ongoing dialectic between separateness and unity of one's self-states, allowing each self to function optimally without foreclosing communication and negotiation between them. When all goes well developmentally, a person is only dimly or momentarily aware of the existence of individual self-states and their respective realities, because each functions as part of a healthy illusion of cohesive personal identity—an overarching cognitive and experiential state felt as “me.” Each self-state is a piece of a functional whole, informed by a process of internal negotiation with the realities, values, affects, and perspectives of the others. Despite collisions and even enmity between aspects of self, it is unusual for any one self-state to function totally outside of the sense of “me-ness”—that is, without the participation of the other parts of self. Dissociation, like repression, is a healthy, adaptive function of the human mind. It is a basic process that allows individual self-states to function optimally (not simply defensively) when full immersion in a single reality, a single strong affect, and a suspension of one's self-reflec-tive capacity is exactly what is called for or wished for.1 As Walter Young (1988) has succinctly put it: “Under normal conditions, dissociation enhances the integrating functions of the ego by screening out excessive or irrelevant stimuli. . . . Under pathological conditions . . . the normal functions of dissociation become mobilized for defensive use” (pp. 35-36).
In other words, dissociation is primarily a means through which a human being maintains personal continuity, coherence, and integrity of the sense of self. But how can this be? How can the division of self-experience into relatively unlinked parts be in the service of self-integrity? I've suggested in an earlier article (Bromberg, 1993, pp. 162-163), that the most convincing answer is based on the fact that self-experience originates in relatively unlinked self-states, each coherent in its own right, and that the experience of being a unitary self (cf. Hermans, Kempen, & van Loon, 1992, pp. 29-30; Mitchell, 1991, pp. 127-139) is an acquired, developmentally adaptive illusion. It is when this illusion of unity is traumatically threatened with unavoidable, precipitous disruption that it becomes in itself a liability, because it is in jeopardy of being overwhelmed by input it cannot process symbolically and deal with as a state of conflict. When the illusion of unity is too dangerous to be maintained there is then a return to the simplicity of dissociation as a proactive, defensive response to the potential repetition of trauma. As one of my patients put it as she began to “wake up,” “All my life I've found money on the street and people would say I was lucky. I've started to realize I wasn't lucky. I just never looked up.”
Slavin and Kriegman (1992), approaching this issue from the perspective of evolutionary biology and the adaptive design of the human psyche, write the following:
Multiple versions of the self exist within an overarching, synthetic structure of identity . . . [which] probably cannot possess the degree of internal cohesion or unity frequently implied by concepts such as the “self” in the self psychological tradition, the “consolidated character” in Blos's ego psychological model, or “identity” in Erikson's framework. . . . [T]he idea of an individual “identity” or a cohesive “self” serves as an extremely valuable metaphor for the vital experience of relative wholeness, continuity, and cohesion in self-experience. Yet, as has often been noted, when we look within the psyche of well-put-together individuals, we actually see a “multiplicity of selves” or versions of the self coexisting within certain contours and patterns that, in sum, produce a sense of individuality, “I-ness” or “meness” . . . . Although the coexistence of “multiple versions of the self” that we observe introspectively and clinically may thus represent crystallizations of different interactional schemes, this multiplicity may also signal the existence of an inner, functional limit on the process of self-integration. . . . The cost of our human strategy for structuring the self in a provisional fashion—around a sometimes precarious confederation of alternate self/other schemas—lies in the ever-present risk of states of relative disintegration, fragmentation, or identity diffusion. The maintenance of self-cohesion . . . should thus be one of the most central ongoing activities of the psyche. . . . [but] . . . the strivings of such an evolved “superordinate self” would emanate . . . not primarily from a fragmentation induced by trauma or environmental failure to fully provide its mirroring (selfobject) functions.Rather, its intrinsic strivings would emanate from the very design of the self-system. (pp. 204-205; italics added)
The implications of this are profound for the psychoanalytic understanding of “self” and how to facilitate its therapeutic growth. I've remarked (Bromberg, 1993) that “health is the ability to stand in the spaces between realities without losing any of them—the capacity to feel like one self while being many” (p. 166). “Standing in the Spaces” is a shorthand way of describing a person's relative capacity to make room at any given moment for subjective reality that is not readily containable by the self he experiences as “me” at that moment. It is what distinguishes creative imagination from both fantasy and concreteness, and distinguishes playfulness from facetiousness. Some people can “stand in the spaces” better than others. Vladimir Nabokov (1920), for example, writes at age twenty-four: “I had once been splintered into a million beings and objects. Today I am one; tomorrow I shall splinter again. . . . But I knew that all were notes of one and the same harmony” (p. 77; italics added).
Some people can't “stand in the spaces” at all, and in these individuals we see the prototype of a psyche organized more centrally by dissociation than by repression. The key quality of a highly dissociated personality organization is its defensive dedication to retaining the protection afforded by the separateness of self-states (their discontinuity) and minimizing their potential for simultaneous accessibility to consciousness, so that each shifting “truth” can continue to play its own role without interference by the others, creating a personality structure that one of my patients described as “having a whim of iron.”
This talk was brought to you by the generosity of people like you. Ordinary Mind Zendo is a non profit organization that depends entirely on the generosity of people like you for its continued existence. If sitting with us, listening to our talks, or supporting a Zen center in New York City is in line with your values, you can make a donation here.