I’m in Germany at the International Focusing Conference. Today I gave a workshop on traumatic memory. The theme was why it’s possible to have no memory of terrifying events.
First, I wanted the participants to be clear on the definition of “traumatic.” Often people use the term to describe a memory that is merely bad or painful. A traumatic event has to be (1) inescapable and (2) intolerable.
Our natural impulse when something threatens us is to go into a state of fight or flight. If we can’t fight and we can’t flee, we freeze or dissociate.
Normal children are capable of dissociating in order to survive. Dissociation is learned at an early age and is a highly developed skill. I tell my clients that yogis go into a cave for years to learn this skill.
What does it feel like to dissociate? Some people describe it as looking at the world through a pane of glass while feeling nothing. Others float on the ceiling and look down at what seems to be happening to somebody else. Yet another common form of dissociation involves simply leaving the body and feeling nothing.
At one time, dissociation spared us from feeling the full impact of a situation we couldn’t tolerate. Otherwise we wouldn’t be capable of this advanced mind/body control. It allowed us to participate in some parts of normal childhood, such as going to school.
In a nutshell, our brains are designed to assure the survival of our species. Dissociation deserves our respect.