What is Structural Dissociation?

Chronically traumatized individuals can suffer from a form of dissociation known as structural dissociation. Structural dissociation causes the inability to regulate emotions and a chronic feeling of emptiness within, and is possibly misdiagnosed as a personality disorder call BPD (Borderline personality disorder)

Having structural dissociation means essentially a “split” into different parts, each with different feelings, and behavior. For example, it is common for individuals with structural dissociation to feel completely different from moment to moment, to go from strong and happy in one moment and empty and numb in the next.

People with complex trauma still have to find a way to get on with their normal lives. In order to do that, develop a normal outward personality, a so called normal self. Unfortunately, this normal self, feels little, remembers little, doesn’t feel many desires, not much sadness or happiness, but is an efficient worker. On the surface, everything seems fine.

Underneath this surface personality, the traumatized self is still present, and may burst through unexpectedly, causing out of control behaviors that seems to have no explanation. The traumatized part sees danger everywhere. It experiences criticisms, and abandonment, as a threat, this part also and has a hard time receiving love.

The traumatized part still controls the body and the emotions, but it does so in ways the individual is not conscious of, for example, the individual may grind their teeth at night, burst into an uncontrollable rage for no reason.

Structural Dissociation may ultimately cause an avoidance of life, tending to get worse over time rather than better. The more life experience, the more triggering situations. Many people then begin to avoid intimacy altogether due to the pain of triggered emotions. Because there has been pain in the past, the result is to not want to risk that again. However, the healthy part of us still hopes for love and connection and this part still wants to reach out. These two parts then engage in a vicious cycle of what on the surface looks like very confusing push-pull behavior.

Eventually structural dissociation causes isolation, and it is common to build a wall against both the outer and our inner life as protection, but this further contributes to feelings of emptiness and numbness.

Infographic by: NICABM
“According to Janina Fisher, PhD, structural dissociation is commonly underdiagnosed, or it’s misdiagnosed as a personality disorder. And when left undetected, it could lead to ineffective treatments that stall progress.”

According to Janina Fisher, PhD, structural dissociation is commonly underdiagnosed, or it’s misdiagnosed as a personality disorder. And when left undetected, it could lead to ineffective treatments that stall progress.

Correct treatment depends on correct diagnosis.

Signs and symptoms of structural dissociation includes:

Partial amnesia

Feeling empty and numb


Lack of stamina and motivation

Counter dependency (self sufficiency) and isolation

Inner critical voice

The essential healthy part, wise and responsible, inner guidance voice, a guiding light.

That essential inner guidance is what ultimately continues to nudge forward and this is the guiding light that helps us to go to therapy, possibly to reach out to friends, or to seek out support, support groups or physical help. It is the part of that reads poetry, writes poetry, writes a song, makes a painting. and sings a song to express our unspeakable pain, or to find some kind of creative outlet. It is the part of that honors authenticity wants and needs to be completely honest and express the inner feelings.

To heal, this is the part that must be found. This is the part that longs to be integrated and expressed. To heal, this part must be reinforced.

Ultimately, to heal is to bring all parts and all elements of both the brokenness and the “inner guiding light” of the self together.

 Opening ones heart again can feel tender, sensitive, and a very real sense of fear of being hurt again likely accompanies a healing process.

However, there is nothing to fear, you are going home to your inner truth.

Dropping the protective armor that has been worn for years can feel daunting, but keeping it is sure way of re-living the trauma of the past again and again. Healing and integrating these part of the self is the only way out of this prison.

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