I read a blog by a young woman describing her experience of ‘depersonalisation’. She wrote about this deeply unsettling feeling and how hard it is to explain to people who have never before experienced it. She found that even medical professionals are often either completely baffled by it, totally dismissive of it, or just didn’t seem to understand, or believe, what on earth she was trying to tell them. What she wants is for people to understand it, and recognise that this ‘phenomenon’ does exist, and that it is extremely distressing to live with. She feels exhausted by trying to explain it to people, only to have them say, ‘Well, you’re clearly just having another one of your “off” days. I’m sure it’ll go away soon’.
It’s true that we are slowly becoming more comfortable with talking about more commonly known symptoms of emotional distress, like intense sadness and anxiousness, but depersonalisation? What on earth is that?
She stresses the importance of distinguishing between depersonalisation and an identity crisis. An identity crisis implies that you have a sense of self, but you’re just not sure who that self is yet, or who you want that self to be. Depersonalisation, on the other hand, is the total lack of any sense of self at all. Wikipedia defines it as ‘unreality in one’s sense of self’. She describes it as being like watching yourself performing actions, and feeling that you have absolutely no control over what you’re doing, even though you know what you’re doing, and can see yourself doing it. You aren’t really there. Speaking is especially strange, because your voice doesn’t sound like it belongs to you. You know what you’re saying, but you aren’t connected to it. They’re your words, but it feels like some other voice is speaking them. On top of this, depersonalisation very often causes one to feel disconnected from others. You might be looking at someone you know very well and you recognise them and know the memories attached to them, but it’s like they’ve lost their meaning. You know who they are, but they no longer feel the same to you.
It’s clear why this is very difficult to explain. As she describes it you’re both there but not there: you exist but you don’t; you know who people are, but you don’t. And trying to explain it to others can be ‘the worst thing’.
So, why does depersonalisation occur?
Depersonalisation, as awful as it may be, is actually a defence mechanism, which protects the most important part of you: your ‘self’. By dislocating the ‘self’ from the physical body and its actions, your body is actually protecting your core being from further harm. Although it can occur as a disorder (depersonalisation disorder, or a dissociative disorder) in its own right, depersonalisation is most commonly the result of very high anxiety levels. When anxiety levels reach such a high point, the mind basically decides to ‘depersonalise’ in order to prevent the ‘self’ from being damaged by even higher anxiety levels. In theory, that’s rather clever, but in reality, depersonalisation is so distressing that all it does is cause more anxiety, which in turn makes the depersonalisation worse, which in turn makes the anxiety worse. It’s a vicious cycle.
I imagine that the key to coping or easing depersonalisation is to reducie anxiety levels, since it’s most commonly caused by heightened anxiety and stress. And what others can do is to try to imagine how it might feel to suffer in this way. It is all too easy to feel incredulous, to ask ‘How can you feel like that?’ and dismiss or deny the painful reality of what occurs. Even if we can’t really imagine what it is like to feel depersonalisation, we can work on being accepting of, and empathic towards, other’s experience and not make them feel worse by expressing doubt and incredulity.