What is "Disassociation" and how can it help someone who is dealing with traumatic memories?
Recently, I had been asking if there were topics in the Self-Awareness 101 video series that people would like me to expand on. One of the responses that I received was a friend asking for specific processes that could be used regarding letting go of the past. And what are some specific steps that can be taken to help someone let go of the past.
Specifically, this person had a very traumatic experience happen to them and because of the intensity of the experience, they can't even think about that experience because as soon as they try to think about it, they are overcome by all of the emotions that it brings up for them.
So how does someone let go of something that traumatic and that intense? My first response is that you need to learn how to disassociate from the experience. There is a technique that I learned which is taught by Richard Bandler in his Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP) and also by Tony Robbins in Neuro-Associative Conditioning (NAC). The process is called "disassociation".
When we think of a past experience, based on the intensity of the experience there is a level of "association" or "disassociation" we have regarding the emotions that are attached to the memory. This can be for both pleasurable and painful memories. What I am going to share with you in this article is a technique called disassociation which is a way for you to "disassociate" from something and in doing so, free you up to explore more resources that will allow you to "let go" of the past.
When people think of a past experience, what happens is that they access different parts of their conscious and subconscious mind to pull together a representation of the memory. There are certain "modalities", visual, auditory and kinesthetic that they use to represent that experience. The characteristics of those modalities that are applied to the memory of that experience will determine the intensity of the association or disassociation to the memory.
Now in some cases, that associated recall is great! There are times when you want to be fully associated to a past experience. Maybe it is something that is empowering for you, something that is making you feel awesome. As an example, for me there is a very specific experience that I use when I want to feel gratitude, or when I want to feel grounded. It is the memory of the birth of my daughter. I still can remember vividly the first time I held her. And there was a moment... it wasn't planned it was just instantaneous... a moment where she was yawning and had just begun to exhale as I was breathing in. With the angle of her head, she ended up exhaling her breath directly into my nostrils as I was inhaling. The experience was so powerful that it was a life transforming moment for me.
Those are the types of experiences that you want to be fully associated to. In a future article we will discuss how to enhance memories. For now, we want to focus on limiting the impact of the memory through disassociation.
When I first start discussing disassociation with someone, the initial challenge is that most people don't understand that you have the ability to change your perception of the past. They believe that the past is written in stone. But the reality is, your perception of the past is simply one of many possible perceptions. When someone can help you look at it from a different point of view, often the full meaning of the experience will change. You actually have the ability to change how you perceive any memory so that when you retrieve it, the new perception will empower you.
For every one of us, when we recall a memory there are specific images, sounds and feelings that are all connected to that event. Those images, sounds and feelings have specific qualities that are related to the experience and determine how we respond to that event every time that we think about it.
As an example, I want you to just experience this for a moment. Right now, I want you to think of a happy event, something that was a truly pleasurable experience. I want you to close your eyes for a moment, and just recall everything that you can about that event. Pay attention to what happens first. For some of you, when you recall that experience the first thing you will notice is an image. For some people it will be sounds. And for others it will be more of just a feeling. Again, everyone stores this information in different ways, and there is no “right” or “wrong” order that you will recall them. The important thing to know is that ultimately these modalities are all interconnected.
Now if an image is the first thing you notice when you think about this great experience, I want you to notice where it is located? Meaning, is it directly in front of you in your mind's eye? Is it close to you? Is it at arms length? Is it a moving picture like when you are watching a movie? Or is it a still picture like a portrait? Is it full color or is it black and white? Do you see it as an outside observer? Or do you remember it as though you are seeing it through your own eyes? Become aware of the characteristics of the image.
If the first thing that caught your attention when you think about this great memory are the sounds that you hear, notice the characteristics of those sounds. Are they clear and crisp? Are they harmonious or is there discord? Is it at a comfortable volume level? Is it noticeably louder or is it softer? Become aware of these nuances related to the sounds.
Now if the first thing you notice is a feeling, simply become aware of that feeling. Notice, where does that emotion rest, do you have a specific feeling in a specific area of your body? What do you feel? Is there tension or is does it feel loose? Is there warmth? What are the different characteristics of the feelings that you feel when you think about that experience, both tactile and emotionally.
Now, what I would like you to do is make some slight adjustments to those representations. I'm going to walk you through parts of each modality in this exercise. If you are seeing an image of the experience no matter whether it is a full color image or black and white, whether it is a moving picture or a still picture, I want you to take that image and actually pull it closer to yourself. As you bring it closer make the image more vivid. As you bring it closer notice what happens to the intensity of the feelings.
Also notice what happens to everything associated to that image. Do the sounds get louder or softer as you pull the image closer? Do the feelings intensify or lessen as you bring that image closer?
Now, I want you to do the opposite of what you just did. Reverse the process. I want you to push the image away from yourself as if you were just sliding back away from it. Push the image out to where it’s out 15 to 20 feet away from you. As you push it away, make the image smaller as it gets farther away from you. Notice what happens to the intensity of the sounds and the feelings.
If you are more auditory and the first thing you noticed when you thought about this great experience were the sounds associated to it, I want you to notice what happens if you increase the volume and the clarity. What happens to everything connected to it? What happens to the feelings when you increase the volume and the clarity? If you become more aware of the different sounds that are present, listening more intensely to things you didn’t notice before, what happens to the feelings and the images that are associated to it? Do they also become more amplified and get more intense?
And now, just imagine turning that volume down. Make it softer, quieter. Notice what happens to the imagery and the feelings that are associated to those sounds.
Now the last thing that I'm going to do is for those people who are more kinesthetically driven. If the first thing you noticed when you thought about the great experience was a feeling, take a moment right now and notice what happens if you double the intensity of any of the feelings that you have. If there's pressure, if there's tension, if there's a sense of relaxation; if you just take that feeling or that emotion and you double it, what happens to all the other associated modalities? What happens to the sounds and the images?
And now, take it back to its original feeling. Then notice what happens if you lessen that feeling by 50 percent. What happens to everything else?
The reason we're going through this exercise is to let you have the experience that any feelings that you have associated to your memory change based on how you perceive that memory.
So if you want to intensify any memory, you can. You can bring it closer, you can make it louder; you can double the intensity of the feelings. As you do, the intensity of the memory will increase. There are many, many ways to apply this and I invite you to play around with it. Make great memories exquisite and lessen the intensity of the memories of negative experiences.
Now, let’s take this new perspective we’ve just experienced back and apply it to someone who's had a traumatic experience. Most of the time, what happens is when they think about that traumatic experience, it comes back as a flood of images, sounds and feelings. All of the images, the sounds and the sensations are extremely amplified because of how they unconsciously store that memory. This is where we apply the technique of disassociation that Tony and Richard talk about. This is where you actually help a person explore that past experience by getting them to disassociate, or disconnect from the associations that they remember.
The way this technique of disassociation works is like this. If you're having a situation from the past that you just can't seem to let go of because it is to intense for you to think about, what I'd like you to do is to close your eyes, and instead of remembering the situation, I want you to imagine that you're sitting in the fifth row of a movie theater. And as you imagine sitting in the fifth row, I want you to just imagine changing everything you see so it looks like an old black and white movie. See the chairs around you, the ceiling, the lights and everything around you as though it were an old black and white movie. Now when you think about that experience rather than seeing it the way that you used to see it, imagine seeing it on that movie screen in front of you as an old grainy black and white movie. When the movie begins, rather than watching it at the speed that you used to watch it, notice what it feels like to watch it pass by at a super high speed in grainy black and white while sitting in the fifth row. Then when it gets to the end, notice how it feels to watch it go in reverse at that same super high speed. Notice how your mind detaches from any meaning that you used to have as you watch it go forward and backwards at this super high speed. Run it forward and backwards again and again at this super high speed. Do it 7-10 times. Run it from beginning to end, end to beginning at faster and fatter speeds.
Now imagine moving to the tenth row back from the screen and watching that movie of the experience in black and white. From this new perspective, do you feel like you are more in the position of an unattached observer? Are you able to see it from different perspectives now? Do you notice the difference being the observer where before you were IN the image? When you used to think about it, you were right in the middle and there was only one perception you could have. Has the intensity lessened through this process of disassociation?
Now, being in tenth row you have the ability to see things in new and different perspectives which allows you new possibilities of dealing with the situation. From this position of disassociation you're actually able to see yourself and disconnect from the intensity of the situation. Disassociation allows you to open yourself to new possibilities from of all points of view. Notice what happens as you imagine moving around that movie theater. You can sit to the right of the screen. You can sit to the left. You can go to the balcony and even sit in the last row. Notice how each position has a different level of association to the event.
By using this technique of disassociation you can begin to ask yourself different questions that will help you let go of the past.
Begin asking these kinds of questions...
1) What is something empowering I can learn from this? 2) How can I use this experience to serve me? 3) If I were to choose to take a part of this experience and use it to my benefit, what could I choose? 4) How can I use this experience to serve a greater purpose?
When you ask more empowering questions, you begin to release the old meanings. Think of more empowering questions that you may be able to ask yourself.
So disassociation is one approach of how someone can actually let go of the past.
We'll explore more approaches in other articles soon and post the related links here for you.