Normalizing Dissociation Part 2: Depersonalization

June 27, 2011 Holly Gray

Depersonalization is a way of experiencing the self. It's a form of dissociation that manifests in a variety of ways that all boil down to a sense of detachment or separateness from one's self. And though depersonalization is a chronic part of living with Dissociative Identity Disorder, it isn't something only those of us with DID experience. For most people, episodes of depersonalization are transient, infrequent, and typically occur during periods of high stress.

Mild Depersonalization

Annette - who doesn't have Dissociative Identity Disorder or any other psychiatric condition - describes a mild episode of depersonalization in this excerpt from The Stranger in the Mirror, by Marlene Steinberg and Maxine Schnall:

4135492094_9e9b37c034I was having a day when the pressure of my job really got to me .... When I was getting dressed, I looked in the mirror and thought, 'Who is that? Do I know you?' The person I saw looking back at me was totally unfamiliar. I knew it was me, and yet it wasn't me. It was scary, so I snapped myself out of it and finished getting dressed in a hurry. It never happened again.

As far as metaphors go, there isn't a better one for depersonalization than perceiving your own reflection as alien to you. But it's not just a metaphor; it's something regular people experience sometimes.

What Defines This as Mild Depersonalization?

People who have Dissociative Identity Disorder describe remarkably similar experiences and we chalk those experiences up to life with DID. Which begs the question: why is Annette's description classified as an episode of mild depersonalization? How do we differentiate relatively normal dissociation from relatively abnormal dissociation?

  • Frequency. Part of what classifies hers as a normal dissociative experience is Annette's last sentence, "It never happened again." Depersonalization, for people who don't have Dissociative Identity Disorder or certain other psychiatric conditions, is infrequent. It may happen once, or a handful of times, but not chronically.
  • Duration. Mild depersonalization is short-lived. Annette didn't spend her entire day in a state of detachment, startling herself every time she looked in a mirror.
  • Control. Annette was able to exert control over her dissociative experience. She says, " ... I snapped myself out of it and finished getting dressed in a hurry."
  • Impact. Though Annette acknowledges that the experience was "scary," it didn't severely disrupt her normal daily functioning.

What classifies mild depersonalization as such isn't what happens but: how often it happens; how long it lasts when it happens; how much control (or perceived control) one has over it when it's happening; and how much distress or interference it causes when it happens. And when we're talking about normalizing dissociation, that's very good news. Because other people can relate to dissociative experiences more than those of us with Dissociative Identity Disorder usually give them credit for. Granted, the way we talk about dissociation has some bearing on whether or not others can identify with it. Which is why, as I said, I believe it's always best to start with normal dissociation.

Complete Series: Normalizing Dissociation

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APA Reference
Gray, H. (2011, June 27). Normalizing Dissociation Part 2: Depersonalization, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2024, July 14 from

Author: Holly Gray

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August, 19 2011 at 8:01 pm

Thank you again this is great.
All these examples help me see that some of what I experience is rather normal dislike that word "Normal"
Anyways to quote you
"Internal dialogues, for instance, with parts that you experience as “someone else” is a form of depersonalization. But I rarely see people refer to as such. And perhaps that’s because they don’t realize that’s what it is."
I hadn't ever considered that internal dialogue to be depersonalization. then I do this every day all day long. sheesh.

July, 11 2011 at 2:08 am

I have found Holly that when I try to normalize my experiences so that others can understand them it ends up with people saying things like "Oh well maybe I have DID too then", or "well if there is a spectrum then what justifies a title of DID and what doesn't". I think if I hear that " if DID is so complex then how come everyone experiences parts of it" one more time, I might have to pull my hair out.

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

Holly Gray
July, 20 2011 at 9:01 am

Hi kerri,
I'm glad you brought this up. Rather than respond here, I'm going to write a post about it. For now I'll just say I can understand your frustration. And for what it's worth, anyone who is incapable of seeing that just because dissociation is normal doesn't mean Dissociative Identity Disorder is needs their own head examined, because their brain isn't working.

Donna Williams
July, 2 2011 at 3:49 am

depersonalization commonly happens in Schizoid Personality Disorder which occurs commonly in those on the autism spectrum.

June, 27 2011 at 11:06 am

Do you have to experience Depersonalisation at a chronic level in order to meet the diagnositc criteria of Dissociative Identity Disorder, or Dissociative Identity Disorder Not Otherwise Specified?

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

Holly Gray
June, 27 2011 at 12:30 pm

Keep in mind that I'm not a diagnostician or a clinician (something I know you already know, castorgirl, but I'm mentioning here for the sake of other readers).
In a word, no. Depersonalization isn't mentioned in the diagnostic criteria for either Dissociative Identity Disorder or DDNOS. But it's worth noting that diagnostic criteria sets exist to provide a synopsis of what symptoms must be present, and what symptoms must not be present in order to qualify for a particular diagnosis. When I look at the diagnostic criteria for DID, for example, I see only identity alteration and amnesia mentioned. To me what that says to clinicians is, "Hey if you see these two things together, you're looking at DID. There's more to it than that, but those two things in tandem are what set this disorder apart from every other psychiatric condition." The diagnostic criteria, in other words, are benchmarks that allow clinicians to recognize DID (and other disorders) when it lands on their couches.
I feel like I could be saying this better.
There is more to every condition than what's listed in their respective diagnostic criterion. We know, for example, that Dissociative Identity Disorder is strongly associated with early childhood trauma. But it isn't necessary to prove a history of trauma in order for a clinician to see that someone has DID. That wouldn't make sense, in part because loads of people experience early childhood trauma without ever developing a mental condition of any kind. So while trauma is a part of the development of DID, it cannot be relied upon to distinguish DID from any other psychiatric disorder. Identity alteration and amnesia, however, can.
Let's also consider how we define chronic depersonalization. I would argue that people without dissociative disorders experience dissociative amnesia far more often than they experience depersonalization. So if we say "chronic dissociative amnesia" we're talking about significantly more dissociative episodes than if we say "chronic depersonalization."
Then there's the fact that depersonalization is an umbrella term for a wide variety of experiences that can all be defined as depersonalization because, no matter how differently they manifest, they all boil down to a sense of detachment from the self. And I personally would argue that people with DID do experience that at a chronic level. But I would also argue that most of us have a difficult time recognizing depersonalization for what it is. Internal dialogues, for instance, with parts that you experience as "someone else" is a form of depersonalization. But I rarely see people refer to as such. And perhaps that's because they don't realize that's what it is.
This was long-winded. I hope the lack of brevity is made up for in clarity. I'm glad you asked the question. I'd imagine a lot of people would wonder the same thing.

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