Normal multiple personality states
Contrast with Dissociative Identity Disorder


There is a very significant difference between having many different inner selves or personality states within us (which can be normal and healthy or can cause some problems) and DID or Dissociative Identity Disorder (which used to be known as "Multiple Personality Disorder".)                                        

I am afraid media presenters often fail to appreciate this when they talk about personality issues. In fact they even tend to confuse DID or Dissociative Identity Disorder with Schizophrenia.

Schizophrenia is another quite different psychiatric disorder and it is not characterised by splitting off of "multiple"  personalties nor having multiple dissociated personalities. Schizophrenia is a brain chemistry disorder which is characterised by sudden mood swings, extreme changes in mood together with other more extreme symptoms. 

Let's try to clear this up.

What is Dissociation?
Dissociation is a powerful process, but by itself it is a normal coping mechanism especially in childhood. Day dreaming during a boring lecture is a typical example. We leave where we are and take ourselves and our mind somewhere else more interesting or exciting. Everyday dissociation can commonly range from this mild example to medium level (fantasising about a romantic lover to get you through boring sex).

It can go on to much higher levels such as getting ourselves into a "somewhere else" place where we can actually forget about a serious problem such as a partner's continual infidelity or excessive drinking. The less we have to be aware of it the easier it is to deny that it is still a problem, but somewhere in the backs of our minds we will still worry about it. These forms of dissociation are however still within the 'normal' range of human behaviour, though that is not to say that they can't still cause you lots of problems.

Important points:

1. This process of "mentally projecting myself somewhere else, into another more comfortable place"  is what dissociation is meant to do and if you have found it has worked for you in the past you will naturally use it again and again. Children learn to dissociate as a normal function of playing and also to help them deal with childhood fear or stress.

2. As long as you are aware of what you are doing AT THE TIME dissociation is not likely to cause serious problems. If, however, people are unaware that they are dissociating or later on they deny they have dissociated then they are likely to have real difficulties with life, work and specially relationships.

3.  Abusing a child will obviously increase the chances that the child will discover how to use dissociation to escape the pain, fear or sadness that is happening. So the more severe or extended the abuse the more the child will develop its ability to use dissociation as an escape. In extreme cases, clients often say "I always used to fly up to the ceiling and watch Daddy beating some other child on the bed."  This is an example of a very high level of dissociation and may lead to DID in teens or adulthood

4. With DID or Dissociative Identity Disorder the existence of several different "multiple" personalities is part of the dissociation process, but it is not THE problem. The essential problem is the very high level of dissociation, which explains why the name was changed from the old term "Multiple Personality Disorder" This latter term should never be used today.

DID is a clinically diagnosable state but it is not a brain chemistry disorder. One common indicator of this state is that when a person is "in" one personality they may have no recollection at all that other personalities or "alters" exist in them. Often these  personalities are extremely different or hold opposite points of view, some (in the same client) buy clothes that another of their personalities would never wear, one will steal while another is scrupulously honest, some even exhibit symptoms of different allergic reactions to the same substances!

Movies such as "Sybil" and "The Three Faces of Eve" illustrate how extreme DID can affect a person's life.

My son, Anthony Bligh, today an experienced clinical psychologist in his own right, suggests a colourful comparison in which a person with normal sub personalities or inner selves, might see themselves as much like a football team. The members might not all agree on the "right" way to play the game, they may clash with the coach and argue with the referee. But when it comes to getting the ball through the goal posts they are all in agreement that this is what matters most. They have no difficulty agreeing on really important goals like wanting to win. They may have different views about what the goal posts look like but all of them agree where the posts are located and which ones the ball goes through for a win or a loss.

Contrast this with DID in which in this analogy there are still the same number of players on the field, but some of them have never even met or are not aware of each other, some are playing football, others tennis some don't even have a ball and are high jumping or doing gymnastics and some are busy writing on their laptops. Each one has a different set of goals and a different rule book (or no book at all) and each thinks the goal posts are in a different place. As well, several may all think they are the referee. There may be a main referee present but with no agreement on who he or she is, there is no way of coordinating the players into a single a team or having them all concentrate on working towards a single goal.

The cause of DID is still debated by psychiatrists, but most practitioners report a very high connection between clients in this state and severe, repeated childhood abuse or trauma. The condition has been treated with some success, but only by therapists who have been specially trained in this area. Voice dialogue is definitely NOT a suitable treatment and should be avoided at all costs with anyone who you even suspect of having DID. 

For more information on DID in Brisbane contact the Mental Health Association on (07) 3358 4988 or their website

From "Growing Awareness 2000" by John Bligh Nutting 




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