There has been no other psychological problem, personality or symptom that has drawn as much criticism, enigma, public attention and debate that split personality has done. Also referred to as Dissociative identity disorder/ Dissociative Personality Disorder/ Multiple Personality Disorder, it continues to remain an elusive and enigmatic condition for both general public and mental health professionals. Clinical psychologists and psychiatrists tend to have an extreme attitude towards this problem, either of dismissal and denigration or zealous interest, which also influences they way they treat these patients. Thus, either these patients are treated by awe and become subjects of best selling books or rebuked for trying to catch attention. Very few mental health professionals look at these individuals with empathy and respect and attempt to understand the fragmented self and integrate it.
Behaviour of the Person with Split Personality
There is a presence of two or more personalities or identities that periodically assume the control of the person and direct their behavior. As a result these individuals experience frequent memory lapses. Often they may lose memories for hours, days and months. Each personality may have a separate personal history, experiences, sexual orientation, attitudes, beliefs, self-concept and a separate name and these are extremely different and contrasting from the primary host personality. Some research studies have also found considerable differences in physiological parameters including muscle tension, EEGs, etc.
Dissociation- The hallmark of Split Personality
Dissociation is a defense mechanism where a person deals with their conflicts by keeping the disturbing idea or experience and the associated emotion completely out of their awareness. This idea or experience may be expressed in an altered state of consciousness when the person loses awareness about what is happening. While most of us dissociate to some extent to deal with stress, a person with a split personality uses this coping mechanism excessively.
Why the Personality Splits?
• Universal Coping Mechanism: There is a universal human wish to avoid and deny anything that is extremely painful.
• Psychological capacity: These individuals have an increased ability compared to others to enter into a state of self-hypnosis.
• Traumatic abuse: Following repeated abuse and torture, if the child is unable to process the traumatic experience, i.e. to feel the resultant emotions and express them in words a basis for split personality comes into being. The abuse usually extends over many years and is perpetrated by those closest to the child.
• Family Environment: The family environment of these individuals encouraged and even rewarded them to deny feelings, forget pain and doubt the traumatic experience as a fantasy-something that did not occur in reality. The Dissociative child never got anyone who could soothe them, understand their pain and wipe their tears. In some instances when the child tried to express their feelings, they were punished relentlessly.
Experience of Self
Instead of a single self, these individuals have multiple selves including the host personality, the child part, the abuser, the victim, the rescuer and others. Each self represents certain feelings and performs certain functions that the other parts cannot. The host personality may be aware of all, some or none of the split personalities. Often, there is a power struggle going on inside that which personality would rule. People with split personalities experience intense conflict over whether to acknowledge their traumatic history or to banish it. These individuals have to struggle with an intense rage which they have not been able to express. Due to the traumatic experience in which they were completely helpless and at the mercy of the perpetrator these people view themselves as small, weak, bad and vulnerable. They feel troubled by parts of body and self which they experience as alien. People with split personalities may view others in black and white i.e. the entire world is divided into abusers and rescuers. As this is a faulty perception, they suffer immensely. They are always in a doubt and do not know which experience to trust and which to ignore. A sense of terror engulfs them as they do not have a continuous experience of their own self and they forget large parts of their life. Despite all these blows to the self, these individuals have an unrelenting hope for a good relationship wherein they would get love, care and understanding.
The Attitude of Significant Others
The individual with a split personality has received severe mistreatment in early childhood by important others and continues to dread such abuse in adulthood as well. Thus, they try their best to appease all the people who matter to them including spouses, parents, children, friends, teachers and therapists. The attitudes held by these significant others towards the problem makes these patients collude unconsciously. People who doubt the split parts, amnesia and pain force the patients to deny their suffering and not reveal the symptoms whereas those who are fascinated by this condition encourage the patients to dissociate further.
In many instances, people close to these individuals get scared as they find them crazy and move away from them. This adds to the trauma of the person with a split personality. Therefore, if someone close to you has a split personality you need to be empathic, understand their distress and provide them with care and concern but at the same time do not violate their personal boundaries as it will worsen their condition. Encourage the individual to be independent and slowly assume the charge of their lives. Playing a powerful rescuer would damage the person further by making them dependent, vulnerable and doubt their own self. It is important to instill hope in the otherwise hopeless world of these individuals. Remember not to confront the person and accuse them of faking or dramatizing as this would be another experience of abuse for them.
If anyone close to you has a split personality, they would need long-term psychotherapy and therefore help them in arranging for it.