Many millions of people frequently experience themselves in a pronounced state of unreality, in what can be described as an out-of-body, vague, dreamlike mental-emotional condition.
This affliction—known as depersonalization—gets little attention in the media. Yet it is, in fact, the third most common psychological complaint, after feelings of anxiety and depression. According to the diagnostic manual of the American Psychiatric Association, “The symptoms cause clinically significant distress or impairment in social, occupational, or other important areas of functioning.”
The manual says that episodes of depersonalization “are characterized by a feeling of unreality or detachment from, or unfamiliarity with, one’s whole self or from aspects of the self.” In addition, the depersonalization experience “can sometimes be one of a split self, with one part observing and one part participating, known as an ‘out of body experience’ in its most extreme form.”
Depersonalization is commonly associated with childhood trauma, stress, anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, panic attacks, migraine, sleep deprivation, and recreational drug use. The affliction does not produce discontinuity of consciousness, a symptom associated with dissociative identity disorder.
Experts say the exact cause of depersonalization is unknown. I am making the case, however, that the origin or cause of depersonalization, as published in psychoanalytic literature in 1950, is, in fact, known.*
This psychoanalytic explanation will strike some readers as opaque or even, in itself, unreal. We have to understand that the unconscious mind (psyche) operates according to its own primitive rules. In our psyche, conflict, irrationality, chaos, passivity, and self-aggression abound. In its obscureness, the unconscious mind—our inner space—is analogous to outer space. Humanity’s great destiny is dependent on penetrating our inner space and colonizing it with intelligence and consciousness.
One’s understanding of the following explanation also depends on knowledge of a vital principle from depth psychology, namely that we compulsively repeat and replay, however painful, inner conflicts and emotional attachments that are unresolved from childhood. The neurotic person is unconsciously willing—through conscious or unconscious memories, visualizations, and attachments—to return again and again to the scene of the “crime.” This means that he or she slips into negative emotions and feels again the sense of being punished, condemned, abused, or victimized in some new context or circumstances. Our resonance with negative emotions is a major component of the effort that humans have made throughout history to maintain good over evil, right over wrong, truth over falsehood, and pleasure over displeasure.
The International Statistical Classification of Diseases and Related Health Problems (ICD-10) identifies depersonalization as a syndrome and correctly calls it a neurotic disorder. It is neurotic because it is based on a conflict in our unconscious mind or psyche. In my books and posts, I have provided hundreds of examples of how inner conflict produces a wide range of emotional disturbances and painful self-defeat. Depersonalization is simply another one of these symptoms.
Our entanglement in negative emotions is compounded by our willingness “to take a hit” or produce a third-rate bittersweet pleasure—a perverse gratification—from our revival of old hurts from the past. We can, for instance, easily feel self-righteous in our misery, convinced that we are the innocent victims of the malice of others. We also have to contend with a contentious inner conscience—our inner critic or superego—that scorns us and mocks us for our entanglement in unresolved negative emotions. The inner critic attacks and condemns for what it judges to be forbidden and irrational wishes, while our defensive side makes excuses for us and tries, through various psychological defenses, to deflect or disarm the accusations.
The inner conflict that produces depersonalization involves unconscious voyeurism. People with depersonalization are inclined, through imagination and memory, to have fantasies—or at least repressed emotional retentions—of being beaten, mistreated, or victimized. This attachment to mistreatment is fueled by the visual drive which is the unconscious instinct to experience pleasure or displeasure through one’s sight and imagination (inner sight). People frequently have powerful impulses to see or visualize forbidden, gruesome, or perverse content. One of the great fears of childhood, still retained in the emotional memory of adults, concerns parental reproach or punishment for engaging in forbidden peeping, especially in sexual matters.
This appetite for visual stimulation (orality of the eyes) is common in everyday people. For instance, worriers conjure up distressful images of bad things happening in their life, jealous people produce images of rejection and betrayal, shy people produce images of their humiliation, and bored people are blocked from producing any interesting or pleasurable images at all.
Unconsciously for the most part, people who experience depersonalization produce images or fantasies, or tap into emotional content, that involve mistreatment and abuse. Conscious realization of one’s emotional attachment to such content is, in itself, forbidden knowledge. A defense (a denial of inner truth) is immediately established. Depersonalization in itself becomes a defense. The defense is employed to deny or cover up an unconscious, masochistic infatuation with mistreatment and punishment.
This infatuation with mistreatment produces guilt because the inner critic (superego) objects to what, clinically speaking, is perverse pleasure. The individual’s defense might go like this: “I am not wishing in this moment to feel this abuse or victimization. Such an accusation is not real. In fact, nothing is real. Even my experience of myself in this moment is not real.” To make this defense work, the individual produces, physiologically or psychosomatically, the sense of unreality. (Note that physiological effects are often associated with defenses, for instance when anger, a common defense, is accompanied by a racing heart, elevated blood pressure, and aggressive impulses.)
Once this defense of depersonalization is offered up to the superego, the person’s emotional fate hangs in the balance. Is the defense going to be effective or not? Or will more intense and painful symptoms have to be produced? The person’s fate is suspended in time and place. This precarious emotional situation can at such times also produce a profound sense of unreality.
Another defense commonly employed in such situations involves “pleading guilty to a lesser crime” (as adjudicated by the superego’s irrational accounting). The individual makes the claim, “I’m not guilty of harboring perverse wishes. The problem is, I’m sick. I am disoriented and enfeebled. Look at me! Something is wrong with me. I don’t know where I stand on anything.” This defense is accompanied by intense self-scrutiny, with the intent to produce a sense of weakness and disorientation. Note that a primary experience of depersonalization involves the impression of watching oneself act, while feeling little control over a situation.
It helps to fathom these concepts when we can understand the act of blushing (the involuntary reddening of the face). People with depersonalization frequently are blushers. The blush is a form of exhibitionism that covers up one’ instinct to resonate emotionally with something forbidden or allegedly shameful. The blush, in other words, reveals one’s attachment to forbidden voyeurism or peeping. The person who blushes believes, at a conscious level, that his or her blush is a display of modesty and an aversion to the mention of forbidden activity. In reality, the act of blushing is a cover-up for deep, intense resonance with (or sexual interest in) “shameful” conduct or forbidden images. (The universal appeal of forbidden or shameful erotic interests is apparent in Fifty Shades of Grey, the sexual-submission movie that has recently been setting box-office attendance records.)
Old experiences from childhood of being spanked—slapped on the buttocks—can remain in the emotional memory as a powerful sexual intoxicant, yet the appeal is usually experienced unconsciously. In such cases, powerful defenses that produce the symptoms of depersonalization are employed to keep the erotic attraction to the forbidden locked in the unconscious mind.
When this content is unlocked through self-knowledge, the attachment to mistreatment dissipates. The defense of depersonalization is no longer needed. A sense of inner freedom is experienced.
* Bergler, Edmund. (1969). Further Studies on Depersonalization. Selected Papers of Edmund Bergler, M.D. (1933-1961). New York: Grune & Stratton. (First published in The Psychiatric Quarterly, April, 1950.)