ASK DR. LEEDOM: What is dissociation?

A reader asked the following question this week:

Recently, I’ve started doing more research into sociopaths and have run into a condition with which I’m unfamiliar: dissociation. Do you know if sociopaths/psychopaths have been considered to have this disorder, or if it is part of what makes them who they are?

The term dissociation has two distinct meanings in psychology. These two uses of the same word do not necessarily reflect a similar process operating in each.

The first kind of dissociation is a response to stress, and peritraumatic dissociation (dissociation during a traumatic event) appears to be a risk factor for stress-related illness. Symptoms of this kind of dissociation include disturbed experience of reality related to time, memory and nearly every sensation. For example, during trauma, time may stand still and people report that things do not seem real. Male sex hormones or androgens (that women also have in lower levels) protect against this kind of dissociation. For a good but technical article about peritraumatic dissociation read, Symptoms of Dissociation in Humans Experiencing Acute, Uncontrollable Stress: A Prospective Investigation.

The second kind of dissociation relates to the observation that the mind is modular. That means we don’t use our entire brain circuitry all the time, and during different behavioral and emotional states, different circuits are activated. Testosterone is hypothesized to disrupt the connection between the cerebral cortex and the limbic system, and so enhances this kind of dissociation.

This increase in mind modularity has been related to sociopathy/psychopathy by some experts. In a previous blog I reviewed Psychopaths in Everyday Life, a book by Robert Rieber. There is a great quote from the book that relates to your question. It is,

The true psychopath compels the psychiatric observer to ask the perplexing and largely unanswered question: Why doesn’t that person have the common decency to go crazy?

So why don’t psychopaths have the common decency to go crazy? Dr. Rieber explains, “Since psychopaths act as if they were perfectly normal, i.e. sane, they must be skilled in a cunning manner to dissociate any real guilt that they should feel about their antisocial behavior.” He also says that since psychopaths dissociate, they don’t go crazy. He believes dissociation prevents them from experiencing guilt. He also says that many psychopaths do have some level of guilt they are dissociated from.

So there may be a connection between sociopathy/psychopathy and dissociation, but the connection depends on your definition of the word.

Comment on this article

53 Comments on "ASK DR. LEEDOM: What is dissociation?"

Notify of

Midlife, whenever you talk about your ex fulla, it reminds me of mine. In particular the falling asleep/waking up instantly. And the lack of wrinklage.
I don’t know why, but I was thinking today of the first emails me and him sent to each other on findsomeone. I had noticed that his spelling was good because (this is going to sound snobby..) I had the idea in my head that I would avoid guys who spell really badly. Although of course I hadn’t told him this as it would sound utterly snobby.

So guess what..turns out he can’t spell for sh*t, and he must have run every single email through spellchecker.

He also used the pity play in saying he lost most of his pals in the divorce, which couldn’t be further from the truth.

I actually came on here to have a big rant about how my ex is now using my son to build up his new partner while simultaneously dimishing me as a mother, which he also did with his girls to his ex-wife.
However, feeling much calmer just from reading blogs and getting a sense of other peoples backgrounds kind of puts things in perspective and re-affirms my resolve to be a calm secure loving and consistent base in my sons life.

Arohanui to you all

“Why doesn’t that person have the common decency to go crazy?”

LOL!!! Yes…actually laughed out loud!!!!! AMEN!

When I was in my mid-twenties my therapist told me, after meeting with her, that it would be easier to accept my mother for what she is if she were in an institution. That statement has stuck with me for the past fifteen years! I apply it frequently in my mind when I find myself questioning my son’s father’s mental health and how I personally ended up in a relationship with a sociopath!



Dear Banana,

That is one of my favorite movies, it was also a great book. I sometimes refer to a psychopath as “he must have a painting in the closet” in reference to this story.

I never thought about it as connected to dissociation, but yea, it fits! Thanks!

I would like to share a recent example of dissosociation.

Recently there devistation is a city where I live. I was praying and feeling people pain at losing their lives. I felt so terrible and helpless becuz all I had to offer was peayer. Peoples lives will never be the same EVER.

Spath ,”Imagine all the money that must be flying around if a bank was hit. Imagine how much stuff can be taken becuz the major retail centers were blown down. He didnt feel anything for the victims & how if affected them. All he can think of is how he can get into the stores and/or homes and “”find”” something he wants. I asked him,remember when your truck was briken into and your sterio was stolen? He was angry. He said,yeah “”BUT”” this is a natural disaster why do the cops keep people from taking things their insurance is gonna pay for it all anyway. He said it is better for the things to be taken and used than to have it bulldozed and wasted.

I am having so many aha moments reading these comments, I’m so glad I found this site.

The ex ‘s facial expression was always blank. Eerily blank. I asked him about it several times. He said he had to give bad news to parents a lot about their children (he is a pediatrician dealing with a certain speciality)and so he just must have gotten used to not having an expression. I mulled it over for a while, but never accepted that. When he did smile, it looked painful.

He cried spontaneously and for no apparent reason and my first thought was WTF, then it was ‘those are some pretty amazing crocodile tears’. I found that if I did not acknowledge these odd bursts of tears, they’d stop.

He also ‘locked his keys in his car’ after I stopped seeing him once, and he lives waaaaay far from where he works, and he had his son with him, so he guilted me into driving him all the way home to get his extra key, then all the way back to his car. Locksmith anyone? Boundaries? Anyone? Anyone? Saying no at that particular time would have likely saved me 2 years of utter craziness.

Like others have mentioned, he also fell asleep immediately. So many commonalities!

Disassociation in sociopaths may start as defense mechanism against early childhood abuse and stress.

For example, a boy is physically abused by his step-father. In order to survive the abuse, the child’s mind goes elsewhere in an attempt to block out reality. Some believe, this may be a positive trait when the stress is minimal. However, if the stress is extensive, it may carry on into adulthood and be a part of a dysfunctional personality.

I have dissociated every time I have been in a “life and death” situation from car wrecks where I “saw it coming” to the rape to the airplane crash that killed my husband and burned my friends and my son….so maybe that was why my PTSD symptoms have been in some respects so intense and so enduring.

Once in a car wreck I saw coming, and didn’t think there was any way to survive, I was just so calm and because I was preg I thought to myself “I am so sorry the baby will die with me” and then I just “tuned out” like turning off a TV, The screen went BLANK and I woke up in the back seat of the car (we didn’t have seat belts in those days) upside down at the bottom of a steep hill.

Of course I didn’t know what “dissociation” was in those days, but that event where I “tuned out” was etched in my mind as “odd” and I remembered it vividly to this day.

Other times I have dissociated in other ways, without “blacking out.”

It would be interesting to know WHY some people are more prone to disassociation than others though.

Also the differences in dissociation in “long term high stress” versus “instant high stress” like in a life and death situation versus continual fear/stress.

1 4 5 6

Send this to a friend