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Dissociation: Some people lack emotional awareness

Some people are not aware of their emotions. They cannot tell you if they are happy or sad. They may be laughing or crying, which you would think would help them to identify what they are feeling. They may even be yelling, which you would think would let them know that they are angry. But they can’t identify what emotions they are feeling.

Not being able to identify their emotions doesn’t mean they aren’t reacting emotionally. It simply means they aren’t aware of their feelings. People like this frequently experienced developmental trauma (meaning neglect and abuse as children). They lack emotional awareness because they dissociate.

I realize the word dissociate will be new to many people, so let me explain what it means. When people dissociate, their brains block their awareness of their emotions. They aren’t able to name their emotions because they can’t feel them.

Everyone has the ability to dissociate, and everyone will use this ability when their emotions are overwhelming. Dissociation is valuable. It lets a father drive to the hospital after learning that his son has been hit by a car. It lets a child remain in the house with an alcoholic mother that physically abuses them when they are four years old.

Dissociating doesn’t mean that people aren’t reacting emotionally. It means their brains are blocking awareness of their emotions so that they can function. Without the ability to dissociate, their emotional pain would overwhelm them.

How does the brain allow people to dissociate? Because their bodies tell them what their emotions are, their brains simply shut off knowledge of their bodies’ sensations. You know you are scared because your heart beats faster. You know you are nervous because your stomach feels nauseous. You know you are angry because your chest tightens. To dissociate, the brain blocks awareness of physical sensation – and voila – emotional awareness vanishes, too.

For people that experienced developmental trauma, dissociating may be their normal way of being, rather than a mode that they assume for short periods when in crisis. Why would this be? What possible function might this serve? If their emotional pain was mostly high as children, then they may have needed to dissociate to survive for years. When this is the case, it may take a significant conscious effort, and the help of a psychologist, to gain normal emotional awareness as adults.

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