Van der Hart’s theory of structural dissociation: what it is and what it explains

Traumatic events can seriously damage our personality. Depending on the type of event and for how long you have been a victim, trauma can lead to the division of the personality into different structures.

On the one hand there is the most functional structure, the one that most resembles what a “normal” person would be, while the other lives in the traumatic event, is paralyzed and frozen, can neither flee nor fight against what she went through so he chooses to disassociate himself.

Van der Hart’s theory of structural dissociation is a model that explains how this process of personality division occurs. Below, we’ll take a closer look at how this happens, what personality structures are involved, and what degrees of affectation there can be.

    What is van der Hart’s theory of structural dissociation?

    Van der Hart’s theory of the structural dissociation of personality is a theoretical model which attempts to explain how, faced with the experience of a traumatic event, the personality of the person who experienced it is divided into several rigid structures which are closed to each other.. This theory has been used to explain different behavioral and personality phenomena associated with disorders such as post-traumatic stress disorder, borderline personality disorder, and dissociative identity disorder.

    Before we delve deeper into the model, we must first understand what is meant by “dissociation” in both psychiatry and clinical psychology. Defining this idea is a bit complex, but what we can emphasize is that it is a defense mechanism that people sometimes use, especially in the face of a highly disruptive and traumatic event, and the consequences. in terms of structure and consistency of personality can be very varied.

    Onno van der Hart, with his collaborators, define dissociation as the division of personality or consciousness.. One can understand how a person’s behavior and personality traits end up being transformed into different parts, much like a single individual is made up of several people. According to the International Society for the Study of Trauma and Dissociation (ISSTD), dissociation can be understood as the disconnection or lack of connection between the elements of the personality.

    But now that we have talked about the dissociation of the personality, we need to understand what is meant by the personality itself, especially the integrated or “healthy” one. Personality is understood in the theory of structural dissociation as a set of systems which, in turn, each of them is composed of a set of interdependent elements that create a whole, coherent and integrated. It is the whole personality of the individual, these traits that define him and make him behave in one way or another in the face of countless situations.

    The two personality systems

    In this model, it is argued that the personality works with two main systems. One of them is the system in charge of approaching stimuli that are pleasant, attractive and ultimately appetizing for the individual.Encouraging behaviors that bring us closer to objects, people or pleasant situations, such as eating for food, talking to friends, meditating to relax …

    On the other hand, we have the system responsible for protecting the body from threats and unpleasant situations. This system is based on avoidance or flight, avoiding situations perceived as dangerous or confronted with aggressive and disruptive elements in order to emerge victorious from the situation. It makes us run away from a thief or confront someone who has offended us. Adopting confrontational or avoidant behaviors is an attempt to keep our personality structure intact.

    Both systems are considered action systems and have a psychobiological component. Each of them is prone to act innately in certain situations and thus achieve particular goals. As we just mentioned, the former is responsible for bringing us closer to what benefits us, while the latter protects us from what hurts us.

    It should be noted that while there are certain behaviors unique to one system or the other, others can be encompassed in both systems. For example, eating in itself is a biological need, which satisfies us and gives us pleasure, that is, it would be a specific activity of the system in search of pleasant sensations. On the other hand, eating can also be a way of dealing with negative emotions, trying to fill those painful feelings with food.

    In short, both systems act and are part of our personality, helping us to act, think, feel and perceive in multiple ways. The first system helps us to adapt to the search for pleasurable sensations, while the other protects us from what could harm us physically and psychologically.. The two systems are used on a daily basis at different times, but almost never simultaneously. Either we approach a stimulus to feel pleasure, or we face and / or run away from another to avoid pain.

      Personality breakdown

      So what happens when we need to activate both systems of action to survive? What happens when they are activated for a long time simultaneously? Well what happens is there is a problem because the personality becomes very unstable, it can fragment, divide it up to this then coherent structure of the personality and enter a situation of dissociation.

      Before going deeper into the different dissociated personality structures proposed in Van der Hart’s theory of structural dissociation, we will take a case presented by him in collaboration with Kathy Steele and Ellert RS Nijenhuis in his book “The Tormented Self” by 2008. In this book are exposed the rather interesting, curious and sad case of former Miss America Marilyn van Derbur, Who in his early childhood was the victim of sexual abuse.

      Van Derbur herself spoke of the feeling that her personality was split in two, as if they were in fact two people sharing the same body: the girl by day and the girl by night. The Girl of the Day was a young girl focused on what she had to do during the day: get out of school and be a normal girl. This girl was totally detached from what was happening to her at night, feeling amnesia. Instead, the girl at night was the one who had endured the sexual abuse and was only focusing on her defense, on going through the bad trance.

      We use this same example but talking about any hypothetical girl. A normal girl cannot get out of a mentally stable situation of sexual abuse. The same person who is sexually abused at night and has to lead a normal day-to-day life feels in a situation too strained to move forward in one piece, because it is too difficult and complex a situation for their psyche to remain intact.

      When he receives the abuses the second system is activated, that is to say that of avoidance and fight. The normal thing would be to try to fight or run away from the situation, but the truth is that such a little girl can’t do either. On the one hand, she cannot face her sexual abuser, an adult much older than her, and on the other hand, she cannot run away from him because, despite the fact of harming him, she is also cares about him, gives him food and shelter, especially if we are talking about father-daughter sexual abuse.

      As the defense system cannot function properly, let alone in a girl who does not have the independence or the linguistic capacity to speak out against the facts, not being able to escape or fight must find another way: dissociation . The girl freezes, takes her mind away from consciousness and since she cannot physically run away, she mentally runs away. To dissociate causes pain as little as possible.

      After going through this, the girl cannot go about her everyday life normally and defend herself at the same time. Like us mentioned it, both action systems cannot be activated, Trying to make life as pleasant as possible while trying to defend yourself from what is happening to her. Ultimately, two systems separate and become two independent personality structures. Coming back to Van Derbur’s case, during the day the pleasure system is activated, trying to be normal, while at night the defense system is activated, which chooses to “freeze” the feeling that there is nothing he can do. to fight against abuse.

      This particular example of the division of systems of action is a clear case of structural dissociation of the personality. Given the lack of cohesion, coordination and integration between the two systems that form the basis of a person’s personality, i.e. his system of attractive stimuli and that of avoidance and flight threatening stimuli. This example of dissociation we just saw is what happens in disorders such as complex post-traumatic stress disorder (C-PTSD) and borderline personality disorder (BPD).

      The dissociative parts of the personality

      In van der Hart’s theory of structural dissociation we speak of two types of dissociative parts of the personality: the apparently normal personality (PA) and the emotional personality (PE).

      Seemingly Normal Personality (PA)

      PA is the part of a person’s personality that seeks to continue their daily life in the most normal and functional way possible. It is directed by the action system which seeks adaptation, that is to say which focuses on and approaches attractive stimuli. In turn, this is the part that avoids remembering traumatic events because, if this were done frequently and relived as flashbacks, it would be impossible to lead a normal life as the person would be constantly paralyzed.

      Emotional Personality (PE)

      PE is the part of the personality that was fixed at the time of the trauma and is associated with a system of avoidance of threatening stimuli. He is obsessed with avoiding the unpleasant, never reliving it. One trait attributable to a PE of a person who has been sexually abused would be being hyper-vigilant, running away, or fighting in a situation that reminds them of what they’ve been through, even if they don’t seem to be. have nothing to do with it. .

      PA and PE are closed structures that are rigid with respect to each other. There are emotions on both sides, not just in the PE, and it should be noted that structural dissociation can span multiple divisions of both types, meaning that a person shouldn’t have just one only AP and a PE, that is to say two personalities speaking a little familiarly. In healthy people who have not suffered any trauma, these two structures will be united and associated.

      The three types of structural dissociation

      There are several factors that cause a structural dissociation of the personality. Among them we have experiences of child abuse, sexual abuse and neglect.. In addition, early childhood trauma and prolongation of the event increase the severity of the disease. Dissociation is a defense mechanism that allows you to protect yourself and to be able to carry out your daily life as well as possible in the face of traumatic events.

      In Van der Hart’s theory of structural dissociation, we can identify up to three types of structural dissociation, that is, three degrees of severity in which an individual’s personality can be fragmented into different structures.

      1. Primary structural dissociation

      Primary structural dissociation is the simplest and most basic of the model and results from a traumatic experience which, within the limits of what is possible, is of moderate severity.. The personality of the individual is divided into a single AP and a single EP, that is, there are only two personality structures isolated from each other.

      PA takes on the leading role, being what we might understand as the desirable personality of the individual, while PE has not been fully developed. In other words, the individual has a functional personality that prevails in their daily life, but sometimes unpleasant memories associated with trauma emerge.

      This type of dissociation is found in disorders such as PTSD, acute stress disorder and somatization.

      2. Secondary structural dissociation

      Secondary structural dissociation involves a greater degree of complexity. In this case, we are talking about cases in which the traumatic event was so overwhelming and prolonged that its effect was more intense on the personality structure. The EP is divided into several parts, while the PA continues to remain a separate entity and functions as the main personality. The EP is divided into several structures because it was not possible to integrate different forms of defense such as fight, flight, paralysis and submission.

      This type of structural dissociation is typical of people with complex borderline disorder and PTSD.

      3. Tertiary structural dissociation

      Tertiary structural dissociation is the most serious of all. In this case, not only PE and PA are separated from each other, but we also speak of several PE and several PA. It is difficult to lead a normal life because some aspects of daily life are also affected and are closely associated with past traumatic experiences.

      As the PA is divided into different personalities, all of them somehow “main”, the person not only dissociates into the negative, but also has multiple daily personalities. Each of them can have a different name, age, gender, preferences … This is the type of dissociated and segmented personality that one would find in a person with dissociative identity disorder.

      Bibliographical references:

      • Boon, S., Steele, K. I van der Hart, O. (2014). Living with traumatic dissociation. Bilbao: Desclée de Brouwer
      • Frewen, P. & Lanius, L. (2006). Neurobiology of dissociation: unity-mind-body-brain disunity. Psychiatric Clinics of North America, 29.113-128. DOI: 10.1016 / j.psc.2005.10.016
      • Mosquera, D. and Gonzalez, A. (2014). Borderline Personality Disorder and EMDR.Madrid: Pléiades Editions.
      • van der Hart, O., Nijenhuis, ERS and Steele, K. (2006). The enchanted self: structural dissociation and treatment of chronic trauma. New York: WW Norton.
      • van der Hart, O., Nijenhuis, E., Steele, K. (2011). Your tormented. 2ª. Ed. Bilbao: Desclée de Brouwer.
      • van der Hart, O., Steele, K., Boon, S., and Brown, P. (1993). The treatment of traumatic memories: synthesis, realization and integration. Dissociation, 6, 162-180.
      • van der Kolk, B. (2014). The body keeps the score: brain, mind and body in healing trauma. New York: Viking.

      Leave a Comment