Often the examples people are aware of when they hear “multiple personality” are the movie representations of an individual changing from one personality to another. This is often portrayed as a voice change and shifting from a child-like presentation to an adult or a shy woman to an angry male, etc. This disorder is very much real, however it is very rare and is known as dissociative identity disorder, or DID. It is typically the result of severe or repeated abuse, neglect, and or abandonment as a child. Others who have experienced trauma typically develop a less severe form of this, where they develop ego parts that will develop as a protective measure. The fact is, we ALL have multiple personalities. You see, as we move through life we develop our Self, the identity we come to understand in order to differentiate us from others. However, we also develop personality parts that are resources to navigate various situations we may experience throughout our lives. The personality and behavior you present with at work is likely different than the one at school, or home, or with your friends out on the town. This is true in childhood as well, as we develop personality parts to navigate the demands of school, home, our friend’s house, or Grandma’s house. Each environment has its own set of perceived demands, expectations, and rules. Sometimes, these situations may include abuse or trauma.
If you look at the image above you will see how the relationship is supposed to be between parent (or guardian) and child and how it adapts to trauma. The parent is supposed to be attuned to the child’s emotional needs, be a protector, and be the giver in the relationship. However, if the parent is unavailable emotionally or physically leaves due to choice, jail, drugs, or any other reason, the child must develop a personality part that can navigate this scenario. Likewise, if the parent remains in the home and is abusive in some manner, the child must learn how to live with this abusive, often unpredictable person. When the child goes to school, they may be able to put their guard down, be more outgoing, and free to spend time enjoying their friends. However, upon returning home the child can noticeably change in demeanor and mood due to beginning to blend with the personality part they have been forced to develop to survive in the home setting.
At school the child may stand straight, laugh, be loud at times, ask questions, and make eye contact. Upon returning home the child may slump and drop their gaze to decrease any chance of gaining the abuser’s attention. They may quiet their voice so as no to disturb the abuser. They may be passive or appear weak because the abuser seems to respond less to this or demands it, or the opposite, they may have to stand up to abusive siblings in order to appear strong and not be targeted by the parent or abuser. These behaviors are resources that this personality part has developed to protect the child in this situation. When the child goes to school these resources are not necessary, however the protective part may surface at any time if there is a trigger; or something occurs that makes the individual’s subconscious believe they are in danger and the resources of this personality part must be called upon. Therefore, this protective personality part in the home may carry over into other situations due to the trauma the child has experienced.
Experiencing these situations as a child can be like stopping time for a personality part. So, one may be able to look back when they are 30 and understand the abandonment of their father as not a fault of their own, however if their father left at 6 then the child developed a perspective and negative belief system as a 6-year-old. Understanding the logic of the situation as an adult does not negate the subconscious trauma created during the original experience. This 6-year-old protective part can be useful as a child, but if unresolved and fragmented from the Self completely, it can implement resources (behaviors) that seem useful but no longer apply. They no longer apply because the individual is now an adult, not in that same situation, and has the ability to identify other resources more appropriate to the present situation.
This happens often as a child in an unhealthy family dynamic, as children will internalize issues with parents or guardians to protect the image of these guardians. As children, we need to know that we have an adult that has the ability to protect us from a confusing, scary, and unknown world. Therefore, if something bad happens to us as a child we will go to great lengths to protect the concept that “I am a bad kid with a good enough parent” rather than “a good kid with a bad parent”. This is to protect the belief that we are okay, we are safe, we have a “good enough parent” to guide us and if I am a “bad kid”, I have control of that and can change. So, we develop personality parts in response to various settings as a resource to navigate and survive. But they can become fragmented from the Self, and take on a mind of their own.