Recently I’ve seen a good article on depersonalization disorder floating around. Like many people, I’d never heard much about depersonalization, despite the fact that I have experienced it for extended periods of time in my life. But when I read this description, I felt both a sense of overwhelming familiarity and also some serious confusion. Because what they were describing was something I had been told was called dissociation.
So just to clear things up, I have researched the differences between depersonalization and dissociation so that you don’t have to. Both of these are surprisingly common experiences that don’t get a lot of airtime and could use more attention. So let’s clarify terms and learn! Huzzah!
Let’s start with dissociation. Dissociation is a broader category than depersonalization and includes depersonalization. I’ve described before what dissociation feels like to me, but in the most general sense, dissociation is being disconnected from yourself, reality, or your body. This can manifest as many different kinds of things, from simple daydreaming to ongoing amnesia.
As I mentioned before, dissociation is a broader category. It can include depersonalization, derealization, or what used to be called multiple personality disorder. Estimates put the rates of dissociative disorders at around 2% of the population, which means it’s a significant chunk of people. And basically every person on the planet will experience dissociation at some point in their life, at least at a low level. It’s a very normal response that the brain has to distressing situations.
Depersonalization is a slightly more specific version of dissociation. It’s more about feeling disconnected from yourself, whether that’s your body, your emotions, or your thoughts. Some people describe it as being in a dream, or as not knowing who they are. It can be difficult to tell that your body parts belong to you, or you can feel as if you’re just far away from your body. Other people say it feels like being a robot or an actor.
So while dissociation can be a feeling of distance or disconnection from many things, depersonalization is more particularly a feeling of disconnection from self.
I personally find these definitions extremely interesting and helpful in the context of other diagnoses that I’m more familiar with. I have never heard depersonalization discussed in the context of eating disorders but it seems glaringly obvious to me that many people with eating disorders feel disconnected from their bodies, or as if their bodies don’t belong to them. Depression often comes with feelings of numbness and loneliness that for me are hard to sort out from dissociation.
Sure, definitions themselves won’t cure anyone, but pulling apart some of these connections and letting people know that there’s a word and a history and a way to approach these feelings goes a long way towards helping them feel less alone and less broken. Let’s talk more.