Memories, Parts of Self, and Cohesive Identities

November 14, 2018 Kristance Harlow
Photo by Lance Matthew Pahang on Unsplash

Recovering repressed memories is possible. Trauma is subjectively experienced. Flashbacks are real. Depression is physical. These are all things I know to be true. But since they are all part of my story, they are all things I question myself about.

I am always searching for the science that can “prove” or “disprove” my experiences. I have no doubt that confirmation bias gets in the way, but as someone whose sense of self still seems to sway too easily from outside influence, there isn’t one answer I’m looking for.

What I’d like to move towards is trusting my own experience, full stop. I want to believe in my own process, I want to be able to hold onto effective coping strategies regardless of whether or not it’s an evidence based treatment. I want to know that what I experience is real and not something I’m making up. I don’t want to be so skeptical of myself.

Memories aren’t some infallible unchangeable data etched in the bedrock. Neuroscientists don’t know where all our memories are in the brain. We don’t understand the exact process of storing and retrieving all the different kinds of memory (of which there are many).

Identity is much the same. If our identity is largely comprised of our implicit and explicit memories, how does one actually build a whole self? Where does our personality come from? What is a whole self? How changeable is a person’s core identity? Can we have more than one personality? Or is it possible to have access to less than one whole self?

We aren’t born with our personality. Our core personality is developed during infancy into early childhood. Personality comes mostly from the interactions of temperament (nature) and environment (nurture), and it is all structured by the learning of character. This topic is worthy of its own post, so I won’t go into too much depth here. This is only to say that we do not begin life with a whole, singular, self.

My therapist says we all have different parts, but some people have these parts more separated. Some people know their other parts so well that there is no conscious separation in the self when shifting between different states of mind. Not everyone develops a cohesive self. When childhood trauma occurs, two or more identity states can be created in one brain just as solidly as a single personality. Identity states might be completely separate from each other or they might overlap.

In popular culture, and even amongst those who are interested in psychology but not trauma informed, only the most severe and ongoing kinds of child abuse could cause something like dissociative identity disorder. The thing no one talks about is that trauma is subjectively experienced and can be caused by people who truly do love us. Parents who try their best and actively work to show their children love and support can be abusive and neglectful and not even know they’re doing it.

Irregular discipline, lack of concern for the health of a child, name calling, and even failing to protect a child from a violent sibling, all of these are forms of abuse. When it happens over and over, a child doesn’t have the opportunity to develop a secure sense of themself and of the stability of the world in which they live. To cope with the trauma, multiple selves can develop instead of one. And if more than one self exists, then it becomes possible to “split” again, adding to the number of identities, to cope with future stress and trauma.

The brain is marvelous. From day one there are mechanisms built in to protect us, there are countless ways we can develop and adapt and survive. If you have any parts that are not cohesively connected to the self(s) you do know intimately, don’t be afraid. They came into existence for the same reason you did, to help all of you to survive, to thrive.

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  1. Alice Lynn on November 15, 2018 at 10:54 am

    An interesting article! Especially for me because at this time, I’m reading through literally stacks of old journals. I’ve compared it to a sort of purgatory thankfully dotted with some enlightening and even lovely recesses. Good thoughts about personality and it develops.

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