Many of us dissociate when confronted with overwhelming uncomfortable emotions. It's a habit we pick up as children, that we could easily drop as adults, when we have greater emotional resilience. Yet we don't. Particularly in burnout. We can employ dissociation to withdraw further and further from a reality that has become increasingly painful.
Here we explore the mechanism of dissociation and some techniques to work skillfully to reduce it, since the price we pay for dissociation is not being present to our human experience and to the important people in our lives.
Ep#32 Shame https://www.burnouttoleadership.com/1849743/10540254-ep-32-5-steps-to-manage-shame
Ep#38 Creating Safety https://www.burnouttoleadership.com/1849743/10799771-ep-38-creating-safety
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0:00:11.8 Dex: Hi everyone. My name's Dex Randall and this is the Burnout to Leadership Podcast where I teach professional men to recover from burnout and get back to passion and reward at work.
0:00:23.5 Dex: Welcome my friends to another exciting episode of Burnout to Leadership podcast. And today for some reason, I'm calling these out-takes from life. Don't ask. If I have to explain, I'm in trouble. And today's out-take is this, it's about dissociation and how it harms us in burnout. And, by the way, before we get into it, this episode does contain references to trauma. And if that brings out difficult feelings for you, please reach out to a helpline or a psychotherapist for the support that you need, 'cause I always promote seeking the help that you need at any time, particularly if this brings out some stuff for you. Alright, so what we're gonna talk about is dissociation for a little minute. We're gonna talk about it in burnout because I think there is, perhaps, for some people a relationship.
0:01:15.0 Dex: I don't know why, but I think that this episode really deserves a backing track, The Truth, which is a track by Handsome Boy Modeling School featuring Róisín Murphy. And it's a beautiful track. It's been going round and round in my brain while I'm thinking about this. But, of course, I can't share it for copyright reasons. But anyhow, the chorus, and luckily for you, I'm not gonna sing it, is, "You can't hide from the truth because the truth is all there is. But in your present state, you may as well not be here at all. You wear a thin disguise, it's from yourself, you hide." [chuckle] So here's why I picked that track. I've really been reflecting a little bit on my own skills of dissociation, which are pretty well developed over a lifetime. And they're always available to me during times of stress, and hence a relationship with burnout for me.
0:02:16.4 Dex: So dissociation is a mental process where a person disconnects from their thoughts, feelings, memories, or sense of identity. That's what Wikipedia says anyway. It's a self-protective coping mechanism that can develop in response to overwhelming stress, here's where our subconscious mind removes our attention from the stress and the potentially overwhelming emotions that might come with it by tuning out from the present moment. And this is the mechanism triggered during a traumatic event if we lack a safe other and or the emotional capacity to process the trauma, the traumatic event at the moment. And that's where trauma embeds in our system. And so, while dissociation can provide temporary relief, and in the case of trauma or repetitive stress, maybe that's ongoing relief by separating us from the memory of the trauma or the stress from the experience of the trauma or the stress, it can over time lead to feelings of detachment and disconnection from ourselves and others.
0:03:36.4 Dex: And even when I'm thinking about this, you can hear it in my voice, I'm kind of processing it [chuckle] real time as I'm speaking. I'll try not to do that and just talk about it. But anyhow, in habits, I think... In burnout... Oh, see, I'm doing it again. In burnout, it's one of the habits that I think contributes to our sense of isolation within our distress in burnout as we are kind of repeatedly drawing back from and detaching from the pain and the suffering of burnout. And by extension, we withdraw from the people around us.
0:04:16.1 Dex: So if we are detaching from pain into pain, it's really out of the frying pan into the fire, isn't it? Because we experience a loss of connection and support, which actually exacerbates our mental suffering that we are trying to get away from in the first place. And by the way, dissociation is different from the kind of tuning out that we're doing when we are in some kind of repetitive skill, so something where we have unconscious competence, like driving a car, in that case, we also tune out, but that kind of tuning out is saving, expending the energy of conscious thought. Because the speed of conscious thought is 40 bits per second. The speed of subconscious thought is 20 million bits per second. I picked that up from Bruce Lipton. And so obviously it's gonna be cheaper on our system to run subconsciously. So when we have unconscious competence in something like, driving a car, the whole process is subconscious to us and we do feel sometimes a sense of tuning out and missing the whole experience. That's a different thing from dissociation.
0:05:20.2 Dex: The subconscious mind makes up 95% of our brain power. So it's what we're using most of the time. It also expends a lot less energy, so because our brain uses 20-25% of our daily calorific energy intake if you like, it's the most energy-consuming organ that we have in our bodies. So it makes survival sense to use unconscious thought as much as possible and save all that brain power. So coming back to my story and my dissociation, I developed the skill of dissociation since my younger days as so many of us have. And I used to deploy it as kind of a get outta jail free card in times of emotional stress. And it was good at that, but really it was effective only in numbing me out. So when I did that, the original stress was resisted and persisted. And because of that, because I kept escaping from the stress I felt in the moment, then my fear of that stressful situation actually increased, making me over time want to numb more. And that really is the basic cycle of any addiction, isn't it? It's using a distracting behavior to avoid one emotion and perhaps to stimulate a more acceptable emotion but the efficacy of that mechanism wears out over time. It is the law of diminishing returns.
0:06:50.5 Dex: But really in my youth, it was a useful coping mechanism, and that's partly the stressors in my life then were real and frequent. And so it was very, very useful. At that time I didn't have the capacity to deal with my experiences of life. As an adult in burnout, particularly, that mechanism is no longer serving. It's a short-term fix for a long-term problem, if you like because I'm dissociating to protect myself habitually from emotional pain that as an adult I'm perfectly equipped actually to handle. I could just handle the pain. I don't need to disassociate anymore. But it's just a habit. But because dissociating is a disconnection from the self, it's actually experienced as painful. There's a downside to it. It's kind of a self-rejection or a self-abandonment. It's the opposite of self-acceptance and self-care if you like.
0:07:57.1 Dex: We are depriving ourselves of the safety and warmth that we really want often as well piling on self-criticism or recrimination on top. And it can also give rise to our old friend, Shame. If you listen to this and that's kind of resonating for you. If you'd like to learn some skills to work effectively with shame, specifically, listen to episode 32, which I'm gonna include in the show notes here. It's really well worth the effort because shame's very toxic to well-being and it can be a very persistent visitor until you find ways of dealing with it more skilfully. So listen to episode 32 for that. And let's not as well forget the social impact of dissociation because in dissociation, if we do it frequently enough, we become unreachable. Our social side is shut down while we're dissociated. So if dissociation's a go-to habit for us, people might quite reasonably think that we are arrogant or aloof or even disapproving or perhaps selfish or that we don't value them and time communicating with them, when the real fact for us internally is we've just gone missing.
0:09:16.7 Dex: But over time, dissociation can become very detrimental to building warm, nourishing, supportive relationships in any part of our lives because others might correctly experience us as not paying attention to them, not present to them, not being concerned with their lives and their needs and their cares. And frankly, [chuckle], that is how all my relationship fails to occur. I tune out at all the wrong moments because my nervous system confuses overtures of intimacy with threat. And I think this numbing out and the harm that does to relationships is quite common in burnout, from what I hear from my clients and other people that I'm talking to, because in burnout we so often feel like we're a failure or we're on the back foot, we are diminished, we're underperforming, we're irritable, ashamed. In short, we feel ourselves to be a little bit unworthy and not fulfilling our duties in life.
0:10:17.8 Dex: So we have quite often in burnout a tendency to pull back and pull away from people, and that really is not the best platform to nurture any relationship. So does what I've said so far about dissociation dynamics ring any bells for you? Does that resonate for you? Because if so, don't forget, dissociation is actually involuntary. It's our subconscious mind detecting that we don't have the emotional bandwidth or capacity to deal with what's happening and it protectively takes us away somewhere else. So if that's happening to you or if you're listening and it happens to someone that you love, no matter how frequently, please don't add self-blame or blame of any kind to the mix, that would be misplaced. But know that dissociation can be to a great extent, effectively managed with skill and tenderness and care.
0:11:18.1 Dex: So then if numbing is not necessarily a long-term solution for us, the antidote is non-judgment and willingness to feel, it's self-acceptance, so I can work directly with my own emotions, process my emotional pain and let it release through the body and naturally disperse. And the prerequisite for doing that work is internal emotional safety. It's to learn more. You can learn about creating this emotional safety for yourself and that will be a platform to working skilfully with dissociation. If you want to learn more about emotional safety and creating that for yourself, listen to episode 38 of the podcast I'm going to also add to the show notes that's about creating safety. And I really do beg you, if you feel that this is a lack in you, I beg you to do the work of creating this safety for yourself since it's also a prerequisite for burnout recovery.
0:12:21.8 Dex: Okay so, pain, let's talk about pain for a minute because it's super fun to talk about. Pain in the body is a message that something is wrong in the body we should attend to, isn't it? Whereas emotional pain is a message that something is wrong in the psyche in the mind. And dissociation doesn't fix that, it just looks the other way. And the reason I still dissociate even now is a lifetime of habit and a consequent childlike fear of facing my own stronger emotions, such as, in my case, fear, anxiety inadequacy, shame, guilt, anger, anger's a good one. Unworthiness, vulnerability and grief probably a whole lot more I haven't even thought of yet.
0:13:09.3 Dex: Of course, we know that the way emotions deliver their message is through vibrations in the body. They are emotions, energy in motion. And we also know that each emotion has a signature, a set of common sensations in the body. So for example, you might feel stress in your shoulders, you might feel anxiety in your gut, you might feel grief in your chest. And when you pay attention to your bodily sensations, you're gonna start to recognize your own emotional patterns. So if you notice, for example, your gut-clenching and you might realize that's anxiety and decide to simply let it be there, to gently observe it, compassionately hold it. Listen to its message, that's why it's there to tell you something. So you can observe, listen, and release the tension. You can let it pass through you but still respond to its message. And perhaps the response might be to change what you're telling yourself about what happened, about what it means about you and how you feel about that, changing the sentence in your mind that occurs to you when you see something happening in the world.
0:14:25.3 Dex: And this is where coaching can be extremely powerful, but often it does take a coach, an external facilitator to help you see your patterns and to gently lead you through the process of getting to know your emotions. And I will add, for those people with untreated trauma, for those with PTSD and similar experiences, you may need to consult with a professional therapist for this because healing trauma requires the presence of a safe other. And therapists are trained in providing that safe other, the external safety that you need to make it safe enough to work directly with your traumatic memories and experiences and to begin to explore your subconscious trauma reactivity, create skills to work with that and create the internal safety that you need to carry that out. So if you do have untreated trauma, I recommend you speak first with a qualified therapist.
0:15:29.9 Dex: But coming back now to dissociation and why I was moved to make this episode, here's what happened for me, one day I accidentally double-billed one of my clients. It was because the payment gateway didn't cancel a recurring billing stream when it should have. And I knew this particular person did not have the cash to burn and probably couldn't pay for it. So the sentence in my brain was, "I'm a terrible person," and I felt this stew of emotions, horror, embarrassment, guilt, remorse, self-blame, incompetence, anxiety, and shame. And naturally, of course, I wanted to immediately refund the overcharge. And I did do that, and then I also worked with my emotions, but the guilt and the shame remained because they can be quite sticky, can't they? And I really wanted to numb out because of that.
0:16:22.7 Dex: Now some people listening will know this. In self-coaching we have a technique to help us feel our emotions in order to be willing to be present to and experience any emotion, to release the energetic charge of that emotion, to gain perspective, to separate who we are from what we did to give ourselves grace for being human and making a mistake to bring us back to a space where we can become emotionally effective and to allow us to move forward with our tasks and goals. And we call that tool the self-coaching model. Now I'm not gonna explain it in full here, but I'll just kind of give you an outline, because what the self-coaching model does is it allows us to become an observer of our experience to examine what sentence came into our minds when a disturbing event took place and to see what feeling that thought we had created.
0:17:19.4 Dex: So then we pay attention to the sensations in our body created by that feeling. And we notice our urge to escape from that often quite hot and heavy or tense or agitated or restless experience when we have that emotion. And when we do that we can really own our own part in creating our own suffering and release the emotion. So I'm gonna tell you this, for those people who already know, the self-coaching model, the circumstance in my model, the thing that happened in the world was that I received a notification that I'd charged a client money they did not owe me. And my thought about this is, "Oh no, I can't believe I did that." And my feeling at that time, probably the biggest feeling was horror. And when I felt that horror, I resisted the knowledge, I dissociated, and I walked away. And my result was in that moment I became incapable of processing the refund. I couldn't actually at that moment rectify the problem.
0:18:23.5 Dex: So normally, as I said, I would write that model out and I would take time to feel the intensity of that feeling in my body, in this case, horror. So that emotion can be heard, the message can be delivered, it can be released, the charge of it can be released out of my system and I can calm down. But I think so many of us who do use the self-coaching model the way we use it in practice is, yes, we might review our thoughts and emotions but without actually feeling the emotion, the sensation in our body, without coming home to ourselves in that present moment. Sometimes we kind of conveniently skip that part of the process 'cause it can be quite uncomfortable and unwelcome. And we tell ourselves, "Okay, now I've finished myself coaching 'cause I've written a model and that's all good." And so then we move right on to thinking of a new thought we would like to have had in that situation.
0:19:17.2 Dex: So my new thought might have been in this case, "I've made a mistake, I'll correct it." It is a thought we would like to have so that we could feel better, maybe a thought we could have next time when we make the same kind of mistake or something similar happened, is a thought that makes us feel better and produces a result we prefer. And it helps us to feel good about ourselves fundamentally. "Oh yeah, next time I'm just gonna talk myself down and refund the money and make it good." Right? So basically because we've skipped from the feeling, in my case of horror, to one of, I don't know, confidence? What I've really done there is I've dissociated from the horror in order to create confidence. So we basically keep dissociating if we do a self-coaching model without feeling the feeling, we disown our actual behaviour and our actual feeling in favour of this kind of airbrush new one so that we can approve of ourselves and feel good again.
0:20:21.0 Dex: So it's a little bit of a... It's a way we can use self-coaching without actually going into the present moment of the problem. So really at a fundamental and emotional level, we are not really clearing the situation, because dissociation is disconnecting from yourself in the moment, it's opting out of your own genuine present-moment experience. And so to the extent we do that, we're actually withholding the love, care, acceptance, grace, and support that we need from ourselves in that moment when something happens that we didn't like and we had a reaction that we don't necessarily approve of.
0:21:10.1 Dex: And really in the context of burnout. Okay, what is burnout? Well, burnout's the same thing. I think it's disconnecting from yourself when you don't approve of yourself, it's finding yourself unworthy of unconditional love and care because the root of burnout really is fear-based disconnection from oneself and from other people. And it feels lonelier. If you're in burnout now, do you feel lonely? Do you have an experience of separation? For me it was like having no sense of belonging, no proper place in the world, no control, no fulfilment, no reward, it's a sense of not being accepted and cherished, if you like, by the world for who you properly are. And that comes from not accepting yourself in that way.
0:22:00.3 Dex: It's really just a projection of our lack of self-acceptance if we feel we're not accepted by the world. Because the most painful disconnection is always the disconnection from the self. A sense of belonging that we really wanted is primarily within ourselves, our own spirits, our own hearts because our true durable well-being comes from there. If we don't belong to ourselves, we'll always try to control our experience, our environment, other people, and events, to supply the approval and belonging we need to feel safe. The absence of internal safety means we are always looking for safety outside of ourselves because we are rejecting ourselves, we are constantly anticipating rejection as well from other people. And I really don't think I need to stress how bloody painful that is. And mostly what happens then is when we're looking for approval outside, we are anticipating rejection and looking for approval outside, we tend to manipulate that approval.
0:23:03.8 Dex: And so other people tend to resent our neediness and manipulation to get their approval just for that fleeting moment of safety we want. And that can start to define our whole life, life seeking for other people to fill the emptiness we've created inside ourselves by withholding our own love and acceptance and approval from ourselves. A life seeking others to make us feel momentarily okay by bestowing their approval on us. But this is really like a whale-eating plankton. You're gonna need a ton of it every day if you're looking for approval externally. So my friends, here's what I've deduced that there is a new way to relate with all of this. And for me, it looks like I really don't want to dissociate, I don't wanna keep dissociating by habits anymore. It's counter-productive to dissociate unless the tiger's eating my head and my amygdala is gonna take care of that.
0:24:10.7 Dex: So I'm looking at it this way, the endless internal chatter, the thoughts we have are just the content of our psyche. And it's the psyche's job to keep babbling at us all day every day, saying no matter what acting like it's all the truth and it's important. And really that's just maintaining the sovereignty of our ego at all costs. Our ego runs on duality, it runs on right and wrong, good and bad, self and other. It's divisive. It keeps us in fear and turmoil. But the psyche really isn't who we are because when we observe our own thoughts, who is the observer? It's like us. Watching us, right? So which is the real one, the thoughts I see as just empty content? They are like social media. We are doom-scrolling in our heads. The observer is our true self, the essence of us, the life force. And the observer is deathless, it's enduring it's opinionless, it's safe, it's heart-connected, good and bad, and right and wrong don't really affect or exist for the observer because fear doesn't exist for the observer. The observer is only pure energy and it can never die. And it isn't affected by whatever's happening externally.
0:25:31.9 Dex: So the game I'm playing now, when I have an unappealing emotion, which is often enough, [chuckle], particularly when I have one that I'm desperate to escape from is, I observe what's happening out in the world that's triggered this response in me? What negative thoughts did I have? What did I make it mean about me that was unpleasant? And how did that make me feel? And then I sit back and I'm the observer again, noticing that I'm the one observing this whole circus going on in my head, observing the contents of my mind, my inner voice. And it's really just a whole ton of thoughts flying past me, like leaves floating down a stream. I'm looking at them from the safety of the observer where I have no duality, where nothing can ever be wrong. I don't judge myself. I have unconditional compassion for myself. I'm not afraid of the experience because the world of phenomena can't touch me, the observer, I can detach from the ego drama completely, this empty content of its rants are just a hundred per cent irrelevant. Neither true nor false, just irrelevant. I'm the timeless observer. I'm already safe undisturbed by these external events, including my thoughts.
0:27:00.1 Dex: So then I've got no need of opinion, judgemental rejection of myself or of the experience. I can just dive straight into feeling the emotion without fear, impartially feeling the pain and the tension of that emotion in my body, accepting it, letting it flow through me and drift harmlessly on. And when I'm able to do that and let the energy diminish of the emotion, I feel a lightness of spirit. I feel this kind of freshness that follows. Which is very, it's kind of neutral. It's... I was gonna say it's good, but it's not good. It's just neutral. It's just calm.
0:27:55.7 Dex: And so, yeah, I would encourage you to try this and I'm gonna be the first to point out that it is an acquired skill and perhaps it's even a never-ending practice, but it will revolutionise your experience of your life. And you're gonna start seeing the basic goodness of life and the basic goodness of you that maybe you haven't had access to while you've been in burnout. And if that really does seem like a big ask for you, if you are in burnout right now, listen to the link at the end. You must come and talk to me about how to recover quickly and sustainably and get back to your best performance, leadership, and most of all, enjoyment inside work, and out.
0:28:33.0 Dex: And as always, thank you so much for your time today. So pleased that you're here to listen. If you found this episode useful, I would love you to rate and review it in your podcast app so that other people in need can find it too. I will talk to you next time. And please my friend, take care of yourself 'cause you are a very precious being.
0:28:56.2 Dex: If you are in burnout and ready to recover, come and join my Burnout to Leadership program. You can book in to talk with me at burnout.dexrandall.com. Just tell me what's bugging you and let's make a plan to fix it.