“Let’s pretend” – a First Step in “I” becoming “We”

HF and I started a conversation with a few posts, and we agreed to continue the point/counterpoint discussion. I think it’s cool to talk about severe dissociation with someone who doesn’t believe in it, but who is willing to give it a good think, so to speak.

We rejoin the program already in progress – the story so far: HF’s Set this house in order, my Believing the first 4/6 of the Dissociative Spectrum, but not the rest, and HF’s How does “I” become “We”?.

Jumping right into it, our conversation went in a few directions, and I’d like to address each separately.

Today’s topic: “Let’s Pretend”

I think this is a summary of HF’s “let’s pretend” issue:

The whole idea of “let’s pretend” is a conscious escape mechanism that transforms into an unconscious reflect action to protect the child. And that as adults well beyond the trauma, where that protection is no longer needed, we should stop the pretence of “let’s pretend,” accept our past, and end the notion of separate personalities.

This assumes that the complete knowledge of the abuse, and the recognition that unconscious switching occurs, is available to an individual’s conscious mind from childhood to adulthood. It assumes that the individual is AWARE of the switch to fantasy land. That the individual is AWARE that memories were hidden away. And then magically the individual can just stop using those coping mechanisms.

It’s hard to stop something you don’t know has been happening.

Okay, back up girl. Those couple paragraphs are loaded with flame-inducing ideas.

<“please, step away, from the bar”>

“Let’s pretend” is a very positive and growth-inspiring activity for children. HF describes it well: “Many kids pretend they are other people … they have vivid imaginations and their personalities are not fully formed. They can really throw themselves into the belief that they are somebody else and live full and rich fantasy lives.”

She extends that to children who have been abused…these kids pretend they are someone else and “they need this skill in order to survive…and they get to be very very good at it.”

There is a critical difference here – both children may fantasize, but the non-abused child often does it to escape boredom, for fun, to hid embarrassment or compensate for a perceived lack of acceptance, etc.

A child abused does it to survive.

The non-abused child is aware of the fantasy time, and may extend it at home and with parents/friends. But they have awareness it is a fantasy.

After a while, the abused child may lose this connection between fantasy and reality.

But how does a child decide to play “let’s pretend”? For both abused and non-abused children, in the beginning, both HF and I think “let’s pretend” is a conscious decision. As she says, “Whatever happened, happened, and the original choice to … “go away” was a conscious choice.”

We also agree that at some point, children who have been abused will begin switching into “let’s pretend” unconsciously – she states that the switching can “become an instinctive, involuntary and unconscious reaction to a trigger.” And that this can cause memories to be encapsulated and not available to the conscious mind.

Oh, I certainly agree. We can intellectualize all we want here, switch/no switch, conscious/unconscious. But consider how horrible this is for a child. That she hears/smells/feels something and she is instantly transported to a faraway safe place. And represses the memory of what horrible thing is happening to her right now.

<Shit, I’d want the transition to be instantaneous as well. And apparently I did a while back, too.>

Perhaps a thesis statement here

<“My point is, and I do have one”>

The next is a subtle point perhaps, but it is the distinction I believe leads to separate personalities. I believe that after repeated triggers, the child may no longer be aware that the switching is taking place.

Let me repeat…this one is important for me … for separate personalities to develop, there must be a point in time where the child is no longer aware that the switching is taking place.

I think HF doesn’t support this last step – I think she believes that the child (and the individual going into adulthood) always knows about the switching, even if the switch occurs (and has occurred) as “an unconscious reaction to a trigger.”

She entreats us, “But surely as adults, we know that “let’s pretend” is just that – a pretence, no matter how good we were at it and however necessary it might have been when we were kids. To continue affirming the existence of separate [personalities] living in one body, rather than accepting that in fact all of the shit, however terrible it was, happened to us – one person, one body, one mind, is to my view buying into a lifetime of playing “let’s pretend.”

Example: For someone with Munchausen’s Syndrome, yeah, I think the patient is aware of their actions, and is aware that their self-induced medical problems are the result of emotional problems caused earlier in life (perhaps by abandonment or need for attention). They know what they do and why. Although they may find it impossible to resist.

Counter Example: For dissociated kids and adults, the awareness of switching that had to be done to protect the child was lost along with some of the horrific memories. They find it impossible to resist (as it is reflex) but they don’t know what they do.

A very very relevant quote by Middleton (Owning the past, claiming the present: perspectives on the treatment of dissociative patients):

“Indeed, for the defence to be effective, patients must, to a large degree, dissociate the fact that they dissociate.”

They lose the knowledge of what they have done to survive.

A suggested sequence of events for the first personality split

It may seem like I am pounding this issue. I am, but not to slam anyone. As often occurs with me, in my goal to relay something as clearly as possible, my posts get long. Please bear with me – I want to extend this to show how a personality split can occur.

<disclaimer> This is my experience and my opinion. What follows is rather common, but I will not claim it is universal. I simply do no know. But I am sure those of you with experience will chime in with comments 🙂 </disclaimer>

Children may originally pretend the abuse is happening to someone else, but over time, the “going away” becomes a reflex that kicks in for protection. Let’s follow the progression.

1) Child is abused – hates what is happening, feels pain, feels horrible, may be threatened against telling. (Surprise abuse in the middle of the night.) A few more rounds of heart thumping terror. (“Why me? I don’t want this, they can’t be doing this to me, it’s not me. I am a beautiful girl floating on the clouds. I can’t feel it, it is happening to that girl down there.”) Conscious “let’s pretend.”

2) The child (pre-split) begins to recognize that a new round of abuse is about to start – the horror, pain and embarrassment are going to happen again. (The child wakes up to the sound of the bedroom door opening so quietly in the middle of the night – “Oh no, it’s going to happen again. Run to my safe cloud high in the sky!”) Conscious “let’s pretend.”

3) When that bedroom door opens for the Nth time, “conscious decision” gives way to “unconscious reflex.” “Going away” becomes simply “away.” (The door creaks open and instantly without a thought, the child is gone. The resulting memory may be gone as well.) Unconscious “let’s pretend.”

4) Final step…back up in time even more – the triggers begin earlier and earlier in *anticipation* of impending abuse. More ingrained protection to escape and hide the memory. (The creak of feet on the stairs before the door opens…girl gone way. Girl probably has no memory of the creaking noise, either. Good solid amnesia from start to end.) Still unconscious “let’s pretend.”

Up to this point, this child is still a singleton. One personality with pockets of amnesia. Dissociative Amnesia and perhaps PTSD (#s 2 and 3 on the Dissociation Spectrum)

…and here’s the jump to #4 and perhaps #5 … the split of the first personalit(ies)…

5) After the abuse starts, the child probably becomes withdrawn, quiet, loses friends, is not as engaged in life. Perhaps gets frustrated and “moody.” But remember, when she escapes to her secret world, she is safe, perhaps strong, smart, beautiful – what she imagines and wants. She is not being abused. Positive feedback – this is a good place, I feel good, this is a good place. There are now two different “sides” to this child. One or both are aware of the abuse. She is not two different “personalities” but has two different “states” and amnesiatic behaviors, inconsistencies, mixed success in school, etc.(DDNOS)

6) What happens next is different for everyone…there are some archetypal “patterns” for what type of personality emerges – perhaps one who protects the abused child, one who has no knowledge of the abuse and she is happier, one who provides nurturing she might not get from an abusive family member. It often depends on that the child needs to survive.

(My first split was into three. An innocent young pure child, a moody girl who was abused, and a strong protector for that moody girl. That pure child was hidden away for years…to protect her.)

7) Back to sequence – now if that child is triggered but the abuse is NOT starting, she may still jump into that other scenario – unconsciously running to the story of that other girl. The one she needs to help her. Perhaps a girl very like herself, except better in some ways and also not being abused. (Gross generalization – many memories are not completely forgotten, but often the “sting” is removed and they become emotionless but still here. I have these from childhood. That moody girl has the emotions, I have the intellectual memories of what happened. But they don’t bother me as much as they do her.)

Conscious thoughts of “let’s pretend” fade away because this new reality is “better” in some way. She is happier, stronger, protected, loved…whatever she needed and imagined. Perhaps her friends and family do not suspect anything because she is more “okay.” That child lives the life without the emotional horror of the trauma…becomes a girl who can survive.

… but how do “parts” have different behaviors, personalities, tones of voice, etc.?

8 ) Over time, this child’s life changes as does our own. Her behaviors change based on her different self-image. Her food preferences might reflect avoidance of a common dinner eaten before abuse. She may choose different clothes or activities that solidify her new self-impression. A protector girl may eschew dresses.

But what happened to the girl who DID suffer the trauma?

9) Somewhere inside there is a part of that girl who remembers the trauma, because yes, “let’s pretend” is not perfect. Somewhere the brain knows the little trick that was played. But why reveal that little secret if the girl is doing pretty darn well in school, etc.? The outside girl grows, changes, evolves. The inner aspect (self, personality) is trapped in the old behaviors. Lashes out after old triggers that the new girl is not aware of … having created that newer safer life. And the two (or more) initial personality states often have no idea the other(s) exist. For years……

Okay…this would all be terrific if the pure girl with the repressed memories could go through life never having to deal with that trauma gain. Unfortunately, not that easy.

Crap that all this causes later in life

Because over time (into adulthood for us lucky folks), those original triggers cause a reflect “protective” responses that are now completely inappropriate. Triggers go in both directions – become the unabused girl or get slammed back into the abused girl. (Husband coming up the stairs after falling asleep on the couch watching TV does NOT mean you are about to be molested.)

“Why,” you ask yourself, “Why am I having a panic attack because I hear feet coming up the steps?” “Why can’t I make love to my husband at night with the lights off?”

When/if the triggers affect your life badly enough, you might end up in therapy for depression, anxiety, panic attacks, etc. Most individuals with DID are NOT AWARE they have it until they enter therapy to recognize, understand, and defuse triggers. Often, it is the circle of friends and family who are more aware of the switching and triggering, although they don’t know what severe dissociation is. All they know is that you have radically different “moods,” you forget things, you lash out, you don’t recognize people sometimes.

Acknowledging and Unwinding “Let’s Pretend’

The “let’s pretend” can only stop when the individual finally understands that they have these different personality “states” (not different people) inside. These “selves” have many roles that were developed over time to allow the child/adult to survive and succeed, but the main “self” is generally unaware of this until their changing behaviors are brought to their attention. When they see and understand the triggers. When they reach back into the past to match the triggers to the abuse. Only then can it be blinding clear what has happened.

The individual may deny DID for a long time – this is not ” a pretence” or “buying into a lifetime of playing ‘let’s pretend.'” It is complete unawareness that the original “let’s pretend” ever occurred in the first place!

So, therapy has to reverse that process. To assess if there really are different selves, periods of lost time, different memories, etc. Then the therapist may be faced with providing enough evidence to the patient so she realizes she exhibits these different states! (This is NOT iatrogenic). Only then can she explore what happened and why, and to fully understand and own the original trauma and the aftermath. And then to heal and move on.

See Also:

Believing the first 4/6 of the Dissociative Spectrum, but not the rest

ŸMyers Briggs and Keirsey Personality Tests in Dissociative Identity Disorder

ŸWhy do we often get worse after starting therapy?

ŸSwitching in DID

ŸReview: Interview with Valerie Wolf – “Dissociation is the most creative coping skill that I have ever seen”

ŸBirthchilds and Hosts and Presenting Personalities, Oh My!

ŸAccepting a Diagnosis of DID



  davidrochester wrote @

I think you’d be interested in my comments on HF’s post, Emily … my therapist tells me I’m the only person she or her colleague consult group ever knew who presented in her office with complete awareness that I had DID, and complete awareness of my primary switch. There was exactly nothing I could do to control it, and there still isn’t (as I explained to HF at length). I was not, however, aware of several other alters who became very apparent as soon as I started paying attention to the nonsensical reactions I often have to everyday situations.

I could write for a long time about how my anxiety was misdiagnosed for years, and the abusive therapists who told me that hypnosis and CBT weren’t working because I wasn’t dedicated to the process. It was horrible; I was trying as hard as it is humanly possible to try. Medication didn’t work — it often had an opposite therapeutic effect. I had no idea that the anxiety was being caused by alters. No clue at all, and my cluenessness was caused by other therapists who had told me I couldn’t possibly have DID due to my keen awareness of my primary functional alter. So I just stopped paying attention to what was really going on inside me, because I’d been told it wasn’t really happening.

I think the misdiagnoses of DID are the one of the most frustrating parts of dealing with it … I just want to give up completely when I think of how many years I’ve lost due to my issues not being properly recognized or treated.

  hystericalfemale wrote @

Emily, I’ve read this briefly and presume there will be more instalments addressing the other points we talked about via e-mail? I will come back to your post and read it properly in the next day or two, and hopefully will have some more comments/questions, if that’s OK.

David’s lucid comments on my post are well worth reading .

Best wishes

  emilylonelygirl wrote @


I will try to get my others up soon – they are smaller and stuff I agree with mostly – the baby talk thing.

This post was something that rolled around in me a while. Actually, because I had a few internal opinions that I had trouble reconciling. I am not crazy about revealing my own experiences for privacy reasons but I do disclose when I think necessary. David has presented some great first person account and I am really happy that he has been participating!

Again, if you have a problem with anything I wrote – please let me know. Wanna keep it cool.

My best

  emilylonelygirl wrote @

… and because there is a change in author from the first post to the next. (Editorial comments are being throttled before they hit the page) as I am wont to say directly what I feel.

Signed, the smartest one of the bunch.

  risingrainbow wrote @

This whole discussion seems to center around the supposition that the child is old enough to have this type of thought process in the first place. So how would you explain it happens with a child too young for such reasoning who dissociates and splits off into other parts? I know I’m not the only one of “those types” out there.

  emilylonelygirl wrote @

HI Risingrainbow

Sorry if I implied that this were restricted to kids old enough to have that thought process. I used that as an example – but you raise a great question.

I am not expert, but here is my take on it.

Infants and toddlers clearly understand and react to pain. Cry. Pull away. But the effects of abuse and neglect on these kids can take a much greater toll than on older kids and adults. Their brains, muscle control, physiological systems are still developing. The abuse may be more than sexual, but physical, emotional neglect, yelling, etc.) Let’s avoid the physical effects – brain damage, disability, delayed development of the brain from absence of stimulation, etc.

Dissociation is that withdraw, depersonalization, etc. that makes us feel like we are not part of the real world. Looking through a film. Someone else is doing this. The “thought process” for this to happen in older kids is something we talked about before, and it seems to be accepted as probable.

Same thing with infants/toddlers.

From Effects of Abuse and Neglect on Development:

Physical developmental effects: “often apathetic and listless, placid, or immobile. They often do not manipulate objects, or do so in repetitive, primitive ways. They are often inactive, lack curiosity, and do not explore their environments.”

Social and Emotional effects: Fail to form attachments. Unresponsive. Cannot engage in vocalization. Fail to develop basic trust

“Abused infants often exhibit a state of “frozen watchfulness,” that is, remaining passive and immobile, but intently observant of the environment. This appears to be a protective strategy in response to a fear of attack.”

“Abused toddlers may feel that they are ‘bad children.'”

This sure sounds like dissociation to me.

From Handbook of Dissociation:Typical and Atypical Development

“It has been suggested that the capacity of infants and toddlers to enter rapidly into deep trance states is indicative of a capacity to dissociate from external events.”

And since it happens without that conscious thought process, it is probably a hell of a lot harder to unwind all that. Who can say how far that process goes from dissociation/depersonalization to DDNOS/DID? Not a stretch in my mind.

This kids I doubt have any awareness of what is happening, but it happens just the same.

The small pure part of me – the one swaddled away to protect the ability to trust – was/is perhaps 3. No language. All emotion. Of that first split I have no memory, only the results to consider.

I hope this helps.


  Jackie wrote @

blinding clear ? Ya, I know that state of being. Think about it. The whole thing sucks. Here we are, dissociating when children, because of horrific, unspeakable at times, occurences. To heal we have to remember, re-live, speak intelligently about something that made us check out the first time AND pay someone allot of $$ to get re-programed to “get on with life” that wasn’t our choice in the first place.

Make believe? I think I’m not the only one off course if they believe I’d waste my time, money and energy. AND speaking of energy…

  emilylonelygirl wrote @

Hi Jackie ….Yeah, I’d love to shove YOUR comments in someone’s face as well!

“AND pay someone a lot of $$ …” Great!

Gee, I had nothing better to do this weekend, so I thought I’d dream up something horrific that will radically affect my entire life forever. When I could be off having fun, playing with my kids, taking a happy vacation.


  Tigerweave wrote @

I would take the “not being aware of the switch” one further. To survive, I had to have certain personalities *not* aware of the switching. I was so trapped, with no way out, and the one that never experienced even a breath of abuse (Leonie) was the very personality that was so inclined that if she caught a hint of it she would have ripped the entire fabric of the different alters apart. As doing that would not have stopped the abuse, it would have left me without the survival skills (different alters) to continue surviving it. As Anne said “Leonie was the one that had no secrets from mum. She *couldn’t* have any secrets from mum, for us to survive. Hence she didn’t know of the rest.

Given that, it also helps to explain why other personalities were to differing degrees aware of the others. Eg, Anne and Suzannah knew each other. It either didn’t matter, so the lack of awareness didn’t develop, or it helped me survive to be aware of each other. I am betting on the latter.

I remember a psychiatrist doing an assessement on me asking “What did you think the other personalities were?”

Um….? I thought everyone had different personalities. Waddya mean what were they? They were normal, weren’t they? (Hehe that was Anne’s answer, not Leonie’s!)

I also must add it was Leonie’s ability to tear apart the fabric of the selves to delve into it and heal it that finally came into its own once we got therapy. Because she *knew* on some level something fishy was going on. The rest of us used to have to be so careful to keep any evidence from her, because she would pull it apart so thoroughly, chasing down the truth of the matter, if any appeared… because she lived with an uneasy feeling things just weren’t quite what they seemed, and was trying to work out why.

I have only in the last few years gotten a handle on that destructiveness of Leonie. It has been destructive in very negative ways too. But it is a clear example of how strong the drive to not hide from the truth of myself is.

  Tigerweave wrote @

Hmmm, I am not sure I made it clear what I meant about the “secrets from mum” bit. I just meant that if Leonie had had a hint that I was being abused, she would have ripped apart the dissociation between the alters and the whole mechanism come tumbling down and told mum into the bargain. And we were threatened with terrible death to her if we told her, by people who were perfectly capable of carrying out that threat. So of course I couldn’t tell her.

[…] “Let’s pretend” – a First Step in “I” becoming “We” […]

  hystericalfemale wrote @

I would like to come back to this post briefly in order to thank all who commented for being generous and courageous enough to share your experiences.

I would especially like to thank David, Emily and Anna/Tigerweave for their immense patience in answering my questions both here on WP and via e-mail.

I hope it will suffice to say that I am no longer a sceptic, and I hope you will forgive my initial ignorance which was just that – ignorance- and not arrogance or intolerance.

Best wishes to you all

  emilylonelygirl wrote @


Thanks for writing – there is nothing to forgive you for. You showed nothing of arrogance or intolerance. I am so pleased that you had this interchange with us – I think it was also helpful for me to see your point of view because that is hard for me for see from the other perspective sometimes.

It makes me feel amazing that you thought about what we shared, and that you have taken the “nudge” to join the wonderful folks in the middle category. And that we have learned from you as well.

Thank you!

  Shasta wrote @

This child “alter” of mine arose completely formed from somewhere I never knew about. He cries and hurts intensely but they are not my tears and pain. Intellectually I know they must be but it does not feel that way. HE does not feel familiar. He is not a child a met a long time ago. He is not me as a child. He has a distinct presence that I can feel when he is around. My wife sees it almost before I do. I can feel him when he is around. He looks out of my eyes and I look through his but we are separate. Sometimes my presence is stronger. Sometimes we are equal. Sometimes he breaks free completely. Could I know these things if I had no dissociation? I ask myself that. I know for one that I do not want attention. He does not want mothering from a T. I am saying all this for context. The thing about all this that is confusing is that though his symptoms indicate abuse he has no overt memories of it, or of hardly anything else just a few images here and there of things I saw when I was 5. My point is that I do not think a child has to be verbal in order to split. There does not HAVE to be a single moment when a trauma occurs and they break away. His experiences are real but they are internal side of circumstantial experiences. I do not think he remembers a lot because his memories are implicit rather than explicit. Due to their neurological immaturity kids cannot remember events until about two. Bonding though records on a level below events, even before two which is why some deprived orphans get reactive attachment disorder. I believe there is a substrata of experience where particular kinds alters begin to slowly form before the child can speak maybe nor all at once but slowly in response to some attachment fear. I think they can continue to soak in those feelings until they become independent enough to break off and proceed down another track. Over time as perform their task they evolve and differentiate. I do not know how different this idea is from many of yours. I read something in an article by Onno Van der Hart that helped me understand things a lot better. It was very validating. He said that alters (the earlier ones) come from various developmental stages of childhood. He said there was often one type of alter which “appeared as a child, sad and bereft stuck in attachment cry.” Maybe an alter like this has their own characteristics from having arisen very early. Maybe this is why my child alter cannot imagine things.

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