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What is Depersonalisation?

The copyright of this article belongs to and was originally published by the Counselling Directory.



For those of you who have experienced or continue to experience depersonalisation firsthand, the descriptions I provide below may feel all too familiar. However, it may be useful for relatives, friends, or a therapist you are working with to read who are less familiar with its phenomenology.


I have made a conscious choice to write about it from this perspective first, as an experience that belongs to people, that differs amongst people and can alter perception across different domains of what is thought of as the self. Understanding depersonalisation as a subjective experience first and foremost likely provides an essential basis from which to think about its meaning and function for the individual to whom it belongs.


Depersonalisation is the subjective experience of in some way feeling disconnected from one's self. This can typically be experienced across different domains or realms of what is thought of as the self, including the self that inhabits a physical body, the self as an agent, the self as a thinker, and the self as a feeler (Frances, et al., 1977; Abugel, 2023). Accordingly, the depersonalised state can encompass feeling detached from one's body, actions, thoughts, and emotions.


As I've said elsewhere, experiences of depersonalisation also have an ineffability that sometimes forces the subject to talk about the experience as if it were "as if" or "like" they are something but they know they are not. This, paired with the four domains that depersonalisation is usually experienced across, means that descriptions of the depersonalised state usually run along the following lines:


"It feels like I'm high, but I'm not."


"I feel like my hands don't belong to me."


"It feels like my reflection in the mirror is of a stranger."


“I feel like I don't exist.”


“I feel like a hologram, like my existence is hanging on by a thread and I could vanish at any point.”


“I feel like I'm not in control of my actions. When I move, it doesn't feel like it's me who is doing the moving. When I speak, it feels as though I'm not generating the speech, and my own voice sounds foreign to me.”


Descriptions such as these might give a feeling or flavour of the experience, but its essence cannot be felt without actually being experienced.


A paradox inherent in the experience of depersonalisation is that the act of thinking about what it means or feels like to have a self is itself necessitated by the experience of the absence of such a self. To convey the experience of not having a self to another who hasn't experienced it is not possible using ordinary discourse. Selfhood operates as the backdrop of our experience and yet the backdrop is never really thought about until it feels to not be the thing to which various elements of the self are experienced in the context of.


In depersonalisation, one's cognitions, actions, emotions and somatic sensations are experienced almost as if they are existing in the absence of this selfhood, detached from the entity they were previously felt to belong to. This is consistent with Iain McGilchrist's description in The Master and His Emissary of how the left hemisphere experiences the world. He says:


“The left hemisphere is better attuned to tools, and to whatever is inanimate, mechanical, or machine-like, and which it has itself made: such things are understandable in its own terms, because they were put together by it, piece by piece, and they are ideally suited to this kind of understanding [...] The left hemisphere tends to see things more in the abstract. It schematises and generalises things into categories. But since much of what matters in experience depends ultimately on not being snatched from the context in which alone it has meaning, this is a vastly significant difference.” (McGilchrist: 2011). 


Both depersonalisation and the left hemisphere's mode of viewing things are characterised by observing the content of experience but in the absence of any meaning or context. This is what can make depersonalisation such a disturbing state, perhaps the closest a person can come into contact with the uncanny. For example, for the left hemisphere to view a flower might be to see the raw sensory data of its petals in isolation from the stalk, or to see it in a vase but have no sense of it as a plant grown from sun, water and soil.


Similarly, the attributes, actions and experiences of the depersonalised individual are known to belong to them but feel eerily foreign. One's hands are seen as objects that need to be washed but there is no sense of an "I" to which these hands belong. One's own voice is heard when ordering a coffee but this too is not felt to belong to an "I". Thus, one's voice and one's hands bear no relation to one another in any meaninful sense other than occupying the same stream of consciousness. These sensations are not experienced as coming from a cohesive entity that can be felt or known in any meaningful way. Rather, they are experienced almost as if coming from nothing, and all floating disparately in an incomprehensible void, without any relation to one another.


What I hope to have conveyed, at least to some degree, is how the depersonalised state is a state that feels devoid of meaning. We are meaning-making individuals, and so a state in which meaning cannot be made of things, or is made but in a disembodied manner, is a state where pain is both felt, yet felt as belonging to no one. And that is a painful state indeed.


Sources

  • Abugel, J. & Simeon, D., 2023. Feeling Unreal: Depersonalization Disorder and the Loss of the Self. Oxford University Press.

  • Frances, A., Sacks, M. & Aronoff, M.S., 1977. Depersonalization: A self-relations perspective. International Journal of Psychoanalysis, 58(3), pp.325–331.

  • Freedman, J., 2024. Depersonalisation and Childhood Trauma: A Psychodynamic Perspective. Welldoing.  

  • McGilchrist, I., 2011. Can the Divided Brain Tell Us Anything about the Ultimate Nature of Reality? Royal College of Psychiatrists





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