Traumatic Dissociation and the Very Serious Business of Play
“To truly leap, you must learn how to use the ground as a springboard, and how to land resiliently and safely. It means to test the leeway allowed by given limits, to outdo, and yet not to escape reality” ~ Plato, 360BC
Have you read Eleanor Olyphant is Completely Fine yet? If not, please put it on your list! The book became a bestseller shortly after its release a mere 3 years ago. It depicts a heroine that, from the beginning of the narrative, captivates us with her rigidity, seriousness, and difficulty in forming genuine affectionate relationships with people. She is confusing, frustrating, yet we can’t peel our eyes off the page, because we sense there is more to her story than meets the eye.
For many of us who have experienced trauma, Eleanor’s demeanor is very relatable, not only in the presence of loneliness, social isolation, and strict adherence to daily routines and unwritten rules of behavior, but also in the absence of one crucial emotion—joy. In the aftermath of trauma, it is often difficult to feel joyful, playful, or carefree. And here is why.
The Very Serious Business of Play
“Life is more fun if you play games” ~ Roald Dahl
As a result of the work of the beloved pediatrician and psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott, in recent decades, play has been added to the list of markers of mental health, along with Freud’s original work and love. The ability to experience joy and happiness is a crucial sign of psychological well-being. And while joy is not exactly the same as playfulness, to feel joy, we must be able to play, explore, unburden ourselves from certain emotional inhibitions, and detach from anxious and ruminative thoughts about the difficulties and demands of everyday life.
Winnicott opposed the predominant view of his time (first half of the 20th century), that play was the opposite of reality, and argued that children’s inner lives are not any less real than reality itself. Play, then, was the transitional space between objective (outside) and subjective (inner) reality. Playfulness, in turn, is an ability to stand in a shared space, in two realities at the same time, the real and the make-believe. This is true for adults as well as for children.
Similarly, in Bulgaria, there is a saying, igrachka plachka, which roughly translates to “Don’t let playing turn into crying.” Children (and adults) are often warned to not allow play to become too serious or consequential. Solnit (1987), for example, highlights how important it is that play remains in the transitional space and not lean too much toward either extreme end of the continuum. Such blurring of boundaries can lead the player, child or adult, to feel as if control is lost and play can no longer provide a sense of safety. With the loss of its transitional quality, play is no longer a vehicle of joy in exploration and mastery; rather, it becomes just as threatening as reality.
The suspension of reality in play, then, is not in service of withdrawing into the not-real, but, following from Winnicott (1971), in developing an ability to tolerate ambiguity. In children, its expression is in the ability to engage in physical play without, for example, starting a real fight (the crying in the Bulgarian proverb). In adults, on the other hand, it is evident in being able to see the world and people (as well as oneself) as complex by integrating both positive and negative aspects of them into one complex representation, in being able to experience joy in the face of everyday hardship and stress. Trauma can seriously impair this ability.
Dissociation in Trauma
Where there is trauma, there often is some level of dissociation. It can range from a feeling of disconnection with your body and its physiological and emotional states, dissociation of affect (as in when we talk about an intensely emotional event with no feeling at all), to, in more extreme cases, depersonalization and out-of-body experiences.
But not all dissociation is problematic. To better understand it, as well as the role it plays in how we experience emotions, such as joy, we must first understand its origins. As I noted above, it is important for the individual to be able to fluidly shift between two dimensions of experience, and such fluid shifting may be seen as a capacity to be in both simultaneously (Bromberg’s  notion of ”standing in the spaces” between two concrete self-states). Healthy dissociation occurs in everyday life: when we daydream, mind wandering while we are, say, driving on the highway; or when actors are performing, thus existing in two realities—their own and that of the character they are playing.
In the aftermath of trauma, dissociation as a normal process gets unconsciously hijacked in service of psychic survival, e.g. if the body cannot escape, the mind does, and it does so in a rather extreme way. The continuity of self is threatened, because the reality of the trauma is so disorganizing that it must be encapsulated and isolated in a self-state, which then can become inaccessible to the other self-states. In a sense, the individual fails in their capacity to contain two dissimilar realities at the same time, because one of these realities is so extreme and dangerous that it must be exiled. This is often seen in cases when traumatic memories become completely or partially forgotten (repressed), as well.
However, as nature should have it, we cannot selectively only split off negative emotions. It is the baby with the bathwater problem—when we dissociate fear or anger or sadness or shame, all emotions become split off. We start feeling shut off to feelings like joy, excitement, or curiosity in playfulness too. It is at this moment that ordinary dissociation becomes replaced by a rigid ossification of the various self-states.
When this automatic and unconscious process takes place—when the individual is inflexibly imprisoned in only one or the other position—healthy functioning and playfulness become compromised. It is here that we observe both a lack of fluidity in shifting from one emotional state to another, often accompanied by rigid adherence to rules and routines, or an extreme shifting between states with little connection to one another (what in the clinical literature is described as emotional lability), or, more often, both.
Indeed, it is not uncommon for individuals suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress to report becoming rageful, tearful, or frightened within split-seconds of perceiving a trigger in the environment, with little control over their body’s reactions and, commonly, with few or no memories of their behavioral responses elicited by such affective states. In my work with survivors of childhood abuse or combat trauma, I have regularly heard patients report “blacking out” (sometimes in anger and sometimes in fear), for instance, with only faint recollections of the ensuing events. This negative consequence of trauma can be conceptualized as too little control over dissociative processes, wherein the person commonly switches between disconnected and even opposing self-states, often several times a day.
Restoring Joy in Playfulness
Restoring one’s playfulness and ability to feel joy has to be done experientially. In therapy, for example, treatment focuses on connecting with split off feelings and experientially showing the individual that their negative affect is not destructive: that they can feel the full vastness of their sadness and not be swallowed by it; that they can remember and process a terrifying event without “losing my mind,” and face shame without judgment. The therapist sees their patient in all of their dissociated states and gradually helps in their integration.
This process can take time, as it is also impacted by the normative workings of the mind, conscious and unconscious (see here). When the once-exiled emotional experiences are restored into existence, dissociation can again become a healthy and fluid process, because there are no longer selves whose existence must be kept “unknowable” at all costs. In that sense, Plato’s metaphor of “leaping” is indeed quite evocative, for in the play capacity to be restored, we must re-learn to feel safe in leaping from one self-state into another.
Winnicott, D. (1971). Playing and reality. New York: Basic Books.
Solnit, A. (1987). A psychoanalytic view of play. Psychoanalytic Study of the Child, 42. 205-212.
Bromberg, P. (1996). Standing in the spaces: The multiplicity of self and the psychoanalytic relationship. Contemporary Psychoanalysis, 32, 509-535.