Dissociative splitting in Dissociative Identity Disorder

When people think of splitting in a psychological sense, they tend to think of it in one of two ways:

  1. Borderline personality disorder
  2. Split personality disorder

But both of those are the same, for lack of better articulation, in the concept that is considered. “Split personality disorder” is often perceived as someone going off on another person on a whim, or it is viewed as someone being “split” between their personalities.

That is not representative of dissociative identity disorder (DID) at all. That’s not DID. That’s borderline personality disorder.

What is DID?

To understand dissociative splitting in a DID system, you first need to understand DID itself. 

DID is a dissociative disorder that forms from repetitive, unimaginable trauma. It’s not a traumatic incident that happens once. It’s not a one-hit-trauma-wonder.

Trauma associated with DID is recurrent within a child’s life and so severe that the child’s brain cannot make sense of that trauma.

DID is a coping mechanism utilized by the brain.

Every person with DID has experienced severe trauma, but not everyone who experienced severe trauma has DID.

How does dissociative identity disorder form?

Do you know how a child’s sense of self forms?

By nine years old, a trauma-free child will have developed a sense of self.

Dump (or visualize) a bag of M&Ms onto a plate and sort into colors. All the different color groups represent the different traits of the people around a typical child about 0-8 years of age.

Place some M&Ms of each color group into the bag. This is how a child begins to form their sense of self. By age nine, a typically developed child will have a full bag, or a solid sense of self.

People with DID never had their color groups come together in one bag. Rather, they developed multiple senses of themselves from different personality traits. Maybe they never even had color groups, because the trauma during that time prevented it like a distraction.

So it’s wholeheartedly inaccurate to view or define dissociative identity disorder, and similar dissociative disorders, as “split personalities” because a child is not born with a whole personality.

In DID, that whole personality — proper term is “sense of self” — never becomes whole. It remains in “parts”, more specifically alternate parts — which is why dissociative identities are frequently referred to as “parts”, “alters”, etc.

Personality vs identity

Dissociative identities are alternate identities, not personalities. That matters because of the nuances between each definition:

  • Your personality is how you define yourself. It’s essentially the face you show to the world.
  • Your identity is what distinguishes you from other people. It is how you present yourself and connect to the world.

What is dissociative splitting?

Dissociative splitting in white on pink scribble background

In relation to dissociative identity disorder, dissociative splitting happens when intense emotions collide with stress within the system and a new alter is created.

Intense emotions need not be sadness or depression. As feelings are complex and often unexplainable, one can feel happy and stressed at the same time — especially in cases where interoception is at play, like in autism.

Another way to put it is that existing DID alters cannot process new emotions, perceptions or memories associated with an experience. The stress of this on a dissociative brain results in the forming of a new alternate part that can safely process and experience this.

When I think of how my brain decides to create a new alter, I imagine a harried, sweaty Gallbladder from The Awkward Yeti comic.

A stressed, overworked gallbladder creates stones.

A stressed DID brain creates alters.

That’s just what they do.

But, like gallstones, new DID alters are not celebratory.

Why are new DID alters so bad?

Imagine getting a new roommate, right now. Your situation does not matter. You’ve just gotten a new roommate.

You know absolutely nothing about that roommate. How well do you trust them? What about with your kids, pets, finances, etc.?

Not much, right? But answer me this: How much do you trust this new roommate with your life?

Welcome to what it’s like with a new DID alter. 💩

And you don’t always just know when an alter is new, either. Some new alters will pretend to be existing alters until both show up in the headspace or be invisible until it’s obvious there is someone else. Kind of like the Invisibility Cloak in Harry Potter, when others seemingly feel the kids’ presence.

Dissociative identity disorder is not inherently bad. DID alters are not inherently bad.

But DID systems tend not to celebrate new alters because of the risks involved. New DID alters are terrifying. System dynamics shift when this happens in such a way that the headspace/body can become a battleground for power.

Existing senses of yourself have a camaraderie with each other that works well. You may not always want each other to “front”, or have consciousness and control over the body, but you trust them not to screw up your life to an extent — more so than any new DID alter.

But you don’t know if a new DID alter is dangerous or harmless. You have no clue about this new alter. Are they going to be stronger than your existing gatekeepers? You just don’t know.

You. Don’t. Know.

With new DID alters, any kind of risk is a possibility. If you are wondering, “Okay, but what about ____?” Yes.

If a DID system ever tells you they split…

  • It means they have a new alter, not that they had a mood swing.
  • They’re likely exhausted. Having DID is mentally, physically and emotionally draining.
  • They’re stressed. A new alter is a stressful situation that I can’t imagine any singlet fully understanding. It’s not just inconvenience — it’s fear and the emotions associated with that new alter as well.
  • Congratulations are NOT in order.
  • It’s an explanation, not an excuse. Stop viewing explanations as excuses; it’s ableist.

The exception is if the DID system also has borderline personality disorder, at which point you should clarify without expecting a solid explanation.

How my knows we might split

Stress plays the largest part in DID splitting for me. My system is also autistic, so extremely stressful situations make processing new information difficult for us. Sometimes, it’s even impossible.

Splitting is never a conscious act for my system unless a host voluntarily goes dormant without notifying system members. This happens during extreme stress when the host cannot deal.

The current host is Jane, which is more nuanced than just saying it’s Jane because

  • Jane is an alter, but
  • Jane is also the faced identity resulting from functional multiplicity

My system’s last known split was October or November 2021. Moving was stressful, and we probably should have just seen about moving into a different apartment with the settlement money. But it happened, and we learned about the new alter circa December 2021.

Triggers that cause my system to split a new alter

  • Stress and distress
  • Ignored boundaries
  • Lack of autonomy
  • Exhaustion
  • Pain (physical and emotional)
  • cPTSD episodes
  • Anorexia relapse
  • Anything that triggers cPTSD (includes family)
  • Trauma responses

We have noticed that we don’t split, or we split less, when the following conditions are met:

  • Financial security
  • Food security
  • Autonomy and freedom to live life per our standards
  • Boundaries are respected
  • Surrounded by people who respect our boundaries
  • Functional multiplicity is not challenged

Splitting is NOT a choice

While dissociative splitting is preventable by removing triggers, it is NOT a choice. I can’t control what my brain does or how it processes information.

DID is not inherently awful or dangerous, it’s just not fun. The only way to prevent DID splitting would be to prevent the traumatic environment from which dissociative identity disorder developed in the first place.

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Say if a brain made alter splits, can the new alter be a fictive or will it be brain made?

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Are they fragmented, i.e. not fully developed and possibly exist only to carry out one function? If not, my system considers them offshoots or alters + whatever their function is.

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Hi, i was wondering if you had any advice regarding splitting from another alter. I am Adair, but until this morning, I was part of a different alter, a fictive part that had been integrated as part of them. We (the system) recently had a new alter who was emotionally abusing us (the alter I was previously part of), which seems to have culminated in us splitting so the other split part, Salem, could defend us. We are struggling to figure things out, as we were the host, and now we both feel a little lost, since we feel like half of what we used to be, and Salem is a bit volatile (extremely depressed and angry) without the balance I provided. [also, if there is any way to force an alter into dormancy, I think that might be best. I wouldn’t usually suggest such an extreme reaction, but I think the situation calls for it if it is possible at all – he actively enjoyed what he was doing, and is likely to try again in the future]

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