Associated or Dissociated?

Dissociation used to remind me of dissociative identity disorder, or multiple personality disorder, as it was once called. Now, I understand that being associated or dissociated can be a natural and healthy phenomenon. Being associated or dissociated is a crucial submodality distinction in NLP. Being dissociated is like being an omniscient narrator, observing apart from the action. Conversely, being associated is like living the experience first hand.

What is a submodality?

To understand submodalities, we first need to define modalities. In NLP, a modality is a form of sensory perception, essentially, modalities refer to your 5 main senses: touch, hearing, sight, smell and taste.

You see things in your mind’s eye. You feel with inner feelings, and you hear with inner ears. A submodality, however, is a more specific type of perception.

While it’s normal for many people to think in pictures, the way a person sees things in the mind’s eye can have finer distinctions. For example, think of the view outside your childhood bedroom window. Do you see the view in black and white or colour? Is it bright or dim? Is it near or far? These finer distinctions are submodalities of the sight mode of perception.

Every sense has submodalities. As sound can be loud or quiet, have a fast tempo, or a slow one, etc. A feeling can be silky or rough, heavy or light etc.

Despite the complicated name, submodalities is a straightforward concept to apply. NLP Submodalities directly refer to the individual components of any particular memory, such as, how big it is, how bright the colours or a certain memory are, how loud the sounds are or how far away an image of a memory might be.

Why you should care about submodalities

For most of us, the way in which we represent thoughts and memories inside of our minds has a direct impact on the way we feel at any given moment in time. You think of a positive memory, and you’ll feel good, whereas, if you think of a bad memory and you might feel sad.

Submodalities give us is a practical way of changing how we think about things so that we can change our emotional response to those thoughts. In short, submodalities can help us modify the impact of specific memories by making modifications in how we think about the subtle distinctions and details of them.

We can quickly change the impact of specific memories by making changes on a submodality-level. 

Changing submodalities is an effective way of changing the meanings that we assign onto our experiences. If we set a goal, for example, the more attention we pay to the submodalities of our experience, the more specifically refined the goal becomes. The finer our distinctions become, the more creatively and clearly we can design our future.

Submodalities work in two ways: We can make good memories stronger, brighter and even more empowering. Likewise, we can minimize negative memories and make them weaker. This can transform the way in which we relate to both ourselves and other people. As you can imagine, this is a fantastic skillset to hone.

Association V.S. Dissociation

One of the most important submodality distinctions in NLP is the difference between being ‘associated’ within ourselves and being ‘dissociated’ apart from ourselves. Think of the way you think about things. In your mind’s eye, do you observe and experience from a distance, or is it like you’re there? Being in each of these two states gives each of us different emotional and cognitive experiences, and moving between the two is one of the most effective means by which we can gain a massive shift in the way we perceive things.

The more a person focuses on a certain experience or memory, the more they will associate into the experience or memory. Focusing in this way can be useful when eliciting positive resource states. However, when recollecting negative experiences, the focus can be very disruptive because strong negative emotions quickly shut down effective thinking processes.

Being associated is sort of like reliving the experience first-hand. When a person is associated with themselves in an internal representation, their perspective comes from within the representation, and in turn, they have full access to the feelings in that experience.

When a person is dissociated from themselves, it is a fly-on-the-wall type of perspective. It’s easier to be objective from this perspective because the experience of the memory, and in turn, the feelings they have will seem far less intense because of the distance created in the mind from the event. For this reason, dissociation is a practical way to manage disruptive emotions when processing a trauma.

Are you Associated or Dissociated?

Consider the following phrases and questions, and consider if you were associated, or dissociated. As you reflect upon what your internal response is to each of the questions/phrases, check if the internal representations you make/have from them is either associated or dissociated. It’s important to note that there are no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ answers, as this exercise is merely designed to help you better understand the distinction between the associated and dissociated internal representations that happen within you.

Remember: Being associated is just you experiencing an event inside of your mind from within yourself, and being disassociated is you looking upon an event you are experiencing from outside of yourself – like you are a bystander who’s just looking on.

  • What do you see in a certain someone?
  • What are you looking forward to?
  • Something you dread…
  • What is it like when you are relaxed?
  • What is this experience like for you?
  • What was last Christmas like for you?
  • How does this post make you feel?
  • The last time you got hurt…
  • Where do you see yourself in 5 years?
  • What will you be doing after this?

Most people find that some phrases and questions elicit an ‘associated’ internal representation within them, whereas other questions or phrases result in more of a dissociated one. Personally, I’ve noticed a tendency in myself to dissociate from painful experiences, and associate with pleasurable ones. How about you?

One Last thing…Mind your Language!

Please remember, the words that we use when communicating give shape and form to the internal representations of a listener What we say and how we say what we say matters, and can make a huge difference to the effect and impact that we have with our words. What is said is not always taken as intended. Be aware of this in yourself, and in others.

It’s also good to remember that your word choices and the language you use can reveal unconscious beliefs and ways of perceiving the world. It’s good to become aware of those throwaway phrases you use automatically because they just might be disguising and reinforcing limiting beliefs, and you don’t even know it! Mind your language, that is, be aware of it because there are clues there.

I’m going to leave you with a final thought. Back in the 1st Century AD, Stoic philosopher Epictetus said:

What frightens and dismays us the most is not external events themselves, but the way in which we think about them. It is not things that disturb us, but our interpretation of their significance.

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