Structural Dissociation Theory

structural dissociation theory

Structural dissociation theory was developed by Van der Hart, Nijenhuis and Steele (2006).

Essentially, this theory relates to the idea that many of the behaviors that you may feel uncomfortable about, ashamed of, guilty about, or hate are likely to be the behaviors you unconsciously learned as a child to survive in an environment which was hostile, unpredictable, threatening and unsafe. In the present, these behaviors are likely to be triggered by any occurrences or events which, even remotely, resemble the events which once threatened your safety (psychological or physical) as a child.

In other words, the vulnerable, frightened child continues to live within you, trapped in the past, and responding to events now as if they (or, rather, what these events symbolize) were happening then (during your traumatic childhood).

These behaviors, then, can be seen as adaptations : behaviors that allowed you, as a child, to survive; I repeat : they are the legacy of the child within you that, under extreme circumstances, managed to survive and, as such, should cause neither guilt nor shame. THE BEHAVIORS WERE ESSENTIAL AS A MEANS OF PSYCHOLOGICAL SELF-PROTECTION.


Structural Dissociation Theory In Terms Of Neurobiology :

In terms of neurobiology (the physical/biological workings of the brain) the theory states that when events occur that we find threatening (on either a conscious or unconscious level) because they trigger implicit memories of our traumatic childhood :

the right half (hemisphere) of the brain and the left half (hemisphere) of the brain become disconnected to a degree that they no longer communicate with one another in an effective manner.

What Are The Functions Of The Left And Right Hemispheres Of The Brain ?

For the sake of simplicity,we can confine ourselves to the functions most pertinent to the theory :

  • The brain’s left hemisphere is involved with day-to-day functioning and is relatively logical, permitting us to struggle on despite internal, mental conflict.
  • The brain’s right hemisphere ‘contains’ the responses that you were forced, by extreme and hostile circumstance, to learn as a child in order to ensure psychological survival, including hypervigilance for imminent danger and perpetual readiness for fight/flight/freezing/fawning – whatever was necessary to avert danger (real or perceived).

structural dissociation theory

Splitting / Fragmentation :

The personality of the individual who has experienced severe childhood trauma can become split / fragmented so that when events occur that cause stress / fear / make the individual feel threatened / remind the individual, however tenuously (on a conscious or unconscious level), of their childhood trauma the responses stored in the brain’s right hemisphere are triggered (fight/flight/freeze/fawn responses) whereas the brain’s left hemisphere guides ‘normal’ everyday behavior, allowing the person, to some degree at least, to function. To simplify :

  • Stress, threat, fear etc / implicit reminders of childhood trauma = right hemisphere dominant
  • Everyday functioning = left hemisphere dominant

Compartmentalization and Self-Alienation :

Whilst such compartmentalization may allow our day-to-day functioning to continue under one guise or another, there is, however, a price to be paid : the individual can suffer from intense feelings of self-alienation, self-loathing, shame (that s/he is ‘concealing’ a ‘bad,’ ‘secret’ self) and a sense of being a ‘fake’ and ‘fraudulent’ person.

My next article (Part Two) will look at how we might best overcome this problem.



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David Hosier BSc Hons; MSc; PGDE(FAHE).



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