Association/Dissociation is one of the most powerful and organic distinctions we use in NLP. Closely related to Gestalt concepts, we are referring to more than perspective, though that’s the first thing most people notice. We are speaking about whether, as we either recall or construct an experience in our minds, we are an OBSERVER of that experience, much like being an audience member as THAT VERSION OF OURSELVES, OVER THERE, has the experience…or whether we feel it happening TO US, as we ourselves are fully engaged, our senses responding to each stimulus, as though we were ourselves experiencing it that moment.
The relevance is that when we are dissociated from an experience, we don’t feel it personally. It tends to affect us less profoundly as we are almost watching a movie of someone having that experience. This can obviously be a useful device in the right experience, though in the wrong one, it can become a problem.
For example, when you think about your emotional bond with your partner, being Dissociated will likely result in your beginning to feel more distant, less engaged in your relationship. Being fully associated, feeling everything directly and fully, will make your experience of your relationship more vibrant and real, more visceral and exciting. With that awareness, where might disassociation be a useful thing? Think about that for a moment—you’re not experiencing the thing directly, not taking it personally. What about when someone has hurt your feelings, said something rude that offended you? If when you recall that experience, it still upsets you, might it be useful to dissociate from it? In fact, when I recall something that upset me, I do two things. First, I determine what I needed to learn from it. We don’t go through unpleasant things unless there’s something to learn here… Then I take that learning with me as I move forward in life. But the second thing I do is…? Anyone? I dissociate from it!
Think of it this way. Instead of feeling those feelings I don’t like and aren’t helping me, I put myself in a perspective that could NOT feel the feelings at all. Like that of an observer. If you are feeling something, you are, yourself, being touched by it. So if instead you are watching yourself on a movie screen, and that character is having the experience, the most you can do is experience it by proxy, via empathy. But you can control that easily. You don’t HAVE to experience it at all. You can instead merely watch the movie, and that leaves you dissociated from that experience. For some things in your life, that might be very useful. What might be some examples of that? Maybe being harshly criticized, being rejected, being insulted? Sure, those might all be examples of things that, if you remained associated to them, might really upset you or even debilitate you.
How do we create dissociation if we are associated into an experience? Creating an abstraction like the movie screen example is a classic example. But you can also ask questions that press for dissociation, such as “That person having the experience—what are they actually feeling?” and “What is that experience truly about?” and while fully associated, asking “What is the big picture or what’s really going on?” and “How would this experience appear from a different point of view?” or even “Is there an objective truth, just the facts, about this situation?” As you ask such questions, it engages a different part of your mind and in order to get sufficient perspective to answer.
Your mind must shift its own perspective—from associated to dissociated. To have an experience of this, think back to a movie you watched a year, maybe a couple years, ago. Remember the room—was it a theater or your living room? Think about the story, the characters. What happened to them? What was the plot? Was it well directed and acted? Did the characters seem really into the scenes? Did their acting convince you that they were really having those experiences? Now, from your own perspective, recalling that—where was that movie in relation to your favorite movies, ever? Was it in the top ten? Top half? Were the situations in it easy or difficult to believe? Naturally, there was some type of conflict in the story, but did any of that affect you personally? Did it create any challenges for you in your personal or professional life? Probably not, right? Unless you got personally involved in something within the storyline, maybe.
So now we have some ideas of what experience dissociation is and where it might be helpful. What about the other side of this discussion? Are there any areas of your life, any experiences you have, which you tend to experience more passively, where you believe you might be dissociated already? Is that okay with you or would you imagine that those experiences would serve you better if you fully associated into them? I mentioned the example of time with your partner. If dissociated, your partner will likely experience you as being distant, as we can all sense when we’re out of rapport and the other is not actively engaged in us at the moment. And now consider being intimate with your partner. I’ve worked with couples who used dissociation during sex, thinking it would somehow help them achieve a goal. (Is that sounding as strange to you as it does me?) Though once dissociated, we are not “in” our body, using our own senses, our own perceptions. How likely does that seem to you would make for better sex?
Right, it doesn’t.
Let’s demonstrate this distinction by thinking of an experience about which we’re not terribly passionate. It matters, but you don’t personally feel any real attachment to it…something where, as you think of it, it feels more like someone else having that experience, and that you’re merely observing it. This often happens due to distraction…
Let me share an example from my own life. I was on the computer, writing, designing a workshop, and I was really “in the zone”, loving it. My ex-wife came into the room and plopped down in a chair. “What’cha doin’?” she asked. “Writing?”
I grunted. “Hey, babe, what’s up?”
“Well, I was thinking about something we can do for my cousin’s birthday party. She’s really excited about it and I know we got her the gift and all. But I was thinking we could also give her a gift card to that local limo service we use on special occasions.”
“Mmm, good idea,” I said, not looking away from the screen. I kept typing away and just let it sink in that she wanted to give the gift of car service to her cousin on top of the gift for her birthday. Okay.
“You’re good with that?” she said.
“Yeah,” I replied, again not looking away from the screen.
“Okay, it’s decided.”
She hugged me and left the room. I paused for a second, reviewing what had just happened. She likely felt that I was ignoring her as, from outward appearances, I was. I did listen to what she said and had an opinion. If I’d disagreed with her, I would have engaged in the conversation and said so. But she couldn’t have known that. I decided that it might have been better to associate into the experience and gauge whether I was overtly rude or inconsiderate.
Before I did so, however, I reviewed what had just happened in more detail. I considered everything she had said and how I’d responded. Any change that took place, every nuance, were things I wanted to notice. I got to the “end” of that experience and considered everything from that perspective, the big picture of what had taken place.
Then I again went back into the memory and asked, “How do I feel at this moment as she mentions her idea?” I began to feel myself associate into the recent memory, feeling connected to her words, her questions. I felt myself responding internally before speaking. I considered that we both liked her cousin and wanted her to have a great birthday. I considered how I will feel when her cousin opened her gift, then her card, seeing the gift certificate, and how happy that would make her. That in turn would make both my wife and I very happy. I felt that, experienced what that will be like, and felt it directly, as though it was happening that moment.
Back at the workshop. I said, “For our demonstration, I’d like to have YOU come up and share. I confess that I saw Andrea recalling an experience and I wondered if she would be open to sharing it with us?”
“Great, okay, Andrea. If you’d be so kind as to stand up here so everyone can calibrate your physiology…sorry that sounds weird, doesn’t it! They need to see you clearly, observe any changes in your physiology, your expressions, posture, hand gestures… Then once they notice those, they are going to watch for any shifts as we proceed through the demonstration. Thanks. Okay, Andrea, I’m wondering if you can recall an experience that stressed you, upset you, and even now instills some discomfort in you, perhaps makes you feel something you’d rather not. I promise, this is changework, so we’re not going to leave it that way. In fact, once you’ve identified it in your mind, we’re already going to begin shifting it. Great. I see what appears to be anxiety on your face. Am I wrong about that? I shouldn’t be guessing like that, so please tell me if I’m off!”
Andrea says, “No, this experience is very stressful for me.”
“Andrea, I believe you. You even speak of it in the present tense. Okay, you don’t need to give us any content—I think we can do this well at a structural level. Just let me know if I’m wrong about that and you feel that sharing content will make it easier for you. Just give the private way a fair shot first—structure is good!
“Okay, you’re in that moment, I’m watching you. You’re experiencing it directly. First, pull back and ask yourself some questions about it. Watch it OVER THERE, happening, as you ask yourself, ‘What’s this situation really about?’ No, REALLY. Not what you thought it was as it related to you, but REALLY? In the big picture. Go ahead, think about it, as you look at it happening, watching yourself, or someone who looked like you, having that experience? Now, as you watch it, consider other perspectives, literally other people watching it as well…how does it look to THEM? Observe what they appear to be seeing, and what it likely means to THEM. What do you think they believe it means in relation to themselves? Anything? Is it interesting to them in an odd, detached, curious manner? Do they even give it more than a passing thought? Now from your own perspective, imagine that the image of what’s taking place is so far away that you can no longer make out what the people are saying. You can’t even see their lips move. For all you know, they’re just sitting there, doing nothing. What do you figure the other people watching make of that? Are they losing interest? How about you?”
I continued, “Now: notice the differences in the way you feel about it now. Your physiology suggests a pretty big shift. Would you like to tell us about how that’s no longer YOUR experience, but something you observed along with others, and how they were closer to it, and could make out more of what took place than you. Tell us about how much it now affects you anymore…”
She took a moment and her expression shifted from calm to strained, to a gentle smile. “I don’t feel stressed or anxious now. How strange.”
“Andrea, that was great, thank you. Notice that all you did was dissociate. You could stack additional tools on top to create a new reaction other than this. But until and unless you did so, you still now have a powerful tool.”
Association works in the inverse manner. Rather than observing through external perspectives, we step INTO the experience, see through our own eyes, feel with our own sense of touch, hear with our own ears, and so on. Everything in that moment is happening to and for us. Can you see how this would make much more sense in the bedroom than dissociation? I hope so! And remember to use tools that, though they may seem simple, are incredibly powerful, with precision. We don’t want to break something that’s already functional, after all. Though where something is not functional for you, this technique can be life-changing.
Copyright © 2012 Chris Gingolph