To improve our daily life living with dissociative identity disorder (DID), we had to learn how to communicate better with our alters, or parts.
We never understood that the way we communicated both externally with others and internally with our parts, was a learned behavior. It’s that way for everyone, we learn what words to use and how to communicate from those who care for us when we are young. For us that meant our parts had learned to communicate their needs and feelings in the same that our abusers communicated.
Through a stream of judgments and comparisons, our parts communicated in a way that triggered other parts. This kept us not only dysregulated but also completely unable to try to work things out. It kept it safer for alters not to talk for fear of triggers and it kept us unable to communicate or stay consistent with healing.
Internal communication with parts does matter
We always communicated in ways that would alienate parts. We listened and responded in a way that made our parts feel unheard. Since we all were poor at communicating our feelings and needs because we had been shamed for even having them our whole life – it was extraordinarily hard to get parts on board with learning to express ourselves.
But luckily – only one person in the conversation has to be committed to communicating using Non-Violent Communication, for it to work. This is because this communication technique focuses on not just what we SAY but also how we HEAR others.
Dissociative Disorders and Nonviolent Communication
Our therapist first introduced us to NVC, and it works, but just like with everything – it doesn’t work the same for DID systems or anyone with a dissociative disorder. We can’t follow the steps because we don’t have continuous access to the prefrontal cortex – and that is ok. It just means we need a different approach.
Read about our approach and what we did to improve communication here.
We learned a ton about how to communicate from the NVC book, but it was really hard to apply with so many parts fronting and communicating. Some of the most valuable things we learned are kind of broad ideas about how we learned to communicate and what focus is most productive in a conversation. Learning how to communicate what we needed and felt in a way that didn’t trigger any parts was essential but even more important was learning how to hear what parts were trying to say through their judgements instead of reacting to them.
How trauma survivors learn to communicate
While the truth is that most just simply don’t learn how to communicate, that’s the truth for everyone. The way we all learn to communicate is violent. Judgements, comparisons and not owning responsibility are the most common styles of violent communication. We are taught to communicate in ways that alienate others and our parts. In fact, for trauma survivors, we prefer to communicate in a way that makes us feel safe. For some parts that with anger and hateful words, and for some parts that’s with compromising on boundaries to please the other person in the conversation. For many of us that suffered repeated child abuse, we learn to not communicate our feelings and needs but instead to disown them, externally and internally.
And that’s what happened to us. We had tons of parts that had learned to not communicate, and many that learned to communicate in judgements and other alienating communication styles. What we did notice was – that none of us knew how to communicate our needs or feelings effectively. In fact, most of us didn’t even know what our needs and feelings were.
Learning to communicate them actually improved our ability to identify them as well – which was a pleasant surprise.
Changing the focus of our conversation with parts
Understanding that the focus of our conversation with parts had been about proving them right or wrong, criticizing their actions or feelings and disowning their needs was pivotal for our recovery. We began to understand that each of parts had needs that needed to be met, and those needs, together make up the needs of the whole system. But – we didn’t know anything about how to shift the focus from judgement to acceptance.
After working through the lessons in NVC, we began to shift the focus of our communication with parts. We did this for all communications from parts, when we were unblending and especially at our morning meetings. We all made an intentional effort and did see progress, but trauma related parts had a hard time maintaining the new focus of conversation more so than our “going on with normal life part.”
At first, we focused our communications with parts on three things, intentionally excluding the 4th component NVC teaches. It helped us gain the trust of parts to hear without expressing at first. Once this focus shifted – we were able to start understanding our parts and their needs better. We share these here in hopes they help you and your parts too.
Shift the focus of conversation to these three things
Clarifying what parts mean when they communicate
Before we just operated on what we perceived or assumed they meant, never considering they didn’t know how to communicate what they needed to. Once we began to clarify what they meant, it really helped us. We began asking them if they meant what we heard BEFORE we reacted. For us, about 90% of the time, the part restated what they said. We had to keep asking several times at first, what the part meant but eventually we found out what they actually needed and felt.
Validating how parts feel with compassion
Once we were able to find out what the part was trying to tell us they felt, we were able to validate their feelings. We try to validate how the part feels by demonstrating that we know they have a good reason to feel that way because we know how scary and bad it was. Most often we say things like, “of course you feel that way after all you’ve been thru.” We get triggered by things like “I understand how you feel” and “everyone feels that way” – so we try to stay away from those.
Asking them what they need
We try to make sure we ask our parts for what they need instead of assuming to know. As much as we know the patterns of our parts, we try our best not to default to thinking that we know what they need. Needs change, circumstances change and so do parts. For those reasons, we always try to make sure to ask what they part needs and what we can do to help them feel like their needs are being met. This has gone a long way for us in building trust and letting parts know we truly care.
After some practice of this, parts began to trust us and would open up about how they felt – then the real work started- learning to hear their needs.