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Dissociative Helping

Posted on Sat, 09 September, 2017

Have you ever entrusted a personal issue to a friend or family member and found their response more upsetting then helpful? You’re not alone. It happens with regularity actually. I call it dissociative helping.


Disassociation refers to a psychological phenomena concerning detachment from the emotional and sometimes physical experiences – a kind of out of body feeling at times. I have had many occasions personally and professionally to hear about a support system trying to help, only to say or do the utterly wrong thing. The person believes they are being supportive, saying what needs to be said. Really it is a reflexive response to NOT knowing what to say.


Not knowing what to say often is way to fill a void, something to make that person feel better about not knowing to do. Another belief I have as a therapist is that there are two main influencing factors to human psychology: acceptance/love and power/control. Not knowing what to do triggers that fundamental powerlessness that contributes to acting out in a variety of ways – perfectionism, anxiety, etc.  To put it another way, if you as the friend are not engaging the way these people are in these photos, you’re a dissociative helper.  When you are the supportive friend, and this part is key, it is NOT about you. What you think should happen is irrelevant. What you think that person should do is irrelevant. Most importantly, what you feel uncomfortable about, IS about you. Notice the difference.




Our loved ones are usually well meaning – unless they’re narcissistic and that’s a totally different issue for a longer blog. Rarely will someone say something maliciously, it’s usually born out of the stupid idea that it’s better to say something rather than nothing at all. In many of these cases you most likely have wished they had said nothing at all.


How to Change It

Almost all of the time, when you’re friends come to you with a problem, they are not looking for a solution. I promise, I do this for a living. And I am paid for it. They are looking to vent and feel a shared sense of compassion. Once they hear judgment, they recoil in horror at their error in judgment for trusting you to bear witness to their pain. A quiet resentment builds and may, or may not, be discussed openly. Depends on your friend’s penchant for passive-aggression. Let’s move on.


Should you, as the friend, find yourself wondering what to say to a friend who’s bared their soul to you, it’s best to find your empathy.

“I can’t imagine what you’re going through”

“What do you need?”

“How are you handling this?”

In the most extreme case, “I don’t know what to say” is perfectly acceptable. Particularly if you’ve had no personal experience with the subject. Death is a good example of this scenario.

Well meaning friends can often do much harm without knowing it. And then there are the friends that should remain in the furthest circles of friendships because their opinions are always given without solicitation or thoughtfulness. Ask yourself why they are friends at this point. Most likely this friend has ulterior motives, like jealousy, insecurity (which is what drives jealousy), worry and their own horrific experiences that filter their perceptions.


Dissociative helping is exactly that filter clogged with personal issues preventing them from getting in tough with their empathy. They think they are being helpful, but the reality is quite different. The dissociative aspect means not understanding the effect they are having. A true friendship requires you to bring this up to them. Wider circles of friends may not warrant such effort. When it’s family it’s all the more complicated. Their dissociative help is probably way more hurtful because they are family. There’s no way around it unless you refrain from using them as a sounding board.


If you are the “venter” of feelings, corralling your friends for that supportive drink at the bar, be very clear what your expectations are – both to yourself and by articulating it to them. If everyone is one the same page, that we are matching shots with Becky tonight because she just got dumped again and wants friends to hold her hair back, then that’s far less pressure for the friends to come up with solutions. Everyone wins.






Jodi Klugman-Rabb is a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist in Marin and Napa Counties. She specializes in connecting with clients on a humorous and practical level, helpful when specializing in ADHD, trauma and anger/communication skills. She uses EMDR to treat traumas and fears of all types. She is a wife of 18+ years and the mom of two funny and awesome kids. Connect with Jodi on her website or 

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