Early Warning Signs of Switching: Recognition & Avoidance Techniques
By Sara Lambert
One of the most common fears of multiples is that they will switch inappropriately in public. Not only is this embarrassing at times and hard to explain to those who do not know the survivor is multiple, it can also be dangerous. For these reasons, it is important to develop awareness of how to recognise the early warning signals of switching and have a variety of techniques for avoiding switching when necessary. For many multiples, the tendency to switch uncontrollably and inappropriately may be an expression of their general anxiety about their self-control (namely, their lack of it) or it may have more to do with the importance of maintaining a constant source of fear in their lives. Strange at it may sound, fear can actually be a friend, especially if it is all you have ever known. It can also be incredibly addictive for both positive (the buzz of adrenaline) and negative ("I don't deserve peace of mind") reasons. The threat of inappropriate switching may provide that fear. It may also keep life chaotic, unpredictable, and therefore familiar - and comfortable.
Other multiple survivors use switching as a mechanism of power and control over their primary person or the rest of the system - especially when certain selves feel they do not have enough "body time" or when their needs are not being met.
On a more basic level, some multiples simply have not developed the quality of communication required to monitor when it is okay to switch, or the co-operation that would protect them from dissociating automatically when triggered.
There are usually ways for a multiple to recognise that she is about to switch, although it may take her some years to become aware of these. The signs are unique for each multiple, but some common ones include:
These are only a few examples of warning signs. Remember that the processes of multiplicity are different for every multiple and, if yours is not on this list, you are not doing it wrong!
Becoming aware of your own personal warning signals requires time and patient study. For some, the signals may be so clear, and they may have such confidence in the fact they are actually a multiple self-system, that developing an awareness of warning signs for switching is fairly easy. Others may not realise they have switched until later, upon finding evidence that it happened, or they may have such intense denial of their multiplicity that they deliberately ignore all signs that a switch is about to occur. This latter situation tends to create more inappropriate switching as the system becomes overtly dissociative in an effort to fight the denial to have the reality of its existence acknowledged.
The size of the system also influences how able someone will be to track their switching signals. For those multiples with a relatively small and straight-forward system, it may be easy to get a handle on whose switching process feels like what. For those who are poly-fragmented or with a more complex system, this may be impossible as some selves are only fragments, some have no names, some are layered across others, and so on.
A number of survivors find it helpful to keep a journal of what happened just before and during their switches into specific alter selves. By doing this, they can track any patterns of feeling or behaviour that may exist. Others ask outside observers to describe what they see when the multiple switches - one of the reasons why therapists are helpful! An internal gatekeeper who can observe switching from the inside as it happens, and later pass information about it on to the primary person, may also be helpful - but is probably only possible once the survivor's self-system has developed a good level of communication and co-operation amongst themselves. The next question is, how do you stop switching before it happens? I believe it is possible to do so, although some survivors may not develop this kind of self-control until well down their healing road. In my opinion, to say that the system has no control over its traffic flow is to buy into the idea that life is always chaotic and that the survivor has no internal locus of control.
Different techniques for avoiding switching are suitable for different people (including the different selves of someone), and it is a matter of trial and error finding something that personally works. Suggestions include:
While it is important to control inappropriate switching as much as possible, I do not believe that switching in general should be discouraged, especially in the early years of recovery, on the basis that dissociative defences are "bad". Certainly, there are better and safer ways of dealing with problems, and much of the recovery process deals with learning new ways of problem-solving and associative skills. But denying the presence of alter selves, refusing them body time, ignoring their needs and discounting the ways they defend themselves and the system as a whole are all recipes for disaster. Infact, if there is one thing guaranteed to worsen dissociation it is trying to make it go away. What I strongly support is multiples finding ways to respect their alter selves, develop communication and co-operation, and find ways that everyone can have "body time" and get their needs met at appropriate times.
It seems to me that nothing happens in a multiple's system without a reason. Therefore the trick to stopping things that you don't like from happening is to find out why they are happening and then come up with a more suitable and effective alternative for action. For example, there is usually more to a child coming out at the office than her just being a brat. She may be frustrated because she is never allowed out at any other time to play - in which case, the system must arrange time for that child to be out at home, where she will be safe and the system not embarrassed, and she must be allowed to play. Another reason for the child's appearance may be that she was triggered by something in the office, and her appearance is a powerful way of the system drawing attention to the potential danger of the trigger. In this case it would be worthwhile to talk with the child about what triggered her, as this is valuable information which holds clues to what happened in the past. Once the trigger is known to the system, they can come up with ways for dealing with it in the future so the child does not have to be involved (and so is protected from further fear and distress). The child herself will probably have some good ideas about how to defuse and/or associate the trigger. The child may also appear as a sign that something is wrong inside the system. It could be that the primary self has been neglecting her alter selves, or that they are rebelling against her denial of the diagnosis, or that there is conflict inside or re-enactment of abuse scenarios being played out on the child.
Letting other selves spend time in the body does not make multiplicity worse or create more switching. Infact, to the contrary - it eases conflict, promotes harmony and control, creates less need for inappropriate switching, and so makes things better for all.
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If you are going to work with ritual abuse survivors, you must also get educated if you want to be effective. And you must learn to be humble. Trauma survivors do not need to be around ignorant, modern-day Pharisees. Survivors in pain need people who will connect with them on an emotional level, get right down in there where they are, and listen. --Kathleen Sullivan