Dissociative Identity Disorder: Glossary of Terms
Understanding Dissociative Identity Disorder depends somewhat on your grasp of the terminology, at least initially. Certainly discussing DID is easier if we're all using the same glossary of terms. Following is a list of words and phrases I tend to use when writing about Dissociative Identity Disorder, along with my definitions for each. If you have anything to add, or if my definitions don't quite match up with yours, I hope you'll share in the comments section.
Glossary of Terms I Use when Discussing Dissociative Identity Disorder
Alter. I define alters as dissociated parts of self that:
- operate independently
- perceive themselves and the world in their own, unique way
- have either the capacity to assume control of the mind and body, or
- the ability to exert enough influence to impact the thoughts, feelings, and behaviors of the presenting alter.
In my personal life I prefer the term personality states. I use alter in my writing because it's more universally recognized.
Host. The personality state that spends the most time out, interacting with the world. If you know a better word I'd love to hear it. I hate host. It makes me feel like I'm either throwing a party or harboring parasites.
Integration. The blending of two or more alters. Some people with DID achieve total integration - complete fusion of all alters into one reasonably cohesive, though still multi-faceted identity.
Losing time. When people with Dissociative Identity Disorder experience dissociative amnesia, it often feels as though a chunk of time is missing. This can be anywhere from minutes to years.
Multiple. Because DID was known as Multiple Personality Disorder in the United States until 1994, and is still referred to as such in other countries, multiple is widely used shorthand for someone with Dissociative Identity Disorder.
Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself,
(I am large, I contain multitudes.)
- from "Song of Myself" by Walt Whitman
Parts. Another word for alters.
System. We refer to all alters of an individual with Dissociative Identity Disorder as a system. This particular word really deserves it's own, more in-depth post to properly explain why we say system rather than, for example, team or group. I worked with a doctor once who used the term self-system, which I like very much as it reinforces that we are all really parts of one self, though we experience ourselves separately.
How Does Your Glossary of Terms Differ?
Certainly not an exhaustive list, these definitions are gleaned from personal experience and years of research. You may define some words or phrases differently. The words we select to define and express our lives with DID reflect how we feel about the disorder itself, and ourselves as people who have it. As we grow and change, so may our perspectives of Dissociative Identity Disorder change and, in turn, the words we use to talk about it. Regardless of what those attitudes and perspectives are, having the words to name your own truth is a powerful and liberating thing.
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Gray, H. (2011, January 3). Dissociative Identity Disorder: Glossary of Terms, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2019, September 15 from https://www.healthyplace.com/blogs/dissociativeliving/2011/01/dissociative-identity-disorder-glossary-of-terms
Author: Holly Gray
Our therapist sometimes uses this in an alternating way, which is confusing. He says switching is varying alters assuming taking over consciousness, and that's how we use it. He also says switching is going from one extreme to the other, between love/hate, right/wrong. We prefer splitting for that particular definition.
Oddly, the two are related. Often we trust people until we are triggered or disappointed and then switch into a defensive protector personality and go into defensive mode. This results in thAt personality saying things that none of the rest of us remember and has created a lot of problems throughout the years. She usually leaves immediately after going off, leaving another personality holding the bag, completely unaware of what was just said or how much time has gone by.
We've been working on this since our therapist mentioned it and have had some success. We are sometimes successful in forgoing a defensive reaction in favor of letting the little part, who is actually triggered, come out and see it is safe, to grieve what they experienced and be with the emotions. This works for all parts except the core self. She sometimes gets so overwhelmed when she has memories emerge or she gets triggered that it's too difficult to function. She's gotten a lot stronger and will fight disconnecting completely and letting us take over, despite having such high anxiety that it feels like the body is having a constant panic attack. That's when our protector/defender personality will take over consciousness. The core self doesn't know how to draw boundaries that we, the more functional alters do, especially the protector. The core self is afraid if she leaves consciousness that she'll never come back or she'll miss out on years of life. We won't let that happen though. Her presence allows for co-consciousness and growth that we don't get otherwise. That's what our diagnosis lead to was the presence of a sense of self. We're all learning to trust each other, especially her learning to trust us and work together as opposed to being abusive, untrusting, demeaning to each other, mirroring the ways we've been treated throughout the years. It's taken 3 years to develop acceptance of the diagnosis. In that process, we've developed co-consciousness between some of the parts and learned a lot about the various roles we each play. We hoped to be that rare case that was integrated and all better within 3-7 years, but the three year mark has brought with it an acceptance that we may be at this for many years to come. As we make peace with each other and learn to work toward the same goal instead of sabotaging each other or competing for "facetime" (there's terms for the glossary: we say "facetime" or "driving," as in, "Who's driving today?" Instead of host), it gets better and easier. If all we achieve is co-consciousness between all our parts, that's enough for us.
Does anyone else have an "entity" in their lives? Mine is a female manifestation of death, I'll say no more, unless someone else comments on this.
When I was called to come by the adults in my life I was Laurie - not some other name. If my parts adopted different names then when they were out they would not have responded to Laurie and the net result would have been more abuse!
In order to facilitate communication with the therapist and within the system - for understanding who is who within the system - we gave the various parts descriptors so the part that learned to drive and took responsibility for work driving was identified as the driver, the LD kid was the one who went to school and was diagnosed learning disabled, the oppositional part was the oppositional one and so on. Some parts adopted names when given the choice and some waited for some time before they said - yes that's the name I want to go by. But to force names or have the expectation that parts will have names different from the name of the child that was born on the body's birthday would contradict the reason for the existence of these parts in the first place - to protect the child. Naming their parts, for some children who are being abused, would not necessarily be wise and might require a whole new level of security be in place to protect the parts and the body.
Just thought I'd share that perspective.
Your description of what happens when parts suddenly take information away or controls speaking were so exactly like what I experience in therapy that I had to smile! I must say it's frustrating and feels a little crazy when it happens. The therapist has been good at recognizing when my parts are shutting me down or literally gagging me and we've found other ways to get the information or both she and we-all back off to give the threatened parts space. It took me some time to allow myself to admit that I lost the information instead of suddenly switching to another part to cover the loss.
Sudden switching to protect information or control communication also happens to me. I had one part that used to be "parachuted" up front and the feeling was like being dropped into the body so the parts arms would suddenly flail as if trying to gain balance. It wasn't until the therapist asked why that part would flail her arms that we-all realized what was happening. With that awareness the part in question learned to decide if she wanted to be dropped into the body as a choice.
I am sorry to hear there are others who experience the same things I'm experiencing but I'm also relieved. Thanks for sharing that experience in more detail, I've found the experience of loosing information and not being able to talk or give information quite distressing so knowing it's normal for DID helps.
I've been struggling to "connect" or relate to anyone these days so it's nice to be able to hear from and "connect" with others who have similar experiences. Perhaps it's the lack of understanding of DID by my "normal" family and friends that has made feeling "connected" difficult. I'm always trying to cover up my odd perceptions and experiences so I look normal in social and work situations. I'm sure that also affects my ability to "connect."
I wonder if I'll always think of myself or my inside thinking as a work in progress system? With parts that I've integrated together or blended together, they become more subtle aspects of my self - influencing our thinking and actions but less in your face or noticeable.
Thanks to you both for your input.
I don't usually read or participate in forums/blogs, with a few exceptions because I don’t usually find it helpful. I've looked at your stuff off and on for a while now and have to say you clearly articulate my experience with DID in a way I wish I could have found in the tons and tons of literature I've waded through over the past 6 years. For the most part, your other “posters” also seem to be more articulate and similar to my experience of dissociative identity disorder than I have found in the literature and on other forums/blogs etc.
Your Glossary proves to be a perfect vehicle to encourage discussion – it’s a starting point for those of us who do not have anyone other than perhaps our therapist who understands the intricacies of living with DID.
My definitions are not that different from yours but I do have some subtle understandings about myself that causes me to refer to some things in one way more than another.
Alters – I don’t know what that is! The word does not speak to my experience. It feels like someone who never had to live with “alters” created the word! I refer to my “parts” rather than alters. I refer to parts because I have always believed, to an extent, that if I have parts of my personality they are all mine – they are what is ME. I also use parts because words like personality states does not address issues associated with being dissociated such as the fact that my parts have different allergies, body competencies, weights, pains, vision – some need glasses, some don’t - in addition to different perspectives on the world. It’s more than a personality state for me, it’s a whole body experience when I switch fully and a bit of a confusing experience when more than one part influence function. Family and friends seem to respond better to parts because it doesn’t force them to believe that the unique, complex person they have always known is crazy. It makes it easier for me to talk about my system with them and it creates a sort of more comfortable term that we can use publicly that doesn’t label me as crazy – so for example I can talk about parts of me at the pool when I’m with my friend and those around us are less likely to understand those references and assume we-all are crazy.
We-all – my own word to describe ME when I refer to the system. We-all acknowledges that there are parts and that they, the system, have a perspective as well. It doesn’t necessarily mean that all parts are in agreement it means that we-all have agreed that a certain perspective, belief or action has been agreed upon by the system and have agreed, for the most part, to act accordingly.
Host – I too hate this word! I couldn’t put into words just why but I believe the concept that there is a host that manages parasites best describes the feeling host gives ME. I refer to my primary personality as the overseer. My parts didn’t have names, we learned really early on that having one name that doesn’t change makes it easier for all parts to respond more appropriately in public. The overseer in my circumstance seems to have knowledge and skills to keep the system functioning as if “normal.” She can go into the system and get information – sometimes – and presents a more uniform front publicly. The overseer, in our system seems to be able to loose information or not know things for the safety of the system and survival. Thus she may know something one minute but a part may feel something she knows doesn’t fit the situation we are in or doesn’t want knowledge made public (an obstacle to therapy) and can take that information away instantaneously. So my overseer/host is more or less a public front for the purposes of coordination and appearances.
Losing time – I don’t really lose time per say – especially since I’ve learned about parts and the overseer. It is possible now to reflect and realize that a part has taken over and the last time this part was in this situation – say for example the last time this part was at work – it was Tuesday, it’s now Thursday. Once we realize there’s been an alteration in perception of time we can usually figure out what happened and inform all within the system that this is the date and time. We also begin to fill the part in that feels confused about what has been going on. Sometimes we go back to our smart phone to check the electronic schedule we keep and confirm the date. So it's not really loosing time so much as switching and not communicating. Simply knowing there's been a switch doesn't always facilitate communication but the time hasn't really been lost, it's just stored out of reach for now. I find this perspective on time management less destructive to self esteem and sense of control than believing time is lost.
Due to the fluctuations in perspective depending on parts present, an electronic scheduler with noxious sounds to remind us-all of commitments, helps ensure lost time is focused and does not really become lost. We even go back to the scheduler to put in what we did do so it can be easily rechecked if questions arise that need historical knowledge that only some parts might hold. My smart phone has been a savior with respect to lost time and ensuring a presentation of “normality” as much as possible. It has some loopholes as parts can frequently shut the audible notice off then ignore the commitment if a part feels that commitment shouldn’t be followed through on – sooo despite years of therapy on a specific date and time each week, it’s possible to miss an appointment because a part decides it’s not interested in dealing with issues arising from therapy! Thankfully, most of the time, the system goes on high alert when the audible notice goes off and those kinds of slip ups don’t happen as often.
System – a term I used before I saw it in the literature. With a Masters degree in Family Studies, systems theory or family systems theory is well covered. It seemed what I had was a system of perspectives or parts that interacted with each other. Sometimes they interact well and sometimes, like any family, they don’t. By understanding how the various parts perspectives influence other parts, the “system” could be refined and the therapist and the parts present at any particular time could be better understood and refined. Using the word system allows what is ME to be a work in progress. It also allows for a perspective that recognizes the importance of all of the parts that make up me and how they influence what each is doing. It means I don’t have to get rid of parts because we-all can become one within a system that’s more functional and open. By uncovering and dealing with the family secrets – both internal and external family members secrets – we can become whole. There is a body of literature out there that suggests we all – even “normal” people - have parts. As my husband so neatly put it, the difference between me and other people is that my parts don’t communicate and aren’t fully aware of each other. This statement helped ease the fear of integration and facilitated my understanding of what I need to do to get through the difficulties I experience.
In looking back on what I’ve written, as always, I’m a little wordy! I’ve found your question or call for input has been helpful in reminding ME that this is a manageable task set before us-all. It also helps us-all know that it is within our grasp – and there’s definitely days when it feels like there’s nothing manageable at all about living with dissociative identity disorder!
Thanks Holly, you’re articulate and to me most accurate presentation of living with DID I’ve found to date is helpful. There’s at least a handful of people who live with the world the way I see it! Your ability to get to the issues and reach people who might otherwise be alone in this is impressive.
Thank you so much for commenting. I'm really glad you've found Dissociative Living to be a fair representation of some of what you experience as someone with Dissociative Identity Disorder. I want very much to do justice to those living with DID. So your words mean a lot to me.
It sounds like nobody really like the term "alter" all that much. And I really like what you had to say about the word "system" and your experience with family systems theory.
"Using the word system allows what is ME to be a work in progress."
Yes! I feel that way too. And I completely agree that everyone has parts in a way, aspects of self. Cohesive identities are still multi-faceted. This is why I believe even those who don't have DID can relate to it if they can get past the mythology and stereotypes.
Thanks again, Laurie. I hope to see you again!
Thanks Blue collage and Dana for what you shared about your parts not having names necessarily.
So here's where I am now in regards to the terminology: While my therapist will use the term "alter", I generally prefer "my parts", "my personality states", or "my masks".
Also, while my therapist refers to me as a multiple, I still cringe a bit when I hear that term. I don't know why that is because I don't have a better term for that.
The parts of my system all respond to my name only, ie; no other names have been unveiled as of now, but....I do have both female and male parts, and my parts have different ages.
"If you know a better word I’d love to hear it. I hate host. It makes me feel like I’m either throwing a party or harboring parasites."
Holly, you put a big smile on my face when I read that, because I think of the exact same things when I hear to term host. :) I don't have a better term for host as of now.
I'm okay with the term integration, though I have expressed concern to my therapist in regards to fully integrating. I fear losing parts that I really need in order to survive. I really just want co-consciousness and cooperation within my system. I think my therapist is okay with that.
Great post, Holly!
I hate the term "alters", as do most of the rest of my system. We decided on the term head!friends, or forever!friends just because some of us have a fairly strange sense of humor. Plus, both terms explain the situation fairly well. Although those aren't terms I foresee becoming mainstream, everyone close to me knows what I mean when I use them.
My equivalent of "host" is "Coordinator". She has the most knowledge of the system as whole and her role is to keep track of all the other parts (as much as she can.) She is not necessarily the part that is "out" the most. As you can see, I also avoid the word "alter". This is because it suggests to me that they are "alternatives" to the "host" or "coordinator" and that feels invalidating to them.
When I was first diagnosed my therapist would ask me for names and ages to help her keep track. None of my parts had names and I was only aware of whether they were children, teens or adults. Over the last year, I have come up with adjectives to clarify who is speaking at any given time.
Thank you so much Holly for writing on these topics. I still feel like I'm in the "newly diagnosed" stage, even though it's been over 2 years.
Some other terms I like to use are headmates or siblings. Siblings for when communicating with those that don't know, headmates when communicating with those that do. Like Kerri, we consider ourselves to be family and thus sibling fits well - though it does confuse people as we also have a biological brother. So the headmate thing is to avoid confusion.
Kerri, this is beautiful!
I tend to use the term " alter " here because people get what this means. But originally when I first started describing my different personalities, I called them my family, i.e. one of my family said this, or my family doesn't like that. Unfortunately my therapist kept getting confused between my biological family and my inner family, and I had to keep qualifying all my statements. It was getting very confusing. But that is how my personalities see themselves, as my family. The ones who loved me when no one else did, the ones who saved me when no one else could. The ones who know more about me than my biological family ever will. To them they are my family, the ones who always had my back, and never let me down.
Intellectually I am aware they are different aspects of me, but emotionally I love them and see them as I would a real life family. Probably because once co-consciousness started, this is how they defined themselves and presented themselves to me. Quite a dichotomy.
I agree with you on the term host, as I think of carriers of parasites as well. But
I know many people use it to describe the personality who has always been out the most, or the original personality. In my system it's a bit tricky, because I Kerri have always been out the most by far, yet another alter called First believes she is the original personality, or as she calls it, the core. Does that make me an alter? Who's right and who's wrong? And is the core somehow more important and entitled than their alters, who may have been out for much much longer? I don't know the answers to these things yet.
As for the term integration, well whenever this word is mentioned by my therapist, all my alters jump forward with a mighty burst and tell him that he is not killing them off, or annihilating them. It 's a very contentious issue for them. For me it just means more fluid co -consciousness, co-operation, and respect and no loss of their uniqueness.
I suppose we are in a rare position as people with DID. Because we have to take into consideration many different view points on terms, even from within ourselves. No wonder we swing from acceptance to denial and constancy is not huge in our vocabulary.
The reason for my comment here is actually about the term "host". I agree Holly it is disconcerting as a term in and of itself. I also want to draw attention to the fact that there are some individuals that have DID that do not have a single "host". For me/us there is a small group of insiders that communicate and cooperate extremely well that we refer to as the "fronting system". A membe of that sub-system is most likely who is "fronting" at any given time. All of us in the "fronting system" are capable of appearing as "Dana".
Also I would like to point out that some people use the term "host" to mean "the original". I have ran across this several times and personally find it a bit offensive, as I also do not have an "original self".
beautifulstones: I actually have many parts that when first discovered did not have names. Since then I have worked with them and they have each came up with a way of being identified. For some of them it is a number, a color, a letter, an adjective and some are even comfortable with choosing a name. I hope it is helpful to know that you are not alone in this being true for you.
also thank you Beautifulstones for your comments, i also have the situation you describe where i am as an observer while another part is there participating on my behalf, and sometimes i remember and sometimes i feel very distant and forget very quickly.
thanks to both of you.
I use the term part rather than alter, because it reminds me that it is a part of the greater whole. There is more to me than any one part. I find the word alter really weird, because I think of it as a verb not a noun - ie to alter something. But I do like your definition of alter - in that they don't necessarily assume total control of the mind/body but do exert significant influence thoughts/feelings/behaviours. I would agree with that. I feel like sometimes I can hear them in my head, but stay as me, sometimes I'm observing them talking and being in my body, but I'm still there watching, and other times I think I'm not there at all (those are the times when I don't remember what has happened but this happens less and less).
I also hate the word host. I think of it as the "front of house" (like the person working on reception at a hotel - they are the one you engage with most of the time, even though behind them is a whole team of folks from cooks to cleaners) and whilst I don't have a term that really fits, I guess we often refer to them as the "gatekeeper", because it also feels like, for me, that is their job. But I know for others, their "host" is unaware of everyone else.
One of the things I struggle with is that people often say that the parts/alters must have names. But apart from one of mine, they don't. When I explored this, I felt like the reason was because they don't want to be found/seen. But I don't know if anyone else experiences this.
I will say that I don't believe anything about a DID system "must" or "must not" be. Not all alters have names, not every system has one host, etc. We're all unique. There are certainly hallmarks of Dissociative Identity Disorder - and those are where we can relate so well to each other and feel less alone. My hope is that validation helps to minimize the feelings of "otherness" that are so common with this disorder.
Thank you for reading, beautifulstones, and taking the time to comment. I hope to see you again!