multiple personality:

the complex psychology of dissociative identity disorder

An examination of Dissociative Identity Disorder opens the door to a broader, even intuitive, understanding of the autonomous complex in psychology. When we learn to appreciate their sacred inner core, our complexes, and therefore alters, become treasures of the psyche.

The term Dissociative Identity Disorder (or DID), and its antecedent term Multiple Personality Disorder, describe a functional, linear account of a multiplex mental environment — a useful diagnostic term for clinicians filing insurance paperwork, and psychology students learning to relate symptoms to illnesses. But the label does not tell us what it means to have a multiplicity of selves, nor does it paint an affirming portrait of people who have such a disorder.

There is, however, is an alternative. Jungian thought, and the work of complex psychology, opens the door to a broader, even intuitive, understanding of multiplicity.

In this essay, we will consider some alternative terminology and new images as ways of approaching Dissociative Identity Disorder, finally considering the question, What, if anything, about the multiplicity of psyche is truly ‘disordered’?

DID (a.k.a. multiple personality) — a refresher

Many readers will have a fair understanding about the nature of multiple personality disorder. From The Three Faces of Eve in 1957[2] to Split in 2016,[3] images of pathological multiplicity emerge in film and story often enough that we have a cultural sense of the illness. For the sake of clarity, however, let’s turn to the DSM-5 (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th Edition) for the formal, diagnostic definition. In DID, one experiences a disruption of identity characterized by two or more distinct personality states and a marked discontinuity in sense of self and sense of agency.[4] DID causes recurrent gaps in the recall of everyday events[5] and is not generated by things like substance abuse, medical condition, or accepted cultural practices.[6]

With that description in view, we might visualize the DID situation as a van occupied by several people. Initially, Driver #1 is at the wheel, but eventually — perhaps due to difficult road conditions or other stress — Driver #2 takes the driver’s seat for a while. When Driver #1 is shuffled to the back seat of the van, she is unable to see what is going on up front — hence a memory gap. The people in the van represent a person’s subpersonalities (often called alters in DID), while changes in drivers can likened to the ‘switching’ of dissociated alters. The van is, of course, in reality, the physical body in which the community of parts resides.

Though this van metaphor may sound like good fun — friends in a car, changing drivers now and then — clearly neither DID, nor its causes, are lighthearted subjects. Multiple personality is generally understood to be caused by horrendous trauma[7] — abuse, violence, or other unbearable extremes. And even years after the inciting trauma(s), people with DID struggle with the fallout of apparently missing memories, feelings and knowledge,[8] and are often misdiagnosed[9] and misunderstood.

(For the sake of clarity, it is important to understand that this article is not addressing schizophrenia, a psychotic disorder, which is often mis-applied to those with multiple personality, a dissociative disorder.)

opening the window on complex psychology

Now that we have an overview of DID, let’s take a look at complex psychology, the window we will use to get a less ‘diagnostic’ look at multiplicity. As there are a number of articles on complexes here at Imaginalia, this essay will offer a brief overview of complexes as they specifically connect to multiple personality. More general information can be found in this website’s Complex Psychology section.

C.G. Jung was the first to develop an in-depth understanding of the concept of the complex, most famously an essay in his Collected Works titled, A Review of the Complex Theory. In that article, Jung explains that complexes are autonomous parts of ourselves — meaning that they have their own preferences, perspectives and agency. We, the usual van-drivers of our psyches, do not control these inner passengers. In fact, complexes are splinter psyches, many having their own driving destination in mind. Jung also notes that they are created by trauma[10] — though I believe, here, he intends to convey an extended spectrum of traumas ranging from mild or normal developmental-type woundings, to the extremes of abuse or war.

Jung observes that we do not simply have complexes — complexes can have us,[11] as well. Complexes settle over us, affecting our thoughts, kicking up intense feeling, and coloring our personalities in ways that do not seem at all ‘like us.’ If you have ever experienced a moment when you said, ‘I don’t know what came over me,’ then you know what it is like to be in the grip of a complex.


In short, complexes are sufficiently distinct from the ‘me’ we understand ourselves to be — perhaps affecting our posture, our tone of voice, even our health condition — that it seems fair to call them subpersonalities. And a number of researchers agree on this point, John Rowan[12] and Richard Schwartz, developer of Internal Family Systems therapy,[13] among them. Whether we call them complexes, parts, or subpersonalities, we are talking about the same thing: discrete parts of ourselves who live in a pluralistic inner community.

complexes and alters — question of boundaries

As splinter psyches possessing agency, created by trauma, there is a distinct likeness between complexes and the alters of multiple personality. But the connection only seems to go so far. When a complex is constellated in a person without DID, after all, they do not ‘switch,’ leaving gaps in memory. Nor do they change names or apparent ages, as folks with DID sometimes do. So, we are really talking about the same thing when we discuss alters and complexes — or not?

Morton Prince, an early researcher of multiple personality, makes an important point: pathological processes are normal processes functioning under altered conditions. Both are the expression of one and the same mechanism.[14] To put it another way, dissociative disorders use the same functions of mind that healthy processes do — they simply do so in extremes. What I propose, then — and I am certainly not the first to do so — is that the multiple personality alter is a complex developed under more strenuous conditions. Though every complex begins with a wounding, the type of injury that creates true DID puts so much pressure on the psyche, creating the need to manage what is, in essence, a killing pain, that the resulting complexes become walled off from each other. Memories are divided up. What one alter remembers, the others are free to forget. The most painful emotions are given to those alters who have learned to handle them. In this way, the task of daily living can continue.

John and Helen Watkins study a phenomenon they call ego states, their own term for complexes. They argue that in a non-DID psyche, the boundaries between ego states are fluid — in this way, a complex can settle over us, affecting our world view, but leaving us in full memory of the events that took place during its constellation. In multiple personality, on the other hand, the boundaries become so impermeable that the ego state segments have little or no interaction, communication, or shared content. Each, when activated, becomes a true multiple personality alter.[15]

Richard Schwartz, speaking of the Internal Family Systems orientation, offers a similar view: From our perspective, the ‘alters’ of clients with DID are parts, but their inner systems are more polarized and disconnected. This is because horrible childhood abuse causes vigilant [inner] protectors to rely on amnesic barriers, which block the usual web of inner relationships.[16] He goes on to add what may, perhaps, be the most important point for our discussion here, Clients whose inner systems are better described by the DID diagnosis often do not realize that having parts is normal.[17]

Since the early days of multiplicity research, from Morton Prince to Carl Jung, the human mind has been understood as pluralistic. Dissociative Identity Disorder is the extreme operation of a normal function of psyche, the complex. Complexes — ego states, parts, subpersonalities, no matter what their names — are, in fact, characteristic expressions of the psyche...we find unmistakable traces of them in all peoples and in all epochs.[19] Everyone has parts — but not everyone’s parts can interact in a state of co-consciousness. This is the key difference between DID and normal multiplicity. In a state of disorder, wounded complexes cannot yet flow and interact with the egoic self and/or other complexes. Due to the walls between parts, it takes more time and effort for those with DID to form a healthy inner community. In that way, the inner task for multiples (people having multiple personality disorder) is something more like breaking through a wall than passing through an existing doorway. But let’s keep in mind — even in the material world, walls are not insurmountable. A well-trained contractor — or a creative multiple — can learn the tools to create a window in the wall, allowing fresh air and new communication to pass through.

(As an important coda, there exists, between ‘normal’ multiplicity and DID, a continuum of inner relationships with lesser and greater barriers between parts. Goulding and Schwartz’s book The Mosaic Mind, for instance, describes a dissociative client who presents symptoms similar to DID, but has enough boundary permeability so her primary self does not experience memory gaps.[20] Here, then, we see the connection of complexes to ‘liminal’ diagnoses such as DD-NOS, dissociative disorder not otherwise specified, or OSDD, other specified dissociative disorder.)

a window into psyche

As we wrap up this discussion, let’s continue on with our image of the window. A window, after all, offers us a fresh way of seeing. It can be opened to convey communication. And, if we are very adventurous, we can even climb through to get to the other side.

Looking at DID alters as complexes opens just such a window. It allows us to see multiplicity, first and foremost, as normal. DID is disordered to the degree that amnestic barriers remain in place, and to the extent that communication has not been established. Over time, alters — complexes — can begin to form a community. This enables those with DID to become less disordered and to grow into a healthy, functional plurality.

At the same time, looking through the window of complex psychology grants us a fresh vista; we can discover an unexpected beauty in alters. As complexes, they have surprising superpowers, bringing unique treasures along with the burdens they understandably carry. At the same time, in Jungian thought, complexes carry a sacred quality that we may miss when we think of them as pathological alters. At the core of every complex is an archetype with a powerful, numinous glow, one that plays itself out in the present day, adding an unmistakable divinity to our lives. 


Finally, complex psychology offers us tools for interacting with, and helping to heal, our complexes. The most important of these is active imagination, a method of engaging with inner figures, increasing their access to the world of consciousness and the present moment. While ‘normal’ complexes may be easier to access with active imagination, DID alters, too, can be welcomed into this practice. Over time, then, the walls between parts acquire windows, creating new ways of communicating and reshaping the inner world.

a few final words

When we learn to appreciate them — their ability to help us survive, their capacity to flow, their sacred inner core — complexes, and therefore alters, become real treasures of the psyche. Like all life processes, of course, there are difficulties, wounds, and hurts. But everyone wounds and everyone is wounded, dissociative or not. The pain of complexes, if we attend to that pain, can be counterbalanced by subpersonalities’ courage, hard-earned wisdom, and steadfastness.[21] There is nothing disordered about having parts. The real disorder exists only in how those parts are, or are not, able to communicate — a factor that is, like all things, subject to growth and change.

⌅   references for this article