In our last post1 we talked about Introjects and Fictives. These two kinds of Alters appearance are usually influenced by the person or character they are based on. How do Alters/Parts who are not based on pre-existing sources define or decide what they look like? Most commonly Parts will base their appearance off of a Parts personal history, experience, and beliefs about themself. This also means that Parts can change over time, but generally, this requires intense therapy2.
Why do Alters look like that??
The Haunted Self introduces a term substitute belief, as a way to explain how Alters perceive themselves. Substitute Belief is any beliefs that distance oneself from integrating traumatic materials6. At a very base level, an Alter believing they are a separate person from the rest of the System itself is a Substitute Belief. The blog This is Not Dissociative has a great Q&A post about what Substitute Belief is too7.
An Alter may perceive themselves as being an animal, being non-human like a demon, robot, or alien, as being dead or a ghost, or much more. Every Part has their own personal reasoning for why they look the way they do. It may not always be immediately obvious as to why they look like that, but it should still be respected!
There is no way to compile an exhaustive list, but we have tried to provide some academically supported reasoning.
The same study pointed out that abusers will often target pets. Patients can often internalize that the cruelty the animal receives is because of their action. This can quickly create a negative feedback loop. The patient blames themselves and that causes the person's self-esteem to plummet and "not experience oneself as a member of the human race."
Coping with "InHuman" Acts
The same paper3 also describes a patient who developed an animal Alter. This was in response to being forced to torture and mutilate animals by the patient's father. In response, the patient developed an animal Part because they perceived the acts to be inhuman and something only an animal could do.
Dr. Elizabeth Howell9, psychoanalyst and traumatologist who specializes in dissociative disorders), notes that Animal parts could be created as a defense mechanism against trauma. The animal Part may emerge to act aggressively, growl or attack to protect the host and system.
Dr. Miller details how some Parts may perceive themselves as having physical disabilities that the body does not5. Miller explains that disabled Alters may be formed in response to abuse, threats, or instructions. For example, a Blind Part may be formed because an abuser threatened, "You didn't see anything." A Non-Verbal/Mute Alter may be formed because an abuser would not allow the person to speak.
Near Death Experience or Neglect
Dr. Howell explains that "Ghost" or "Dead" Parts may be formed after experiencing heavy abuse or a near-death experience. The person is unable to cope with the abuse and feels like they are dead or have been killed. Howell also explained neglect or ignoring the patient also resulted in such alters.
Age Regression or Age Sliding
Most, if not all, DID/OSDD Systems will have at least 1 or more Little. Little's are an Alter/Part Role that usually presents as being a young child, usually 12 or younger. The DID Sourcebook by Dr. Deborah Haddock provides some insight as to why. Haddock explains Little Parts are often found to stay close to the age at which the traumatic events they experience occurred8. Sort of like being trapped in that time.
Like we said above, this is not by any means an exhaustive list of every reason an Alter or Part can look a certain way!
"Fix" Substitute Beliefs?
Substitute Beliefs are not set in stone or forever. If a belief is causing harm or distress it can be changed through therapy! Dr. Ross details an experience with such a patient. The patients part viewed itself as a demonic entity after years of religious abuse. Through therapy the part was able to recontextualize itself as a band of Ewoks from the Star Wars franchise.
If a belief is not harmful, the better solution may just be to let it be. Substitute Beliefs can provide comfort and relief to Parts. Such beliefs can also act as a coping method. It is important to give the part and system autonomy in it's own choices.
BetterTogether provides 3 great pieces explaining multiple aspects of how Alters/Parts view themselves:
Part 1 goes over Belief and Appearance, that covers questions like "why does an alter to look like that?"
Part 2 talks about Introjects, how they form, why they form, and how to work with them.
Part 3 concludes with Substitute Belief and discusses how DID/OSDD Systems brain separates their memories into pieces, how that affects Parts, and how that influences their concept of self.
Footnotes & Sources
Howell, E. F. (2011). Understanding and Treating Dissociative Identity Disorder: A Relational Approach. Routledge. ISBN 1135845832. ↩
Miller, A. (2014). Becoming Yourself: Overcoming Mind Control and Ritual Abuse. Karnac Books. ISBN 1782412182. Read more: http://traumadissociation.com/alters#references ↩
Van der Hart, O., Nijenhuis, E., & Steele, K. (2006). [The Haunted Self: Structural dissociation and the treatment of chronic traumatization(https://www.amazon.com/Haunted-Self-Dissociation-Traumatization-Interpersonal/dp/0393704017). WW New York: Norton & Company. ↩
This is Not Dissociative. (2021). Q: why are alters sometimes given false memories of trauma? ↩