depersonalization banner photo Photo courtesy of WebMDOpens in new window

Depersonalization is a feeling that one’s physical sensations, emotions, behaviors, or other psychological characteristics are separate from oneself. When experiencing this state, one has the feeling of watching oneself behave without controlling the actions (American Psychiatric Association, 2000).

DepersonalizationOpens in new window can be quite disturbing; the world seems less real, as if one is living in a dream. It is a prominent and chronic symptom in dissociative disordersOpens in new window, for instance, dissociative identity disorderOpens in new window (formerly known as multiple personality disorder).

Chronic depersonalization such as is present in dissociative disorders typically occurs when someone has suffered extreme trauma or ongoing extreme stress.

Depersonalization may arise as a symptom in a number of other psychiatric stress disorder, acute stress disorderOpens in new window, obsessive-compulsive disorderOpens in new window, and borderline personality disorderOpens in new window. In these cases, depersonalization is more often temporary and is associated with periods of extreme anxiety or stress.

Depersonalization may have orgnic causes. It may be a symptom of neurological diseases such as Parkinson’s diseaseOpens in new window, lyme diseaseOpens in new window, and multiple sclerosisOpens in new window. It may also be present when one is taking drugs (prescribed or recreational), in which case it may be considered pleasant, unpleasant, or both. Depersonalization is a symptom of withdrawal from some drugs.

A state that bears similarity to depersonalization is dissociationOpens in new window.

In dissociation, one fails to experience oneself as whole or integrated; one does not have a clear sense of identity.

The dissociated state is often associated with memory loss regarding important personal characteristics or experiences or of who one is.

Depersonalization is not associated with memory or complete identity loss; one simply feels detached from one’s mental processes or body but maintains contact with reality. According to Simeon (2004), depersonalization is the third most common psychological symptom after anxiety and depression. Examples of depersonalization are vividly described in both literature and personal memoirs. For instance, Susanna Kaysen details the depersonalized state in her autobiography Girl, InterruptedOpens in new window.

  1. Kaysen, S. (1994). Girl, Interrupted. New York: Vintage.
  2. Simeon, D., & Abugel, J. (2008). Feeling unreal: Depersonalization disorder and the loss of the self. New York: Oxford University Press.
  3. American Pyschiatric Association. (2000). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (4th ed., text rev.). Washington, DC: Author.