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How to be an Ally to Someone with a Dissociative Disorder

Boundaries – how boundaries for a system will likely present differently than you might be used to with non-systems.

Different alters in a system might have different boundaries and limits they set with people. Due to this, navigating how you interact with someone must be done with care, especially since they won’t always tell you when they switch.

It’s important for you to remember that you are going to make mistakes. Know that you are not in this person’s head and you are going to mess up – be forgiving and understanding with yourself for that, and just do your best – that’s all you can do. Ultimately being in the life of someone with a DD (Dissociative Disorder) boils down to some really basic principles that truly every relationship should have, but are just even more important and vital when Dissociative Disorders are in the picture. You need to be prepared – at all times – for the person’s boundaries to change at any given time. You need to be gauging their energy and signals, and to be prepared to respect any changes should they come up. Should they not clearly communicate them, you might miss some of these changes and signals and that is not your fault. You will miss things. Again, you are not in this person’s head. All you can do is put in the effort and make sure that you do respect things when they are communicated. 

All relationships and all people should be given that same respect – all people’s boundaries can change at any given time and should be respected as such. When dealing with Dissociative Disorders, it’s simply more likely and more extreme of shifts so it’s something that people without Dissociative Disorders likely need to put some energy into adapting to and learning how to adjust to those shifts and boundaries changing. You might be used to being able to having a very physically affectionate relationship with your friend. If your friend switches out, however, and suddenly there’s a child alter with trauma around touch who will be triggered if you come near them, that’s something you need to respect. That child also might struggle to communicate that because being upfront about having DID/OSDD is contrary to the nature of the disorder which is to hide it. Getting used to those boundary shifts with those in your life with Dissociative Disorders and learning to not take them personally is a huge step in being an informed and safe ally for them.

For friends who just learned their friend is a system: figure out how much change is desired/when you should be the one to bring up DID/OSDD in conversation

This will vary system to system. You can ask your friend outright but also you may just have to gauge this over time, because different alters in their system might have different wants and needs and things might shift over time. Once you know they’re a system, how much do they want you to change the way you interact with them? This includes the language you use with them, any sensitivity needs or accommodations, now that they’ve opened up to you about this, etc. 

Some systems might be relieved that now that they’ve told you they can finally ask you to ask who is fronting and address them by individual names – potentially they might ask you to learn a little bit if you’re willing or to teach you some of the language about the disorder. Perhaps that’s why you’re here. 

Other systems, however, might be glad that now you’re aware and that they no longer are keeping this a secret from you as a friend, however they might not want you to change the way you treat them at all and might tell you they likely will continue to mask around you simply because that’s what’s easiest and most comfortable. Perhaps they’ll tell you things more often, but they won’t ask you to ask who is fronting or to change the way you interact with them on a day to day basis at all. 

This is going to vary completely system to system so it’s important to communicate and also gauge any changes and comfortability. An important thing to remember as well is that DID/OSDD exist to be hidden so if your friend tells you and then doesn’t often bring it up again, it’s likely because they wanted you to know this and not be hiding that part of them from you but also it’s a disorder that exists to be undetected so having people bring it up or talking about it can be incredibly unsafe feeling. If you get the feeling that bringing up questions about how to address your friend – no matter how well intentioned and kind, trying to validate their system the questions are – might be making your friend uncomfortable, chances are you might just want to stop bringing it up and let them choose if and when to bring the topic up.

What Not To Do

Don’t ask a system to switch for you.

Unless it is a matter of safety, it is completely inappropriate to request that an alter tries to switch so that you can speak to someone else. It doesn’t matter if you’re in a long distance relationship and this is the only moment you were going to get to spend with the alter you’re dating. It doesn’t matter if you have something you really want to say to someone else in the system. It doesn’t matter if you really don’t get along with the person who is currently fronting. If the system themselves needs to switch they will, it is not your place to ask them to do that. Firstly, most systems have no control over switches. Secondly, switches are often triggered by something so you’re actively asking that alter to trigger themselves. Thirdly, you’re directly telling that alter you don’t care for them to get their little slice of life when they already don’t get a full life themselves. It is a massive faux pas, and will likely lose you trust within that system. 

The only exception to this rule is for matters of safety – if an alter is fronting for a situation which it is not safe for that alter to be fronting for. Even in that scenario, though, you don’t want to be forceful and you simply want to check in with them and let them know you’re concerned and it might be a good idea to check in and make sure someone is nearby if possible in case they need to switch out. Again, most systems won’t have any control over this but just putting this into words will put the system on alert and will hopefully make any switches less jarring for them. 

Don’t ask/pry about trauma

Allow for space for a system to open up to you (if you’re comfortable and able to hold space for that) at their own pace, but do not push and DO NOT ASK THEM what happened to them or what ‘gave them DID’. Don’t do it. The end.

Personal Experience:

Due to mental health being a lot more widely spoken about socially, I meet plenty of people who think it is okay to pry. Even the question being asked is difficult to contend with, and it can lead to panic attacks and further disassociation. I had a person once ask “What kind of long term trauma” and I asked them why they wanted to know. they shrugged and said “Curious” and it made me realize that sometimes, people have a morbid curiosity simply because of how absolutely rare this disorder is, and they want to know if you’ve been in a cult, or whatever. It’s not okay, and even strangers do this at times. It is perfectly fine to respond however way you are comfortable, including walking away, from a person prying. —EJK

Don’t ask if one of their alters is going to hurt/try to kill you

This might seem obvious, but it happens more often than you’d expect. People with DID (as it goes for anyone who has been the victim of trauma and/or abuse) are much more likely to be a danger to themselves than to anyone else. They are much more likely to be re-victimized than to have victims of their own.

Implying that because someone has DID means that they are inherently physically dangerous to others is perpetuating harmful stereotypes often shown in media and can be very hurtful. That being said, your safety is of course of the utmost importance and asking questions you genuinely feel you need to ask to feel comfortable is okay, but make sure you think them through and that they’re actually necessary. Don’t ask them just to ask them, and understand the weight that questions like that can carry

This is a question that can be very harmful. If you don’t have any reason to be afraid of them – they’ve given you no reason to be physically afraid of them, and you’re asking just to ask, STOP. If you truly feel you need to ask this to maintain a friendship with this person for your own sense of safety and security, understand the layers and implications that come along with this question and do so with care and understanding and be thoughtful in your approach. Consider also if you need to ask – will what they say – yes or no – make you feel any better, or will you either way still feel unsafe? If you’ll feel unsafe either way, don’t put them through that because that’s not a kind thing to ask, and instead accept that you at this moment don’t feel ready to be in this person’s life in a healthy way. Remove yourself before causing harm. 

Personal Experience:

My partner, upon a new, uncharacteristically quiet alter appeared, called her an axe murderer as a joke. Mind you, a different alter had called her creepy once, when she was just forming and blinking in occasionally, because of how quiet she was even when clearly present. she observes most often, and when fronting, rarely says anything at all, only responding with any information absolutely necessary. We understand it was a joke, but the implications were painful for us, and caused her to not wish to interact with him at all, feeling indignant to his suggestion. It has caused a bit of a rift in between us, whenever she is presenting, and hasn’t helped us work through becoming cohesive with this personality. — EJK

(Potentially a surprising one) Don’t go and do a bunch of research right away

There is a lot out there that is very stigmatized and a lot of very incorrect information that might be an incredibly inaccurate depiction of what your friend is dealing with. If someone opens up to you about what they’re going through and you go and read through outdated articles or go and look through someone’s social media, not knowing that person either A) is dealing with a very different version of the disorder or even worse B) is someone who your friend might significantly dislike how they represent the disorder, you might be giving yourself a completely incorrect base of knowledge which you will then approach your friend with and then risk offending them and have to unlearn. Instead, ask your friend how they’d like you to go about educating yourself and if they’d like to play a role in it. It’s not their job to educate you but they might want to or might want to direct you to the resources they have found are the most reliable or represent their experience the best. Particularly when dealing with such a stigmatized disorder that has so much ill representation and so much outdated information out there, it’s important to know where you’re getting your information from and it’s almost guaranteed they’ll have their opinions.

Don’t expect that you can ever be prepared/know what to expect

You knew someone else with DID/OSDD? Great. That means nothing. You read through this entire website front to back? Wonderful. That could be negligible. Every individual is going to have their own experience, and being able to learn someone’s unique needs and respect them is the most important thing. Don’t come from a place of “but I thought it worked like this.” Approach people with a listening and learning mindset and be ready to adapt your understanding because different people have different experiences. 

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