CN: extensive discussion of plurality, dissociative disorders, and mental health; brief discussion of trauma
Ever since we started publishing articles about Dissociative Identity Disorder, a frequent request we’ve encountered is to create a guide around etiquette for how to interact with systems. For a while we weren’t even sure what our preferences were around how people should treat us, so we didn’t feel like we could speak for anyone else!
When we had finally built up some confidence around this subject, we decided to ask a group of other systems for their preferences around how their system is treated. We knew there would be differences but we wanted to look for some overarching patterns. What we discovered was…. The only pattern was that everyone wanted something different!
So, we absolutely cannot speak for other systems and what good rules of thumb for how to treat them are. Instead, we’d like to share with you two things:
- Guidelines SPECIFIC TO OUR SYSTEM to use as an example for one way of approaching the given action
- A suggested conversation starter for you to use when getting to know a system that may help you find out what their preferences are regarding our example.
So finally, here is a guide to social etiquette when interacting with my DID system
Note: If you are new to learning about DID, OSDD, or plurality, we highly recommend you read this article about plurality first. I’m going to be using some terminology and referencing concepts assuming that you already know what they are, all of which are defined in the article linked above.
Find Out Who’s Fronting
For whatever reason, we find it awkward to drop into conversations who is fronting at a given moment, unless our identity becomes directly relevant to the conversation. But we appreciate the opportunity to both consciously identify who is fronting and to have our individual identities be reflected by the people close to us.
Our favorite way of accomplishing this is to have friends ask, “Who am I speaking with today?” or “Who’s here today?” sometime early in the conversation. It doesn’t have to be first thing! But including it always makes us feel seen and welcomed. We like it when the response to our answer, “I’m AJ today” is some variation of “Hi, AJ!” to acknowledge that specific person’s presence. We also appreciate it when our friends are fine and flexible if our answer is “I’m not sure who’s fronting.”
Suggested conversation starter: Is the question of who’s fronting right now one that you’re comfortable answering with me, in general? Would you like that to be incorporated into our conversations? How would you like that to happen?
Get to Know Members of Our System
On a related note, we really value it when people try to get to know the individual members of our system as the separate and complex people that they are. Because our system is so covert and our shared memory is good, it’s pretty easy to just interact with us as if we were a singlet, and sort of integrate all the different identity traits you observe into one multi-faceted person. But we feel the most seen and validated when people show interest in individual alters, what makes them unique, what they love, what’s important to them etc. The more you do this, the more of our system you are likely to meet!
Suggested conversation starter: I’m interested in getting to know more members of your system. Is our relationship at a place where your system would be interested in pursuing that in some way? How would you like to go about that?
Learn Names and Pronouns
If you’re like me, you have plenty of friends who have experimented with or made adjustments to the external reflection of their identity by changing their name or their pronouns, and to be a good friend, I learn their new names and pronouns and practice using them correctly.
This process is relevant to interacting with my system in two ways: 1. Each alter has their own name and pronouns, and would be preferred to be addressed as such! 2. There are ways that we prefer to be referred to as a whole or collective. For us, our system name is The Blueprint System but we’re generally fine with using “Kella” as a catchall, especially in professional circumstances that aren’t directly related to DID-based content. We do prefer she/her pronouns over they/them plural because the majority of us in the system are girls or women but they/them plural is also accurate.
Suggested conversation starter: What would you like me to call your system? What pronouns should I use when referring to you collectively?
Use Plural Language
Just like with pronouns and gender identity, plurality as an identity has a wide range of language that can be used, and different systems have their preferences about how to be referred to. For example, we like it when friends refer to “your headmates” or “members of your system” when talking about folks who aren’t currently fronting. And we appreciate it when our friends will say. “You all” or “all of you” in place of “you.”
Suggested conversation starter: Is there any specific language you’d like me to start using to talk to you and your system? For example, do you have a preference between terms like, “alter” or “headmate” or “system member” or something else?
Responding to a Mid-Conversation Switch
Since our switches are fairly quick and invisible, it’s not uncommon for us to switch from one alter to another in the middle of a conversation with someone. We don’t always mention it, if it doesn’t feel relevant to things. But if our emotional state or perspective on something suddenly changes noticeably, we try to share the context in which that’s occurring.
If we do tell someone we’re speaking to that we switched, we really don’t need much from you at all! Our memory is good enough that we usually don’t need to be updated on what was being discussed, and if we do, we can ask for a reminder. It’s enough to just acknowledge whoever has shown up and then continue with the conversation. If you want to be really considerate, you could ask, “Do you want to continue the conversation I was having with [Whoever was fronting before]?” but the vast majority of the time, if we’re still engaging, we’ve already decided to continue the conversation post-switch.
Suggested conversation starter: How would you like me to respond if you switch in the middle of an interaction?
Meeting a “New” Alter
It is inevitable that once you’ve met a system, or once you’ve discovered a friend you already had is a system, you will talk to someone in the system other than the first one you spoke to (often the host). When our friends meet a new (to them) alter, we like it when they do a few things:
- Acknowledge the new person, using their name: “Hi, [Alter name], it’s great to meet you!”
- Ask if there’s anything they want to share about them, what they like to do, how they fit into the system, etc.
- If they’ve heard this headmate discussed in the past, mention what they remember: “I know Kella talked about you wrestling with [personal problem] last week. How is that going?”
Something we try to do in return is to acknowledge if our friend has actually interacted with this alter in the past, just without the separate identity to assign to them, and in what context that was in. For example, Natalie, from our system, who had been dormant for several years, texted our best friend to tell her she was back. Our best friend said it was nice to meet her, and Natalie replied, “Oh, I know you already. And I’ve missed you so much!!!”
For our system specifically, our relationships with close friends don’t tend to differ a ton between different alters. So, if there’s someone you’ve never spoken to before, you don’t necessarily need to treat them like the two of you have never met. Chances are, they share the memories of past interactions we’ve had with you and can reference them in your conversations.
Suggested conversation starter: How would you like me to handle meeting new members of your system? Should I introduce myself as if I’m meeting someone new, or just acknowledge their presence, or something else?
Don’t Out Us as a System Without Permission
While we are proud to be a DID system and are out to a large portion of our community, the fact is that having multiple identities is highly stigmatized in our society, and this knowledge placed in the wrong hands can lead to genuinely dangerous situations. You may be familiar with best practices around avoiding outing someone who is transgender or gay. You can typically follow similar practices to avoid outing a system.
But unlike someone from the LGBT community, our marginalized identity becomes relevant to the conversation the moment you introduce us to someone new. Who are you introducing? The person fronting? The system as a whole? The host? For us, we prefer friends allow us to lead the process of introducing ourselves. That way we can choose what name to use and how much information we want to divulge to that particular person.
Suggested conversation starter: Who are you out to, as a system? What precautions, if any, would you like me to take in preventing accidental outings? (And prior to a social gathering) How would you like to be introduced?
Don’t Pry Into Trauma Details
Not all systems are created by trauma but all DID and OSDD systems are. A required criterion for the diagnosis is not just the experience of trauma, but repeated trauma during childhood. One easy way to understand DID is as a severe form of PTSD, where traumatic experiences caused individual identities to split off. As such, managing trauma is a big part of our lives as a DID system.
It is generally bad form to ask pointed or highly personal questions about someone’s trauma unless specifically invited to do so. With DID, forcing someone to talk about their trauma, or what caused someone to split, can be particularly risky because many trauma memories are tied to specific alters, and so the topic of a traumatic incident can trigger that alter to come forward, which may be distressing for them.
We tend to be very forthcoming in talking about our trauma, especially with people we trust but regardless, we ask people to let us take the lead on discussing traumatic experiences and how deep to go into those topics. When people do this, it makes us a lot more likely to want to share that aspect of ourselves with them!
Suggested conversation starter: I don’t know to what your story is or to what extent trauma has played a role in your lives. I, personally, am comfortable with “dark” conversation topics, so if you’re ever looking for someone to talk to about that kind of thing, and you feel safe to do so, I’m happy to listen. (Alternatively, you can say nothing and simply let them bring up the topic organically if they choose to, or demonstrate consistent acceptance and warmth even if they choose not to.)
Avoid Known Triggers When Possible
Sometimes PTSD triggers are random and unavoidable and ultimately, it is our responsibility to manage our own emotional reactions to things. However, we do our best to communicate to those close to us if specific topics or environments are consistent triggers, and in return, our friends do their best to be mindful of those triggers.
In DID, there is something called a “positive trigger” which refers to a stimulus that encourages a specific alter to come out (like listening to a song that is meaningful to one alter, or a Little seeing a toy they really want). We aren’t currently aware of any positive triggers that are consistent for our system, but we’ve learned from other systems why positive triggers should be treated with the same care and consideration as trauma triggers. Not having control over what identity is currently fronting can be distressing and disempowering even if the trigger itself is not negative, and this is doubly true if someone intentionally uses a trigger to provoke an alter to come out.
Suggested conversation starter: I know we’re getting into some heavier subjects now. Do you have any triggering subjects you’d like us to avoid? Or Are you in an okay headspace to talk about [topic that is commonly difficult for people ie: death, abuse, body image, family dysfunction, etc.] right now?
Don’t Ask Us to Switch
When switching is associated with dissociation, at worst, it can be uncomfortable and embarrassing or sometimes cause physical pain. But even for a system like ours that has pretty effortless switches, choosing to switch is much more resource intensive and not always possible. It’s not a trick we can or want to do on command.
And regardless, asking the person from a system who is currently fronting to please switch so you can talk to someone else would be like telling the person you’re hanging out with to leave so that they can hang out with another friend instead! It doesn’t feel very good for us to hear that.
Similarly, it would feel rude to us for a friend to clearly pay favorites with one specific alter, where they primarily want to talk with only that person, or get frustrated with other alters and wish they could be “More like [Favorite Alter].” Pitting us against one another or doing special favors for just one alter to the exclusion of the others, is just as rude and uncomfortable as doing so to singlet members of your social group.
It is okay, however, to tell the person fronting that you have a message or question for someone else in the system and ask if they’ll pass it along.
Suggested conversation starter: How would you like me to handle it if I have something specific I wanted to share with someone who isn’t currently fronting?
Establish a Protocol for Littles
We have a handful of system members who are younger than 15 years old, and a few younger than 10. Though they rarely front and almost exclusively front when they’re with people we deeply trust, it’s important to us to have a plan already worked out with our friends about how to handle things if a Little pops out.
For example, one of our older Littles is old enough to accomplish some chores around the house but not old enough to fully take care of herself and manage her own schedule. We’ve made agreements with several close friends that if this Little is fronting, she can contact these friends and ask for a little help with parenting her today: Reminders to do our PT exercises, to eat three meals, to include vegetables in our food, and even to do things she enjoys!
This practice can also be useful for other non-child alters that need support in other ways.
Suggested conversation starter: Do you want to have some kind of safety plan in place in case someone that’s fronting needs a specific kind of external help? How would you like me to support you in that circumstance?
Show Interest in Learning About DID
We deeply appreciate it when friends ask for resources so that they can learn more about DID, or ask us questions to better understand us as a system. For our system, in particular, we find talking about how DID works to be really enjoyable, so it’s fun to answer questions, even if they seem silly. Generally, we do not find questions about DID offensive provided they are asked in good faith and that the answer is accepted and integrated into their understanding. We don’t fault people for not already knowing the ropes. But demonstrating that they want to learn also shows their investment ins us.
If this is something your system friend would also value, you are luckily in a good place to do just that! Here is a list of links to our recommended resources regarding DID and OSDD.
Content We’ve Created on DID
- What Is Plurality/Multiplicity?
- Early Signs That I Had Dissociative Identity Disorder
- What Does Dissociation Feel Like?
- Who Am I Today? How My DID System and I Figure Out Who Is Fronting
- Video: Intro to DID with Kella Hanna-Wayne
External Resources on DID, OSDD, & Plurality
- A video on “31 Myths and Misconceptions About DID/OSDD”
- A video on the concept of fronting and its complexities
- A video on the differences between DID and OSDD-1
- Absolutely every video made by the Ring System
- A video on “My Identities Impersonating Me: Why DID is a hidden disorder.”
- A video on “How I Found Out I Had DID” by the Entropy System
Suggested conversation starter: I’d like to learn more about DID/OSDD/plurality. Do you have any resources you’d recommend I start with? Or Would it be okay to ask you a question about how your system works?
Take Us at Our Word
A great deal of information about our system can’t really be verified externally. I can’t prove to you who is fronting at a given moment, or that they were created by the trauma I say they were, or that our strengths and weaknesses are different depending on who is at the front. The diagnosis of DID is highly dependent on self-reporting of a system’s experiences.
As a result, the most accurate information you can get about our system is from us. The fact that another mental health specialist, or another system, said DID manifests in a different way has no bearing on how it manifests with us. If you have doubts about what we’re saying or are confused by how something is possible, we ask that you engage with genuine curiosity and desire to learn and listen to our answer. Ultimately, it’s our brain in question, and if you disagree with our conclusion about our own brain, well, the good news is it doesn’t affect you at all!
Suggested conversation starter: I don’t really feel like this one is a matter of preference since it’s how we endeavor to treat everyone regardless of their circumstances. But a related question could be, “Is it okay for me to ask you questions about how your system works or what having a system is like?”
EVERY SYSTEM IS DIFFERENT
I cannot emphasize enough, the answers I’ve given for how our system prefers to be treated are not universal. We know for a fact that some systems actively dislike the specific behaviors that we ask for. We’ve shared with you our preferences, not to follow as a rule book, but to give you one set of examples of what those preferences can look like.
We highly recommend you experiment with the suggested conversation starters we’ve offered as a way of digging into what your system friend wants, and we hope that you can approach those conversations with an open mind rather than assuming that our preferences are the default. We’re just one system, and there are about as many ways to be a system as there are ways to be a person!
About the writer: Kella Hanna-Wayne is the creator, editor, and main writer for Yopp. In addition to creating a collection of educational resources for social justice, she works as a freelance writer specializing in content about her experience with disability, chronic illness, mental health, and trauma. Her work has been published in Ms. Magazine blog, The BeZine, Betty’s Battleground, and Splain You a Thing. You can find her @KellaHannaWayne on Facebook, Twitter, Medium, and Instagram.