4 signs of dissociative identity disorder, according to an expert working with people who have the condition

4 signs of dissociative identity disorder, according to an expert working with people who have the condition
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  • People with dissociative identity disorder (DID) experience fractured parts of their identity.
  • A person develops DID to cope with early and repeated trauma, like sexual assault or violence.

Dissociative identity disorder, formerly called "multiple personality disorder," affects 1.5% of people worldwide.

The condition, which causes a person to enter an altered state of consciousness, is often misdiagnosed and misunderstood, according to Anthony Smith, a licensed mental health counselor with 17 years of experience diagnosing mental health conditions in the Massachusetts court system.

Dissociative identity disorder stems from a child's upbringing and early-in-life relationships, Smith told Insider. But it's not a personality disorder, like borderline personality disorder and narcissistic personality disorder, because it has nothing to do with a person's character.

With dissociative identity disorder, someone who experienced extreme and repeated trauma as a child will learn to dissociate from a triggering situation to protect their mental, emotional, and physical well being. When they disassociate as adults, they subconsciously enter protective and altered states, Smith said.

"Basically, it's dissociation from the vulnerable stage into the identity that's going to take care of the situation," Smith said.


On-screen portrayals of dissociative identity disorder, like in the movie "Split" and Hulu series "12 Perfect Strangers," suggest people with the condition have uncontrollable violence or evil streaks, which add to stigma about the personality disorder, Smith said. In fact, psychology experts changed the clinical name of the condition from "multiple personality disorder" to dissociative personality disorder in 1994 to reduce stereotypes and better explain how it affects people who live with it.

In reality, the signs of dissociative identity disorder are often subtle and can take years to diagnose, said Smith.

It's impossible to recall certain memories

Most people with dissociative identity disorder seek help because they experience amnesia, not because they realize they could have a disorder, according to Smith.

Though 75% of all people will dissociate — when your brain and body feel disconnected so you temporarily lose awareness of your thoughts, actions, and surroundings — at least once their lifetime, but people with DID experience it much more frequently.

As a result, they find themselves forgetting what happened during chunks of time, or not knowing how they arrived at a certain place. Sometimes, friends and family have to point out their memory deficits, according to Smith.


It feels like you're watching a movie of yourself and your life

People with DID also experience depersonalization and derealization, which are other altered states, when they're under stress, according to Smith.

Depersonalization is when it feels like you aren't connected to your thoughts, feelings, or bodily sensations. It's like you're watching a movie of yourself.

Derealization is when a person feels like the world around the isn't real. For example, one of Smith's patients told him it felt like they lived in a Salvador Dali painting, he said.

Multiple "voices" are competing in your head

People with the disorder have at least two "alters," or fractured parts of their personality with distinct qualities.

As a result, someone with DID may feel as if various voices are competing for attention in their head. These aren't full-blown personalities that someone creates and allows to consume them, said Smith. Rather, they're fragments of a person's full identity.


Smith gave the example of a patient who seemed to notice something in the room while speaking. He couldn't tell what she was looking at, so he asked if the patient was OK, and she said she was hearing voices.

Over more sessions with the patient, Smith identified three alters. He said one was teenage-like and would talk to the patient about the crush she had on Smith.

In successful treatment, a person with DID can learn how to unite their fractured alters so they can work together as one core personality, Smith said.

Mannerisms change seemingly out of nowhere

Diagnosing someone with dissociative identity disorder can be a years-long process, since symptoms are often subtle and similar to certain personality disorders, like borderline personality disorder, according to the National Institutes of Health.

When a person with the disorder enters an altered state, a loved one may notice there's something off, but are unable to pinpoint exactly what's wrong, Smith said. He said only in extreme cases will a person with DID switch to a vastly different alter.


He gave the hypothetical of dating a new person. One day, you notice they have a pronounced childlike quality to them, but it's not because they're in a silly or playful mood. In fact, they're talking about something serious.

"They're the same person, but they're not. It's just kind of that way for some reason that day," and then they aren't like that the next day or week, Smith said.