The words we use to describe our experiences impact how we think about them and what ways we come up with to explore how things might be in the future. The challenge is in trying to use a language that is universal. As people’s experiences with dissociation and multiplicity are so diverse, any words we use will not fit someone’s experience. At the DI we aim to be as inclusive as possible and apologise to those who find our language a poor fit.
Person first language
“People with” is the most respectful way to refer to someone with a lived experience. So for example, “a person with amnesia” is a good phrase. “An amnesiac” is a problem. The same goes for “a person with multiplicity” rather than “a multiple” or “a DID”.
For some people, their experiences are an important aspect of their identity and they may refer to themselves in terms such as “I’m a Multiple”. Some people have specific terms that signify their cultural understandings of their experiences. We use ‘multiple’ as the broadest grouping of experiences, but people may instead identify as Plural, Soulbonded, possessed, DID, and so on.
At the DI we believe people have the right to choose identity terminology that suits them. Therefore, if someone refers to themselves in this way, it is respectful to use their words when talking to or about them, including when reporting or writing about them. Default to person first language if you don’t know what their preferences are, but use their preferred terms once you do. When referring to a diverse community eg. all people with multiplicity, the “people with” language is always best.
Common terms people dislike
- Calling people with multiplicity terms such as “a DID”. This collapses a person’s identity to a diagnosis. In the same way that it’s no longer appropriate to refer to people with a diagnosis of schizophrenia as “a schizophrenic”, or a person with a physical ailment as “the herpes case” or “the wheelchair”. The same goes for calling people “dissociatives” or “amnesiacs”.
- Using a diagnosis as shorthand for an experience. If you mean all people with multiplicity, you should use that term rather than people with DID, which is a more specific and smaller group. Many people with multiplicity are given other diagnoses instead such as Other Specified Dissociative Disorder, some do not meet any diagnostic criteria or have not been formally diagnosed despite meeting the criteria, and some do not consider their multiplicity to be part of any disorder.
- Using “normal” or “healthy” to refer to people who do not, or do not any longer, have experiences such as dissociation, amnesia, or multiplicity, is generally offensive. In the case of multiplicity a better common term is “a person who is single” or “nonmultiples”. In all other cases better language is simply “people without ___” or “people who do not experience ____”.
- Misspelling and mispronouncing the rather clunky clinical terms are common and many people find this very irritating! It’s okay to use the acronyms. 🙂
The Dissociative Initiative Community
When talking about the The Dissociative Initiative community as a whole, good words are “People”, “Friends of the DI” or “Members”. Please don’t assume everyone in the community has lived experience – we are for everyone with an interest: that includes friends, family, carers, professionals, students, writers, artists, and people in media etc. We are also for, by, and about all ‘dissociative’ experiences including multiplicity and amnesia. We are not just for people with multiplicity.
Inappropriate terms are “clients” “patients” or “the DID group”.
Non clinical language
Using only clinical terms excludes a great many people in the community who have not been diagnosed or have other understandings of their experiences. This is why we use the term multiplicity, an experience, rather than Dissociative Identity Disorder, a diagnosis. Resources about multiplicity often exclude the experiences of people with OSDD, those with no diagnosis, those who do not identify as having a trauma background, or who are exploring the idea of multiplicity due to other experiences such as voice hearing or identifying as trans*.
We aim to make our language and resources as inclusive as possible as those who do not ‘fit’ dominant paradigms are often the most vulnerable and also frequently have invaluably diverse experiences and insights to contribute to the field. This is in recognition that language is linked to culture and that a community as broad as this one is made up of a great many cultures, of which the clinical is only one.
We have chosen to use the term ‘parts’ in place of the more common psychological term ‘alters’. This is far from perfect and may be offensive to some. Part has been the most value-neutral term we have come across. We welcome conversation about making the language inclusive!
Language is not fixed. Meanings shift and connotations change over time. In order to be useful, it needs to be updated from time to time.
If you’d like to explore ideas around language more, here’s a few articles to get you started on some varied perspectives:
- Reporting it right: how the Government got it wrong, by Stella Young
- Why I don’t embrace my disability as a fundamental part of my being, by Anthony Oberg
- “The Stairs Don’t Go Anywhere!” A Disabled Person’s Reflections on Specialized Services and Their Impact on People with Disabilities, Interview with Normal Kunc, by Michael F Giangreco
- Beyond Cultural Sensitivity by Sarah K Reece
Common multiplicity terms
Multiplicity: the presence of more than one self in your mind or body. This may be experienced as voices, as aspects of your self, parts your mind has created, the presence of spirits or ancestors, sharing time in the body with other personalities, feeling haunted, fractured, or at war with yourself. For more information, see About Multiplicity
Part: refers to any inner person, spirit, voice, alter, or self.
System: this describes the group of parts who share a body or mind. Many people prefer different terms such as inner family, tribe, community, pack, and so on. Some systems use a specific group name such as Kelly.
Being out: the part who is currently in control of the body is said to be ‘out’. The other parts at that time are ‘in’, ‘inside’ or ‘away’. They may have an internal world, like a dreamscape, they go to, or they may sleep or not have any self awareness while they are not out. It’s different for different people.
Switching: describes the process of one part going inside and other coming out into the body. This may be slow or quick, obvious or subtle, happen all the time or never. If it is very slow or happens between parts who are not entirely differentiated from each other, people may use other terms such blurring or blending. Parts may partially switch, for example enough to use the hand and write in a journal. Parts may also share the body, for example one cooking the dinner with the hands while another has a complicated conversation with the mouth. Some people can control or sometimes their switching while others cannot.
Trigger: used to mean several different things! Triggers are any cue that causes a reaction that can’t be prevented. They may be smells, sounds, words, memories and so on. They may be positive or distressing. They may trigger strong feelings such as sorrow or fear. They may also trigger a switch between different parts.
Co-consciousness: means that more than one part is aware of what is happening in the body or outside world. This is the opposite of amnesia between parts. It might be that they can see and hear what’s going on while they’re inside, or a system might pass on information between parts. Some people with multiplicity have a lot of co-consciousness, some have little or none. Some have co-consciousness between some parts but not others, or at some times but lose it when they’re stressed, for example. Some people find co-consciousness helpful, others find it frightening and experience it as being aware but feeling ‘possessed’.
Clinical dissociative diagnoses:
Dissociation is an extremely common experience as part of many diagnoses such as Post-traumatic Stress Disorder, Bipolar Disorder, Borderline Personality Disorder, and Major Depression. It is also extremely common for people with no mental illnesses or major distress, although usually at less intense levels or only during highly stressful or sleep deprived situations. There is also a whole cluster of Dissociative Diagnoses (DD) specifically around these experiences.
Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID): (Classified as Multiple Personality Disorder, MPD in the ICD-10) Describes the presence of at least two separate parts who switch and inhabit the body, and have a high level of amnesia for what happens when they are not out. As with all diagnoses, there is also a requirement that there is distress or impairment of functioning.
Dissociative Amnesia (DA): (Previously called Psychogenic Amnesia) This refers to a loss of memory that is not caused by a physical problem. It also now includes experiences of dissociative fugue; where someone loses their sense of who they are and roams until they find a new life which they set up with a new identity.
Depersonalisation Disorder (DPD): (Classified as a neurotic disorder in the ICD-10) Severe or chronic depersonalisation or derealisation. (see About Dissociation for more information)
Other Specified Dissociative Disorder (OSDD)/Unspecified Dissociative Disorder (UDD): The grab basket for everyone who has a major issue with some form of dissociation but doesn’t quite fit one of the other categories. A common example is those who experience some degree of multiplicity but do not switch or do not experience the level of amnesia required for a diagnosis of DID. Although DID receives most of the attention, this disorder is actually much more common, as are these experiences of multiplicity.
Conversion Disorder/Somatoform Disorder: (Classified as a dissociative disorder in the ICD-10, and a somatoform disorder in the DSM-V, also called functional neurological symptom disorder) This refers to physical symptoms such as blindness, paralysis, loss of speech, tremors, or blackouts that are not caused by a physical illness. Often related to stress or trauma, the experiences are real and involuntary. People are not making them up and cannot just ‘think them away’. Many people are highly distressed by the suggestion that their problems are psychosomatic because they believe or have been told this means they are not real, or that they are weak. This is absolutely untrue, and furthermore people do recover from these problems. Sometimes people are misdiagnosed and turn out to have had an illness or disease. Sometimes people have both physical issues and issues caused by the expression of emotional distress and pain as physical problems. For more information see