Bits of Psychology – what is depersonalization?

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Depersonalization is a core symptom of burnout but is also seen in depression as well in other mental disorders.

Depersonalization can consist of a detachment within the self, regarding one’s mind or body, or being a detached observer of oneself [1].


People feel they have changed and that the world has become vague, dreamlike, less real, lacking in significance or being outside reality while looking in.


It is the strangest feeling. I remember seeing people through the window and asking myself ‘why’? Why do they move? Why are they happy? Why does this all happen? I could see people but I could not reach them, I couldn’t open myself up to make a connection with someone or something outside me.

‘Inside me’ wasn’t better. There were some vague ‘feelings’ but the mind had no connection to the body. I tried to do yoga but I was going through the motions. It’s like eating when you have a severe cold and everything tastes bland. I was some kind of bland.

In this post I’ll write about depersonalization as a more temporary or acute symptom and not about chronic depersonalization which refers to depersonalization-derealization disorder, which is classified by the DSM-5 as a dissociative disorder.

Degrees of depersonalization and derealization can happen to anyone who is subject to temporary anxiety or stress. Depersonalization can occur with the following mental illnesses:  borderline personality disorder, anxiety disorders, clinical depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, schizoid personality disorder, OCD, migraines and with sleep deprivation.


What is it exactly?

Individuals who experience depersonalization feel divorced from their own personal self by sensing their body sensations, feelings, emotions, behaviors etc. as not belonging to the same person or identity. Often a person who has experienced depersonalization claims that things seem unreal or hazy. It is quite difficult to explain but I felt something, it was like someone else felt it and gave me the ‘mental note’. It is like living through a movie. You see things outside and you know you are to react to that. You don’t feel how to react, you think how to feel. There is no connection, you need to take some questionable bridges because the highway of feelings is ‘under construction’ in the best case, totally out of order in most cases.

Depersonalization is a subjective experience of unreality in one’s self, while derealization is unreality of the outside world. Although most authors currently regard depersonalization (self) and derealization (surroundings) as independent constructs, many do not want to separate derealization from depersonalization. With me they occurred both at the same time, which can be confusing to say the least.


I am crazy for feeling that way?

Not really, depersonalization is the third most common psychological symptom, after feelings of anxiety and feelings of depression.


Why would your mind react in such a way?

Psychologically depersonalization can, just like dissociation in general, be considered a type of coping mechanism. Depersonalization is in that case unconsciously used to decrease the intensity of unpleasant experience, whether that is something as mild as stress or something as severe as chronically high anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder. Depersonalization is an overgeneralized reaction in that it doesn’t diminish just the unpleasant experience, but more or less all experience – leading to a feeling of being detached from the world and experiencing it in a more bland way. [2]



Resources and more information.

[1] Sierra, M.; Berrios, G. E. (2001). “The phenomenological stability of depersonalization: Comparing the old with the new”. The Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease. 189 (9): 629–36.

[2] Cardeña, Etzel (1994). “The Domain of Dissociation”. In Lynn, Steven J.; Rhue, Judith W. (eds.). Dissociation: Clinical and theoretical perspectives. New York: Guilford Press. pp. 15–31.

Article on Wikipedia ‘Depersonalization‘.

25 thoughts on “Bits of Psychology – what is depersonalization?

  1. I’ve never experienced depersonalization, but I have had derealization, although it took me quite a while to start calling it that. I thought of it as looking at the world from farther back in my head.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I remember like looking at the world through unclear glass. There was a distinction between me and the world. And I also remember looking at me as being in some kind of a movie. I think the element of seeing/feeling a rupture would be similar in both concepts.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. After I had my nervous breakdown I’m positive I was dissociating. My symptoms included major depression and severe anxiety; along with mentally, emotionally and cognitively shutting down when I was feeling stressed. Someone would give me a simple direction and I would forget it a few seconds later.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. The mind under pressure react in weird ways. I think it focuses on survival instead on ‘external’ information. Memory is vulnerable to stress. I hope you’re feeling much better now!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. You know Kacha the whole idea of Buddhism and similar schools is being a detached observer of oneself. You see your thoughts but you know that you are not your thoughts. Depression, Anxiety, Fear, Shame, etc are all viewed simply as something that is observed and not taken personally.

    Sign me up!

    Liked by 2 people

  4. Wow! I’ve been trying to figure out why I’ve felt so disconnected from myself recently and this information explains it!! It’s nice to know it has a name and I’m not just crazy.

    Liked by 2 people

  5. Anxiety and depression have been easy to kick compared to this. Even in my healthiest states, this is a constant. I usually feel like an observer of my life and not a participant, despite the fact I’m making the decisions. I think this became my go-to coping mechanism as a kid, and explains a lot of the lack of empathy. Now that I think about it, it’s probably a lot of the reason I became a journalist. I could detach from whatever I was reporting about and just be an unbiased observer. It’s probably a good trait for certain kind of people, like surgeons or documentary film makers to have.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. When you’re aware of the strengths of it and you’re somewhat in control of your detachment, I think it can be an asset.
      When dealing with trauma or mental health issues, I believe it is designed to protect the mind.
      For me it became a problem when I was disconnected to myself, and my brain was disconnected to the body. The disruption with the world was a clear warning sign!
      Interesting remark towards your job choice.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I’ve come to feel that way about my mental health across the board. I know what I’m best at when I’m feeling low and I know what I’m best at feeling manic. I just have to try to play to the strengths of that moment. I call it using my powers for good and not evil.

        Liked by 1 person

      1. I pick up from a lot of things that you can’t actually prevent theem from happening, but you can at least recognise their onset and invoke “plan B” to try and cope.
        Oooh, my keyboard is driving me crazy! eeveerything I type!

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Plan B through Z are in action! 🙂
        Poor thing with your keyboard. Is it a fixed one on the laptop or a lose one on a desktop? I mean, can you replace it? And why does it act up?

        Liked by 1 person

  6. I experience the 3 D’s. I can’t see the person in the mirror, I don’t understand what life is, and I float above myself with little control over the one in charge. It has been the most horrifying experience. My days now revolve around noticing triggers and planning for being absent. They suggested adding an antipsychotic to my antidepressant. Any experience with that?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I have a small cocktail of medication and however I do have depression, I also have other medication. It depends on the dosage sometimes. A small amount of a certain medication can have a different outcome or some medications work differently on different people. I would ask your doctor about it and maybe ask him/her what he/she expects in terms of outcome. Overall I have a positive experience with my meds after a long while.


  7. I think I may have experienced a combination of depersonalization and derealization, although I’m not sure. As you said, it’s a hard thing to describe, so it’s equally hard to be sure if what I’m reading about matches my experiences. Thankfully, I haven’t had either in a while, but it does make me wonder.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It is the strangest feeling and sometimes you recognize it immediately because it is such an ‘estranged’ feeling but sometimes it just creeps on you and I think you adapt to it, so it’s not so obvious.
      I have a distinct memory: it was September and the weather was gorgeous. I saw people enjoying the sun and I couldn’t feel it. I watched others through my window wandering how they could enjoy themselves. When I went outside I felt like ‘the window’ was still there and I still couldn’t feel the sun. I felt like living in a bubble and the world was distorted as I looked at it through a window.

      Liked by 1 person

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