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Childhood trauma

Why Do I Not Feel Like Myself?

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8 min

Why Do I Not Feel Like Myself?

Many of us are familiar with the nagging feeling of something being ‘off’ in our lives, a sensation that alters our perception of reality and self-identity. 

While for some, this feeling is only temporary, it goes away over time. For others, though, it lasts longer and changes into something much scarier and harder to explain. 

This sensation of “not feeling like myself” or “I don’t feel real” is often referred to as depersonalization, a phenomenon that makes us disconnect from our sense of self.

We will explore the signs, causes, and intricacies of depersonalization to provide insight for those experiencing it and empathy for those trying to understand it.

When you are “not feeling like yourself” – Depersonalization 

Depersonalization (DP) refers to the sensation of being detached from one’s body and is often associated with feelings of loss of control over one’s own body, actions, or thoughts. These feelings may also be linked to a changed view of someone’s surroundings that is seen as not real, like derealization.

Another good definition of depersonalization was coined by Marlene Steinberg, the author of Handbook for the Assessment of Dissociation. It says: “Depersonalization—Detachment from one’s self, e.g., a sense of looking at one’s self as if one is an outsider.” 

It’s as if you are an observer of your life rather than an active participant. This dissociative state can manifest as a dreamlike sensation in which events seem unreal or as a distortion of time and the sense of movement.

A thread on Reddit says that this is similar to what the main character from Netflix’s Bandersnatch goes through. 

Depersonalization as a trauma response

There are hard things that happen to people in life that they might not fully recover from mentally or emotionally, and that can be understood as “trauma.” 

When someone goes through something life-threatening, your body and mind might kick in to protect them from both mental and physical distress. This is flight, fight, freeze, and fawn trauma responses turned on. 

When there is no way to run away (flight) or fight back (fight), like when a child can not run away or fight their parents, or when the body feels too stressed, the freeze response turns on.

“Emotional dysregulation is a consequence of experiencing these difficult life events; one way that emotional dysregulation can manifest is through depersonalization.” – says Enna Sanghvi, MA, in Clinical Psychology at Columbia University.

This means dissociation, especially depersonalization, can happen after a traumatic event. It is a way for people to protect themselves mentally and deal with extreme emotional or physical pain or stress. 

This can be seen as a complete freeze response, and it differs from fight or fawn trauma responses. For instance, a mouse “plays dead” when a cat catches it in order to increase its chances of escaping unharmed. This is a way to stay alive.

This detachment can help at first, but if it lasts too long, it can make you lose sight of who you are and what true things are and lead to depersonalization disorder. Eventually, you might start asking yourself, “Why do I not feel like myself?”

It was strange when I would hear myself talking. Who was this person speaking words out of my mouth? I didn’t feel like it was me.” ― a quote from Malia Bradshaw’s “A Return to Self: Depersonalization and How to Overcome It.”

dissociation, especially depersonalization, can happen after a traumatic event. It is a way for people to protect themselves mentally and deal with extreme emotional or physical pain or stress.

What is Depersonalization-Derealization Disorder (DPDR)?

In short, Depersonalization-Derealization disorder is a type of dissociative disorder characterized by persistent or recurrent feelings of being detached (dissociated) from one’s body or mental process. 

Usually, it follows a feeling of being an outside observer of one’s life (depersonalization) or of being detached from one’s surroundings (derealization).

These feelings cause significant distress or impair one’s ability to function in daily life. The frequency, intensity, and impact on one’s daily activities distinguish a disorder from a temporary coping mechanism.

Because these two conditions often happen together, there is no proof that they can exist separately in the symptoms of the disorder. The American Psychiatric Association (APA) and the International Classification of Diseases (ICD) have agreed on a single name for them: depersonalization/derealization disorder (DPDR).

Derealization vs. depersonalization in DPDR

At the core of this disorder lies an altered perception of one’s self and the environment. 

People with DPDR might feel detached from their bodies or feelings (depersonalization) and the world around them (derealization) as if watching themselves in a movie. 

This goes beyond mere daydreaming—it is a persistent and distressing alteration of one’s perception and sense of reality.

For those experiencing depersonalization, emotions may be muted or feel completely absent. It can also lead to a sense of numbness or “emotional anesthesia.” 

At the same time, derealization can manifest as the world appearing foggy, dreamlike, colorless, or artificial. 

These symptoms are often described as an element of cognitive fog, where the person’s thoughts and sense of identity become blurred.

Symptoms of depersonalization & What does depersonalization feel like

Identifying depersonalization can be difficult, particularly because it is a truly subjective experience. 

Its symptoms might not be visible to others, which makes it an internal struggle that goes unnoticed. However, there are signs you can look out for:

  • Feeling like an outside observer of your own thoughts or body, feeling disconnected from body (“out-of-body feeling”)
  • A sense of detachment or distance from self and your emotions
  • Emotional numbing, emptiness, or a reduction in the intensity of your emotions
  • Distorted sense of time, as if the past or future is unreal (“Why I don’t feel real”)
  • Perceptual alterations, such as changes in the way you see colors, shapes, and sizes
  • Lacking a sense of identity or a sense of who you are
  • Blurry self-image, with struggles to remember biographical or life events details (dissociative amnesia)

What causes depersonalization and “not feeling like myself” feeling

Let’s break it down: depersonalization is when you feel disconnected from your thoughts, feelings, and body. But what causes this experience? 

Often, depersonalization is a response to severe stress, trauma, or anxiety.

Childhood trauma

Remember those adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) that left you feeling scared, helpless, or alone? Trauma during those formative years can rewire your brain, making it harder to feel grounded and connected to yourself later in life. It’s like your brain’s way of protecting you by hitting the “eject” button on reality.

Researchers have found that people with dissociative disorders often went through a traumatic event as a child. 

Another American Psychiatric Association study says symptoms can start in early childhood or later in life. About 20% of people with depersonalization-derealization disorder do not have their first symptoms until they are older than 20.

Trauma during childhood can rewire your brain, making it harder to feel grounded and connected to yourself later in life

PTSD

Traumatic events, such as accidents, assaults, or natural disasters, can trigger depersonalization. When you experience something terrifying, your brain can get stuck in fight-flight-freeze-fawn mode, even when the danger has passed. This constant state of hyperarousal can leave you feeling detached from yourself and numb.

Other Factors

Depersonalization can also be triggered by other factors, like:

  • Sleep deprivation: Lack of sleep can alter one’s perception of reality and lead to feelings of detachment and unreality.
  • Anxiety and Stress: Chronic anxiety and stress can lead to depersonalization. When the mind is constantly in a state of high alert, it can become exhausted and resort to detachment as a coping mechanism.
  • Neurological Conditions: In some cases, depersonalization may be linked to neurological conditions such as epilepsy, migraine, or head injuries.
  • Drug misuse (especially hallucinogens)
  • Psychosis: depersonalization/derealisation has also been associated with the initial phases of psychosis.

How to deal with it

Combating depersonalization is challenging but by no means impossible. To regain a sense of self, you can employ several strategies on how to fix depersonalization:

  • Grounding Techniques: Focus on the present moment to reduce the feeling of disconnection and anxiety. Mindfulness practices, such as deep breathing or progressive muscle relaxation, can be incredibly effective.
  • Self-Care and Healthy Habits: Engaging in regular exercise, eating well, and getting enough sleep can have a positive impact on your overall mental health.
  • Self-Exploration: Journaling or talking things out with a trusted friend or therapist can help you identify triggers and understand the patterns of depersonalization episodes.
  • Seek Professional Help: Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), DBT, trauma-focused treatments, and medication can be beneficial in treating depersonalization, especially when it’s a symptom of another mental health condition.
Here is a pro tip from Enna Sanghvi, MA, on how to deal with “I don’t feel like myself” feeling Dissociation can be a result of multiple factors. Additionally, it can be a terrifying experience. The foundation of this experience is awareness or lack thereof—of yourself or the world around you. If you are experiencing this, the goal is not to completely avoid this experience. The goal is to understand better which skills work for you individually and know when and how to use them! For instance, yoga can help someone stay aware of the present, but that might not work for you. Maybe grounding exercises work better for you! It’s trial and error! But it is not impossible to live a functional and fulfilling life, even if you experience dissociation.

The Bottom Line

Depersonalization can be a weird and unsettling experience, but it is a common phenomenon. If you’re feeling disconnected from yourself or the world around you, take a deep breath and remember that it’s just your brain’s way of coping with stress.

Of course, if you’re experiencing depersonalization and “not feeling real” frequently or if it’s interfering with your daily life, it’s always a good idea to talk to a mental health professional. They can help you identify any underlying causes and develop coping strategies to manage your symptoms.

Enna Sanghvi, MA photo

Reviewed by Enna Sanghvi, MA

Enna is M.A. in Clinical Psychology from Teachers College, Columbia University. She is involved in clinical work and empirical res...