Switching is the act of changing or swapping out who is currently in control (i.e. Fronting) of the body & the most conscious thought-areas of the system. It's often considered to be related to dissociation and Fronting. Switching can be unconscious or it can be a conscious act (see more about types of switching, below).
There are many ways in which multiples switch. In classic examples of multiplicity it is not conscious; it happens when the system is "triggered" by something in their environment. This is generally true of systems that are unskilled, new to learning about their multiplicity, or have not gained trust & communication in their system.
Eventually, switching can become an act of will on a resident's part. If the resident's need or desire to take control is greater than the entity who is currently Front, a bid for control may take place and the personalities may swap. With experience, this switch may take place with blending and a slower exchange of whom is control, especially if the parties involved are compatible with each other in some way.
The Politics of Switching
Switching can be very complicated and hard to put a finger on how it happens. There's also a lot of theories about why switching happens (and why alter personalities exist in the first place) from the research & treatment industry. There's arguments about whether switching is desirable or undesirable — often centered around how any given theory or philosophy views the system and its residents as a whole.
If a theory sees one resident as being the primary rightful "owner" of the shared life, they will often view switching as undesirable. Switching is then seen as the host or core handing responsibility over to a "fake" or contrived identity in order to avoid living or facing reality. Professionals who have this take on plurality will often insist that "the real person" or host be the only person to front, and use shame or other coercion techniques to manipulate the system into compliance. This stance often looks at suppressing switching and forcing system residents out of the front as the means to achieving unification (and this is incorrect; it may indicate either outdated approaches or a lack of education on the professional's part). This philosophy generally sees unification as the most desirable & acceptable outcome of therapy, and any other outcome as a type of failure, regardless of how satisfied the client is with the outcome. This viewpoint has been steadily falling out of favor, as unification has a really low rate of success for DID systems, and suppression, exiling headmates, force & coercive tactics may retraumatize the system (causing flooding or increasing distress & crisis support needs) and lengthen treatment.
The most popular and successful theories (in terms of progress, reduction of self-harm, increasing functionality and lowering distress & dysfunction) see everyone in the system as an alter/resident (including the host or core) and the life & body overall are shared. Everyone potentially developed in parallel; there's no one resident that trumps the others and is more "deserving" of fronting or controlling their life. This philosophy usually allows for functional multiplicity as a potential goal of treatment, and honors switching. Different residents learn how to operate and be in control of the shared life, and participate in shared decision-making. Even if unification is a desirable treatment goal this stance allows that unification may not "take" and there are other alternatives for satisfying outcomes of therapy. Even in terms of working towards unification, it's thought that developing trust, co-concsiousness, and being able to more fluidly switch is a helpful and important part of the process (in the ISST-D 2011 treatment guidelines).
The Switching Process
Switching is a complicated process, and changes as a system becomes more experienced, develops co-consciousness, learns to allow or relax into switches, and as resentments & internal power games or resistance to switching wanes.
If other residents are aware of a bid to take control, they may act to block the party from switching to Front (Crisses: I call this "sitting on" them -- it's a form of restraint of the interfering entity, usually to prevent violation of our House Rules). For example, this could happen if a resident is about to front to talk to someone about a "secret" that the system has. Another resident might block them from switching to front at all, to protect the system.
If the person who is Front actively does not want to be Front any longer, for example in a stressful situation they actively do not want to deal with, they may attempt to step aside and allow someone else to Front.
A Front may actively "step down" so that someone else can take Front, which is a more common situation in amicable & experienced multiple systems. We call this an aspect of "allowing New". A resident has politely, if unconsciously, made it known that they'd like a turn at Front, or they'd like to handle a specific situation, and the system and the current Front has given them leave to do so. This type of switch can be entirely unconscious and usually doesn't cause any discomfort.
If circumstances cause the Front to completely panic, they may flee from Front entirely. This might trigger someone else internal to slingshot into front suddenly — or may actually leave front empty for a time (anything from a moment to…?). If front is left empty, other residents who are aware may vie to step in, the background system (unconscious processes) may "choose" someone to take front, or the residents may forcibly "shove" someone into Front. This may take time — or it might happen quite suddenly and entirely subconsciously, causing a very rapid switch of Fronts. This can be very disorienting for the new Front, who has suddenly found themselves in control of the body.
If a Front flees and no one immediately takes their place, a multiple system generally loses time and to an outsider may seem to be daydreaming, spaced out, or they may actually have a dissociative seizure (non-epileptic seizure) and flop to the ground. So a system might "glitch" and be frozen for a time — one method of dissociating from the world & time-loss. (Crisses: In my personal experience this situation doesn't last long, but I've also witnessed some multiples flop or curl up in a ball or lose conscious connection to the world for periods of time until someone regains control of Front.)
Especially for inexperienced systems, stress or anxiety states may interfere with the switching process. Until we learn otherwise, part of the mechanism of switching has traditionally involved panic situations, and survival. It likely involves some degree of unconscious control over one's mental state and what brainwave state you are in. There may be times when a switch is desirable and for some reason a switch is not possible. See also Stuck-front for persons who want to get out of Front or locked out of Front for when a resident would like to get back into Front but cannot. These are both very highly uncomfortable states, and getting further distressed by them does not improve the chances of getting "unstuck".
Forced or active switching is the act of consciously making a switch happen. It's usually best done with everyone's consent and under the lowest stress possible. This switching "on cue" is not usually easy, even with everyone's consent.
"Forced" is a poor term -- it only means that the time, place and whom is switching is actively chosen rather than organically "just happens". One should never attempt to force a switch by brute mental force, willpower, coercion, threats, etc. Switching is usually a matter of the Front simply relaxing into the body and "stepping aside". Switching is more of the simplicity of allowing something to happen than making something happen. The idea is for the Front to surrender to the switch, rather than to try to switch per se. The person who is attempting to Front steps into place rather than jockeying for the position.
Switching by brute force, threats or coercion is both very bad etiquette and can damage your internal system trust levels. However, it may be necessary to remove someone from Front by brute force if they are violating your House Rules. It's not that it can't be done, especially if several residents gang up on the Front to do so -- but you do not want to damage system trust by throwing your weight around without very good reason to do so.
It's also possible to convince a Front to step aside, for example in the case of a young resident who is distressed and would be best advised to return to the internal landscape for further care by more capable residents. One can have House Rules about these types of issues, and it does not have to be a hostile situation if it's in the best interests of the hurting Front. A volunteer resident can take over Front and do external "damage control" of the situation while internal residents care for the hurt resident. This situation is very highly advisable for traumatized systems who are not in professional care or not in the presence of their professional caregiver. It is not always feasible for an adult to behave like a hurt child and expect the people around them to be able to properly handle the situation -- it may be best to handle it internally, and it helps build a collaborative environment and a level of contained responsibility for the system as a whole.
If you have an internal landscape, it gives you a "visual" accompaniment for the interactions that everyone in your head has, which can be very helpful for switching, since you can see and feel your mental movements in a seemingly "real" environment.
Headaches & Switching
Science shows that different Fronts have different brain-chemistry patterns, so switching Fronts causes one's brain to change its chemistry. This may explain why rapid switching or forced switching can cause discomfort and headaches. Switching between more similar personalities, or switching without forcing the switch, may be gentler on the brain chemistry. Meditation (changing to a less stressful brainwave state) and slow switches can help when forcing a shift, as can choosing to blend (co-Front) rather than fully swap residents if that's possible, especially if you expect to be switching back again soon.
See also Positive Triggers New.
- Don't try to force-switch when you feel anxious. If it happens, it happens, but when you're afraid it's harder to get out of the other person's way.
- If you have trouble switching, first work on developing a high level of trust in your system. It's difficult to give someone else the reigns to run "your life" if you can't trust them.
- Corollary: It's easier to switch to people who are "like you" or with whom you have a good relationship with high trust. Work on these types of switches to get used to how it works.
- Work on inner communication with light trance states. It's much easier to have a conversation or a "group huddle" when you're not distracted by what's going on around your body.
- Note that since many multiples are highly hypnotizable (see caution), you need to take care to only go into light or medium trance states. If you enter a very deep trance state, you won't be able to maintain conscious direction during the trance. Try remaining seated, keep your eyes open if possible, or set an alarm.
- Word of caution: If you think that someone hostile might try to take over when you're in a trance state, you still have big hairy trust issues to work on in your system. Go back to the issues of House Rules & how to enforce them, and work on inner communication & trust.
- Try a variety of trance methods. Autowriting, ecstatic dance, progressive relaxation, deep breathing exercises, mindfulness meditations, guided meditation, etc. until you feel comfortable entering trance states at will.
- If you've got entering trance states down, but still don't know how to switch, work on creating an Internal Landscape with your residents. You can use this visual representation of inner interactions to help visualize switching Front.
- If you're going to force-switch, make sure you're in a safe and comfortable environment. Someone might get stuck in Front and you don't want that to become a more stressful situation than it needs to be.
- Before trying full switches, find other ways to blend or give up some of your control of Front before you try a full switch. A resident can write through you, speak through you, "lend" you a skillset such as you doing something they know how to do by tapping into their skills, etc.
- Switching slowly with overlap is less mentally exhausting and has less potential to cause headaches.
Is Switching Dissociation?
It's likely that switching and dissociation are two separate processes that have become tied together as tools for handling panic-worthy situations and that the system can untangle the two and be able to switch while fully present in the Here & Now.
Many professionals consider switching to be a sign of dissociation, but the fact that switching becomes more fluid, with less loss of time or memory compartmentalization, without loss of continuity, and with more and more positive switching experiences as time goes by implies that switching is not in itself an undesirable issue, or to be conflated with switching.
On a neurological level, it's like each resident has it's own mental thumbprint or activates different areas of the brain or perhaps uses the same areas differently. In this way, yes, maybe technically there's a "dissociative" process in that certain areas of the brain and synaptic connections are activated differently between headmates. However it's noteworthy that co-consciousness in itself is a desirable associative process — and forms more connections between residents, continuity of memories and conscious processes. This would likely be seen in changes in brain scans over time for before and after coconsciousness for the same resident.
Residents can more easily switch when co-conscious than when dissociated and reactive. Thus it's possible that overall dissociation actually interferes with switching — just like dissociation interferes with a great many other desirable things in life. Switching as a conscious, desirable, and chosen process becomes easier with less dissociation, not harder.