Neutrality: A state of disassociation by Christen Pentek

I’m Christen Pentek (MSW), a leader with the Youth-Focused Evaluation TIG and part of a team engaging a new approach called Creative Evaluation and Engagement. I want to partly unpack the overlapping space between evaluation and mental health.

Hot Tip

Understanding and recognizing unhealthy mental states may allow you to take steps to engage in evaluation and foster strength. According to mental health research, disassociation is where your body tries to shut out an experience because it is painful, harmful, overwhelming, traumatic, etc. (Van der Kolk, 1994; Brenner, 2001). It is part of our bodies’ survival ‘fight, flight, or freeze’ mechanisms (Kabat-Zinn, 1990).

Emotional and psychological harms are sometimes part of evaluation work. For example, open-ended survey responses of people recounting trauma, supporting an interview documenting someone’s experience of grief, or receiving fiery retorts from a frustrated funder.

Similarly, AEA’s guiding principles request at least a ‘do no harm’ approach (D2 and D3). If disassociation is a new concept to you, here are a few fast facts about it:

  1. A body in a disassociated state is surviving stress (Van der Kolk, 1994; Brenner, 2001; Van Hook, 2014). Stress reactions have long term health implications, such as high blood pressure, diabetes, poor digestion, acid reflux, migraines, etc. This perpetuates not being able to show up fully to issues at heart of our client’s concerns.
  2. A body in a disassociated state has limited cognitive abilities (Ohrman, et al., 2007). We are not telling time, and we process from a reactive mentality. This kind of mentality can negatively impact our depth of thinking.
  3. A body in a disassociated state struggles to process feelings (Goldman & Gross, 2014; Bromberg, 1998; Brenner, 2001). If we were disassociated while listening to stories or engaging with a client, we were not attending to the lived experiences, discounting their part of the story. These actions perpetuate extracting data from community members without caring.

From a perspective of project quality, being disassociated while engaging in an evaluation may not be recommended.

Rad Resources: Self-Care Strategies

The strategy I try to use is staying present throughout an evaluation. If you are experiencing disassociation, there are options:

  • Taking breaks can be a short-term strategy to mitigate emotional weight some projects can cause.
  • Support from a mental health professional, such as therapy, may be a good option for building strategies to meet evaluator’s needs without crashing out.
  • Meditation can be one tool to train our brains and bodies to attend to the needs of people we are engaging, whether clients, participants, or colleagues. Attending to needs builds trust, which is the core of evaluation work (Patton, 2011, p.33).

Do you have questions, concerns, kudos, or content to extend this aea365 contribution? Please add them in the comments section for this post on the aea365 webpage so that we may enrich our community of practice. Would you like to submit an aea365 Tip? Please send a note of interest to aea365 is sponsored by the American Evaluation Association and provides a Tip-a-Day by and for evaluators.

2 thoughts on “Neutrality: A state of disassociation by Christen Pentek”

  1. Sascha Burmeister

    A reflection on disassociation and evaluator biases.

    Thank you for shedding some light onto this valid and introspective view towards the evaluator and their potential mental state. As I learn about program evaluation through my Masters of Education program at Queens University in Kingston Ontario, there are some potential dilemmas that are being shared and exemplified in the field of program evaluation. Your reflection reminds me of what Marvin Alkin and Sandy Taut (2003) say when they mention that, “practising evaluators have to do their best in activity ensuring and promoting evaluation use, while at the same time noting evaluation influences that might occur but are outside their sphere of action” (p.10). My take away from your post and the connections I am making with evaluator biases and influences is that an evaluator should be self aware of their mental health and biases, so that any disposition in the evaluation is as fair as humanly possible. At the end of the day we are all human and fallible, and as long as we are aware of our own situations and do our best to be cognisant of them, then professionally we should be able to achieve the desired and effective outcome. Thank you for bringing this issue forward and sharing it.

    Alkin, M. C., and Taut, S. (2003). Unbundling evaluation use. Studies in Educational Evaluation, 29, 1-12.

  2. This is such a great and thoughtful post -thank you!! I can’t help wondering … how close or interrelated might disassociation and detachment be? In the sense of someone aiming to be objective and detached. It’s the white lab coat imagery that comes with being “scientific” – but is that detachment actually a form of disassociation and therefore unhealthy? Sometimes? Often? You’ve got me thinking about this …

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