Survival in a dysfunctional family entails keeping our parents/caregivers happy. How they feel, what they want is what matters. We repress our true feelings, needs, desires in fear of being beaten, derided, or rejected. We adopt a false self or selves to be accepted and loved. This puppet-like pseudo persona is controlled by these god-like figures in our little lives.
The dictum is ‘behave/act according to what they expect or else…’
Additionally, the “false self” can be also termed a reactive self or a reaction to our unsupportive environment. Nonetheless, having to suppress our authenticity to survive eventually leads to a feeling of emptiness and depression. When we cannot spontaneously be present, life becomes a huge burden.
Alas, this conditioned pattern of relating becomes the mask/armor we permanently wear. Our adult lives continue to be dominated by these childhood relational blueprints.
Donald Winnicott – True Self and False Self
The concept of the “false self” was developed by British psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott. He theorized the importance of a good enough mother in the development of a true/authentic self. Winnicott used true self to describe a sense of self based on spontaneous authentic experience and a feeling of being alive. The false self, by contrast, Winnicott saw as a defensive façade, which in extreme cases could leave its holders lacking spontaneity and feeling dead and empty, behind a mere appearance of being real.
In the face of neglectful, abusive, narcissistic parenting, a child has to become what Winnicott calls compliant—that is, the child will adjust their behavior, without even thinking consciously about it. This conformity to their environment is the child’s attempt to protect themselves from further inadequacy or disappointment—but it is a covering up of the original, true desire. This is the birth of the False Self.
Ironically, the False Self shows up in two very different ways: as a deflated or codependent False Self or a grandiose or narcissistic False Self.
My Codependent False Self
I had to adopt a fake persona after my mother died – that’s nearly 40 years ago. Because if I expressed my true desires my father would go into his violent raging fits, my maternal grandmother would give me the silent treatment and the rest of the bunch made fun of me and were outright callous.
Even though, I had just lost my mother and all I wanted someone to take care of me. But no, I was expected to become the responsible woman in the house. At 11, I had to put on my big girl boots get marching.
Constantly having to suppress my true feelings and needs, caused intense turmoil in my head. Repressing while trying to figure out how to act, so as not to upset anyone. I had to become chameleon-like constantly changing the masks I put on.
What choice did I have? A little girl concurrently trying to relate to an explosive father, an inconsistent moody grandmother, a conniving aunt, a pedophile cousin, a lecherous uncle, a jealous aunt, a mean bully uncle. Add to that I had to pretend to my school mates that all was fine. The stress of not just the actual abuse but pretending to like these assholes really took a toll on my mental health.
Peeling Away The False Self
The first step is becoming aware of our feelings – what makes us happy or unhappy, comfortable, or uncomfortable. Rather than being tuned to the feelings, expectations of the world.
I’ve had to really work at becoming self-aware of my internal sensations in a situation. Sure, changing the operating system from other focussed to Me-focussed takes effort and practice.
Moreover, reformating our faulty internal belief-system that I am not good enough’, not worthy, defective, unlovable, requires a complete overhauling of our internal program. Guided meditations, listening to self-development podcasts, becoming proficient is some skill changes how we view ourselves.
Best is having a non-judgemental and accepting person, an enlightened witness (a therapist, friend, sibling, adult-child) who mirrors goodness, kindness, and acceptance. Seeing ourselves as lovable in the eyes of another is incredibly healing. It is the surest way to heal our tainted belief system. Once we feel deep within our souls that we are lovable the way we are, we can work on giving up the coping strategy to fit in our environment.
Becoming Self-Differentiated – Giving Up the Need for Approval
Becoming self-differentiated should a normal process in our journey to maturity. However, when we grow up in toxic homes, enmeshment is the normal way of being. Parents expect their children to be an extension of themselves. They have to appease, please and accommodate their caregivers’ demands/needs.
Gradually, our identity becomes enmeshed in the identity of that of our parents. Later on, in adulthood, we play the same subservient role. The ever accommodating codependent.
When our self-worth/esteem is fused with what people think of us. We take on roles and behave in ways that we hope will bring us approval even though deep inside we feel resentful. We feel fearful, ashamed, and anxious to go against the expectations of those around us.
Nevertheless, healing and becoming authentic requires giving up the need for approval and acceptance. Start acting in ways that are in tune with your needs and feelings. Stop giving a f**k about what people think.
Learn to set boundaries and stop people-pleasing. Stop being a doormat and stand up for yourself. It takes practice, it takes effort and radical self-acceptance.
Changing Behaviors – Behaving Authentically
Change does not just happen – it takes consistent effort. Start small, with people, not your superior or who are emotionally bonded with you. Strangers like the shopkeeper – not simply accepting substandard items he is trying to push.
Always ask yourself – What do I want?
Of course in a relationship, there is always room for negotiation and compromise. Stand your ground – you don’t have to accede just to keep the peace or be loved.
Some False Self behaviors/actions I’ve had to work on
1) People-pleasing – trying to get people to like me by over-accomodating their needs.
2) Not resorting to fake laughter to deal with unpleasant people and situations
3) Saying ‘Yes’ when I want to say ‘No’
4) Expressing what I want to eat, to do – I want to eat Chinese today not Italian !!
5) Not going out of my way to soothe someone’s tantrum
6) Leaving when I want to rather than staying in a situation and hating myself
7) Over-functioning for other people’s inadequacies
8) Directly asking for what I want, instead of resort to covert subterfuge
9) Cutting people off rather than turning the other cheek
Understandably, becoming authentic requires courage and tenacity. We have to overwrite ingrained behavior patterns that are fake but we continue repeating due to misplaced loyalty, guilt, or shame.
The True and the False Self
Becoming My True Self
Letting go of the false self is an integral part of our healing. As we heal and grow the less we feel the need to be accepted by all and sundry. If someone does not like me that’s fine, it has nothing to do with my value. Reaching that state is the path to enlightenment – detachment from other people’s opinions.
However, the journey to discovering your authentic self will no be easy. You have to unlock old wounds and heal that hurt inner child. Only then can we transition from a developmentally arrested false self to being an authentic adult that we are meant to be.
Keep in mind though, becoming our true self is not a static state – we are constantly evolving beings. Being true to what you feel in the moment is what authenticity is about. Don’t be with people who expect you to be what they want you to be, or want to control you or judge you or ridicule you.
Taking back my power has meant cutting off people who disrespect me. I have come a long way trying to fit myself within the narrow confines of other people’s expectations. I no longer feel the need to pretend and be something else. Because I truly believe the Psalm 139:14 that ‘I am fearfully and wonderfully made.’
Dear Readers my New Year 2021 wish to you:
Believe that You are Fearfully and Wonderfully Made
Image Source: Pixabay
Letting Go – David Hawkins
Greater Than the Sum of Our Parts: Discovering Your True Self – Richard C. Schwartz
Becoming Supernatural: How Common People Are Doing the Uncommon – Dr. Joe Dispenza