What are the consequences of never fully creating a ‘true self’ as a child? Psychodynamic therapist Nadine Moore discusses what it can feel like as an adult and how to start finding out who you are and what you want.
We all need a certain degree of ‘falseness’ to get on in life. We could call it the part of us that is ‘socialised’.
The part that knows to join the back of the queue instead of barging in at the front. The part that holds back a bit from our colleagues at work but lays itself bare with family and friends.
"A ‘true’ self doesn’t bargain or adjust itself according to other people’s expectations of it."
To a degree, knowing what society expects of us can help us to get by, live by the rules and follow society’s norms. We orientate outwards, reacting to the expectations of the external world.
The false self
Psychoanalytic thinking goes a bit further to consider what might have happened when we were younger if all we have as an adult is a ‘false’ self. If underneath our externally-orientated self, it feels like there is nothing.
If without company, life feels a bit empty, if we feel a bit dead inside. If we feel unable to discover what we ‘truly’ desire. If we have trouble being spontaneous, or find it very hard to be hedonistic and trust our instincts. Our relationships may feel hollow, we may be polite and well-mannered but lacking in something ‘underneath’. Or we may feel like we are sleep walking through life.
A young client comes to mind who was a skilled chameleon. We talked about how she had perfected the ability to adjust herself – what she wore, how she talked, how she behaved in order to fit in with whatever group she wanted to be part of. She had multiple selves that she pulled out of the bag whenever required.
While this could be true of anyone to an extent and there were the benefits of being able to get on with a large range of people, the downsides were that when alone she felt empty and dead inside. As if she had given everything externally and left nothing for herself.
As a pyschodynamic therapist I might see these symptoms and reason that my client was getting on in the world with a ‘false’ instead of a ‘true’ self. That perhaps her ‘true’ self as a child was not given the acceptance it needed to flourish and to feel strongly rooted like a tree in the soil.
The true self
Psychoanalytic theory believes that the ‘true self’ is created in childhood, right back when we were without words.
If our spontaneous gestures associated with what it feels like to be alive as a baby or toddler were responded to and acknowledged by our primary care giver, e.g. mum, we continue along the path of creating our ‘true self’. Whoever this might turn out to be.
These spontaneous gestures might not only be ‘adorable’ gestures, like blowing raspberries. They might include screaming or biting, having a ‘tantrum’, kicking and getting angry. A ‘true’ self doesn’t bargain or adjust itself according to other people’s expectations of it.
In helping a child to create their ‘true self’, these true expressions are responded to and engaged with.
A ‘false self’ that is orientated towards society comes later in life, maybe at school, after the true self is given time to emerge.
The creation of a false self
But what happens if our spontaneous gestures as an infant are not engaged with? If instead they are shut down or maybe not noticed, due to whatever might be happening for the parent? Then, the theory goes, a child is motivated to create a ‘false self’ that is orientated towards pleasing their primary caregiver. They may adjust themselves according to what they see is expected of them, to make them appear more ‘loveable’. They may cry less, ask less questions, be less ‘demanding’.
In this way a ‘true self’ that a child is in the middle of creating is not given the chance to develop and arise. Instead in its place is a compliant false self is formed that sees that other people’s expectations as more important than their own instinctual desires.
This false self can overlay or completely replace a ‘true self’.
So what next?
Together a therapist a client can work to be curious about what it might feel like to go about the world with a ‘false self’.
And then they could grapple with what might be their instinctual, unchecked desires. To work out what they are, what they really feel and wish for and would do if not checked by the demands of others.
The counselling room is a good place to experiment with a ‘true’ self, to be angry, to be afraid, to not hide.
I had a client when training who had perfected a false self that was very good at not sparking his father’s anger. That tip toed around the edges in order to not cause conflict. He had leant what it felt like to be in touch with his dad’s anger, and how to adjust himself in order to not provoke him.
Inside our sessions, I often came in touch with a sense of ‘deadness’ that existed beyond this false self.
Together we worked to discover what he might desire without the need to adjust himself. He also became very angry at me, potentially a communication of how he felt as a child towards dad but was unable to express it without fear of persecution.
Not everyone has the time, funds or inclination to go to therapy.
But perhaps this is an invitation to be curious and to not short change ourselves and others in thinking that other people’s expectations are more important than our own.
How does this story make you feel? Perhaps you can relate as an individual or take a different approach as a therapist. Join the discussion using#MHTchat on Twitter. We'll be focussing on this topic live online from 12pm on Wednesday June 13th.