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Monday, November 23, 2015

Psychotherapy Blog: Understanding the False Self - Part 2: Getting Help in Therapy

As I mentioned in the first part of this article, Understanding the False Self, the false self is a phenomenon that develops early in life for some children, usually in response to the demands of dysfunctional family.

Understanding the False Self: Getting Help in Therapy 

Unable to reveal his genuine self, the child learns to ward off emotional or even physical reprisals by appeasing the family and being who they want him to be.

As I stated in the prior article, this is an unconscious defense mechanism that is adaptive in terms surviving emotionally in a dysfunctional family.  But as the child becomes an adult and forms other adult relationships, this defense mechanism is no longer adaptive.  It gets in the way  of the adult knowing what he truly feels and will often keep others at a distance because they sense that he isn't being genuine.

The adult who has a false self defense mechanism usually comes into therapy when either he feels alienated from himself (i.e., he realizes that he's cut off from his feelings) or someone close to him, either a girlfriend or a spouse, complain that she feels unable to get close to him emotionally.

How Therapy Can Help a Client to Overcome a False Self
In my prior article, I mentioned that the therapist, who is helping a client to overcome a false self so he can live more authentically, must work in a way that is gentle and tactful.

Of course, tact and a certain gentleness is required with many clients, but the client who comes in with a false self presentation, even a highly motivated client, usually has a strong underlying fear of letting go of the false self defense mechanism that helped him to survive early in life.

A Client Might Be Afraid to Let Go of the False Self Defense Mechanism

So, even more than usual, a therapist must be especially attuned to what is going on with the client, who might not be aware himself of what he's feeling (see my article:  The Psychotherapist's Empathic Attunement).

Often, clients, who come to therapy after they recognize that they have a problem that is an obstacle in their lives, are in a hurry to "get rid of" the problem as quickly as possible.

While this is understandable, an experienced therapist knows that she must get to know the client before she delves too quickly or too deeply too fast.

A client, who has used a false self defense for all of his life, is often more emotionally vulnerable than he realizes because he has relied on this defense to survive.

Although most people are fairly resilient, a client with a false self defense can become too fearful of doing the work if the therapist proceeds too quickly.  Everything will depend upon the particular client and how strong the defenses are.  It's important that the therapist is empathically attuned to the client
Depending upon the client and what he feels comfortable with, I will often suggest a mind-body oriented approach to help him to begin to feel his genuine feelings.

Learning the Safe or Relaxing Place Meditation

I usually start with helping the client to develop the internal resources and coping strategies that he will need so that he will feel relatively safe in do the work in therapy.  This might include self soothing techniques, like the Safe or Relaxing Place Meditation or breathing techniques like Square Breathing as well as other coping strategies depending upon the client's needs.

I also encourage clients to keep a journal (see my article: Journal Writing Can Help Relieve Stress and Anxiety).

For many clients, it's a matter of helping them to connect to their feelings and where they feel those feelings in their body.

For clients who have strong defenses against feeling their emotions, they might experience a dissociation from their body and might not realize it until they come to therapy.

For instance, if the therapist notices that a client's legs appear tense, she might ask him to feel into his legs and notice what he's experiencing.  For clients who are especially dissociated from their bodies, they might not feel their legs at all.

Since it's always important for the therapist to start where the client is, if the client is dissociated from his body to the point where he is physically and emotionally numb, I often find that using Somatic Experiencing helps the client to reconnect to his body (see my article: Somatic Experiencing: Overcoming the Freeze Response).

So, for instance, if the client tells me that he can't feel his legs from the knees down, I would ask him to notice where he can feel his leg from the knee up.  If he notices that he can sense into his legs just above the knee, I would help him, using Somatic Experiencing, to bring feeling from above his knee to below his knee to help him to reconnect feeling to the dissociated part.

Helping a client to get comfortable with himself is an individual process (see my article: Learning to Feel Comfortable With Yourself).

One of the things that I really like about using a mind-body oriented approach in therapy is that it's easier to titrate the work to the needs of the individual client.

Along the way, the client usually needs to mourn for what he didn't get when he was younger and deal with the trauma of being part of a dysfunctional family.

What Keeps a Client Motivated to Continue to Do the Work in Therapy
Most clients come to therapy with varying degrees of ambivalence (see my article:  ).  This is understandable since change can feel frightening, even when it's a change that a client really wants.

A client with a false self as a defense mechanism might be more ambivalent than he realizes initially because he has relied on this particular defense mechanism, usually, for all of his life.  So, letting it go can feel be scary.

Learning in Therapy to Develop an Authentic Sense of Self

What motivates most people in this situation is that they gradually begin to feel a greater sense of authenticity within themselves and in their dealings with others.  Even though this sense of authenticity might come with fear, it can feel very freeing to be in touch with genuine feelings.  So, this will often motivate clients to stick with the work.

Getting Help in Therapy
Change can be challenging, but living your life detached from your emotions and with a defense wall around you to ward off fear usually leaves you feeling alienated from yourself as well as others.

If you feel you might be emotionally disconnected from yourself and others due to a false self defense mechanism, you could benefit from working with a licensed mental health professional.

Finding a psychotherapist that you feel comfortable with is very important (see my article: How to Choose a Psychotherapist).

Psychotherapy can help you to feel reconnect to your true self and to live in a more authentic and fulfilling way.

About Me
I am a licensed NYC psychotherapist, hypnotherapist, EMDR and Somatic Experiencing therapist who works with individual adults and couples.

To find out more about me, visit my website: Josephine Ferraro, LCSW - NYC Psychotherapist.

To set up a consultation, call me at (212) 726-1006 or email me.