NYC Psychotherapist Blog

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Monday, November 16, 2015

Understanding the False Self - Part 1

At times, all of us put on a front, to a certain extent, that is part of self preservation and that we use consciously to protect ourselves in situations where we can't be completely ourselves or say what's really on our mind.

Understanding the False Self

For instance, in certain situations, we need to be able to hide our feelings rather than put ourselves at risk.  Even though we might be masking our feelings externally from others, we still know what we actually feel inside.

In other situations, people, who have a low sense of self, might deliberately lie about who they are or what they have, as I discussed in my prior article, as a way to fit in or get others to admire them.

Understanding the False Self

As opposed to the front that we might consciously present in these situations or the deliberate lie to impress others, the false self that I'm referring to in this article usually develops unconsciously at an early age as a defense mechanism to survive emotionally in a dysfunctional family.

Usually, the child develops the false self at an early age in a family where the child can't be his (or her) genuine self because the family demands the child to behave in a different way.

The Development of the False Self at an Early Age

The term "false self" was originally coined by British psychoanalyst and pediatrician Donald Winnicott.

This unconscious construction of the false self by the child develops as a way to survive and to ward off the anxiety brought on by the emotional demands of a dysfunctional family.  The child knows on an unconscious level that to be accepted and loved in his family, he must behave in a way that is acceptable to the family.

If the child didn't develop the false self, the child would be overwhelmed emotionally.  The family would also probably retaliate against him by labeling him as the problem.

So, the development of the false self as a child is adaptive for the child's emotional survival.  Although it's adaptive for emotional survival, the development of the false self also comes at a great sacrifice to the child, who becomes more and more disconnected from his authentic self.

By the time the child becomes an adult, this false self, which is now so ingrained, unconscious and compulsive, is no longer adaptive and hampers his relationship with himself as well as with others outside the family.  The unconscious false self also stifles the growth of the authentic self.

The dysfunction in the family might be due to alcoholism, drug use, domestic violence or a family that has other family secrets.  The child learns to suppress his feelings in order to fit in and to not get attacked emotionally and, in some cases, physically.

It's not just a matter of the child not expressing his feelings.  The child learns to hide his feelings from himself, so that he reacts in ways that are considered acceptable to the family.  The longer he does this, the more out of touch he is from his own feelings.

People Who Have a False Self Often Have Problems in Relationships
As an adult interacting with other adults outside the family, the person who has a false self presentation usually develops problems in relationships.

While he was a child, the family encouraged him to maintain this false self for what they believe is the emotional survival of the family.  They would have felt threatened by the child who expressed anger at an alcoholic father or who even pointed out that there was anything wrong in the family because this type of family wants to keep up appearances that everything in "normal" within the family.

But an adult who is still maintaining a false sense of self, who is interacting with other adults, is bound to have problems because other adults can usually sense the lack of authenticity.

They might feel like the person with the false self presentation is deliberately trying to fool them in some way.  Or, others might say that the person seemed "nice," but it feels likes there's something "missing" in him.

If anyone were to confront this person that he was coming across as less than genuine, he would probably be surprised and wonder why this other person was criticizing him.  He might feel confused because he's just continuing to behave in a way that he always has and his actions are unconscious.

In romantic relationships, a partner or spouse might feel that she isn't getting to know this person very deeply or that he wasn't allowing her to get close to him emotionally.  And she's probably right because the false self hides the true self, and this is why the person with the false self comes across as inauthentic.

Getting Help in Therapy
People who have lived all their lives with a false self presentation often come to therapy when they're having problems in romantic relationships.  Their partners or spouses usually express feeling dissatisfied or alienated because the false self gets in the way of genuine feelings.

People, who have some insight into what's happening with them, will sometimes express feeling disconnected from their emotions or they feel like they're just going through the motions in life and they feel cut off from themselves and others.

Psychotherapists, who work with individuals who have this problem, must work in a tactful and gentle way because the person who has relied on a false self for all of his life usually comes to therapy in a highly vulnerable state.

Even if someone is feeling dissatisfied and longs to be more authentically connected to himself and others, this defense mechanism is ingrained and not easily given up.

The therapist helps the client, as he learns to gradually give up the false self presentation, to cope with the feelings that come up that were being warded off by the false self.

Getting Help in Therapy to Discover Your Authentic Self

This can be challenging, but being able to live authentically is ultimately a freeing experience and usually leads to a more fulfilling life.

About Me
I am a licensed NYC psychotherapist, hypnotherapist and EMDR 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 (917) 742-2624 during business hours or email me.