“Knowing others is intelligence; knowing yourself is true wisdom. Mastering others is strength; mastering yourself is true power.” — Lao Tzu
There’s nothing new about the concept of a “False Self”. Throughout early psychoanalytic history, we’ve been handed information on what it is, where it starts and why it’s allegedly there.
The earliest analytic theories such as Freud’s, divide the Self as either inward toward ourselves and our instincts or outward directed at others.
And, while Carl Jung’s theories don’t directly speak of a False Self either, he wrote and spoke frequently of our Shadow side. This is synonymous with the dark part of our personality that we mask and push out of conscious awareness by outwardly putting our best foot forward.
For example, if you know you have struggled with anger or sadness most of your life, you may try to stuff those feelings and emotions by presenting outwardly as a nice, funny person with a Can-Do attitude. In essence, the mask becomes the False Self in which we not only hide our authentic self from others, we learn to hide it from ourselves.
However, one theorist’s research has more deeply studied the idea of a False Self.
Origins of a False Self
Dr. Donald Winnicott was an influential child physician and psychoanalyst who coined the term, False Self in the 1960s. In true analytical fashion, he proposed that our childhood is critical for developing an authentic, True Self.
Winnicott’s theory walks hand-in-hand with other instrumental theorists such as John Bowlby and his theory on attachment, and Abraham Maslow’s motivational needs theory. In Winnicott’s theory, he argued that if a parent is inconsistent in attaching to and bonding with their child, or is insufficient in meeting the child’s needs, that child is at risk for becoming what Winnicott termed as “compliant”.
Now, typically when we hear the word compliance, we’re probably in relative agreement that it means to obey, or to be in agreement with, or having excessive cooperation, such as with school rules or workplace Do’s and Dont’s.
Normally, we look at compliance as a good thing.
However, in Winnicott’s theory when children comply, it’s at the sake of losing their True Self — the child learns to modify their behavior to protect themselves from feeling inadequate or ashamed.
Ultimately, what is being taught is that a child is unable to be willfull, stubborn, rebellious or to stake their own sense of identity and individuality. In essence, they can’t be themselves.
And, ultimately what is being learned is that the child’s identity must reflect the parent’s approval.
The result is that children learn that in order to receive ‘acceptance’ or ‘love’ from their caregiver, they must comply with being a perfect mirror image of what “pleases” their parent.
- Manners are more important than the kid’s happiness
- Image is everything
- What they do is more important than who they are
- Perfection is more important than the kid’s emotional health
- Their opinion is silenced
- Their identity is shamed
- Tears are punished or ignored
- How mom or dad feels is more important than how the child feels
- The child’s opinions are dismissed
- Parents/caregivers choose what emotions the child is allowed to feel (happy instead of disappointment; anger instead of sadness)
- Who the child is, doesn’t matter
- “The Look” is their only warning that they better remain perfectly cooperative…
….these examples identify total compliance required by a child…
Enter, False Self.
False Self in Action
Fast-forward into adulthood, and you may not be able to pinpoint why you feel empty, disillusioned, stuck and unsatisfied, but according to Winnicott, it’s because a False Self robs you of living.
This is also why many who claim to feel stuck, angry or depressed often say they only feel like they’re merely existing….not living.
Others know how it feels to be surrounded by people — even going as far as laughing and pretending they’re having a good time — while feeling empty inside and lonely.
It’s little wonder many keep that mask firmly in place, choosing to embellish it, and further secure it by means of bringing new people into their lives, and tossing out reminders of anything or anyone who saw the mask slip.
We convince ourselves that there’s no mask in place; perpetuating the very mask we’ve become attached to. Or, rather it, to us.
We dismiss emotional vulnerability as weakness, scoff at intimacy and are chained so tightly to a false narrative, that we miss the forest for the trees.
Trusting others becomes improbable and unwanted. Showing anything other than socially-approved toxic positivity triggers deep shame where the echoes of past shaming ring loud.
Challenging A False Self
Challenging a False Self can feel counterintuitive because it literally requires shedding what has become that person’s identity. Shedding the mask can feel raw, make a person feel exposed, or trigger every vulnerable emotion or feeling that the mask was constructed in order to avoid.
Thus, it boils down to two choices: do nothing and stay stuck in a cycle, or do something and begin embracing who you authentically are.
For anything to change, it starts by challenging it.
We need to see and feel that something is off about how we move through our day, how we act and react around others, how we’re feeling, and why we’re hooked into a toxic loop.
And, we need to be motivated for growth.
One of the biggest differences in analysis and behavior change between kids and adults is that kids are more environmentally driven. Tell them to do their homework or chores, and boom….they earn their video games.
This is one reason why a child’s upbringing and environment have such profound effects on their development, which get carried with them into adulthood.
Adults, on the other hand —we need to additionally look at our motivations. We need to take the bull by the horns and face vulnerable emotions, a cruel inner critic and an unhealthy cycle that has us adding more embellishments to a False Self.
And only then can we devise that plan for growth.
Challenge Your Emotions. At the core of a False Self are wounds that started earlier and continue bleeding out. We may not be aware that we continue bleeding, or we may not know why or how these wounds started.
These wounds affect our emotions, and the mask is in place to avoid more vulnerable emotions.
Gowing up, many of us were spoonfed what to believe as right or wrong. Most of us learned these ideals and values as modeled by our parents and caregivers, and some of us learned by the School of Hard Knocks.
If the messages being taught were toxic, then the messages being learned were toxic.
For example, if a child’s parents divorced and the child grew up hearing how “horrible” men are or how they’re all unfaithful, that child is at risk for being conditioned into believing men are toxic.
For a young boy hearing this message, they may grow up acting out this false narrative by believing that men are supposed to be unfaithful, or that men lack value. The boy may feel ashamed for being a male, or may grow to resent women.
For a girl being handed this message, she may believe that women are subservient or not allowed to have an opinion. She may grow up feeling depressed, or eventually getting involved in toxic relationships that reinforce the messages received.
Both kids can grow up having their parent’s values or messages bleeding into their own sense of self, creating a False Self narrative and the painful emotions or feelings that go with it.
By listening to what messages we’ve been taught, we gain awareness on where they started and by whom.
This gives us power to recognize that the messages didn’t start with us , so we can put a stop to them.
By challenging our emotions and our feelings each time a toxic message replays, we’re taking our power back and gaining awareness into our inner critic.
Challenge Your Inner Critic. Our inner voice begins in childhood. It may start out as an imaginary friend that runs parallel with our conscience, or it may be our voice of reason.
The lucky ones got to keep that healthy inner voice that probably kept them out of trouble, and kicked them in the ass when they needed motivation or a reality check. This healthy voice is nurtured in childhood and carried with them into adulthood as their rational thoughts, and words of encouragement.
The not-so-lucky ones had their inner voice become an inner critic. This too, happens in childhood and is usually locked and loaded by the teen years. Messages get flipped into shame, fear, and anger, which affirm a toxic narrative that the kid isn’t good enough.
These messages are carried with that kid into adulthood and get stuck on repeat, further breeding toxic shame, anger, and a lack of self-worth.
To challenge these messages, we need to challenge the irrational thoughts behind the messages.
The message has to be reversed. In the example above, the parent was bashing men as horrible and unfaithful. This message can morph into a toxic inner critic that now tells the boy he’s horrible and will be unfaithful in love.
Or, it can tell the girl that she will never find love or that she will be cheated on.
If we’ve already challenged our emotions that bubble up when we hear our inner critic start in with its message, then we probably realize where the message started, when it started, and by whom….and we can begin separating our emotions from the message.
Then, we start challenging the messages of our inner critic.
If our inner critic is saying we’re unworthy of love — challenge that message by saying it’s wrong — that it’s only repeating the same script that was spoonfed to us growing up.
Here’s where we start disowning what was never ours to own.
By challenging our inner critic, we’re putting our power back in our court, where it belongs. And, each time were able to challenge its messages as wrong, we’re gaining a stronger sense of our True Self.
Challenge The Cycle. The easy part is challenging our emotions and inner critic.
The hard part? Challenging the cycle.
As with anything that’s toxic, addictive or counterintuitive to your growth, it not only requires challenging where it started and why it’s there, it requires doing something about it to change things in your favor.
For example, if every time you hear your inner critic saying you’ll never be loved you start emotionally binge eating, breaking this pattern should begin with a healthy alternative such as going for a jog or calling a friend to chat.
Will it be easy? Nope.
Nothing worth having comes easy.
But, by challenging our inner critic — recognizing how we feel when we hear the message, reversing and flipping the script and investing in healthier habits that null and void those messages….we’re taking our power back.
And strengthening our True Self.
Bowlby, J., 1982. Attachment. New York: Basic Books.
Maslow, A. H. (1954). Motivation and personality. New York: Harper
Winnicott, D. W. (1965). The maturational processes and the facilitating environment: Studies in the theory of emotional development. New York: International Universities Press.
This post was previously published on medium.com
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