How do we find ourselves? If you have ever watched a "good" mother and baby pair, where you get that warm feeling in your chest as you watch them volley back and forth with expressions dancing across their faces, you have seen the formation of the authentic self. As babies we simply "are". We cry when upset, coo when happy, sleep when tired. And if our caregivers respond with love, admiration, attention and acceptance we thrive. We learn that we have a self inside of us and that it is valued. Later as toddlers we also learn that there are aspects of that self that come into conflict with our world, like the self that wants to use mom's lipstick to paint flowers on the wall or the self that wants cake for breakfast. If we are lucky and have adequate parents they set loving limits with us while also helping us feel accepted as a whole person even when individual behaviors are problematic.
However if you have ever witnessed a parent shaming a child by saying things like "you can do better than that" or "why aren't you more like _____?" or "girls (or boys) don't do that", etc., then you have also witnessed the destruction of the authentic self. Once the authentic self is under regular attack from parents who are unwilling to accept the child for who they naturally are a false self begins to form. It starts with the realization that they are not meeting their parent's standards and feelings of inadequacy and shame begin to spawn.
Over time children internalize the shame of feeling that they are a disappointment to these parents and create a "false self" that is more in line with what they think their parents want. However this self is not authentic and does not represent the true inner world of the child. The child has betrayed itself in order to maintain the attachment relationship, which sadly is the only option a child has in this situation due to their complete dependence on their caregivers.
As they grow up, however, these kids are plagued by feeling inauthentic and consequently don't establish relationships that contain true intimacy. They may also harbor deep feelings of rage at being asked to abandon themselves in order to please the other, even if in the current relationship this is not being asked of them. It's as if they have decided that this is the price of admission to relationships and they do it reflexively. Living life as a false-self also predisposes one to depression since you cannot experience true vitality and aliveness if you are not being authentic. This pain of being estranged from one's authentic self can often lead to acting out behaviors designed to "force" the self to feel something. Years ago a patient told me that she could only feel something when she was doing dangerous things. The rest of the time she felt deadened. She had sacrificed her authentic self as a young child to please overly perfectionistic parents who demanded straight A's and perfect manners. She became, as one could predict, an alternatingly depressed and angry adolescent who rebelled with drugs and high risk behaviors as a way to not only punish her parents for rejecting her authentic self but also as a means to feel alive.
Living as a false self can also lead one to make decisions that are ultimately not fulfilling, from choosing the wrong major in college to getting into the wrong relationship or taking the wrong job. One's true self is a compass and should steer you towards things that nourish your deepest soul. People living from the false self have no such compass and often drift, feeling confused, depressed and empty. They move through life "doing" things but find no fulfillment in them. I often see these folks in therapy and their refrain is "I have everything but I feel depressed/lonely/empty-- what's wrong with me?"
Thankfully therapy is a great place to discover one's authentic self. Through therapy a person can begin to explore what really matters, how one really feels and how one is essentially "wired". Therapists, because they are not invested in you turning out any particular way, can offer encouragement for the process of re-discovering your nascent true self and bringing it into your daily life.
There are several authors who have written quite poingnantly over the years about issues of the false self and the therapeutic process of repairing this type of damage, such as Alice Miller's
Prisoners of Childhood: The Drama of The Gifted Child and the Search for the True Self, Karen Horney's theory of personality, D.W. Winnicott's concept of "true" and "false" selves, or Tian Dayton's article in Huffington Post. All agree on the fact that personal happiness and well-being is only achievable through a re-claiming of the true/authentic self when a false self has come to be dominant.
If you have been struggling with issues that you suspect may be related to developing a false self consider seeking therapy. It's never too late to be the person you were meant to be.
Wishing you health and happiness,
Krista Jordan, Ph.D.
Dr. Jordan has been in private practice for 20 years in Texas. She is passionate about helping people to overcome hurts and obstacles from their past to find more happiness and health in their current lives.