“She did not know yet how sometimes people keep parts of themselves hidden and secret, sometimes wicked and unkind parts, but often brave or wild or colorful parts, cunning or powerful or even marvelous, beautiful parts, just locked up away at the bottom of their hearts. They do this because they are afraid of the world and of being stared at, or relied upon to do feats of bravery or boldness. And all of those brave and wild and cunning and marvelous and beautiful parts they hid away and left in the dark to grow strange mushrooms—and yes, sometimes those wicked and unkind parts, too—end up in their shadow.“
~Catherynne M. Valente, The Girl Who Fell Beneath Fairyland and Led the Revels There
The False Self
By Cindy Trevitt, Registered Professional Counsellor and Master Practitioner in Clinical Counselling
We all have a ‘false self’ intended to mask or protect ourselves and we usually know we’re pretending; however, there are those for whom it is unconscious and compulsive and they don’t know they’re hiding their authentic self.
Throughout our history we have learned to present a certain image of social standing; and now, with social media and cyber communications, we live in a performance based society as if we are all method-actors on an electronic stage. We dispatch images, comments and quotes on a cyber-platform trying to represent ourselves as if we are real. We’re watching each other more than we are interacting. The real and the perceived are blurring together.
“Perfectionism is a self destructive and addictive belief system that fuels this primary thought: If I look perfect, and do everything perfectly, I can avoid or minimize the painful feelings of shame, judgement, and blame.”
The Gifts of Imperfection
We have learned to hide our true selves for fear of retribution, violation, humiliation or rejection. We ‘fake it’ to fit in but find this lonelier as no one knows who we truly are. We are only reinforcing our insignificance when we hide our genuine self. We act in the hopes of getting some sense of self through a reflected identity but deep down feel unlikable, inadequate or burdensome. We look into a social-mirror to see who we are and find ourselves lacking; our only reflection is a pretense.
As children in dysfunctional families we discover that who we are and what we feel or need is of little consequence but the satisfaction and stability of others is paramount and our responsibility. We strive for family approval even if it means denying ourselves – all in the name of being “good” (albeit false). We feel we must protect the family system and enable its’ denial of problems or else rock the boat and risk losing love and safety. In this setting we unwittingly conclude that since our true self isn’t protected or welcome it must be that we are fragile, annoying, inconvenient, deficient, shameful or burdensome (the list goes on – we find things about ourselves we don’t like and use them as evidence to validate negative self-views rather than knowing we have normal, human imperfections and are loveable, capable, and deserving as we are). We’ll live our whole lives holding onto, and sometimes manifesting, these unconscious, critical beliefs.
Like chameleons, we change our style, our demeanour, and our responses to suit the person we’re with. Hoping to gain status, we’ll highlight our curb appeal and conceal the self we’re ashamed of. We fake politeness or pretend to be easy-going. We do what we think we should do or what we think normal people do. We get anxious in social settings because we don’t know how to behave or whom to imitate and believe being ourselves will end in rejection. “What will people think?” is the credo of our fragile ego.
In order to appease, we appear friendly and agreeable but are often times elusive about commitment or social engagements because we truly don’t want to attend; don’t feel entitled to say, ‘no thank you’ or because we are apprehensive and insecure. Living with a mask makes us a stranger to others and to our own selves.
We steer clear of new pursuits believing we don’t have sufficient capabilities or can’t survive uncertainty. We procrastinate to avoid failure lest it validates our irrational belief we are ineffectual. Rather than accepting uncertainty and excitement as normal in any new experience, all thought-roads lead to inner shame and personal blame.
Our fake identity is a self-deceiving fabrication we believe is real but is actually composed of the mind-set and values of others. We have no real conviction towards those values; however, as they are not our own.
If someone accuses us of being disingenuous, we are likely to react negatively. Facing ourselves can cause unbearable pain and discomfort. The lack of ‘true self’ is a terrifying realization; if we are not who we think we are, then who are we? The pseudo self is camouflaging an injured being and can be narcissistic in nature; appearing egotistical, virtuous, superior or oblivious – all defensive reactions against acknowledging poor self-esteem.
Our counterfeit self worriedly attaches to others and our self-definition is easily altered. We’ll compromise our principles in order to avoid conflict and reject our desires in order to appear well thought-of. We’ll sacrifice, suffer and at times resent doing so much for others because somewhere deep down, the truth is we are not happy and our actions do not fulfill us. We’ll work hard, go beyond what is expected to appear virtuous and fly into a rage if we’re unappreciated or accused of having an agenda (which we do). We sometimes act the martyr and feel a misguided sense of superiority believing, ‘I have suffered so much for you, you may never criticize me’. We do not have accountability for our actions. We are poorly differentiated with little or no distinct sense of self. We think, feel and behave similarly to others in order to purchase status. We rely on direction and energy from others rather than being self-directed. When asked what we want, we might offer, “Whatever you want”.
We experience feelings as facts and struggle to distinguish them from intellectual thought. “If I feel bad, then I must be bad”.
The false self may inadvertently construct fragile and tenuous relationships, which do not welcome unprompted emotions, behaviour or expression. Out of self-preservation, we desperately attempt to suffocate others’ genuine emotion; particularly those in the darker vein such as anger, hurt, or disappointment but the actual results are disconnection, oppression and frustration.
People pleasing and approval-seeking are prevalent in the false self and prevent us from accepting and understanding others – especially if others’ feelings and desires are contrary to ours. Other people may gain from our attempts to gratify them but inevitably, differences happen and the relationship is stressed or broken. The false self can barely, if at all, face others’ dissatisfaction and is immediately invalidated – or more accurately, all our negative beliefs are validated. To protect the insecurities of the people pleaser, others may withhold their true feelings and feel burdened and restricted by the need to reassure us. In any case neither the people-pleaser nor the recipient are free to be him or her self nor is true intimacy achieved.
We need to awaken to our true motivation and earnestly listen to the desires of others empathically. In ‘pleasing’ we will try to give and give and when rejected feel outraged and invalidated – after all, the true goal was approval from the other and not giving selflessly. For a close and strong connection, we need to honestly reflect on our true intention – is it to elevate our self-worth, to fulfill obligation or purely out of caring for the other? When we do things in spite of our true desire we are writing a secret contract making us blameless and good and in exchange others cannot disapprove. We’re trying to corner them into a place of only feeling what we want them to feel so we can feel good about ourselves – even though it’s inauthentic and ironically, self-centred.
Our fragility is what makes us the proverbial ‘spineless jellyfish’ that cannot say, “no” without feeling guilty or afraid as they believe they are endangering the validation they need and possibly risking abandonment. Constantly seeking reassurance from others but never reassured for long. Acceptance needs to come from within otherwise we are sieves that reassurance pours through like water. We need to accept the valid emotions of others without interpreting them as affirmation of our personal failure. Equally, we have our own, subjective, valid emotions that may differ from others. It is not necessarily a matter of who’s right – both experiences co-exist equally. We can accept others’ feelings respectfully, without ‘fixing them’ and they need not overthrow us. Most adults know we do not always get what we want when we want it. We all get ‘no’s’ from life and it is our task to feel whichever corresponding emotion; then self-soothe and then decide what we want or need to do next (if anything). We need to cope through adaptive means, problem solving, knowing our subjective selves and possessing self-acceptance.
“The problem in many marriages is not that spouses won’t validate each other, it’s that what gets validated is an inaccurate
self-portrait…..that’s important to
remember next time you feel like demanding that your partner ‘understand you’ the way you understand yourself.”
The Passionate Marriage
The fictional self prevents us from asking for what we want in life – from our work, our friends, or our relationships. It prevents us from expressing desire lest we look lustful or be a burden (just as we may have learned to feel as children). Our desires are normal and natural and deserve our attention and our action to fulfill them along with acceptance that sometimes life isn’t fair and we don’t get everything we want but it doesn’t confirm our unworthiness – it’s just life.
Being the false self is largely what gets in the way of many a perfectly good relationship. We’re putting on a bogus front to gain our partner’s love and approval but by winning this recognition of our false self we are validating our negative self-views. We feel bad about ourselves in our relationship and struggle to gain reassurance from our partner but the source of the problem is our own self-deprecation.
With poor self worth and fear of abandonment we try to get our partner to behave in ways that soothe our anxieties. But through our insecurities we often ironically make our partner feel mistrusted, invalidated, controlled and pushed away.
Reluctant to speak frankly or face confrontation we end up being avoidant or defensive, which infuriates our partners and ironically creates greater conflict. Our partners yearn for a solid, self-aware companion but our relationships are blurry and we’re anxious much of the time. No true connection occurs.
“No man, for any considerable period, can wear one face to himself and another to the multitude, without finally getting bewildered as to which one is true.”
We live without so much as whispering our discontent but many a relationship will come to an end over this because when push comes to shove and something very stressful occurs, the genuine self might make a rare appearance and reveal our true colours but it will be so shocking, hurtful and unsettling that the relationship cannot recover. It has been built on a false foundation since its’ inception.
The false self often works overtime to make a relationship or situation seem idyllic even when it’s dreadful (an echo of the dysfunctional family and the need to uphold the family system denial). It pretends there’s love and caring – even in relationships where there is none – and is devastated when things are revealed as problematic. The false self doesn’t even know it exists or that the relationships it’s upholding are flawed or manufactured and not having a solid self to rely on, it is terrified of seeing the truth.
Believing we are not permitted to admit our dislike of others, we blame our aversion on our own shortcomings and try harder to please those we don’t like (or sometimes don’t even know). Being “liked” can be a matter of life or death to the false self. (Does Facebook know and use this knowledge?)
The false self can be macho, cavalier, or indifferent. It can rant at length about the problem with the people in the world. Much like the rebel without a cause, it is rebelling against the world – not because it wants to, but to control rejection – reject others before they reject you.
The false self may need to run away, obfuscate, sulk or get so belligerent and protest so loudly as to force the other to back down and deny their complaint – in fact, reinforcing their false self. It is so guarded and defensive it comes across as morally superior and righteous as if we are above any normal human transgressions.
We have roles that we enact, that evolved from our family system, that society impresses upon us about being men or women (and what you’ve learned that means); helpless; hero; tough guy; pleaser; clown; caretaker; savior; or leader. There are the archetypes of the controversial, political type; the image-oriented, status-seeker; the organic, self-help guru; the popular trendsetter; the ironic hipster; or the anti-establishmentarian. Cultures, religions, and politics all influence who we think we should be.
Consider this: Who are you really? What do you desire? Why? What do you think about you? What do you feel? What would you feel or want if no one was around? What would you feel or want if your happiness was entirely up to you and no one else was affected? What will you miss out on by accepting and loving yourself as you are? You may have fantasies that seem outlandish but they may be truer than you think and it may be in your best interest to take a hard look at the heart and soul of your fantasies.
Think about all the messages given to you about what you are, what you should do or should be and ask yourself if those messages are congruent with who you really are. Do they fit in with your own natural desires? Do they fill you with a sense of wellness? Are you accepting these messages so you’ll be accepted or to avoid conflict? Are you being someone in reaction to others or out of your own personal, individual longing? Why are you doing what you’re doing? Is it for your own desire or is it solely to gain recognition or approval? Maybe you’re at your job for livelihood, of course, but is it the livelihood of your wishes? Maybe you’re in a relationship to fit in but the relationship itself is draining and difficult.
The true self can change and develop over time with careful consideration, exploration and considerable soul-searching and only by personal choice. The solid self knows what we feel, believe and value and can stand its’ ground in the face of others with firm conviction. We do not consider that we have to be someone; we know and identify with who we are.
“We all wear masks, and the time comes when we cannot remove them without removing some of our own skin.”
Well-differentiated people can distinguish between feelings and objective reality. The solid self is not easily hijacked by stress or emotions and stays consistent and true to its’ self. It doesn’t waver and change with the people or environments it encounters. It does not interpret others emotions or opinions as facts to invalidate themselves. The true self is stable, steady, mature and grounded.
Even when uncertain, we still try new activities to satisfy our own, personal desires or curiosities. Being expert is of little interest, but finding out if we enjoy something is essential.
The fictional part of us seeks the approval that it likely got little or none of as a child so is subconsciously searching for a caring parent – thrusting everyone in to a parental role in the hopes of making up for all that was lost or recreating that which was familiar. But no amount of present day caring or attention; no amount of proving ourselves worthy and no amount of changing people can make up for the past – the loss must be acknowledged on its’ own and then we must go about the vital task of facing and valuing ourselves as we are today.
We alone are responsible for our own validation and happiness and if we hold our selves accountable we are more likely to feel contented, self-accepting, self-aware and self-assured. We’ll also give in the spirit of love and celebration rather than in the spirit of pleasing. We’ll involve ourselves in mutuality where we enjoy the complete differences of others and are free to be our natural, true selves.
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Thanks for your friendship.