The false self
12 December 2020
All of us have a persona - by which I mean the ‘social self’, or the part of us that we project out into the world and which people who don’t know us well will recognise. That’s not a problem.
What is a problem is when we have become identified with a false self. This is a concept developed by British psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott, who argued that the false self develops when we have not been accepted for who are as infants. We have learned that we need to be a certain way in order to be accepted by those around us, especially parents. This is called a narcissistic wound and it relates to our deep sense of self.
Of course, this is a continuum. Some of us may have been more severely affected than others and the extent of the narcissistic injury will determine how rigid the false self becomes.
It is an emotional wound not to feel loved and accepted as a child. And because we need our parents’ in order to survive, as an infant or young child, we will mould ourselves to fit their demands.
The false self is the ‘me’ that I’ve created as a defence against the unbearable pain of rejection. But it’s unconscious. Because it developed over time, from very young, we are not usually aware that we have a false self.
Because the false self is an attempt to compensate for what we didn’t get, it often seeks to win admiration, unconditional approval through having the right clothes, car, partner, job etc. There is frequently a denial of true vulnerability because this would be too painful.
But those of us who have developed a false self can find ourselves feeling a strange emptiness, lack of satisfaction and unhappy close relationships.
In his book Character Styles, psychologist Stephen Johnson describes the narcissistic injury that leads to the false self: “It occurs when the environment needs the individual to be something substantially different from what he or she really is.
“‘Essentially, the message to the emerging person is, ‘Don’t be who you are, be who I need you to be. Who you are disappoints me, threatens me, angers me, overstimulates me. Be what I want and I will love you.’”
The work of psychotherapy with the false self is to gradually help the individual get in touch with his deeper, real self. This is a challenging process but can be achieved through the therapist bring care, respect, mirroring and love to the relationship, while also holding appropriate boundaries.