We are not born to suppress our real selves.
Nor were we designed to sacrifice our needs and desires in order to be loved.
But sometimes, in childhood, we learn that our authentic self is not acceptable.
Attachment and the False Self
As we build our first attachments and take the first steps in our development as social and emotional beings, we learn to love - and ideally, that we are loveable.
Our early relationships tell us about the world - about how relationships work, about life and, most importantly about ourselves.
We are all born with far more potential than will ever be realised and in the first three years of life, our neurology is transformed by our experiences - both good and bad.
By the time we are four, the number of neural connections/pathways is reduced by about 50%. This is known as “synaptic pruning” and it allows our brains to become more efficient by eliminating connections that are not needed. During our first year of life, pruning in the prefrontal cortex (a part of the brain associated with personality and complex behaviours such as planning) is at its peak.
Attachment behaviour is designed to enhance our survival and it allows the infant to stay in safe proximity to a caregiver. Unfortunately because this behaviour is “hardwired” the infant can end up making adaptations to parenting that is abusive. These adaptations become less “adaptive” as we mature into adults.
The experiences we have through our early attachment relationships have a big influence on our future.
The experience dependant neural development of infancy and early childhood creates the substrate that sets a lifetime of patterns and assumptions.
Scary isn’t it?
Even more frightening, perhaps, for parents.
As we grow, the ideas and assumptions we have about ourselves - our identity, if you will - is co-created in the crucible of an attachment relationship.
If we are loved, then we learn that we are loveable.
If we are supported, and soothed, if we have our physical and emotional needs met, then we learn to make the intrinsic assumption that the world is benign and that the universe and other people will be there for us when we need help. Through sensitive and responsive (“good enough”) parenting we learn to self-soothe and to accept that we are loveable just as we are.
Sometimes, unfortunately the messages are far less positive.
When our parents are not available to us in the ways that we need, we learn lessons about the world and ourselves that can impact our identity - and the contact we have with our authentic self.
The Perfect Child and the False Self
Many parents have a picture of the perfect child.
The perfect child might be one who is quiet, docile, affectionate and obedient. This kind of parental projection might lead to anxiety around parenting and the need to be perfect parents, especially when the child does not fit the expected picture.
When we as children don’t “perform” our expected role or behave in the ways our parents hope for, parental anxieties increase and these may end up preventing our parents from providing us with the mirroring and approval we need to develop a strong sense of self.
Some of the lessons from this critical growth period are hard to erase.
We might learn that we are only loveable when we are clever and precocious or if we never make any mistakes, or perhaps that only our shallowest and most positive emotions are acceptable.
Most of us are imperfect, clumsy, messy, frustrated, angry and sad - at least some of the time. These natural (and universal) imperfections can conflict with our parent’s need for us to reflect back their “perfect” parenting by being perfect ourselves.
We might take in the subtle message that we are a burden, too difficult and demanding for our parents to cope.
We may learn that only by high achievement can we earn love.
So we get the message that these parts of us are not welcome, and we slowly learn to lose touch with these feelings and the less “loveable” parts of ourselves, as if by hiding them they will cease to exist. When this happens, our emotional (or dependancy) needs and the feelings that are undermined or unacceptable (our messy, mistaken and imperfect self) get tucked away and denied, sometimes for life.
These lessons can suppress or destroy our relationship with our authentic self. We instinctively come to understand that we must give up the self who makes mistakes, the vulnerable, messy, unhappy or frustrated self in order to be loved.
So we do it.
How the False Self can Disrupt Our Lives
As adults we might find that we only have relationships where we are forced to give up almost everything of ourselves in order to be loved. Or we might become compulsive caregivers to hide the painful knowledge that our own need to be cared for was never met.
Giving up or suppressing our real selves doesn’t lead to intimacy.
In order to have an authentic, healthy relationship we need to be able to be real. And that includes showing the parts of ourselves that might not be very attractive - parts that we think are unloveable or unacceptable.
Having a dominant false self doesn’t just affect our relationships.
It can affect every area of our lives from our jobs and getting on with work colleagues, to choosing what to study and finding a career pathway. It can stop us from knowing what we want and how to get it and from being able to make grounded and healthy decisions that reflect our values and our life direction.
The purpose of the false self is not defensive or adaptive, it protects against painful feelings. The false self does not set out to master reality but to avoid painful feelings - a goal it achieves at the expense of mastering reality.
Psychotherapy Can Help You Uncover Your Authentic Self
Although it can be depressing to think of ourselves as the unwitting victims of early experiences, that is not the end of the story.
While it is true that these experiences have far-reaching, subliminal and permanent effects (a fact confirmed by recent advances in attachment theory) there IS something that you can do to mediate and mollify its effects and to uncover your authentic self.
Taking the steps to develop self-awareness and facilitating change though the power of psychotherapy can help you understand your trauma, AND get to know and activate your real self.
Psychotherapy will help you get back in touch with your authentic self and learn to fully live.