Why Would Someone Create a False Self?
We all, to some extent, cultivate a false self for protection, but most of us are aware of it, we know we’re putting on a bit of an act in certain situations. But those whose false self functioning has become compulsive and unconscious are not aware of the mask they wear.
The idea of a false self is to ward off mounting anxiety, to help a family to maintain its denial of problems or to keep the true self safe and often hidden. That’s why a child might create one in the first place, to please and placate the family system. The sad outcome however, is that the false self becomes so well constructed and adapted, or garners so much acceptance and sense of place and even power within the family that spawned it and relies on it to maintain their status quo, that eventually the true self becomes lost to us. We hide our true self so effectively that even we can’t find it. And the cost of changing the way we function seems just too dear. We not only fear feeling the pain underneath the coping strategy, we may feel our very place within the family might be in jeopardy if we change.
This false self is also sometimes seen as the “idealized self” or the self through which we operate because our true self just somewhere along the line (usually quite young) felt too weak, inadequate or overwhelmed to function and gain approval in the situation in which it finds itself. So we constructed a version of self that was better, stronger and more able to cope well, a self that was less easily wounded, made anxious or devastated.
We may even come to idealize our particular false self adaptation; for example, bullying becomes ‘strength’ or manipulation and controlling becomes ‘cleverness’ or even ‘compassion’. The false self steps in, when we feel unable to cope, like an actor on a stage and hides our stammering insecurity under a smoke screen of fake strength, or intellectual posturing.
We all need an ability to mask or control our baser emotions so that we don’t blurt them out inappropriately where they can get us into trouble. The real danger lies not in creating a mask or false self, we all do that somewhat. The danger lies in mistaking the false or idealized self for the true self.
A false self because it is an unconscious defense, can stifle the growth of a conscious, authentic self. It’s the false self that strategizes and develops strength, confidence and acceptance. And the true, conscious self gets suffocated and sent into hiding.
How Did This False Self Get Created in the First Place?
Generally we think of family as one place in which we can let our hair down and be ourselves. But what if the family we’re in doesn’t allow for the expression of each individual’s genuine self, if the family demands that we be who it needs or wants us to be to such an extent that we learn to create a false self in order to be accepted and loved? This phenomenon of false self functioning, is often seen in alcoholic families or other types of families that have impossible standards of who and what to be, such as with extreme wealth, religion or even military; it is also associated with pain filled, dysfunctional families. Many of these family types overlap e.g. alcoholism and extreme wealth. Kids who grow up in these families often learn not to express their genuine and spontaneous reactions about what they see going on around them; because if they do, they risk being attacked or put down by those in the family who are invested in maintaining the status quo and denying that problems exist.
Because it isn’t safe to be open about what is going on in the emotional atmosphere of the family or for that matter to even feel what is really going inside themselves, these children may learn to live a sort of emotional lie because unconsciously, they fear that letting in the truth will overwhelm them or those they love. Family members silently collude in creating the sort of false sense of normalcy that they feel is lacking in their family. Staying safe and “looking good” become of paramount importance. To this end children and even adults become what will please and protect the system rather than who they really feel like on the inside.
The false self is an adaptive (though actually maladaptive) reaction to a dysfunctional situation. It is largely unconscious, that is the person with the false self would never know that it’s false and if you were to challenge them on it, they would see you as the problem, not themselves and they would probably set about analyzing your need to criticize. If you are bold enough to confront, take on or critique a false self behavior….well…look out. The false self is there to hide, ward off or cope with unfelt, unacknowledged pain and when you challenge the behavior, whether it be compulsive talking, joking, chronic cuteness or intellectual superiority, you challenge the pain. The hurt that is hiding gets somehow triggered or touched and anger or retaliation may ensue.
When someone who has become dependent on false self functioning goes into therapy or enters a twelve step program they can go through a period of feeling very vulnerable and shaky because they are removing their coping strategy and exposing the pain underneath it. But over time new emotional habits get created and new ways of healthy coping get practiced and adopted. And this person can become much more comfortable “living in their own skin”.