THE FALSE SELF
(or how we intellectualise to avoid pain and intimacy)
“We see only what we know" Goethe.
There is comprehensive documentation from Freud onwards that as well as the False Self resulting from growing up with a narcissistic parent, as discussed in my previous paper here, it is often the way a child copes with bereavement; in that brief moment of extreme emotion the False Self can step in and take over, ensuring that the child never has to feel the pain, anxiety and rage which inevitably accompany such an acute loss. I shall give an example from my client work to illustrate. The client was in a military family and has given permission to share her story.
The client, her brother and sister, aged 9, 7 and 6 were all ushered out of the kitchen where they were having tea and into the living room where their mother was sitting with the Station Commander and his wife at her side. The children were told briefly that their father had been killed in a 'plane crash that day. She clearly remembered thinking that “I can't let on that I already know” (she had had a premonition at the time of the crash that day), and “I think I ought to cry now. That would be acceptable.” But as she already “knew”, there was no need for her to cry, so she didn’t. She went off to Brownies, telling herself that it was the sensible thing to do - you should keep yourself busy, she thought. She even told the Brown Owl that she may get a bit upset because her father had just been killed and would she then be able to go home, please!
This is an acutely touching illustration of how the split had instantly occurred and intellectualisation had taken place. Throughout her entire life, until, through therapy she experienced it differently, she was extremely proud of herself for being able to "close the door” on painful experiences and to compartmentalise them.
As an older child, and later, she has often been told by people in all areas of her life that there is more depth to her than first appears, and that if she could only show this, people could be closer to her. She has always found this very puzzling as she thought she was showing all of herself to people. She knows that she always smiles and laughs a lot, but thought that this was just showing a naturally happy nature. She thought she was getting close to people.
During a later period of her therapy she had a half-sleeping, half-waking dream. In this dream, which was no more than a snapshot or flashback, and all in black and white as in an old photograph, she and her brother and sister were all standing in line. It was a snapshot of the moment they were told of their father's death. This time, however, the moment was frozen. As she looked at this black and white tableau she felt for the first time in her life how she must have really felt in the split second before the False Self stepped in. It was a profoundly physical sensation of unadulterated shock, horror, fear and terror. She says that words are inadequate to describe it. It was unbelievably awful and left her temporarily weakened.
This feeling, though, was not new to her. ln fact it was horribly familiar. She had felt it frequently and increasingly throughout her adult life at any time of loss or threat of loss - any kind of loss, however small. It was always way in excess of any appropriate feeling and always disruptive to the situation, and therefore to her life. Since the dream it has never been felt again. She told me it had been wonderful to see it placed, through therapy, where it belonged. Since then she often experiences autonomic symptoms, such as palpitations, which she did not know before. These she takes as early warnings of dangerous situations which she can consequently side-step. Previously she would have been unaware that any danger existed. John Bowlby discusses this at length (Bowlby ' 80: 3) and includes Freud's battle to understand the sequence of anxiety and defence; which precedes which. She tells me how grateful she is that through therapy she has been freed from this potentially disrupting pattern.
Through her therapy she has come to see things very differently. She now believes that these characteristics were all manifestations of The False Self. No wonder people could not get close to her. No wonder she had such problems with intimacy when people were only gelling half of her. The sad thing was that she was completely unaware of it. Malan ('95:1) illustrates this wonderfully with his triangle theory. The defence is to smile, laugh and generally think happy. The anxiety is that one will not be liked unless behaving like that. The anxiety masks the hidden feeling which in her case was probably one of rage at her father for leaving her so suddenly or extreme pain at the loss; probably both.
Angela Simmons. March 2018.
(Growing up with a narcissist)
I sometimes think that every person who pursues a career in psychotherapy must have had a parent with a narcissistic personality. How else could our sixth sense have become so well tuned, our intuition so finely honed?
The child of a narcissistic parent has to develop an extra awareness, an extra alertness to the slightest nuances of the parent's mood. He can “see” changes almost before they happen. In this way he learns to remain safe.
Imagine the difficulties such a child must encounter when his other parent dies or departs. There is no longer an alternative mirror for him to peer into in order to verify his existence. He is left with the cracked and distorted mirror of his narcissistic parent; the parent who can only survive by assuaging his or her own narcissistic needs through his or her child. (Miller ' 79:I)
This child, often an only or first-born child is loved with a passion, but the love is self-love. The parent only loves the child for what he can mirror. S/he sees him as an object to reflect the parts of him/herself s/he wants to own. Any part of him s/he cannot accept is rejected.
The child learns that there is no consistency in his parent's love. He cannot be himself without risking his/her anger, rejection or indifference because he cannot behave in any way that does not mirror his/her idealised view of him/herself. He therefore develops into the person his parent needs. This saves his life but stunts it seriously and often permanently.
This is illustrated by Margaret Mahler ('68), who says, “It is the specific unconscious need of the mother that activates, out of the infant’s infinite potentialities, those in particular that create for each mother "the child" who reflects her own unique and individual needs". This child is known as the narcissistically cathected child.
He is able to develop his intellectual capacities undisturbed but not his emotions, because performing in any way unacceptable to his mother/father is too dangerous to risk. To survive he has to bury deep inside his unconscious a half of himself, i.e. all the characteristics which make him unacceptable. He cannot appear bad, ugly, angry, lazy, dirty, jealous or smelly. (Miller ' 79.2) These characteristics are all split off and the False Self, to use Winnicot's term, is allowed to emerge.
So now we have a child who has already split off all his unacceptable bits and who, on the death of a beloved parent cannot exhume from his unconscious all the emotions he will need in order to grieve successfully. These emotions have long been unavailable to him. He is bereft of emotion and bereaved. The internal struggle this sets up must take a great deal of energy. The only emotions he has at his disposal are the "acceptable" ones such as happiness and charm. Intellectualisation is the only recourse left open to him and all thoughts of grieving are buried inside the unconscious along the other lost parts of him.
'' For the majority of sensitive people this true self will remain deeply hidden. But how can you love something you do not know, something that has never been loved? So it is that many a gifted person lives without any notion of his true self. Such people are enamoured of an idealised. conforming, false self. They will shun their hidden and lost true self, unless depression makes them aware if its loss or psychosis confronts them harshly with that true self, whom they now have to face and to whom they we delivered up, helplessly as to a threatening stranger." Miller ' 79.
If you cannot love yourself in this state of existence, how can you expect others to be able to love you when you only exhibit half of yourself. As this knowledge is buried deep in the unconscious you are doomed to travel through life searching for love that is unattainable.
Given that a bereaved child frequently goes through life "searching" for the lost parent to love again, his life must surely be empty and unfulfilling.
Counselling can help redress this imbalance, enable you, this “child”, to learn to love yourself for who you really are and not for the the false values and beliefs that were instilled in you by your narcissistic parent. You can grow into the adult you would love to be and start to attract relationships which reflect this new way of seeing yourself and the world.
Angela Simmons. October 2017.