While repressing core parts of ourselves that are deemed unacceptable by those caring for us may in fact be necessary for our survival while we are dependent children, this can contribute to a variety of mental and emotional difficulties, both in childhood and as an adult, that may eventually need to be examined and addressed in therapy.
The Development of the False Self
As a transpersonally-oriented therapist, I place great emphasis on examining egoic-driven ‘adaptive survival responses’ (i.e., ‘survival behaviors’) learned in childhood, as it is these foundational responses / behaviors that most often result in dysfunctional attachment patterns and inhibit the expression of our ‘authentic’ self as adults. This is why I invite my Psychotherapy clients to explore how such survival response patterns might have resulted in their living from a ‘false self’, versus their true ‘core nature’, resulting in their experiencing chronic mental and emotional distress.
Those of us who were raised in a dysfunctional family system were likely conditioned to sacrifice our natural creative spontaneity, our authentic ‘core’, or ‘center’, so as to maintain some sort of connection with our primary caregiver(s) – most often our parents. This is because dysfunctional families are bound by unspoken family rules (“Don’t talk, don’t trust, don’t feel“), and rarely can tolerate healthy, unedited expression
This process of denying and repressing our ‘true self’ is largely unconscious – somehow we innately ‘know’ as children of dysfunctional, emotionally immature and/or personality disordered parents that our most full and vibrant self cannot be tolerated within our family system. We fear losing connection with those we depend upon for our emotional and physical survival, and so we succumb to the ‘rules’ that demand we become silent, accepting, and accommodating.
Because attachment to others is a critical aspect of our childhood development, the healthy formation of our (egoic / socialized) ‘self’ depends upon it. We learn very early on in life that we must appease our primary caregiver(s) at all cost; we therefore morph ourselves and allow ourselves to be reshaped into what we are expected by them to be.
Thus, in this manner, a ‘false’ self (Horney; Winnicott) – which can encompass an ‘idealized’ and/or ‘shamed / humiliated’ self – develops, and we become separated from our unique, authentic ‘true nature’. This is especially the case if we are feeling threatened or unsafe; thus it is common for children who grew up in dysfunctional / toxic / abusive home environments to grow into adults who are living nearly entirely as a ‘false’ self, with all of the negative consequences (e.g., addiction, codependency, self-esteem issues, suffering from ‘imposter syndrome‘, etc).
The False Self as Adaptive Survival Response
In a sense, an unspoken, unconscious agreement is made in the child’s quest for acceptance, connection, attachment, and love: “If I become what you want and need me to be, you will love me and not abandon me or reject me.” The natural, free self is suppressed and hidden so that the child might fit in and experience a sense of belonging and familial harmony. But this (false) harmony comes at a cost to the child: We have lost all ability to live as our true and natural self. This eventually may result in our repeatedly finding ourselves in dysfunctional, toxic, or even abusive relationships later on in life as adults.
This process of giving up the self in an attempt to receive love is in actuality an adaptive survival response. It might serve the child for a time as a means of coping within their family-of-origin – But such adaptive survival responses cannot possibly serve them as an adult.
Alternatively, if we don’t adapt and ‘go along to get along’, i.e, if we choose authenticity over attachment and ‘rebel’ against the demands of the power-holders in our family-of-origin, we can be seen as emotionally and/or mentally unstable, dangerous, threatening, ‘different’, difficult, ‘needy’, selfish, ‘cold’, unloving, ‘narcissistic’, unreasonable, etc.
Our being authentic may even result in our being scapegoated by our family, and we may be abused (mentally, emotionally, and even physically) due to being in the ‘identified patient’ role.
Whether the child chooses to play the role the parents are comfortable with, or whether they choose to rebel, they will face pain either way – thus, the child exists in a ‘double bind’ / ‘Catch 22’ situation whereby they are ‘damned if they do, damned if they don’t’.
As the child grows older, the conscious decision to choose the truth of themselves, i.e., their choosing to be authentic, may also mean choosing to distance themselves from their family: For what the system cannot control or accept (due to feeling threatened), it will reject and eject (specifically, the ‘rebelling’ child will most likely be scapegoated and/or cut-off / shunned by their own family).
Either the adult child in such a situation sacrifices their own truth to ease tensions with the parent (or other family members, including siblings and extended family), or they remain authentic, and suffer the consequence of lost connection and attachment with those who are supposed to love them the most.
Adaptive Survival Responses May Determine Our Fate
It should be noted that the impulse to shape and socialize a child and quell the child’s natural, creative expression is rarely consciously chosen by the parent, but is in fact often an unconscious reaction. Meaning, it is an automatic response, versus being conscious and intentional on the parent’s part.
Often the parent is re-enacting their own past by projecting their own process of lost authenticity onto their children – repeating a pattern that has likely been passed down for generations like some toxic, poisonous family recipe.
Like it or not, our childhood attachment styles and adaptive survival responses on some level determine our fate. Our survival responses, when they overpower our authentic nature, become an unconscious blueprint for how we will or will not connect and attach in our future relationships – especially our most intimate ones.
We remain unaware of the core intrapsychic primal wound that supports our ‘survival identity’, and yet this relational wound sustained early on in our life unconsciously guides our attachment process with others, leading us to repeat multigenerational attachment patterns.
It is therefore my experience that therapy is a process of reclamation whereby we discover, recover, and reclaim our authentic self lost in childhood. As we examine ourselves to see who we are and who we are not, we eventually release all that is false and survival-based so that we may live from our center, free and confident within the truth of our own ‘authentic self’.
Existing within this innate and natural ‘Ground of Being’, we now stand on a firm inner foundation of ‘Self-hood’. It is from this place that we can create a meaningful life, fueled by a sense of passion and purpose, offering our gifts, experiences, and wisdom to the world, securely and compassionately ‘attached’ to Life, Self, and Others.
Have you been impacted by Family Scapegoat Abuse? Find out by reading ’16 Experiences Common to Family Scapegoats’ (link included in my profile, below, along with information regarding how to access my website, where you can purchase my introductory eBook on FSA. -Rebecca).
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