False Self

This is my recent column in the New Zealand Herald, which is published in the digital edition every Thursday…

There are some awful clichés in my profession. Call me cynical but only pregnant women actually have an “inner child”. And needing to take some time to “find yourself” makes me wonder: if you’re lost, then who’s looking for you?

In fact, without wanting to get too philosophical, even the idea of a “self” that you can lose, or indeed find, is strange.

However we all think of ourselves as a collection of characteristics, bundled together to make up a “self”. Some of these things we feel to be unique, others similar to others thereby enabling us to feel part of wider groups. For most of use our sense of ourselves feels like it emerges from within us in the form of our own thoughts, feelings, beliefs and desires.

As we grow, who we become is shaped by the world, and moulded by the cultural rules and conventions we come to live by. But we retain that sense of ourselves as being self-directed and unique.

And that creative, expressive self is most precious – because it is still growing and forming – in small children.

Self Psychology is a body of knowledge within psychotherapy that looks at what happens when this process – to develop what we call the “true self” – doesn’t go well.

When the needs of a child are neglected or invalidated, their creativity, thoughts, feelings and desires are ignored (often because the adults are too wrapped up in their own needs) they can come to look to the adult as the sole source of information about how to behave. And in so doing neglect themselves.

This neglect of ourselves can be caused by obvious things like excessive criticism and punishment, or violence and trauma. Or the reasons can be more subtle. For example the parent is lost to such things as depression, parental conflict or addiction, thereby leaving the child to care for the parent’s emotional needs.

In the end however the expression of the self is pushed aside in favour of what we call a “false self”: a feeling that our life is a performance, orchestrated by others’ needs. And where our own needs are ignored, or simply not known, and a pervasive sense of hollowness or frustration can take hold. It can look like depression, and an absence of meaning.

If this is the consistent experience in childhood, the false self becomes the default. The self has been lost.

Knowing where to look for it, however, is easy. It’s knowing how to look that’s harder.

Ultimately, to come to know ourselves, at age 4, or 54, we need space, permission and the genuine caring interest of another person. Of course to throw off the false self, with its weight of the expectations of others, requires effort. But to better know one’s true self just requires patience, and compassion.

So like most clichés there’s truth in it. To find ourselves is to actually simply connect with ourselves: our deepest thoughts, feelings, beliefs and desires. And to do so despite the fear it may cause.

In fact, when you really look deeply inside, and listen very carefully to yourself, you might even find a small child in there, who has some important things to say, and simply needs to be heard.

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