Love At Any Price: Childhood Attachment and The False Self

by R.C. Mandeville, MA, MACP, MFT

This week’s article explores how we might unconsciously learn to live from a ‘false self ‘ during childhood, versus our true, ‘authentic self’, so as to experience a sense of attachment and belonging with our primary caregivers (which are most often our parents). 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.

As a transpersonally-oriented therapist, I place great emphasis on exploring egoic-driven adaptive (survival) behaviors learned in childhood that may have resulted in dysfunctional attachment patterns and how this might have resulted in our living from a ‘false self’, versus our true, authentic ‘core nature’. As children we are often 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 a mostly unconscious process, – somehow we innately ‘know’ that if we are our most full and vibrant self, we are in danger of losing connection with those we depend upon for our emotional and physical survival.

Attachment to others is a critical aspect of our childhood development. The healthy formation of our (egoic / socialized) ‘self’ depends on 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, a ‘false’ (and at times ‘idealized’ and/or ‘shamed / humiliated’) self develops, and we become separated from our unique, authentic ‘true nature’. This is especially true if we are feeling threatened or unsafe; it is therefore the case that children who grew up in dysfunctional / toxic / abusive home environments may 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).

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 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 abused (mentally, emotionally, and even physically).

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 where s/he is ‘damned if they do, damned if they don’t’. As the child grows older, choosing him or herself, i.e., 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 his or her own family). Either the adult child in such a situation sacrifices his or her own truth to ease tensions with the parent (or other family members, including siblings and extended family), or he remains authentic, and suffers the consequence of lost connection and attachment with those who are supposed to love him/her the most.

It should be noted that the impulse to shape and socialize a child and quell the child’s natural, creative expression is not consciously chosen by the parent, but is in fact 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 it or not, our childhood attachment styles and adaptive 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 ‘primal wound’ that supports our ‘survival identity’, and yet this relational wound unconsciously guides our attachment process with others, leading us to repeat generational 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 attached to Life, Self, and Others.

R.C. Mandeville is a licensed Clinician, Trauma-Informed Life Coach, and Family Systems expert. She is a pioneer in identifying, defining, describing, and bringing attention to Family Scapegoat Abuse (FSA). She is also the creator of the Scapegoat Recovery Life Coaching Process™. She is currently authoring a book on Family Scapegoat Recovery, which will be released in 2020, and has an 'Expert' blog on Psych Central ('Scapegoat Recovery').

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