The Development of the False Self in Childhood

The Development of the False Self in Childhood

The following is an excerpt from my book on FSA, Rejected, Shamed, and Blamed: Help and Hope for Adults in the Family Scapegoat Role.

While repressing core parts of ourselves that are deemed unacceptable by those caring for us may 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. Scapegoated children in particular may become so thoroughly identified with a ‘shamed and blamed’ false self that they feel inherently flawed, damaged, and unworthy of love at the unconscious level.

Childhood Attachment and the False Self

As a transpersonally-oriented therapist, I place great emphasis on examining egoic driven ‘maladaptive survival responses’ (i.e., survival coping 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 true self (also referred to as the ‘real self”, authentic self, or the ‘intrinsic self”) as adults.

Given this, I invariably invite my FSA recovery clients to explore how such survival response patterns (which can include trauma responses) might have resulted in their living from a ‘false self’ versus their authentic center. We can then also explore how these maladaptive coping behaviors learned in childhood might be contributing to their mental and emotional distress and negatively impacting their relationships today.

This process of denying and repressing our ‘true self’ is largely unconscious – Somehow we innately ‘know’ as children of dysfunctional, emotionally immature, 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 early on in life that we must appease our primary caregiver(s) at all cost; as a consequence, we morph and reshape ourselves into what we are expected (or demanded) by them to be.

It should be noted that this process of becoming disconnected from the true self in response to a non-accepting, non-approving, and non-nurturing family environment allows the child to mentally and emotionally survive within their family-of-origin, but is considered to be maladaptive as the child grows older in that these coping behaviors interfere with healthy adult functioning and relating.

In this manner, a false self (which includes the ‘idealized’ or ‘shamed/humiliated’ self) develops, and we become alienated from our true self. 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 live nearly entirely as a false self when they become adults, with all of the negative consequences (e.g., addiction, codependency, depression, anxiety, self-esteem issues, unstable relationships, etc).

As mentioned in Chapter 8, my FSA research suggests that if the rejected, shamed, or bullied child is an empath or highly sensitive person (HSP), they will typically fall into the role of ‘caretaker’, ‘helper’, or ‘parentified child’, in addition to possibly becoming the ‘family scapegoat’. Because they do not feel inherently lovable, they instead seek to be viewed as ‘valuable‘ by becoming a source of support and care for their parent(s) and perhaps other nuclear (or extended) family members, such as siblings. Such children often become the ’emotional caretaker’ and ‘feeler’ for their family, and are likely to develop the ‘fawning’ trauma response, as mentioned.

The Suppression of the True Self

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 then love me and not abandon me or reject me.” The true self is suppressed and hidden as the child learns how they must behave, think, and express themselves in order to fit in and experience a sense of belonging and acceptance. But this artificial harmony comes at great cost to the child, who has lost access to their enlivened, natural self and ‘felt-sense’ experience. Adaptive survival responses also can result in the child repeatedly finding themselves in dysfunctional, toxic, or even abusive relationships when they become an adult.

Alternatively, if we as children don’t adapt and ‘go along to get along’, i.e, if we choose authenticity over attachment and rebel against the restrictions placed on us by the power-holders in our family-of-origin, we can be seen as emotionally or mentally unstable, dangerous, and threatening, as well as “angry,” “different,” “difficult,” “needy,” “selfish,” “cold,” “unloving,” “narcissistic,” “unreasonable,” etc.

When being authentic results in our being scapegoated by our family in this way, we are caught in a ‘double bind’, i.e., the ‘Gordian knot’ I spoke of earlier, meaning we are “damned if we do” and “damned if we don’t”, which makes choosing authenticity over artifice a challenge. Whether they choose to play the role the family is comfortable with, or whether they choose to rebel, the scapegoated child will experience intrapsychic pain and conflict either way. If later the (now adult) child consciously decides to live and act authentically at some point, it may be intolerable to a highly dysfunctional family, for what the system cannot control or accept, it will reject and eject.

Ultimately, the adult child in such a situation must decide if they will sacrifice their truth to ease tensions within their family, or remain authentic and suffer the consequence of lost connection and attachment within their family system – a system that is unable to tolerate the totality of who and what they are (something I see frequently with my ‘celebrity’ clients and clients that have achieved other obvious forms of professional or personal success).

Maladaptive Responses and the Primal Wound

It should be noted that the impulse to shape and socialize a child and quell their natural, creative expression is rarely consciously chosen by the parent; rather, it is most 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 past by projecting their 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 maladaptive survival responses on some level determine our fate. This is because these survival responses, when they overpower our authentic nature, become an unconscious blueprint for how we will or will not connect and attach in our primary relationships – especially our most intimate ones.

It is therefore critical that the adult survivor of childhood abuse becomes aware of this core intrapsychic primal wound that developed in response to their shaming and rejecting environment, as it is this core wound that is fueling much of their psychological and emotional difficulties and interpersonal distress.

This is why I view recovering from family scapegoating abuse as being a process of reclamation whereby we discover, recover, and reclaim the true self lost in childhood. As we examine ourselves to see who we are and who we are not, we eventually can identify the survival responses that no longer serve us as adults, while at the same time releasing all that is false and survival-based. In this way, we can live from our center, confident within the truth of our being, free of distorted, self-negating narratives.

Existing as our true self within this innate and natural ‘Ground of Being’, we may at last stand on a firm inner foundation of ‘Self-hood’, versus the cracked and shaking inner ground inherited from our dysfunctional family system. It is from this place of deep, inner connection and constancy that we can create a rich and soulful (soul-filled) life, one that is nourished by a sense of inner passion and purpose, free of the ‘scapegoat’ identity.

4 thoughts on “The Development of the False Self in Childhood

  1. Superb and incisive insight as ever Rebecca. Thank you so much for contributing this incredibly valuable wisdom document to the world of people surviving dysfunctional families and relationships.

    This article is important not only for those recovering from the scapegoat role but also those who have suffered any role within a dysfunctional family system.

    I myself only got the role of scapegoat much later in life, indeed as you say, when I saw the dysfunction in the family, took therapy and then called it out, only to find myself promptly scapegoated with apparently a range of the following; having a midlife crisis, suffering early onset diabetes, having a nervous breakdown, being a narcissist myself (both my sisters are and mother was).

    Fortunately, I was married to a trauma informed psychotherapist (and still happily am) when all this kicked off and was in therapy with a family systems therapist too, so I was lucky to be well supported.

    However, I had not understood or realized that I was an ‘ideal self’ meaning that my mind had created a personality and belief system of who it thought I ‘should’ be, rather than who I ‘was’.

    I can only say that it came as a massive shock to read in a psychology book passed to me by my therapist the description of a ‘codependent’ personality. The accommodating type which derives from an anxious ambivalent attachment style as a child.

    I nearly passed out from shock as I read it because I realized that this was me down to the last detail. That I was not who I thought I was, and my beliefs, thought patterns and behaviors were all directed by the ‘ideal self’ or the ‘false self’ as you describe it.

    I remember returning to my therapist and asking, “well who am I then?”. She replied, “That is what we are here to find out”.

    I remember her saying something that made me cry. She said; “The Buddha said, ‘there is nowhere to go, you are already there!”

    I immediately understood that this was not a journey to somewhere else, to a different person, but a journey back to myself, my true self, who was within me but suppressed.

    She said, “It isn’t even a journey, it’s an acceptance.” I cried again at the understanding, this is about us accepting the authentic person we are, who our parents couldn’t accept because they themselves were not accepted.

    And because they couldn’t accept our authentic self, we in turn couldn’t also, for the reasons you describe, accept ourselves either, hence the mind creates the ‘ideal self’ in order to survive.

    I got huge ‘cognitive dissonance’ as I saw the life that I had thought was ‘normal’ for the dysfunction that it was. It was very painful to realize that I had been abused within my family in very subtle ways which had limited who I could be for decades.

    Worse still was the realization that I myself would affect my children and loved ones in the way I had been affected unless I rewrote those maladaptive thought patterns, beliefs and behaviors. I myself was toxic because of all this.

    The pain of being shamed and blamed as well as ostracized and scapegoated was immense. My worst subconscious fear was realized as I was rejected and abandoned. It was too late to turn back the clock and there was no way I was going to further trade my mental health for being accepted by a dysfunctional family.

    It was 4 years later of therapy and much personal study that finally a big change happened to me.

    I changed from being ‘externally validating’ to ‘internally validating’. The change happened in a couple of months and was palpable.

    Then the world changed, I started meeting different people, having meaningful relationships with new friends. Work picked up, the sun seemed to shine brighter, I started trying new foods, visiting new places, fell in love again with my wife, the universe felt like it was working with me on a glorious summer’s day.

    This is just a taste of what it feels like to get the ‘true self’ back, and that is how things have stayed,

    Yes, there are ups and downs, but the recovery time is much quicker. The feeling of impending doom has been replaced with confident optimism, many family members and old toxic friends have tried to puncture my recovery and indeed sometimes it has really hurt.

    But now I know what I am feeling and why I am feeling it and if it relates to childhood events, I can link them.

    I am still in recovery from childhood because it takes time and practice to recognize maladaptive responses caused by childhood trauma and then more time to formulate healthy responses and override the temptation to follow the old neural pathways.

    Nevertheless, each time I catch the old unhealthy response and replace it with a healthy one, the old response dwindles in intensity and many many have completely disappeared.

    Now I am aware of the work I need to do and there are still no doubt a few trauma responses lurking in denial in my subconscious but I have myself back and am aware of what has happened and its effects and what I need to do to rectify it all. I am now acting from a center of understanding within myself and from a position of strength and knowledge.

    I rarely attract codependents or narcissists anymore and my old social crowd have melted away as the changes occurred in me. However, when I do meet a narcissist or indeed codependent, I can discern them pretty quickly and avert any psychological or emotional techniques they may be trying to apply.

    I don’t hold it against either of them because both are compulsively and unknowingly coming from the position of the false self and it is not their fault, they are just acting according to their nature.

    I myself used to be codependent and use all of the people-pleasing techniques to manipulate people into liking me, I cannot judge anyone and in fact I feel sorry that this condition is so rampant among people who are unaware of it, whose intention is to be good people, but it is coming through a maladaptive filter caused by an adverse childhood.

    So, I say to anyone reading this to look deeper into the features of codependency and the ideal self and try to bring these subconscious beliefs, thought patterns and behaviors into the conscious mind by studying the subject and taking therapy. It is a difficult and painful task because we are working against the programming of our families and no doubt our friends.

    My new relationships with people are so different and fulfilling because we express and recognize each other’s emotions, it feels so rich and rewarding. My old relationships were like eating dry bread, I didn’t realize how superficial and emotionally void they were.

    Likewise, I could not conceive of what it would be like to get my true self back, or rather come back to my true self. It is an inconceivably good feeling, truly the proverbial pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.

    I no longer worry if people will like me or not…I like me!…that is the most important and we cannot please everyone.

    I grieved for my family, the one that I didn’t have, and I grieved for the decades of my lost self.

    Now that is done, and life has a magical feel about it. I can’t wait to see what each new day will bring, and I love being me.

    In this way, all the trauma and abuse has paid off because of recovery. If that trauma and abuse had never happened to me, I couldn’t possibly be as happy as I am now.

    So, push on lovely people, work hard to remove the obstacles to who you really are, your true self just waiting to get out there and drink in this wonderful experience of life to the full, in all its happiness and sorrows, to keenly feel the rainbow of all the emotions, and truly be.

    1. Hi Andrew,

      I greatly appreciate your full and rich comment on the false and true self as related to child psycho-emotional abuse. I have already heard from a few people that they were extraordinarily moved by your comment and that it touched them deeply, as it did me. Thank you for taking the time to share your experiences that ultimately led to your recovering from FSA – I am sure it will inspire many others.

  2. i live in New Jersey outside of Philadelphia; any chance I could get involved as part of a group virtually

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