Love at Any Price: Childhood Attachment and the Development of the False Self

Love at Any Price: Childhood Attachment and the Development of the False Self

By Rebecca C. Mandeville, MA, MFT

This week’s article explores how the scapegoated child may unconsciously live as a ‘false self’ so as to experience a sense of attachment and belonging with their primary caregivers. 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.

A Devil’s Bargain

Attachment to others is a critical aspect of our childhood development. In fact, the healthy formation of a child’s egoic / socialized ‘self’ depends upon it. A child growing up in a dysfunctional, emotionally abusive home environment will learn early on in life that they must appease their primary caregiver(s) at all cost in order to experience a sense of acceptance and attachment. The child will therefore morph and reshape themselves to be what they sense the people caring and providing for them expect them to be.

Children who are victims of family scapegoating abuse (FSA) are often conditioned to sacrifice the natural creative spontaneity emanating from their authentic ‘core’ (or ‘center’) so as to maintain some sort of connection with their primary caregiver(s) – most often their parents. This is a mostly unconscious process – Somehow the child innately ‘knows’ that if they are their most full and vibrant self, they are in danger of losing connection with those they depend upon for their emotional and physical survival.

In this way, an unspoken, unconscious agreement is made in the scapegoated 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. If I fawn and submit, you will not hurt me.”

The child ultimately suppresses and hides their authentic self in an attempt to pacify or please a critical, judgmental, narcissistic, or rejecting parent. But this quest to experience attachment, acceptance, and love comes at a cost to the scapegoated child, as they are now at risk of losing all ability to live as their authentic self by the time they are an adult.

A Terrible Price to Pay

In such a toxic family environment, it is not uncommon for the scapegoated child to develop a ‘false’ (and at times ‘idealized’ and/or ‘shamed’ / ‘humiliated’) self in response to the rejecting environment they find themselves in. This can result in their becoming separated from their unique, authentic nature. If the scapegoating is severe, the child may grow up to live as a traumatized, dissociated ‘false’ self with all of the negative consequences, such as addiction, codependency, self-esteem issues, suffering from ‘imposter syndrome‘, etc.

This process of giving up the self in an attempt to receive love is in actuality a maladaptive survival response. It might serve the child for a time as a means of coping within their dysfunctional family-of-origin, but it cannot possibly serve them as an adult.

Alternatively, if the child refuses to adapt and ‘go along to get along’, i.e, if they choose authenticity over attachment and rebel against the demands of the power-holders in their family-of-origin, they can be seen as emotionally and/or mentally unstable, dangerous, threatening, different, difficult, needy, selfish, cold, unloving, narcissistic, unreasonable, “crazy,” etc, making them vulnerable to further abuse.

Whether the child chooses to submit to the parents’ demands by living as a false self, 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’.

Reclaiming the Authentic Self

Like it or not, our childhood attachment styles and maladaptive survival responses on some level determine our fate. 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 future relationships – especially our most intimate ones.

Without competent therapeutic intervention of some kind, we may live our entire life oblivious to the core primal attachment wound that supports and fuels our ‘survival identity’, not realizing that this primal relational wound unconsciously guides our attachment process with others, leading us to repeat traumatizing intergenerational attachment patterns with others again and again.

It is therefore my professional and personal experience that therapy for the scapegoated adult child is a process of reclamation whereby we uncover, 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 who we actually are.

Existing within this innate and natural ‘Ground of Being’ that supports our authentic self, we can stand on a firm inner foundation of self-love. It is from this place that we can create a life filled with meaning, passion and purpose, securely attached to Life, Self, and Others.

2 thoughts on “Love at Any Price: Childhood Attachment and the Development of the False Self

  1. What a terrific article! This is exactly what happened to me, the family scapegoat, as my mother punished me by casting me aside as her mother did to her (and is still doing so, having escalated the abuse to an even more cruel and damaging level that puts me in the bind of enduring it or risking financial destitution — but that is another story).

    My mother made me the child who was/is irrelevant and needs nothing and so I grew up “the strong one,” entirely self-sufficient (as much as any child can be at any given age) and independent of everyone else.

    My father, meanwhile, made me “the angry one” by projecting onto me his unresolved anger at being horribly abused by his tyrannical father. He teased a bit too far for a small child. I didn’t cry, I cried out. Of course, my siblings found this just too, too funny and made me their favorite wind-up toy — a lot of mocking/bullying while my mother went in to take her nap.

    The “strong one” I fully embraced — to my detriment as an adult. The other, I rebelled against, which only fed my siblings’ antagonizing. I got out of the house, out of the town, and out of state as soon as I was old enough.

    Then, something truly remarkable happened. I met a man who believed in me. He, too, had been neglected of love growing up. To the amazing fortune of both of us, we perfectly complemented each other in qualities, temperament, skills, etc. Our values and goals were the glue that gave us an unshakable bond and commitment to each other.

    Though we did not know what it was we were doing, we effectively taught each other how to love — truly, deeply, unreservedly. With the faith we had in each other, both of us soared to unimaginable levels in happiness, professional success, enjoyment in life, contentment, and promise for the future. We each became the person we always dreamed we could be.

    Sadly, I had him for only ten years when cancer took him from me. But, what he gave me will never leave me. It will, however, go underground, not strong enough to withstand my family in the wake of his death. (But, that, too, is another story for another time.)

    The point is, now that I understand I have choices and what they are, I will not live the narrative they create of me, for that would mean abandoning the gifts of my marriage. I cherish these more than anything else in my life and continue to try to recapture that person I was, now that I have the knowledge and understanding of what my family had done to me and why.

    This is why I truly value your work, your book, and these articles. You introduced me to FSA several years ago and set my life on a new, much better course. Thank you.

    1. Hi Rae, what a stunning, tragic, yet uplifting and elevating story you have to share. I am deeply saddened to hear of the loss of your partner. I believe such life-changing and loving connections are eternal, and I do hope you continue to feel his presence and love for you today. Hearing stories like yours gives meaning to my own experiences as the ‘family scapegoat’ – So many FSA survivors/thrivers do seem to excel at making lemonade out of lemons – living well and going on to love ourselves and others is the ultimate ‘justice’ when there seems initially to be none…

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