Fighting the demon within to reveal the real you
First published in the Sunday Independent,
We all struggle to be authentic, but a sadistic inner self could be to blame, writes psychotherapist Gayle Williamson
“I don’t know who I am,” was one of the first things Sandra* (not her real name), said to me. An attractive professional woman in her mid-40s, she had become so used to trying to be what she thought others wanted her to be – in the hope of fitting in and avoiding her biggest fear, rejection – that she had lost touch with herself.
Sandra first learned to do this – put on a disguise or mask – when her mother walked out on their family when she was only 8. Because nothing was ever explained to Sandra, she explained it to herself – and as many children do, she blamed herself: it must be something wrong with her; she must have been bad, too noisy, too needy, so that’s why mum left. Now, for adult Sandra, it’s important not to be spontaneous, to ignore her own needs and put others first; to generally be as little trouble to other people as possible by being compliant and agreeable.
We don’t come into this world anxious, inhibited, worrying about what others think of us – just look at any typical, well-cared for baby: they’re interested in everything; spontaneous; confident; and unself-conscious in sharing their feelings, good and bad. But gradually we learn to hide our true self, developing a false persona that leaves us feeling emotionally numb and alienated from life – while appearing to be ‘fine’.
We all want to be ourselves, to feel confident enough to say what we really think, do what we really want to and be who we really are. But the societal message is that it’s more important to fit in and be liked. We never feel good enough; others are always better, happier, more intelligent, calmer.
It’s something you often read or hear about when someone kills themselves – that no one knew there was anything to worry about, that the person seemed fine.
“For us, it was out of the blue; unexpected completely,” said Dublin celebrity chef Derry Clarke on Newstalk last week about his son Andrew, who took his own life aged 17 last year – reiterating earlier comments that there had been no warning signs for he and wife Sallyanne to pick up on.
For some, that may seem hard to believe – that there wasn’t at least something out of the ordinary. But we’re so good at hiding from one another that it isn’t surprising at all. I have sat with many clients who come across initially as tough, self-sufficient, ever-smiling and even arrogant – until you learn of the battles raging inside their heads. Self-hatred; overwhelming worry; preoccupation with what others think of them; irrational fears; and, most importantly, a disconnection from their real self.
I think it’s true to say that we’re all made up of various selves – which one takes over depends on the situation and the people we’re with. That’s normal, and if we have good awareness of our different ‘faces’ then we’ll still have a strong sense of self. It’s when we deny or reject aspects of ourselves that we run into trouble and life becomes a pretense. Indeed, US psychiatrist Mark Epstein, who writes about the links between Buddhism and psychotherapy in Thoughts Without a Thinker, says that the Buddhist perspective is that it’s our fear of experiencing ourselves directly that creates human suffering.
But how and why does the false self develop? According to eminent psychologists and psychoanalysts like Donald Winnicott, John Bowlby, Heinz Kohut and Jean Piaget, if we’re lucky enough as children to have parents or caregivers who are reliable, attentive to our needs and who help us manage our emotions, we are able to internalise this experience of a ‘good enough’ parent, rely on it to soothe us when we’re stressed and use it to structure our self. But if our needs go unmet, if we are neglected or abused, then our sense of self is severely compromised. We’ll struggle to cope with our emotions, with consequent difficulties in managing relationships with friends, colleagues and family.
But there are many possible threats to a child’s real self, including friends, teachers or even childcarers – for example, the child who is constantly targeted by bullies will soon learn to keep their real self hidden because that’s what the bullies apparently didn’t like.
Jungian psychoanalyst Donald Kalsched has a fascinating, actually quite frightening, theory about the defences or survival system that he says all of us develop, to a greater or lesser degree – which makes it easier to understand why we struggle so much to be authentic. Kalsched, in his book The Inner World of Trauma, says that when a child suffers trauma of some kind – anything from sexual abuse or neglect, to living in a family where their needs for love, comfort and attention are not met – the unbearable pain of this causes their psyche to split. The core, authentic, vulnerable part of the self regresses or goes into hiding; while the other part progresses into a rigid, unadaptable self-care system.
English psychoanalyst Winnicott had earlier said that in order to protect the self from the anxiety of trauma, ‘primitive defences’ emerge and split the self into the true inner self and a false self, which becomes our interface with the world. But what is different in Kalsched’s theory is that the false self that emerges is sadistic, even daemonic, in nature, using any and whatever means it can to protect the core self and ensure it’s never hurt again. However, perversely, it is in doing so that it causes us a great deal of abuse and pain – often repeating our original traumas or deprivations.
For example, to go back to the child who was bullied: say, later in life as an adult, she is asked to be someone’s date at a wedding – a challenging social situation for many. The inner ‘protector/persecutor’ will read that as a context fraught with risk of re-traumatisation for the real self. So it will say things like: ‘You’re so ugly, he must have only asked you because he was desperate'; or ‘you’re just so stupid and uninteresting, he’ll be bored by you’, with the aim of ‘dissuading’ her from going, and of course it’s very effective.
So this ruthless inner figure persecutes us, in the name of keeping us safe. It calls us names, it makes us feel shameful about our needs, it tells us there is something fundamentally ‘bad’ about us or it tells us we can’t trust anyone. It stops us from trying to improve our lives or relationships.
And unfortunately, it’s likely we all have some protector system like this since, as Kalsched said in an interview for the social science magazine Caduceus, we’re all traumatised to some degree, having grown up in a society or family where only parts of us have been allowed to shine. It might not be so extreme but it will still limit your potential in some way.
I’ve been aware of my inner persecutor at several points while writing this article, telling me a story of ‘you’re not good enough, you don’t have anything to say’. If I listened, I’d stop writing, avoid the risk of being judged or criticised by others; but also not grow as a person. Change, Kalsched says, becomes possible when we start to see this inner persecutor, appreciate why it’s there, but also realise that it no longer has survival value and work on letting it go. Essentially it means facing up to the fact that we create much of our own pain.
It’s not easy – clinical psychologist Tony Humphreys says in his book Whose Life Are You Living? that most of our life journey is the road back to self. I don’t think, however, that the aim has to be to rid ourselves of our false self, because it does have its uses in various social contexts; rather the key is to develop awareness of the different parts of ourselves so that we can feel more in charge of our inner worlds.
Each of us is unique, we all have something that only we can offer the people in our lives and even the world at large. What if we owned and celebrated that uniqueness instead of hiding it? As Oscar Wilde so brilliantly said: “Be yourself — everyone else is already taken.”
* Cited client case is a composite of several clients, with any identifying characteristics disguised in order to protect confidentiality.
Gayle Williamson is an Irish Association of Counselling and Psychotherapy- accredited psychotherapist. www.ferneytherapy.ie