The False Self - How we Intellectualise to Avoid Pain and Intimacy

The following was written by Palmeira Practice counsellor Angela Simmons.

"We see only what we know" - Goethe

There is comprehensive documentation from Freud onwards that as well as the False Self resulting from growing up with a narcissistic parent, as discussed in my previous article, it is often the way a child copes with bereavement and trauma; in that brief moment of extreme emotion the False Self can step in and take over, ensuring that the child never has to feel the pain, anxiety and rage which inevitably accompany such an acute loss. I shall give an example from my client work to illustrate. The client was in a military family. The client kindly gave me full permission to disclose the following case study.

A case study on the false self

The client, her brother and sister, aged 9, 7 and 6 were all ushered out of the kitchen where they were having tea and into the living room where their mother was sitting with the Station Commander and his wife at her side. The children were told briefly that their father had been killed in a plane crash that day.

She clearly remembered thinking that “I can't let on that I already know” (she had had a premonition at the time of the crash that day), and “I think I ought to cry now. That would be acceptable.” But as she already “knew”, there was no need for her to cry, so she didn’t. She went off to Brownies, telling herself that it was the sensible thing to do - you should keep yourself busy, she thought. She even told the Brown Owl that she may get a bit upset because her father had just been killed and would she then be able to go home, please!

This is an acutely touching illustration of how the split had instantly occurred and intellectualisation had taken place. Throughout her entire life, until, through therapy she experienced it differently, she was extremely proud of herself for being able to "close the door” on painful experiences and to compartmentalise them.

As an older child, and later, she has often been told by people in all areas of her life that there is more depth to her than first appears, and that if she could only show this, people could be closer to her. She has always found this very puzzling as she thought she was showing all of herself to people. She knows that she always smiles and laughs a lot, but thought that this was just showing a naturally happy nature. She thought she was getting close to people.

 We use The False Self to intellectualise events and avoid our true feelings, whether we're aware of doing or not.

We use The False Self to intellectualise events and avoid our true feelings, whether we're aware of doing or not.

Discovering the False Self in therapy

Through her therapy she has come to see things very differently. She now believes that these characteristics were all manifestations of The False Self. No wonder people could not get close to her. No wonder she had such problems with intimacy when people were only gelling half of her. The sad thing was that she was completely unaware of it. Malan ('95:1) illustrates this wonderfully with his triangle theory. The defence is to smile, laugh and generally think happy. The anxiety is that one will not be liked unless behaving like that. The anxiety masks the hidden feeling which in her case was probably one of rage at her father for leaving her so suddenly or extreme pain at the loss; probably both.

A new understanding on the event

During a later period of her therapy she had a half-sleeping, half-waking dream. In this dream, which was no more than a snapshot or flashback, and all in black and white as in  an old photograph, she and her brother and sister were all standing in line. It was a snapshot of the moment they were told of their father's death. This time, however, the moment was frozen.

As she looked at this black and white tableau she felt for the first time in her life how she must have really felt in the split second before the False Self stepped in. It was a profoundly physical sensation of unadulterated shock, horror, fear and terror. She says that words are inadequate to describe it. It was unbelievably awful and left her temporarily weakened.

This feeling, though, was not new to her. ln fact it was horribly familiar. She had felt it frequently and increasingly throughout her adult life at any time of loss or threat of loss - any kind of loss, however small. It was always way in excess of any appropriate feeling and always disruptive to the situation, and therefore to her life. Since the dream it has never been felt again. She told me it had been wonderful to see it placed, through therapy, where it belonged. Since then she often experiences autonomic symptoms, such as palpitations, which she did not know before. These she takes as early warnings of dangerous situations which she can consequently side-step. Previously she would have been unaware that any danger existed. John Bowlby discusses this at length (Bowlby ' 80: 3) and includes Freud's battle to understand the sequence of anxiety and defence; which precedes which. She tells me how grateful she is that through therapy she has been freed from this potentially disrupting pattern.

This article was written by Palmeira Practice counsellor Angela Simmons. For more on understanding and breaking disruptive patterns, book an introductory session with Angela.