My False Self began to develop in infancy because my parents weren’t emotionally attuned to me and I felt unsafe and overwhelmed. I formed my False Self to please them so that they would take good care of me. When I was a newborn infant and my mother and father were holding me, they looked into my eyes and saw someone who they hoped would fulfill their unmet needs and their unrealized dreams.So this is what I did: I created a False Self to please and placate them. I became who they wanted me to be.
So I never really saw my True Self, and neither did they. Giving up my True Self caused a disconnect inside me, and I had this growing feeling of being empty, dead and a “phony.” Even though I was unable to feel spontaneous, alive or real inside me, I managed to wear a mask that made me look successful and ” real.” Not only did I fool them, I fooled myself. When I went looking for my True Self, I couldn’t find him. He was buried under other people’s expectations, fantasies and dreams. Recovering my True Self became my mid-life quest.
I was the first-born male to young, poor working class parents.When the nurse brought me for my mother to see for the first time, my mother cried out, This is not my baby. He is ugly and has dark hair all over his body. The she reportedly said, He looks like a monkey instead of my baby.
The disconnect with my mother continued. My mother had a difficult time producing milk to breast-feed me. After a week of trying she quit and went back to work, thinking she was a failure as a mother. She turned me over to the care of a young baby-sitter who did her best to take care of me.
Actually, I believe my mother suffered from a post-partum psychosis and tried to drown me when I was about a month old. My father intervened and arranged for me to stay at my paternal grandmother and grandfather’s house during the week and my mother came to get me on the weekends when my father could be with her to protect me. I stayed there until I was ten months old.
While this arrangement was safer and more nurturing for me, clearly it was not working for me and by the time I was eight-weeks old I weighted less than I did when I was born. My parents had a baby book to record all the developmental growth markers like weight and other indicators. As an adult I looked at what was recorded for my weight at birth, which was six pounds and at eight weeks it showed my weight to be eight pounds. However, when I looked closely at the figure eight in my baby book, I could clearly see a five imbedded under it that was written over and turned into an eight. They actually faked my weight in my baby book. I suspect they had a lot of shame related to my failure to thrive, particularly my mother.
When I was about ten months I was with my parents for the weekend. They lived in an upstairs apartment with an inside long steep set of stairs leading up to it. Apparently, my mother forgot to close the gate at the top of the stairs and while I was wondering around in a walker, I fell down the whole flight of stairs. I was uninjured but my grandmother decided after that incident that it wasnt safe for me to be in that apartment, so she immediately allowed my parents to move into a house she owned. My mother was still working so they hired a Mennonite girl to take care of me while my mother was working. This was another mother figure for me to learn to bond with, the fourth since I was born.
As the first-born male in a German-American family there was still the European tradition that the first-born male would be expected to be successful to improve the family’s social standing. I was always expected to go to college and they had me tested to see if I was college material when I was three years old. As a result, I was fussed over by my extended family, which by this time must have had severe judgments against my mother. While growing up, I was puzzled as to why my mother was always jealous about me getting more attention or gifts from my paternal grandmother and my aunt who lived with my grandparents. I evidentially learned to hide the joy and happiness I experienced when I was with them. I actually begged them not to give me things because I knew when I got home my mother would scold me for accepting their gifts.
I learned to perform for the whole extended family to keep their hopes alive that I would advance the family’s standing in the eyes of others. I remember that when I was about 3 or 4 years old I was asked to perform in front of the whole extended family as my uncle made a sound recording of me reciting nursery rhymes and telling them what I recalled after being taken uptown to the local farm show. I still have that recording and when I play it I realize how terrified I was and how I wanted to flee, but I couldnt. After that I shut down even more and began developing an inner life that I tried desperately to hide from everybody around me. It seemed to me that every time I truly opened my heart to others around me, I would get punished particularly by my mother.My False Self consisted mostly of a deflated self that was depressed, withdrawn and tried to please others. I felt very alone and only after school started did I find a few neighborhood friends to play with, but I still preferred playing by myself. When my parents went to visit my relatives I asked to stay home by myself. I felt safer and less anxious when I stayed away from my extended family, even though they were prone to fuss over me when I was with them. I knew that they wanted me to perform and be the good little boy they wanted to see, not who I really was. I felt like a stranger in a strange land most of the time.
My mother continued to attack me verbally whenever something in her life did not go as she had hoped. This seemed to happen quite often to where I was afraid to come home and practiced walking on eggs so I would not do anything to upset her. My father was often present when my mother attacked me and did nothing to stop her, but after she left the room he would say to me, She doesnt mean what she said to you.
I remember my maternal grandmother saying to me when I was about 5 or 6, Be a good boy and dont cause your parents any trouble. They have enough trouble of their own. I tried to live up to her request and never talked back or did anything to cause my parents any trouble. I tried to accommodate to them and fix their relationship by sacrificing myself and my needs. I also felt that somehow I must have deserved the verbal abuse.
I was teased a lot in school so that was not much fun either. I had curly blonde hair and the kids called me, Curly-girly. I tried to comb my curls out and put the greasy kid-stuff on my hair to hide my curls. This usually didnt work. I did get elected to a leadership position in sixth grade as the Lieutenant of the School Patrol. My job was to be the first one at school every day to hang the American flag out the second floor window over the entrance to the school. I felt proud to be chosen for this task at first but later saw it as a meaningless task.
I began to be interested in girls at this time and had a ‘steady girlfriend, but her family ended up moving away at the end of my freshman year. This really set me back and I retreated into my deflated false self again. I did get a part-time job bagging groceries after school and that forced me to interact with more people and it got me out of the house away from my mother.
By junior high school I began to take some small steps to break out of my depression. I tried out for the school basketball team as a freshman, but was cut because I was too short (52 at that time). I remember I became obsessed with growing taller and also practiced basketball every evening after school. I grew 8 in the next year and made the Junior Varsity basketball team. That was a big turning point to help me break out of my deflated false self because being a member of an athletic team ended the harassment or bullying in school. I still did not like to perform but at least it was a team sport and I wasnt on the spot.
I dated very little in high school and college. I met my first wife on a blind date while I was in college and we married the year after I graduated. I got a job teaching social studies in an area high school and my wife worked as a medical secretary many evenings a week leaving me with lots of alone time where I felt most comfortable. After teaching for three years I got hired in a junior high school as a guidance counselor. I loved working one-on-one with kids and this led me to think about graduate school. I applied to a number of schools and was accepted at the University of Minnesota on a full-ride fellowship to get my masters degree. I thought I was just going to get my masters degree and then return to being a guidance counselor. After some very unexpected encouragement from my advisor, I eventually decided to stay on to get my doctorate.
It was during my doctoral studies that I began to find I could not maintain my deflated false self any longer. In a group counseling class while we were in a practice group, my instructor confronted me saying, Barry, I dont think you are close to anyone. There is a huge wall around you that prevents people from getting to know you. I was exposed. I felt angry at this instructor for calling me out in front of my peers, but I knew what he said was true. I decided to get psychotherapy to help me find my True Self. Because I had operated out of my False Self for 27 years, I didnt know who I really was.
I also began a deep friendship with a female graduate student who also seemed to need a friend to come out of her shell. I remember our long talks about many things and for the first time I knew what it felt like to be in relationship with someone where I could truly be myself. It was uplifting and exciting. That relationship lasted through my doctoral program and almost caused me to end my marriage. I was still unable to be myself in my marriage and this was troubling to me. Eventually, with the help of a wonderful therapist, I began to take more risks to be myself in my marriage. I still remember some of the breakthrough moments although they were still rare.
While I was teaching at the University of Colorado, I became more and more aware that I needed to repair the bonding-breaks I had with my mother in order to recover my True Self. I joined an outpatient reparenting therapy group in Denver and my therapist became my contract mom. I remember how frightened I was to be close to her and bond with her. I felt she would see who I really was and expose me like the others had done. Gradually, I learned to trust her and could be close and get nurturing from her. I felt seen for who I really was and this gave me confidence that I didnt have to live out of my False Self any longer.
My next challenge came one afternoon after class when one of my female students lingered and asked to talk to me. Barbara was a good-looking, intelligent woman slightly older than me. When I asked her about what she wanted to talk to me, she blurted out, I would like to be your friend. No one had ever said that to me in my whole life and I was blown away. I said, Let’s have lunch and talk about what that means to you.
This was the beginning of a deep and abiding ten-year friendship that culminated in us each getting divorced and marrying. While much trust had been created in our friendship, after we got married Barbra’s old unresolved incest conflicts came to the surface making intimacy very difficult to sustain. It also brought up some of my old False Self coping patterns.
I saw how was replaying some of my own family patterns with her by being the Rescuer and spending much of my time trying to fix her so I could get my needs met. In addition, I found that when I opened my heart to Barbara many times I got the same results I got with my mother. Both of them became frightened at the intimacy and pushed me away by verbally attacking me. I still thought there must be something wrong with my True Self and so I retreated to the comfort of my False Self and accommodated to their needs.
One of the biggest lessons I learned in my relationship with Barbara was to ‘surrender. My challenge was to receive without resistance, the feminine form of surrender. Instead of trying to fix Barbara’s problems, I decided to simply listen and received what Barbara was sharing with me without resistance and without trying to fix her. The results were miraculous and Barbara seemed to shift dramatically out of her fear of intimacy. Unfortunately, within six weeks Barbara was dead, as the result of a skiing accident.
Fortunately, I was able to carry that lesson into my current relationship with Janae. Many times I was tempted to Rescue her or fix her, but instead I listened and took in what she was saying. This helped create more authentic encounters between us because I could really see her not as I wanted her to be but who she really was and then accept and love her True Self. I also learned that I could only do that if I accepted and loved my True Self.
My False Self still shows up with Janae and I can feel myself falling into the old familiar patterns. My biggest challenge has been to avoid falling back into my deflated False Self. I also can act strong and defensive when I feel threatened, so I also access my inflated False Self as well as a protective measure. What is different now is that I am more aware when I do these things and I can think differently about my options and then act on them. Most of the time I can go to Janae and tell her what happened to me and we can work through any conflicts that occurred. I have been able to let my hurt child speak directly at times and tell others how and why I am hurting and then ask for what I want or need.
This is a huge improvement over sulking and retreating into acting out the old patterns of my deflated or inflated False Self. I like myself much more now and feel I can take care of myself without having to withdraw seeking the protection of my old deflated or inflated False Self. My challenge still is to be authentic all the time and be awake to times when I am pulled off center and triggered by a memory of an old unhealed developmental shock, trauma or stress. My measure of progress is the amount of time it takes me to return to center after being pulled off by an old memory. Now I can return to my centered True Self much quicker and easier.