Self discovery. Each of us survived childhood. Mostly. As several awesome thinkers have pointed out, there is a lot of our personality and character which was determined in childhood, and for most of us, we continue reacting to situations using the same responses we learned as babies.

The Premise

Recently Alain de Botton, a philosopher whom I greatly admire for his ability to describe what it is to be a human, wrote an op-ed piece for the New York Times titled "Why You Will Marry the Wrong Person." His thesis: No matter how well you understand someone and come to believe you are in love with them, your sense of love was mostly formed as you received unconditional love as a baby. The problem is that as a baby you had no idea what was going on, and as you take those feelings as a child and rely on them in an adult romance, you are going to get almost everything wrong. Plus, your spouse will be doing the same thing by responding to situations using the same feelings set during infanthood, and will appear to you as crazy.

I think he's dead on correct.

The Trigger

So I've been on a personal quest to understand why I'm still single at 54. It started almost two years ago. The sister of a friend of mine visited from Boston. Beautiful, tall, academic, and I went and made a total prat of myself. I mean, total embarrassing display of most every nerd/loser/wuss stereotype known. And so began my quest.

Outer layer: The Nice Guy

Within days I had discovered the "Nice Guy Syndrome." This is an idea put forth by Robert A. Glover. Nice Guys all believe that if they are "good" and do everything "right," they will be loved, get their needs met, and have a problem-free life. They are "good" by trying to eliminate or hide certain things about themselves (mistakes, needs, emotions, fantasy) and become what they think others want them to be (generous, peaceful, helpful). The problem here is that they are denying aspects of themselves, which is never healthy. They also make "covert contracts" with anyone they serve: "when I do this favor for you, you are to love me back" without ever telling the other person, and end up disappointed when love does not come. For me, the idea and the behaviors described matched my situation in life very well. That I was a Nice Guy resonated with me, and I followed the advice as best I could. But to very little effect. I recognized some of what I'd given up in life by being "nice," but nothing really changed.

While the idea of the Nice Guy Syndrome gave me tremendous insight in the way I was behaving, it didn't seem to cure the root of why I was still single.

 Inner layer: Self Esteem

After a few months I realized the Nice Guy idea was informative, but not very useful. I started looking around for something which could explain root causes. I happened across a self-esteem repair ecosystem created by Nathaniel Branden. He wrote many self-esteem self-help books, the greatest being The Six Pillars of Self Esteem. His six pillars are:

  1. The practice of living consciously
  2. The practice of self acceptance
  3. The practice of self responsibility
  4. The practice of self-assertiveness
  5. The practice of living purposefully
  6. The practice of personal integrity

You note these are all practices for us to adopt, not just advice. He is wordy, but has good thoughts in there. It takes a while to put all his content into practice, and a lot of root sentences that you need to finish which will reveal hidden thoughts and ideas to you.

The author's core thesis: to have self esteem you need to believe you are worthy of happiness, and you need to believe that your efforts will bring you to happiness. Now, as the time, I had never in my life believed that I could be happy. That had simply never crossed my mind. I could enjoy moments, I could have fun, I could laugh at movies. But to be happy seemed foreign to me. Utterly.

So I delved into the author's ideas in a big way. And while it helped me understand what was going on, those exercises just didn't seem to be paying off as a change in me. Something was still missing. It's like an arrow that hit at the wrong angle; it stuck, but didn't penetrate very deeply.

Deeper layer: The Book of Life

As I looked into the work of Alain de Botton, author of the op-ed piece I mentioned at the top, I found he had a website packed with what I think is marvelous advice and information. His thinking ranges all over the place, from some of the deepest philosophers to some of the most practical ideas about relationships, self, romance, work. I'll give you an idea:

Romance: de Botton thinks romance and romanticism is the cause of more suffering in love than any other cause in relationships because it tells us that our soul mate can understand us by intuition, not communication.

Self-Love: Loving yourself is the core of most interpersonal relationships; if it is missing almost nothing can happen between you.

Emotional Inheritance: we all inherit most of our emotions from our parents, who modeled them for us in early childhood. This goes on to be repeated by us in our adult lives, but in situations not entirely appropriate, because we were just little kids when we learned them and never understood what was going on when we learned them. 

Owner's manual: The idea, which I love and now have written, of writing an owner's manual for yourself, to give to those who love you most so they can understand right away why you will behave oddly.

He also makes these fun little videos illustrating his points.

Core: The False Self

One of the topics de Botton addresses (Youtube) is the work of child psychotherapist Donald Winnicott. He lived in Britain, and did a series of radio lessons there in the 1950's which have had a big influence on how we rear children. One of Winnicott's most influential ideas involves the emergence in childhood of a "False Self." Here is how I describe it:

Everyone is familiar with a "persona." This is a term Carl Jung used to describe how we "put on a social mask" in some situations to make socializing with particular groups more comfortable. For example, no one speaks with their children the same way as their boss. Each gets a different persona. We are so accustomed to using personas that most of us can see right through one to the authentic person behind.

But sometimes, particularly in childhood and certainly in infancy, a child might receive an emotional wound so painful that they need to find a way to deal with it. One of those ways is to invent a persona for themselves. This persona can explain why they felt the emotional pain, or find ways to distract from feeling the pain, or maybe find ways to forever avoid the pain. For example, one child might try to avoid the emotional pain by being very intellectual and deny emotion in his life. Another might become very aggressive and angry, striking first. Or, as Wittincott himself said, it could be that the parents tried to make the child "be good" before the child had a chance to test out being naughty, thus turning over his independent self to mom and dad's wishes and become a peacemaker and caretaker. When a child creates a persona for himself, and keeps it present most of the time, it becomes a False Self.

The False Self is there to protect the pains felt by an infant. But when the False Self is strong enough, and dominant over the True Self, all kinds of trouble starts. First, the child may never realize there is even a False Self present when the True Self has stepped so far back into the shadows. And this can continue well into adulthood. Second, the False Self can never run the show by himself. The True Self will always get through, bringing pain, to which the False Self will react to avoid. This creates a personality marked by fear, avoidance, self-distracting behaviors, especially addictions, and maybe every other ill of mankind.

And at least half of everyone you know has a significant False Self, some of which are dominant. I'm pretty sure at least four members of my immediate family of nine are dealing with a dominant False Self.

This was describing me. I won't go into all the behaviors I had, but they all fit this one idea. I'd even seen my True and False selves in dreams and didn't realize this is what it was at the time. If you didn't look at the Youtube video above, do so now.

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I was a Good Child. And I have a False Self. I realized it after a very long and painful night in my tent at the ward campout last Saturday. Now my task is to learn to recognize when the False Self is trying to protect my True Self, and then find ways of letting myself just feel the emotional pain, knowing as I do as an adult, that the pain won't kill me. I didn't know that when I developed the False Self. I'm happy to report that when I am with people, it is probably my True Self you will meet. I hope you like him. He can be a bit snarky but he's a riot. He'll talk a lot if allowed to. At home, or when I'm alone, the False Self might be there, still trying to serve the purpose of his creation.

Here is a list of what one psychotherapist labeled our "Core Pains." A core pain is the thing felt as an infant or child which the child was not ready to deal with and caused the creation of a False Self to help. Each has a negative core belief, a compensating personality (which is the personality of the False Self), and distractors from the core pain, which are the annoying parts of the False Self. Most people have one core pain, but two or three are possible in some particularly nasty home situations.

  • "I am Imperfect"
    • Negative Core Belief: "There seems to be something wrong with me."
    • Compensating Personality: I must be perfect. I must prove there is not something wrong with me. Seeking internal and/or external perfection, this personality appears as distant but is actually inwardly clingy and controlling - wanting to perfect self or others. "If I do it perfectly, I will be healed."
    • Core Pain Distractors: In order to feel and avoid the intense pain of "I am imperfect" this personality feels resentment, so the False Core does not have to be experienced, known and felt.
  • "I am Worthless"
    • Negative Core Belief: "I have no value."
    • Compensating Personality: I must prove I am not worthless. I must prove that I have worth and value. This personality caretakes and over-gives to get value. This personality also needs flattery from self and others. This personality struggles with dependence and the need to appear overly independent.
    • Core Pain Distractors: This person distracts away from "I am worthless and I have no value" by focusing on feeling dependent, weak willed - or compensating by appearing totally together, independent, valuable, contained and worthy. The distractor emotion is self-pride through imagination and self-flattery so the False Core pain does not have to be experienced, known and felt.
  • "I Cannot Do" or "I Cannot Do Enough"
    • Negative Core Belief: "I cannot do, decide or act." Or, "I cannot do enough." "I must have done something bad and that is why I am separate from love. Therefore it is better not to do - or else something bad will happen."
    • Compensating Personality: I must prove that I can do, decide and act by becoming an over-doer or an overachiever. This personality becomes grandiose about what it can and did do to the point of self-deceit. This personality struggles with over-efficiency and vanity.
    • Core Pain Distractors: In order to avoid the intense pain of "I cannot do - or cannot do enough" this person uses deceit and lies to hide what they have been doing or not doing. This false core and compensating personality exaggerates to themself and others about who they are, and what they do and don't do, so the False Core pain does not have to be experienced, known and felt.
  • "I am Inadequate"
    • Negative Core Belief: I am inadequate.
    • Compensating Personality: I must prove that I am not inadequate. I must prove that I am adequate and smart. This personality struggles between feeling stupid and smart and tries to be overly adequate by being over-analytic and over-reasonable.
    • Core Pain Distractors: In order to avoid the pain of "I am inadequate" this personality's emotional distractors are melancholy, depression, jealousy, envy, abandonment, and betrayal, so the False Core pain does not have to be experienced, known and felt.
  • "I am Non-Existent"
    • Negative Core Belief: "I don't exist. I am nothing. I have nothing." This false core develops earlier than others - often in utero - and is more deeply embedded in the body than any of the other False Core/False Selves. This false core self believes, "I am nothing. I am empty. I don't know." Because of this, this type of person is unsuitable for Buddhist (no-self) and non-dual spiritual practices because they reinforce the False Core assumptions. This False Core can make itself quite invisible but invisibility is a two edged sword because they become invisible to themselves and their own needs.
    • Compensating Personality: "I must prove that I am something, have something, and that I exist." This personality "thinks" feelings and does not feel them. This could be because of rejection from the mother in utero. This personality dissociates from feelings early and become an over-observer as a defense. They can use their capacity for dissociation or blankness towards a spiritual path that reinforces that it does not have a personality and does not exist. This personality contains the structure of rejection and because they assume they will be rejected, they reject first, and begin to isolate and psychologically disappear.
    • Core Pain Distractors: In order to avoid the pain of "I do not exist" this personality accumulates information because they imagine they are nothing and have nothing. If I have "something" (ie., information and ideas) "I exist." This personality also struggles between the polarity of being social and anti-social, so the False Core pain does not have to be experienced, known and felt.
  • "I am Alone"
    • Negative Core Belief: "I am alone. I fear being shunned."
    • Compensating Personality: I must not be alone - I must connect. This personality is the over-connector. At the time of connection there is a "high" and a relief from "I am alone" however, like a drug addict, the False Self Compensator needs more and more connection to get the same "high".
    • Core Pain Distractors: In order to avoid the pain of "I am alone" this personality uses the main distractor of fear, weakness, paranoia, self-doubt, and terror, or the preoccupation with being strong and being able to handle it all, so the False Core pain does not have to be experienced, known and felt.
  • "I am Incomplete"
    • Negative Core Belief: "I am incomplete. There must be something missing. I am not enough."
    • Compensating Personality: "I must get whole, complete, completed or full through having many varied, extraordinary experiences."
    • Core Pain Distractors: In order to avoid the pain of "I am incomplete" this personality uses the distractor identities of false optimism and over-idealism as well as the polarity of super-standards or rules, with no standards or rules, as well as the struggles between feeling superior and inferior, so the False Core pain does not have to be experienced, known and felt.
  • "I am Powerless."
    • Negative Core Belief: "I am powerless." "I am powerless because I have no force, no influence, got screwed over, etc.
    • Compensating Personality: "I must prove I am not powerless by acting "as if" I am overly powerful." This compensating personality has such an unacknowledged powerlessness it can have psychopathic tendencies or can compensate by acting overly blown-up, imagining themselves to be much more powerful than they actually are.
    • Core Pain Distractors: In order to avoid the pain of "I am powerless" this personality is fixated on revenge and range and can also turn love into lust. Love is warm and vulnerable, but for this personality it reactivates the trauma of separation and so they resist love. Consequently, they move from experiencing vulnerable love to having the imagined "power" of lust, so the False Core does not have to be experienced, known and felt.
  • "I am Loveless."
    • Negative Core Belief: "I am loveless. There is no love."
    • Compensating Personality: "I must prove I am not loveless by appearing "as if" I am overly loving and accepting of what is happening." Underneath this loving, accepting mask lies a passive, sometimes aggressive coat of armor that is difficult to penetrate because of the spiritualized insistence on appearing loving. This type seeks spirituality, and seeks to act loving and loveable but with all roles plays, it cannot receive the love that it wants. The "loveless" struggle with passive-aggressive repressed anger for this reason.
    • Core Pain Distractors: In order to avoid the pain of "I am loveless," so the False Core does not have to be experienced, known and felt, this personality has a core of underlying anger which manifests a dual identity that is passive on the outside and aggressive on the inside. This personality acts "passive" and projects "aggressive" onto another, getting the other to "act out" by frustrating it.

I hope as you run through this list that you discover that you have no False Self. But if you do, I hope that you have an experience similar to mine, a feeling of liberation and understanding, though there is work to be done. Already I've seen big payoffs, but that may be because I have spent almost two years peeling away these layers. My core pain is was, "I have no value." Now I know I have value.

So do you.

And I'll add this: if your self-help book does not address Winnicott's False Self, it will never have the insight to change people. Neither will your religion. 

P.P.S. There exists a very informative website called Break the Cycle intended to help families break the cycle of one generations of False Selves raising the next. The problem is too much information, and a wholly chaotic presentation. If you have the hours and weeks and months, and want to really understand and deal with a False Self problem, there is where you should park your browser.