Part II: On Human Development and the False-Self

In my previous article I discussed the cultural forces that predispose us for addiction. At the risk of sounding paranoid I believe there is a cultural conspiracy against the development of our true-self. Our culture is not wise. On the contrary it emphasizes materialism, “having”, over a more spiritual focus on “being.” We are out of balance and the current economic crisis in our country poignantly reflects this reality.

Understanding our culture’s role is one part of the story, but the rest of the story is more personal and more painful. I hope to show you how we participate in creating our own problems. What I have to say is tragic. We become our own Judas. We sell ourselves out. We betray ourselves by abandoning our real-self and embracing an idealized image, a false-self. As terrible as this is, it seems like the right thing to do at the time. Let’s look at how this happens.

We are each born with a true-self. We are like the acorn, genetically programmed to become a unique oak tree. But the acorn cannot fulfill its potential unless it grows in a nurturing environment. The environment and climate has to provide certain things for the acorn to grow. There has to be adequate sunlight and water. The soil needs to contain certain nutrients. It cannot be exposed to harsh conditions until it is well rooted or has matured to a certain point. If all of these conditions are adequately met then the acorn will eventually become what it is destined to be: A beautiful oak tree with a set of unique qualities and characteristics. The success of our human development is very similar.

If we are encouraged to mature along the lines of our true-self then we too will fulfill our destiny, and become who we were meant to be. Our true-self will unfold; we will be self-actualized. So what experiences do we need for this to happen? There are at least three critical psychological components in our development. They are to be seen, to be celebrated and to be emotionally coached to honor our true self.

Let me explain each. When I say we need to be seen I mean we need our parents or other care givers to mirror back to us the true essence of our spirit. This mirroring helps us see ourselves. We see who we are by looking at ourselves through their eyes. This forms a sense of self, it molds our self-concept. It helps us realize who we are and what is important to us. For example, if a six year old boy is very excited about seeing a new species of a bug crawling on the sidewalk a highly tuned in parent might say, “You seem so excited to see that bug. You are very curious about life and love discovering things.” This is reflecting or mirroring the child’s experience.

This rarely happens. We have lost sight of the importance of recognizing one’s essence, instead we have unfortunately emphasized positive feedback as essential for good parenting. Parents are told to jump at every chance you get to positively reinforce their child’s self-esteem. You can go to any park in your neighborhood to see firsthand what I am about to describe.

Johnny is at the neighborhood park with his parents and having a blast swinging as high as he can. It was only a couple of months ago that he needed his parents to push him on the swing, but now he is growing up and can swing independently. He is proud of his achievement and loves the stimulation of the swinging. He cries out as he propels himself to the top of his arc, “Mommy look at me!”

His attentive mother innocently responds, “That’s great Johnny.” She evaluates his experience instead of mirroring it. She labels what he is doing as “great.” Johnny takes this in, he assimilates this information. He realizes that he can get his mother to say he’s “great” if he performs in a certain way that pleases her. If his mother continues giving him this kind of feedback eventually Johnny will be doing things to get her to say “great.” He will have lost sight of doing things intrinsically important. This kind of response to a child teaches him to ignore who he is, what he feels and what is important to him. Instead he becomes focused on performing to please his parent.

If his mother said, “Wow, Johnny, you seem to really like what you are doing. It’s important to do things you like.” She is giving Johnny a very different message. Evaluations lead to emotional dependency. Mirroring leads to self-awareness and self-respect.

Being celebrated is also very important. While being seen develops a sense of who we are, being celebrated helps us claim our space. When we are celebrated we develop a sense that we are important and that we have the right to be. It’s mind blowing to stop and realize that there are some of us who have never heard their parents say something like, “I am glad that you were born!” or “I am glad that you are my son or my daughter.”

Being seen helps us become aware of who we are whereas being celebrated helps us feel that we have the right to exist. Two incredibly important qualities for self-realization and self-actualization. The third thing we need is to be coached to honor our true self. When we are coached to honor our true-self we develop an internal compass that points to true North. We will have a personal reference that will guide us during difficult and uncertain times. These three things are at the heart of effective parenting.
Unfortunately we rarely experience this kind of parenting. Early in life we all become anxious that we won’t be loved and accepted. We have what Dr. Karen Horney (1950, Neurosis and Human Growth) described as “basic anxiety.” This personal anxiety interacts with the nonsense in our culture which is amplified by poor parenting and eventually overrides our natural development. We veer off course. We become compelled to find a solution for our anxiety.

The quest to discover a solution to this basic anxiety has been called the “search for glory.” We must find a way to be loved and accepted or else —– and we do. We construct an idealized image of who we are supposed to be. This is our false-self. The false-self is the solution to basic anxiety which was discovered during our search for glory.

Our basic solution typically forms around three different unique themes: The self-effacing solution – The appeal of love, The expansive solution – The appeal of mastery, and Resignation -  The appeal of freedom. In all of these solutions the alienation from our true-self is the core problem.

If the appeal of love becomes the focus of our solution we become people pleasers. We feel inadequate, inferior, guilty and contemptible. We must not think or feel superior to others or display any such feelings in our behavior lest we won’t be loved. Self-assertiveness makes us anxious. Therefore we can easily become victims in relationships. We dare not stand up for ourselves. We long for help, protection, and to find a passionate and spiritual surrendering love. We try to figure out what someone wants us to be and we mold ourselves to their image. We become chameleon like.

If the appeal of mastery becomes the focus of our solution then we try to get love and acceptance by excelling, by being the best, and by being superior. This is the opposite of the self-effacing solution. We tend to manipulate or dominate others to make them dependent upon us. We strive for power over, either through becoming superior or by being ruthlessly vindictive. We identify with our idealized image and become arrogant and narcissistic.

And finally, if the appeal of freedom attracts us then we will withdraw from the inner battlefield and declare ourselves uninterested. We will resign from the so called rat race. This is the most radical of all the solutions. We become indifferent. We give up and stop trying. We become underachievers. We are seen as having all kinds of potential, but no ambition or desire for success.

As our idealized image crystalizes into a false-self we develop a pride system that rewards and punishes us to insure that we develop according to these idealized specifications. We feel good about ourselves and proud of ourselves when we act or behave or think or feel the way we think we should (reward) and we hate ourselves when we do not (punishment). Our “shoulds” become a tyranny that exercises absolute control of our life. We are driven to be the way our idealized image demands and we dare not question its authority. These specifications and the demand of blind obedience are absolute and breed a pervasive “black and white” thinking in our lives.

So we sell out during this search for glory. We sell out big time. We lose ourselves in this process. We abandon and alienate ourselves from our true-self. We conclude that we aren’t good enough as we are and therefore we must become something we aren’t to be OK. What a tragedy. We reject ourselves for an ideal. We swallow whole and uncritically this entire nonsense. What we don’t realize at the time is that any life based on self-rejection will never be fulfilling or satisfying. Something in us aches to be who we are. It is this pain that manifests itself in a myriad of symptoms. I believe that this is the spiritual thirst that Dr. Jung discussed when he was communicating with Bill Wilson about alcoholism. Therefore it is what is right about us that creates problems in our life, not what is wrong with us. It is abandoning our true-self that sets in motion a juggernaut that destroys our life and opens the door for addiction.

The amazing thing about the 12 Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous is that they systematically de-construct our false-self and help us recover our lost, true-self. As a clinical psychologist I have spent many hours studying the process of change. I can state without a doubt that the 12 Steps are the most powerful and effective solution to our fatal malady. The therapeutic forces they harness are remarkable. If you are struggling in recovery and you haven’t precisely and thoroughly worked the 12 Steps – do yourself a favor and find a Step Sponsor. Not only will this effort prevent further relapses but you will also experience an incredible shift in the quality of your life and in your attitude.

For the purpose of the online CE Course, the article objectives are:

  • To understand our psychological development in terms of adopting an idealized image of who we are supposed to be in order for us to be loved and accepted.
  • To understand the how abandoning our true-self becomes the core problem and how its restoration becomes the ultimate goal of recovery.
  • To understand how “shoulds” are an extension of the tyranny created by the false-self.

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