The False Self and the Co-dependent on the Death of the Object

I spent time this week talking with some friends whose mothers had died. In each case, their parents passing was long enough ago that the intensity of the grief and loss had somewhat diminished. With the passage of time, my friends were able to reflect on their relationship with their mothers and the meaning of those relationships in their lives.

In the field of psychology, the mother and the relationship between the mother and infant are major areas of concern. In my classes at the University, I often say, “Well, you know, it is always the mother.” This immediately angers every woman in the place. My goal is not to anger them, but to make them aware of the importance of the relationship of the “object” (usually understood to be the mother) to the infant. According to Object Relations Theory, the mother’s primary job is to create a safe holding environment for the child while the child progresses through the stages of grandiose narcissism into the separation and individuation stage where the child learns that he and the mother, and in fact everyone else, are separate independent individuals. The child has to learn this reality and develop a sense of self and a sense of capacity that makes him a healthy, functioning whole person. Many of the theories of Freud, Winnicott, Bolby and others intensely discuss the minutia of these stages and their meanings. Those discussions, while interesting, are not things most people delve through, or need to. In this blog I will discuss the outcome of these reflections with regards to their parents and to compare those new “awarenesses” to the theories of the false self and the true self.

A question one of my friends asked me this week was, “Do you think now that my mother is dead, I will be free to act the way I want to?” What a powerful question and what an interesting topic to explore. What immediately comes to mind is, how long have you felt this way? What have you held back from experiencing because of your anxiety about how your mother would react to it?

One of the common use terms that is popular, but not a clinical term, is the term co-dependence. The underlying issue of co-dependence is the belief that people learn early in life that it is not safe to feel what they feel, want what they want, or behave in response to their own inner desires. What they learn is that they live in a precarious world where they must “pass.” They must learn to fake it and be sensitive to the desires and needs of the other (mom, friend, husband, boss, lover) and behave in ways that take care of the needs of the other in order to be safe, accepted and not abandoned. In response to learning this way of existing, the co-dependent does not learn to know who they are or what they want. They learn to make the devil’s bargain; “I will do whatever you want or need and in return, promise me that you will never abandon me and affirm me by giving me my “attaboys”, strokes of reward for pleasing you. Co-dependents cannot generate these feelings from within themselves; they must always get them externally from others with whom they have made this deal.

In therapy, I constantly work with people struggling with this reality. They do not often consciously know that they have made these bargains and that they are selling themselves out for safety, but they have and they are. My challenge to them in therapy always is; can you go inside and learn what you like, what you want and act in ways that will pursue obtaining your desires? Invariably they will say that they do not know what I am talking about, and that I am just not understanding. If they can only talk about what the “other” wants with me and I can help them figure out a way to give it to them, then my client will be “safe” and “loved” in the way they so hunger to be. They want to spend all their time in therapy talking about the other. Why do they act this way? How can I understand them? What else can I do to make them stop frightening me or hurting me? They never approach the conversation from the perspective of; “How can I make them understand me and what I want? When do I get a turn? They can barely ever make the “I want” statement about themselves, because they are never entitled or deserving. Their turn never comes. They are hurting and they attempt to assuage the hurt by pleasing someone else so that the other can make them feel OK. They do not have the concept of internalized OK-ness.

The technical terms for this concept include words like false self and true self. The underlying idea is that we learn to have a false self, a mask which we wear to present to the world as a way of protecting our inner self. This can be a healthy false self, like the person who has learned to be “ladylike” at all times and in all circumstances. (She would never say crap, even if she had a mouthful of it. She knows that ladies don’t speak that way.) These people are civil and socially adept and they know what they are doing, because they are behaving in ways that are internally consistent with their sense of self, their true self, even if they are behaving in deliberate ways to accommodate an external reality. For example: Have you ever been in the mall and seen a teenager that you just wanted to slap? You feel it so strongly but you deliberately chose not to do it. You behave politely and you make the situation work as best you can, you do not indulge your inner self’s desire to slap the obnoxious brat. This is the healthy false self. The unhealthy false self is the part that creates a persona that is not a reflection of internal integrity. With many of my clients, I find that they do not have access to their inner self so they do not know what it feels or wants. The access is blocked or denied by their false self, which is forcing them to stay in their masks and behave in ways that protect them and make them look good to the general public.

These individuals who are operating from the false self that is unhealthy are often very angry and become passive aggressive. Passive aggressive personality traits are a topic for another day, but in a nutshell, they are people that allow you to think you have an understanding and have agreed on things that they never intend to do, additionally, you will not find out that they never intended to do until it is too late. These individuals project their rage into others so their partners are often very angry. Fighting with them is like fighting Jello because there is no core to grapple with. The challenge for therapy is to help these people by recreating the safe holding environment of childhood, so that the true self can become self-aware, and begin the uncompleted task of childhood. They go through the separation-individuation phase and develop the healthy false self that is based on ‘making nice’ while you work to be true to your inner self and the pursuit of your real desires. Then they can learn a reality based negotiation with others and an honest awareness of who they are and what they really want.

Returning to the conversations with my friends, these people are all beginning to ask themselves how much of their true self is genuine and how much is a false self they learned to use to become safe with their objects, in this case their mothers. It is often easier to have this conversation when the object in question has died. The relationship with them becomes frozen or static, no longer dynamic, because the object is not here to interact with. The object is no longer changing, she is no longer illusive and judgmental. The reality of the physically existing critical parent is no longer intrusive and my friends can begin to challenge the projected, internalized critical parent in their heads. They can argue, experiment, challenge, and grow into themselves. They are behaving in new ways, but still waiting for the other shoe to drop. Will they be punished or rejected? Will they be happy or unhappy? Whose fault will the results be? Will they experience their real self or their false self? Which masks will they “choose” to wear and which ones must they wear?

Is it finally their time to shine?

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5 Responses to The False Self and the Co-dependent on the Death of the Object

  1. lisa says:

    No, the codependent child/adult doesn’t miraculously become “cured” upon the death of the parent, or even the replacement object (eg. narcissistic spouse). That person’s personality is what it is and must be very difficult to re-mold. I should imagine that the codependent personality will find another object upon whom to project his or her needs and the cycle will continue.

    • Brett Newcomb says:

      I think you put your finger on the exact issue. What is the codependent person willing to do to make changes. In most cases, they simply seem to replace the object upon which they focus their codependency needs and repeat their pattern. Changing patterns always takes a long time and a lot of hard work. The challenge is to identify and take responsibility for the victim script and learn how to embrace response-ability instead of responsibility.

  2. marriage counseling says:

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  3. Colette says:

    Would it be better if the co-dependent son embraced the change before the mother died? Or at the very least, admitted that his mother is never going to return his love? Surely it is easier to admit the dysfunction and change once she is gone since there is freedom to do so. But if the co-dependent son could acknowledge this, perhaps he would be aware of his need for a “replacement narcissist” and embrace the wisdom to avoid relationships until he has had time to heal. This, of course, takes internal strength, and may be found in the older co-dependent.

    • Brett Newcomb says:

      It would absolutely be beneficial if this could be done before the death of the Object! In my experience, finding someone with enough internal perspective and self acceptance to do this is rare . If the individual suffering from this issue were able to resolve these internal conflicts they could behave in far less damaging ways in relationships as they seek the love they hunger for. My question to you would be how can we help these individuals make these self enhancing leaps rather than repetitively continue the destructive cycle in which they are stuck?

      I believe any therapist or clinician working with this population would like some ideas here, can you help?

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