Everyday Thoughts

“Thinking about our work: The False Self”: Published in Group Journal Vol. 38, No. 3 (Fall 2014)


Comments on Walter Stone “Thinking About Our Work: The false self”

by Yoon Im Kane

How do we help our patients leave the safety of loneliness for the hope of connection? Walter Stone suggests an answer in this issue’s Thinking About Our Work.  Quoting K. Newman, Stone writes, “the false self provides the fiction of a good relationship and controls the recognition of the toxic core relationships...serv[ing] the need to keep the true self in a state of repression." The false self sacrifices real connection to avoid the pain of empathic failure.

According to Donald Winnicott, individuals with a false self cannot experience "going on being," an uninterrupted flow of the authentic self. He postulates that a caretaker unable to gratify infantile omnipotence creates the false self. Infants under such care remove themselves from their own experience to meet the needs of the other. They never learn to manage their own feelings, an essential step toward forming intimate relationships.

Stone’s description of the false self poses the question: How do therapists—transferential caretakers—respond to our patients’ infantile omnipotence? To continue "going on being," individuals must experience the full range of feelings and still feel accepted. More often than not, patients who struggle with a "false self" will enter treatment seeking to fix what they believe is wrong with them (or other people in their lives). Session after session, these patients hide behind a veneer of wanting to be helped and wanting to be helpful to others. Their true desires are deeply buried in a reservoir of unmet needs. They seek acceptance and approval, yet their false selves mask fear and an overwhelming sense of inadequacy. Left to their own devices, they are adept at perpetuating the game of peek-a-boo to distance themselves from emotional discomfort.

Individuals with overdeveloped false selves are difficult patients, because therapists are prone to delusions of infallibility. As Stone writes,  "we all have characteristics of the false self." We therapists are in a bind, because we must empathize with our patients’ vulnerability, but also put our wishes to help them aside.  This means that we must simultaneously feel and manage our relationships. In traditional professions, emotional involvement and management are distinct. Therapists, on the other hand, must lead receptively. It is different from what we think of as leadership traditionally. We must access our authentic selves to tolerate and soothe the unmanaged rage of others. We must abandon our fictional stories and be present with our patients, lest we try to “help” them.

As Stone writes, in group therapy, patients with overdeveloped false selves “see expressions of anger that do not lead to disaster."This may enable the individual to test out, however cautiously, being angry when he is not responded to." Group interrupts a self-gratifying style of relating by repairing old relational injuries. Egos become resilient enough to withstand intimacy. By empathizing with patients’ need for caution, group leaders may guide them to self-regulate and feel a full range of feelings. With more emotional insulation, individuals with false selves can shift from survival/reactive mode to a thriving/responsive mode.

Group therapy can replace past trauma with a current good-enough mother. The patience, persistence, and perspective of a functioning group teach patients to negotiate unmet needs. Seeing and being seen, the group member comes to replace his fictional story with authentic expression of self.