Bruce: Living with a False Self

UsB+w-6 Meet Bruce Wilson. Bruce is a UVU Chemistry Professor. He is a brilliant, kind, service-oriented man. My husband and I met Bruce through Church. Two years ago, we moved into the neighborhood where we currently live. Bruce, the Ward Clerk at the time, was one of the first people to introduce himself to our little family when we came to Church. Fast forward to this project–> I randomly asked Carson (my husband) the other day, “Who do you know that would be great/inspiring for this next post?”…he paused… “Bruce Wilson.” The stars aligned and within days we were in business. I’ll let Bruce introduce himself and you can see why he was so quick to come to mind…

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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.

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.

Core Discovery: I have a False self. (Click HERE to read more about the road leading up to Bruce’s ‘Core’ discovery) A False Self was proposed by Winnicott to explain behaviors in adolescents and adults. He said a False Self emerges in infants and children when they have big, to them, emotional pains to deal with. You can think of a False Self as the set of explanations, distractions, behaviors used to make the pain bearable.

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.

I have a False Self. I want to tell you what it’s like living with one. The feelings I was avoiding were feeling that I wasn’t valuable to those around me, which as a kid were my parents.

The single biggest thing is that it’s very difficult to feel or experience love. This is because the False Self is a completely intellectual thing, and the mind doesn’t feel love. Only the heart can. [I know, I’m speaking of the brain, heart, and body as being separate; transform those into however you understand yourself to exist.] When someone says, “I love you,” two things happen. First, you notice that your heart responded one way, but your mind wants to take over and formulate its own response. This lasts just a moment, and it causes pain. Because you are feeling emotional pain, your False Self will take over to deal with it. It becomes a well-practiced response for the mind, your False Self, to take over. But the pain remains. You can’t express real love, nor feel it. In any context. I can honestly say that until I realized I had a False Self, and spent enough time to learn when it was trying to come forward and stop it, that I never knew what love felt like. I knew only the outward show that I learned from watching others.

Most importantly, I didn’t love myself. This was a small bonus, when I read things like, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Well, that was easy; go watch TV. But the drawbacks are huge: I had no confidence in what I could accomplish. I felt that I had to edit everything I’d say so that no one could see that I had no value. Without a love of yourself, which automatically approves of anything you say as valuable, your brain is left to determine it. Talking to a woman, especially one I wanted to impress, was just impossible; I didn’t have the brain capacity to speak while calculating the totality of all ways she might take what I said, good or bad, so I could reject the ones I thought might reveal my lack of value before it left my mouth. So I’d just go speechless around people. Which causes pain. Which reinforces the False Self. I was jealous of Spock; he didn’t need to deal with any of this. Mostly.

Imagination and fantasy are a big deal. Everyone needs positive support. Your False Self can’t do that. It emerged to handle feeling much more primitive. So I had a massively active imagination. These were long-lived fantasies where I was doing something great. These fantasies were not having the world worship me. They were my doing something important, which influenced the world in very major way, but my response was always humble. Inventing anti-gravity technology to allow personal flight and limitless power—and I still lived at home. Setting up a space station, having convinced Warren Buffett to fund my obviously great idea, to allow school kids to get used to working and playing in zero-G. Being a bass player so good that artists flocked to my little house to play with me. Fantasy. It kept me going for decades.

I also had a HUGE inner dialog. It was my False Self trying to talk with my True Self (or something) and I had inner conversations going all the time. My mind was never silent, except when I was falling asleep.

Spirituality is different. I’m still exploring this, but this I can say: the spirituality experienced by a False Self can’t possibly match that taught by Jesus. The sort of spirituality I felt always led me to be alone. It never felt like I wanted to go out and be with people, to love them, to be with them. It was like a warm blanket at best. Powerless to follow the example Jesus gave us.

Without love, and feeling a self-centered spirituality, I’m astounded that I stayed in the church. There is no reason I should have. Well, one, I was still trying to please my parents. Obedience is what caused the emergence of my False Self, and my False Self was obedient to the end.

Since the False Self exists to deal with emotional pain, it tends toward very addictive behavior to distract from that pain. I think all addictive behavior exists to hide pain. Alcohol, cigarettes, porn, food, TV, binging, purging, drugs, drugs, drugs, vitamins, looks, exercise, socializing, hermitizing, anger, and probably the rest of all the bad things man does to themselves, are all part of avoiding this deep emotional pain. This is one of the main things I noticed when my True Self began to take dominance: all my addictions disappeared instantly. I won’t say what they were, but the departure surprised me. PTSD’s are probably the response of a False Self. That’s just a guess.

The other big thing I noticed was that I love being with people now. I used to only be comfortable in the desert, by myself. Being by myself was the best way I knew to not feel I had no value. Being around people always brought pain. But now, with a dominant True Self, I can honestly say I love being with people. I’m still learning who my True Self is, but the thing I want most now is a close, deep conversation, where important ideas and feelings are expressed, and listened to. I’ll add, though, that there was one other place I liked being, where I felt I had value: in front of a class. I loved being a teacher then, and still do, even more.

To Overcome the False Self: You need to get to a physical place where you can return to, and practice living with, your heart and feelings again. You need to relearn how to listen to all your feelings, and to relearn how to express exactly what you feel. You need to be surrounded by people who accept you as you are, right now. You must relearn how to stop censoring your feelings.

Find people who you can talk to and tell them what you are going through. I can’t express how very grateful I am for those people at church and work who have listened to all these strange things going on inside my head and heart, who accepted what I said as genuinely me and my experience, and who gave gentle advice while realizing that listening and accepting was their role in the conversation. If it is in your ability, try to be that person to anyone who reveals to you they are not happy. I’m trying to be that person. I can’t force anyone to express what they really feel around me, but I can model it, I can express my feelings openly, and let them know I’m not nearly as perfect as they might think I am. All strangers, oddly, appear perfect to us. So I’ll try not to be a stranger. It’s a tricky thing, though. No one expects acquaintances to open up. No one wants to trust someone who isn’t a spouse, or family, with their inner feelings, worries, flaws. But I’ve found that there is a huge amount of love out there. I’ve never told someone my problems and not found a sympathetic ear. They might not be well-versed in what you are going through, but they never mock or run away.

So for the first time in my life I can say this and I think I can really mean it: I love you all, and I hope to be your friend.

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.

If you do have a false self, 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 was, “I have no value.” Now I know I have value.

So do you.


(If you are interested in reading more, Bruce posts on his blog regularly:

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  1. Here is what happened:

    I formed a belief (those things deep down in my brain which gives me motivation) when I was very young that I loved my older brother Lee and he will be the leader and I would follow: I’d follow him to school, baptism, priesthood, dating, mission, love, marriage, life.

    Only that didn’t happen. Lee had brain damage. He didn’t do those things. I waited for him because it would hurt him if I jumped ahead. And I waited. And waited. I went to school, but had already formed my second belief: I shouldn’t be happy while Lee wasn’t happy.

    And so I wasn’t happy. And the beliefs remained intact. And I started to hate Lee because he wasn’t getting on with life, while I wanted to but didn’t want to hurt Lee, and I hated my younger brother Ross because he jumped right past the both of us.

    I graduated high school and college, dated unhappily, went to grad school, dated, remained unhappy, graduated, taught for 18 years, remained unhappy. I went to the desert to avoid people; my own little hermitage.

    Other beliefs had formed because of the first two:

    I can’t be authentically and spontaneously myself
    I am hollow
    God does not care about me
    I am unloveable
    I am not valuable
    Mom doesn’t love me
    Dad doesn’t care about me
    Girls don’t like me
    If I am compliant I will earn love

    Somewhere in there, early on as a preteen I think, maybe earlier, a false self developed. It developed to deal with the pain, the very real emotional pain of wanting happiness in my heart and not wanting the happiness in my mind. I turned my heart off, and began to live in my mind. From then on I was doomed to a lousy life until I found my heart again, and discovered why I turned my heart off, else I would regress and it would continue.

    On the 13th of August, 2016, I discovered my false self, and my heart.

    Today, on the 23rd of November 2016, I knew why.

    I need to build a new set of beliefs. It will take time, just as discovering these things took two years:

    I will be happy
    I am awesome
    I want God’s love
    I want a loving wife
    I want to love others
    I want to feel alive
    I want authentic joy
    I want a beautiful wife
    I will be a great husband
    I want love

    Wish me luck. I’ll need it.

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