Health: Tales from the Therapist's Couch ; `My Patient Had Developed a Successful "False Self". the Part of Him That Felt Authentic and True Went into Hiding'
Meakins, Elizabeth, The Independent (London, England)
"LAST NIGHT, I watched these terrible images about what we are doing to one another and our world: wars, poverty, pollution. I felt overwhelmed by the pity of it all. And totally pathetic because I do nothing to change it. I come here and talk about how I feel disconnected from everything. But how is that going to help the world?"
At the time this was spoken, my patient, a man in his mid- forties, had been coming to therapy for about four months. During our initial meeting he described himself as someone who has spent his life feeling like an impotent outsider, and, as we gathered together his life story, the aptness of this became poignantly clear. As a child, he was intimidated by his bullying father, whose sarcasm frequently reduced him to tears. When he was six, his father left home and my patient found that an unkind father was replaced by a needy mother, who increasingly depended upon him for emotional support. "I suppose I always had to hide from or fit in with other people's worlds. As the eldest I had the top bunk bed, and it may sound mad but that was the one place where I could be with me. I escaped there as often as possible, just to daydream."
In the language of the psychoanalyst Winnicott, my patient developed a successful "false self" in order to fit in with what others needed him to be. The part of him that felt authentic and "true" went into hiding, only emerging in fantasy or solitude. As he grew older, this difficulty in being who he was in the presence of others developed into an air of detachment. What was inside felt real, but he found it increasingly difficult to show this to the world around him. A voracious reader, he spent many hours at his local library, and worked as a porter at a local hospital.
What struck me from early on in our work together was the paradox between his feeling of being cut off from the world and his intense empathy for suffering around him. As his opening remarks indicate, this often gave rise to anguish and frustration at his own feeling of impotence in the world. His words above also pose a challenging question to the whole therapeutic process: do the private conversations that take place behind consulting room doors have any connection with the wider world? Or is therapy as cut off as this man felt himself to be from anything beyond the personal?
For me, this important question has a boomerang-shaped response. …