THE FALSE SELF & THE ABANDONMENT DEPRESSION

In a natural evolution of development, the real self and its capacities emerge allowing the child to mature into an autonomous adult capable of self-activation and self-expression, with a sense of entitlement and the self-confidence to live creatively in the face of challenges and disappointments.

However, when the child experiences the abandonment depression during the first three years of life, the real self shuts down to avoid further aggravating the feelings of abandonment. This shut-down arrests psychological development and produces varying degrees of impairment in all the capacities of the self.

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Unable to tolerate feeling the abandonment depression, the child engages in a number of measures to protect himself from feeling depressed, at the cost of growth and adaptation.

He avoids activities that would further the emergence of the real self, and consequently all the self’s potential capacities are impaired.

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In addition, the need for defense causes a similar arrest of what is classically described as ego development so that it, too, continues to function on a primitive level. Certain functions of the ego—reality perception, impulse control, frustration tolerance, and stable ego boundaries—can only develop through successful separation and individuation.

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The child who cannot separate from his mother will not internalize these functions, which she had performed for him, and make them his own. Consequently, he exhibits deficiencies in all these areas.

When the ego suffers from poor reality perception, the child must continue to rely upon mother or someone else for an understanding of how the world works. 

-His own skewed perceptions will leave him bewildered in situations that the child with a clearer perception of reality will handle more easily.

In normal (natural) development, the mother introduces the child to increasingly difficult levels of frustration so the child will learn that she does not always get what she wants.

At some point, the child’s ego realizes, accepts, and internalizes this, understanding that it is a normal, although disagreeable, fact of life.

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The child with an arrested ego, however, will have a poor ability to tolerate frustration. Similarly, in the course of normal development, the mother, setting limits for the child’s behavior, instructs through appropriate reprimands so the child learns self-control.

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But when ego development is arrested, control will not be internalized and develop into a reliable ego strength. Fluid ego boundaries render it difficult to distinguish whether feelings and mental states are external or internal. The impaired ego will be as likely to project an internal mood on the outside world as to confuse external circumstances with internal feeling states.

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Because of the developmental arrests of the real self and ego functions, the child continues to rely heavily upon primitive mechanisms of defense: denial and clinging, avoidance and distancing, projection, and acting out.

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In order to prevent the abandonment feelings, the child denies the reality of separation. Although physically, he is a separate, autonomous self, he doesn’t feel, think, or act that way.

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He develops a fantasy that by clinging he can act out his wish for reunion with the mother, making it seem in fantasy as if he and she are still a fused pair as they were before and immediately after birth.

This fantasy is linked with and motivates the need to behave defensively and regressively rather than to encourage the real self to emerge. He projects onto the mother his need for her, which in his mind becomes her unquenchable need for him.

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Denial and clinging become reflexive responses, fixed in the child’s personality, later to become primary means of dealing with similar separation stresses in adulthood, especially those involving intimacy and separation where he will expect an exclusive relationship with the loved one and will use clinging in the hopes of achieving it.

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To further assure himself that he will not trigger the abandonment depression, the child learns to avoid opportunities to express himself, or assert his wishes, or activate what is most unique in his personality, all of which could threaten his emotional equilibrium by precipitating feelings of abandonment.

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Those early interpersonal interactions in which he experienced the devastating effects of the mother’s unavailability become internalized, fixed intrapsychic images that act as a mold for his personality structure. This infantile pattern comes to dominate his perceptions and reactions to situations in later life—regardless of what actually happens in those situations.

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He learns that for him life is more tolerable when he holds himself back and avoids situations that would stimulate his own growth through self-activation and self-expression.

Relinquishing growth seems a small price to pay in order to feel safe.

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This person will either cling or stay aloof and emotionally uninvolved out of fear of being hurt or rejected. He learns that many of life’s challenges have to be avoided and other people have to be either possessively held onto or kept at an emotional distance in order for him to feel secure. For he remembers on an intra-psychic level that, when he was a child, mother was more rewarding when he avoided life’s challenges and relationships with other people and kept his true feelings to himself.

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Because the child has denied that he has separated from the mother and perceives that she is still the commanding half of his experience, problems and difficulties can be projected onto her.

Pain, suffering, unhappiness, disappointment, frustrations are not merely facts of life, they are all in some way her doing, not his. Or, alternately, he may see them as being entirely due to his own inadequacies.

The intrapsychic pattern is so set that the child, and later the adult, will have no realistic understanding of the causes—or the solutions—for his problems.

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After psychically projecting the conflict into the environment so that he does not feel it internally, he literally “acts it out” in behavior.

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Typically, the individual, due to his hypersensitivity to rejection, will avoid facing up to and dealing with the abandonment depression by playing out the painful parental relationship with another person cast as the parent.

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In this way, what was internalized and caused pain in the past is externalized and dealt with as if it were an external problem in the present.

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The illusion is created that the person is “managing it” in the here and now. There are always two components to acting out, the psychodynamic aspect, which involves the internalized relationship with its accompanying pain, and the behavioral interaction with a contemporary in a replaying of the original rejection scenario.

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- Acting out does not always require a partner, however. The term is also applied to behavior, usually self-destructive, that one engages in as a defense against the abandonment depression. Alcohol, drugs, excessive work habits, and other addictive activities can serve as a distraction from depression.

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- In addition to the emergence of these primitive mechanisms of defense another consequence of the developmental arrest is that the ego remains driven by the pleasure principle to seek pleasure and avoid pain rather than develop the reality principle, the ability to deal with reality whether it is pleasurable or not.

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- 1 Pain continues to mean the pain of the abandonment depression; pleasure remains the superficial “feeling good” that comes from not experiencing the abandonment depression. This myopic view persists as the child matures with the result that a large part of the ego bypasses the transformation from a pleasure ego into a reality ego. In time, the “pleasure ego” becomes a pathologic ego, quick to follow the false self’s narrow guidelines for avoiding pain rather than dealing with reality.

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- The reality principles upon which real self-activation and self-expression could be grounded are poorly developed. The splitting defense mechanism, which usually recedes as the real self emerges, persists as a principal defense against the abandonment depression.

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- The conflicting images of the good mother and the bad mother, the good child and the bad one, and the feeling states associated with them (being loved or being rejected) remain conscious but are kept apart so they do not influence one another. It is as if they were closed off in two separate closets. The widespread use of splitting fosters and deepens the other defense mechanisms as well as the ego defects.

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- The bifurcated worldview created by splitting reinforces the primitive defenses because from the person’s perspective the world is still structured as it was in the first months of life:

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- The self-representation consists of a good self-image linked to a good mother-image and a bad, inadequate, or

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- Deflated self-image linked to the bad mother-image. In psychodynamic terms, the child fails to achieve “object constancy,” and will go through life relating to people as parts—either positive or negative—rather than whole entities.

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- He will be unable to maintain consistent commitment in relationships when he is frustrated or angry; and he will have difficulty evoking the image of the loved one when that person is not physically present.

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- He will never fully realize that mother is one, complete person who sometimes rewards and sometimes frustrates the child. He will continue to think of her as two separate entities, one benevolent, the other wicked.

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- Similarly, he will never create a single unified self-concept that he recognizes as himself in both good and bad aspects. Instead, he will continue to see a “good” self that engages in immature, clinging, passive, unassertive behavior and a “bad” self that wants to grow, assert itself, be active and independent.

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- The “good” mother approves of the “good” child while the “bad” mother disapproves of the “bad” child. The “good” mother supports and encourages the regressive behavior while the “bad” mother grows hostile, critical, and angry when confronted with the child’s assertive behavior.

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- Splitting fosters in the child’s psychic structure a damaging leitmotif based on the themes of reward for clinging and withdrawal for separation.

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- These twin themes repeated over and over as early interpersonal interactions between the mother and child become deeply internalized as stereotyped, fixated, and unchangeable intrapsychic images and feelings, and eventually become locked into the adult’s entire personality structure.

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- Reward and withdrawal, now intrapsychic, come to dominate his perception and response to life. He will be rewarded for regressive behavior, and he will be abandoned for self-assertion and autonomy.

To relieve the abandonment depression and the bad feelings about his self-image, he forgoes self-assertion in real life and substitutes the superficial “feeling good” that comes from clinging. It is this process that produces the “deflated false self,” the basis of the borderline personality.

Deflated because the bad self-image reflects weakness and insecurity, and false because it is based on a fantasy. The clinging behavior is based on a fantasy (modeled on recollections of childhood interactions) that people will provide support for clinging or avoiding self-activation. This fantasy is projected on the external world (even sometimes on people who are not supportive) and the patient feels good. It may seem paradoxical to “feel good” with people who are not supportive. But this situation serves to underline the fact that the patient can deny the real major theme to focus on the grains of support that reinforce his projection.

The false self’s self-perpetuating argument operates unrelentingly: any attempt to activate the impaired real self will lead to depression which requires further defensive behavior to avoid further depression.

Even as adults people with a deflated false self will feel as they did when children: bad, guilty, ugly, helpless, inadequate, and empty for never asserting themselves; and they will only feel good and actually “loved” when they are passive, compliant, and submissive to the person to whom they cling for emotional supplies.

Caught in this vise that won’t allow them to express or assert themselves honestly, their emotional lives are characterized by chronic anger, frustration, and feelings of being thwarted.

The abandonment depression continually lurks just around the next corner, and the false self prevents the person from turning that corner. To the deflated false self, “proof” of being loved is essential for feeling good. Fantasies of reunion with the mother are projected onto the environment and acted out for immediate gratification.

The false self refuses to examine the dynamics of a present situation, which might require deferred gratification and self-denial to accommodate the needs of others or to satisfy his own needs in the most realistic way.

The reunion fantasy obscures the reality of interpersonal interactions. Behavior becomes inappropriate to the actual circumstances, motivated only by the wish for the immediate gratification and fulfillment of reunion fantasies which, as they multiply, are accompanied by an ever increasing denial of reality.

By the time the person reaches adulthood, a long pattern of fantasy and denial is so locked into his way of living that he has no capacity to discover appropriate behavior to fulfill his needs.

Nevertheless, the adult will manage to cope, convincing himself that his view of human behavior in terms of distinct rewarding and withdrawing segments actually works. And to a certain extent it does.

He has learned to successfully stave off the withdrawing behavior of the people he loves by denial and rationalizations, for example, “He is attacking me because he’s upset, not because he usually feels that way toward me.”

Such feelings of being loved, no matter how strongly experienced, are not realistic or appropriate because they are based on a false portrayal of the self and the other. Only love based on honest self-expression and an acceptance of the other can sustain a healthy relationship.

The person with a false deflated self remains perplexed and cannot see through the defensive structures of his life, his thinking, his ways of perceiving reality. He senses, but cannot understand, the hollow core at the center of his life. He has lived too long on deception, fantasy, and the myths of the false self.

As I have listened to patients express this dilemma in countless ways over the years I have been struck by how similar their stories are to the two classic folktales Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and Cinderella.

In relating their earliest childhood memories, they seem to be reflecting the archetypal pattern of these two tales, both involving a young daughter caught in the dilemma of expressing her real self or knowing what could become a false self, offering her a pathological deal to save her from the abandonment depression.

In both stories there is literally a good mother and a bad mother. The good and natural mother is forever preserved in fantasy by her untimely death.

She will never become the real mother engaging in frustrating activities that would threaten or alienate the child; she will never withhold her support, acknowledgement, or love.

This role is clearly reserved for the intruding mother, the stepmother who is inevitably described as wicked or an evil witch. Interestingly, the father plays no role at all in either story. Variations of the two stories differ, but the father seems either to be remote and uninvolved or off on a journey.

The loss of the father is glossed over and rationalized. Many patients are so embroiled in the intense conflict with the mother that in the beginning of therapy the fact that the father was not around to play the crucial role of introducing the child into a world that is broader than the mother does not seem to occur to them. Of course, anger at the father is well defended against and will come out later in therapy.