Core shame and the False Self


Core Shame – The Hole Inside ©ZDM 2015

What happens when we lose our connection to our True Self? Winnicott‘s answer to this was that in order to survive, and to protect our True Self, we create what he called a ‘False Self’ – a term that has become widely used in the years since he coined it. We grow up realising that it is not ok to be who we are – we cannot express the feelings, wishes and desires that come from our core, because they are not being understood, accepted and reflected back to us by those closest to us – and our survival depends on becoming someone that will be acceptable to our carers. This is where the roots of core shame lie, and it is not, in the first instance, a conscious process, since it starts so early in life, when we are far too young to think it through – it is simply that we learn to react and behave according to the expectations of others. Hence we grow up unaware of the deep core shame that we are carrying, because it has always been there – we’ve never felt any different. However, it is not, of course, our fault!

From the first moments of life outside the womb, we have a sense of how we are seen by those around us (particularly our main carer), and from our earliest days, our need to feel safe and accepted – what I would call ‘loved’ – will alert us to even the smallest suggestion of disapproval, disinterest, or rejection, and cause us to begin to deny the authentic feelings and impulses that arise from our core. Thus begins the development of the False Self, causing subtle changes in our way of being:

Changes in our way of being

  • If, from our earliest days we feel unwanted and unacceptable, we will do whatever it takes to appeal to those around us – we want, more than anything else, to be liked, loved, and accepted, because our survival depends on this, so we learn to smile, and be quiet and ‘good’.
  • If we have a carer who is depressed, we try to please her, and do our best to make her feel better, so as to avoid the risk of being totally ignored and forgotten – we become like a comedian, and invest a great deal of energy in entertaining others to get attention.
  • If certain emotions – this is often the case with anger – are not acceptable in our family of origin, we soon learn not to show them, and to push them down inside until we no longer have any awareness of them – anger becomes something that we don’t understand, and we may be frightened when we see other people expressing it.
  • If, when we cry because we are upset, we are met by shouting and an angry face, we quickly learn to stop crying, and put on whatever face will calm down those around us – our safety may depend on this, as we may be physically punished for showing distress. Boys, in particular, are often told that ‘big boys don’t cry’ – they never see their father crying because he, in his turn, was taught that this was inappropriate – and so they learn to swallow their tears, and ‘man-up’, and never let anyone see them crying.
  • If we are surrounded by violence or abuse, we learn to make ourselves as small and invisible as possible – we may try to be very still, and make no sound for fear of arousing displeasure, and risking getting hurt.
  • If we are faced with a total lack of interest on the part of our carers, we will eventually give up trying to get their attention, and will become withdrawn – we have lost hope. Neglect is perhaps the most damaging experience for a small child, and the most likely to bring about a feeling of core shame, since any engagement with another is preferable to no engagement at all.

With every compromise we make to our True Self, we drift further and further away from our core, and lose sight of the person we might have been. As we grow, and are able to make choices about how we spend our time, we become aware that just as we are unacceptable as a human being, the things that we want to do are also unacceptable, and we begin to adapt, so that not only have we changed our way of being, but our ‘way of doing’ also changes:

Changes in our way of doing

  • We may enjoy playing with certain objects or toys which are not seen as appropriate to our gender or class – a boy chooses to play with dolls, or pretend to cook, or a girl may like to help to clean the house – and we are forced to forgo our natural inclinations, and play with the toys that our parents deem suitable.
  • We may like to wear clothes, or have our hair cut, in ways that are not considered appropriate to our gender or class – a girl may prefer boy’s clothes to pink dresses, or a child may like to dress in jeans rather than designer clothes.
  • We may enjoy playing outdoors with mud, water, sticks and stones, but our parents decide that this is not appropriate for their child, who must wear elegant clothes, and remain clean all the time.
  • Our parents may have very strong opinions about who we should be – my son is going to be a doctor/lawyer/soldier for example – whilst we may prefer to draw, or dance, or work with animals, and our natural instincts have to be squashed in order to fulfil our parents wishes.
  • We may choose to hang out with friends who are considered inappropriate on the grounds of race, religion, sexuality or class.
  • We may choose to listen to the ‘wrong’ kind of music, read the ‘wrong’ books, or watch the ‘wrong’ films, or develop interests in other political or cultural pursuits that are considered inappropriate.

Thus we lose touch with our True Self altogether, and slowly develop a False Self – a mask that we show the world – consisting of all the traits that we have had to acquire to feel that we are acceptable to others, and thus to ensure our safety.

The Mask of the False Self 

When working with teenagers in the past, I often found that they had already lost sight of their True Selves, and were well on the way to living their lives wearing the mask of the False Self, which had been developing since their early childhood. They had long forgotten who they really were, and were living the life that their parents wanted – they had by this time chosen the wrong GCSEs and thus the wrong A levels, they were heading for the wrong degree at University, where they didn’t really want to go anyway.

Most significantly, they were struggling with close relationships, because they didn’t really know who they were any more – how can you decide who you want to be friends with, if you don’t know who you are yourself? By late teens, it was already a long, arduous and painful journey to rediscover the lost True Self, and one which many would have to wait years to undertake, such was the power of the False Self, and the pressure from the family to maintain it.

The False Self becomes the person that we think we are, and we may live well into middle age before we decide that enough is enough, and something has to change – after all, it has kept us safe all through our childhood, and even if we become aware that we have it, we are reluctant to relinquish it, fearing that if we were to do so, we would no longer be accepted by those around us. If they knew who we really were, they would reject us – we would not be acceptable to them. We may have a career, a partner and a family, all based on the False Self we have acquired over the years, and to change this can seem life-threatening.


As I write this, I see a piece in The Saturday Times by Sarah Champion, who is the Labour MP for Rochdale – here is a link, but if you have the chance to read the whole article, I urge you to do so, and to take to Twitter, Facebook, or whatever you can to support Sarah in her fight to help these young people, because tragically, the girls involved continue to believe that in some way, what happened to them is their fault, and it is this that I want to change – it can NEVER be their fault.

In my next post I want to encourage those of you who identify with what I have written here to think about beginning to remove the mask……… and yes, as e.e. cummings says, ‘it takes courage’!

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