The true self – the heart of the matter

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One of many ‘heart’ drawings I’ve done over the years ©ZDM 2015

Having wandered off in the direction of looking at how core shame affects our thoughts, feelings and behaviour, I felt that I needed to come back to its roots, and the importance of the True Self – the ‘me’ that is truly us – since if (as I hope), I can work towards finding a way of helping those of us who have suffered all our lives to begin to heal both ourselves, and each other, I think that this is where we need to start. Where is the ‘me’ in all this?

Confession time – a passion for hearts

It is probably true that the thing that most fascinates us as therapists or writers, or indeed any creative person, is the thing that we most need to work on in ourselves, and I am no exception. I have been drawing hearts for many years. I wear heart-shaped earrings, and a heart-shaped locket, and I am always drawn to objects that are heart-shaped, whether in nature – leaves, or stones (of which I have a large collection) – or man-made objects like bowls, boards and dishes (oops, another collection)! Clearly, the heart is of great importance to me, although for a long time, I was unaware of the significance.

Despite many years with my lovely and brilliant therapist – now sadly no longer with us – all through my various trainings and beyond, during which time I experienced many positive changes, I still find myself struggling when it comes to connecting with my body and my feelings, as I mentioned in a previous post, and still find thoughts much more accessible. However, since ……..

………and driven by a constant desire to better understand myself, I am now studying the work of clinicians such as Allan Schore, Peter Levine, Pat Ogden, Stephen Porges, Ruth Lanius, Dan Siegel, Mark Solms and Diana Fosha, all of whom stress the primacy of emotion (or ‘affect’, as it is often named), and the importance of what we hold in our bodies, the seat of the True Self within all of us, and the home of the unique ‘me’ (see previous post) that we have the possibility of being.

What is a ‘True Self’? 

The phrase ‘True Self’ was coined by Donald Winnicott, who conceived of it as developing initially out of the sensations of being alive – of our heart beating, and of our breath going in and out. He believed that these sensations of aliveness cause a baby to make spontaneous and authentic gestures towards another – he looks at his mother’s face, hoping to see whatever he is experiencing being understood, accepted and reflected back to him. If she is a ‘good enough mother‘ (another Winnicottian concept), he will see an accurate reflection of himself in her eyes – she will understand how he is feeling (see previous post), she will let him know that she does (by her response to him), he will feel validated by her, and thus he will develop a connection to his True Self, and will be in touch with his real feelings, wishes and desires, safe in the knowledge that it is ok to be him.

This is the essence of what it means to be in touch with your True Self – you feel something, you act on that feeling, another human being responds appropriately to your action, and you ‘feel felt’ (as Dan Siegel describes it). There has been a spontaneous and successful interaction between two human beings – a true connection is made, and it feels ok to be you. Another human being has understood you, and accepted you as you are. My feeling is that there is also a spiritual dimension to this – a human soul connecting with another human soul, so that the true essence of one is met by the true essence of another, and for that moment, they are one, and there is no gap between them.

Do you know your True Self?

I suspect that some of you reading this will be puzzled – you may never have had this experience, because in order to be accepted, ensure your safety, or to survive neglect or abuse, you had to forgo a connection to your True Self, and spend your whole life feeling that you always had to be someone else:

  • the person your parents wanted you to be – this is where it all starts
  • the person you had to be to fit in at school
  • the person your partner wants you to be
  • the person you have to be at work
  • the person you have to be to fit in at your church, golf club, or community

You may even be wondering what on earth I’m talking about! You may have spent your life being ‘all things to all men’, and have little or no connection to your True Self at all, because from your earliest days, no one reflected it back to you. The ‘me’ is lost, and there is a hole inside where ‘me’ might be, although you may not be aware of it – a hole which you may have carefully concealed, even from yourself, a hole that you have spent a life-time trying to fill (see my post on addiction).

You may, in fact, have coped very well – you may be successful in the world, you may have a long-term relationship and have raised a family. But there comes a time when there is a growing awareness that something isn’t right – that it doesn’t feel ok to be you at all – maybe you begin to wonder who you really are, and to question whether the face that you show to the world is really yours?

I am reminded of a series of programs I saw some time ago, about a mental hospital in South London. I have never forgotten two of the people featured on the program – if either of you is reading this, I would like to thank you for being brave enough to share your story, and hope that you are well. These two people stuck in my mind because despite having lived quite happily for many years – into middle age, in one case, and further, in the other – and had partners, and children (as I recall), their lives had suddenly fallen apart, and they had found themselves needing the support of the mental health services, for reasons that baffled both them, and those around them. As they talked, it became apparent that they were both adopted, and (as I understand it), had lost all contact with the real ‘me’ inside – one of them was even able to articulate this: ‘I don’t know who I am’!

Adoption is an extreme example, because it causes such a fundamental rupture in the connection between a child and his birth mother, something that by its very nature causes core shame to the child – he was abandoned (for whatever reason) by the person (his mother) who he feels should have loved him most – but I think that many of us may find ourselves feeling not unlike these two people, albeit for different reasons. I often wonder about the phenomenon of the ‘mid-life crisis’ – is this not a realisation of the gap between who someone truly is, and the person they have come to be?

Core Shame – a disconnection from the True Self

I believe that core shame is a result of a loss of connection to the True Self – a loss of the feeling that it is ok to be me – brought about initially by a lack of an appropriate response to a child’s authentic and spontaneous gestures by his primary carer. Although others around the child may have a negative effect on his sense of self, and cause him to wonder whether he is acceptable to them, my feeling is that as long as he has a strong connection to one safe adult, he will grow up feeling that it is ok to be him. This one relationship will give him the start in life that he needs, and will sure him up against the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune that may beset him later in life. He will then develop a strong connection to his True Self – the feelings that come from his core – and will relate to the world, and those around him with confidence and authenticity. He doesn’t have to pretend to be something or someone that he’s not – it is ok to be him.

Just today, as I was writing this, I saw this on my Twitter feed – a piece by Jack Kornfield, entitled ‘The Happiness of Being’ which extols the virtues of approaching life from the heart. If only we could all do this………but many of us, through no fault of our own, nor indeed anyone else’s – it’s just life, as I keep saying – have not been fortunate enough to develop a connection to our True Self, and in order to survive, we may have developed a False Self – the subject of my next post……….


Stone hearts





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