Hi, i’m not usually open about anything like this. But i’m in need of answers. I’m a 19 year old male from England, UK. Ever since leaving high school, I feel as if I don’t know who my true self is. I adapt the likings, traits and opinions of characters from movies and literally become that person. I’m very vain and depend on my physical appearance. I find I often alter my personality depending on who i’m with and how i’m affected by a situation. At school I wasn’t the most popular kid, and if anyone was to make an attempt at bullying me I’d have to take it, but now just a few years later, hardly anyone recognizes me physically, and I’d be able to transform so easily into some that is higher than the person trying to bully. I don’t have relationships, and fear them and I really don’t know why. My views on relationships are negative, but again, that can change depending on who I am, and when I am. Can this change, or do I have to find a way to deal with it. Thank you.
- Dr. Dombeck responds to questions about psychotherapy and mental health problems, from the perspective of his training in clinical psychology.
- Dr. Dombeck intends his responses to provide general educational information to the readership of this website; answers should not be understood to be specific advice intended for any particular individual(s).
- Questions submitted to this column are not guaranteed to receive responses.
- No correspondence takes place.
- No ongoing relationship of any sort (including but not limited to any form of professional relationship) is implied or offered by Dr. Dombeck to people submitting questions.
- Dr. Dombeck, Mental Help Net and CenterSite, LLC make no warranties, express or implied, about the information presented in this column. Dr. Dombeck and Mental Help Net disclaim any and all merchantability or warranty of fitness for a particular purpose or liability in connection with the use or misuse of this service.
- Always consult with your psychotherapist, physician, or psychiatrist first before changing any aspect of your treatment regimen. Do not stop your medication or change the dose of your medication without first consulting with your physician.
Your predicament immediately reminded me of a song I like, Uninhabited Man, by English folk-rock singer Richard Thompson:
I am left no skill, no art
To meet you heart to heart
You’ll find no me beneath the skin
And if there’s no me then there’s no
And if there’s no me then there’s no sin
I think that sums things up nicely, and hopefully also shows you that you’re not the only person out there dealing with this problem.
You’re worried about never being able to change, but I don’t think you need to worry about that too much. Life isn’t a static thing. It keeps changing all the time, even if we don’t notice it happening. This identity problem you have is clearly an issue at age 19, but I do think you can expect things to change over time. How they will change, I can’t tell you, but things can change.
The main problem you write about has to do with identity, namely that you feel you should have a stable identity of your own, but note that this isn’t the case. Identity is not something you are born with. Instead, it grows over time. Identity is built through a process of making differentiations between self and other. A baby is hardly aware of the difference between itself and it’s parents, but as children grow they learn to make progressively refined distinctions between self and other. You can read more about the general process of child development here, and more about the development of identity here.
Distinguishing between yourself and someone else requires that you become skillful at understanding where you end and where other people start. This is a relatively easy task to accomplish when we are talking about conceptualizing the distinction between my body and your body, which are tangible things that are not really connected. It is much harder to accomplish when you are trying to figure out the difference between what you like and don’t like, and what other people who are trying to influence you want you to like and dislike like. Such emotional and belief distinctions are harder because they are invisible and intangible and it is thus difficult to trace how a particular idea got into your head. Is it there because it appeals to you, or is it there because someone you want to please thinks it is important? Often it is hard to tell the difference.
For instance, in my essay about the long term effects of bullying, I pointed out that it is the bully’s aim to make his victim feel bad about himself. That is an idea the bully is trying to put into the victim’s head, but once the idea is there in the victim’s head, whose idea is that? The idea that you are a bad person may originally have been someone else’s belief, but once you get it inside your brain, you tend to take it to heart and believe it as though it was your own idea. This creates a kind of confusion, and a lack of differentiation between self and other that can be harmful to your further identity development.
The psychologist Carl Rogers had this great idea he called Organismic Self-Valuing, which was the idea that people were born being able to distinguish between what they liked and didn’t like. This capacity for Organismic self-valuing is, however, not a very strong ability in many people, and particularly not when those people are faced with others who are trying to inject alternative ideas into their heads. In Roger’s view, healthy development based on organismic self-valuing could easily get derailed by cultural and societal forces wanting to mold you in a different direction. Marketing is a great example of what these molding forces look like, but really, most everyone tries to put their stamp on you, including parents and peers, etc. In response some people fail to develop their self-valuing capability and instead develop an identity based on other people’s values.
There are differing accounts of how this process of the overpowering of self-valuing by other-valuing happens.
The Psychologist James Marcia talked about it using terms like identity foreclosure and identity diffusion, which you can read about here. Pay particular attention to the section on identity diffusion, because that is pretty squarely what you are concerned about, right now.
The Psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott talked about more or less the same ideas slightly earlier in time using the terms “false self” and “true self”. This excerpt from the Wikipedia article makes the point:
“When the person has to comply with external rules, such as being polite or following social codes, then a False self is used. The False self is a mask of the false persona that constantly seeks to anticipate demands of others in order to maintain the relationship.”
The idea in both cases is that it is fully possible to become someone without an independent identity that is self-authoring, but rather to develop an identity which mimics what other people want to hear. This can be done consciously (as you’re doing it) or in an unconscious manner (where you don’t realize it’s happening). However it happens, the result is that you become dependent on others for self-esteem.
You could think about what is happening through lens of anxiety as well. You want other people to like you and become something they will approve of in order to make that occur. Easy for you to do because you haven’t experienced yourself as having strong commitments yet. Anxiety drives you to fake a self, and fear of being rejected if you share that this is not who you really are will keep you from revealing the lie. You’ll likely continue on as you are because you don’t want to risk rejection.
There is a real self behind the facade, however. The part of you that is concerned that you don’t have a solid self, the part that watches all the rest of the show take place, is real, we know, because that is the part of you that knows that the rest of you is not real. If you want to, you can grow that real part of yourself into something larger and more fully expressed. As this process unfolds, I expect that some of your relationship fears and avoidances will have the opportunity to evaporate. Relationships are probably scary now because of the fear of rejection. As you become more fully anchored in yourself, and more self-accepting, some of your neediness will go away, and the whole enterprise of being intimate will become easier. Not easy or effortless, mind you, but easier than it is now.
In order to make that happen you will have to do a few things. You will have to learn how to tolerate the anxiety of rejection, and the ensuing loneliness that may come if you actually are rejected by someone you care about. You will have to learn to pay attention to your own needs by looking inward towards them, rather than constantly looking outward to see who you are expected by others to be. You will have to learn how to accept yourself, flaws and all, with less judgment than you do today. You will have to be willing to explore different interests and fancies until you find ones that are enduring, and tolerate and accept that most of them won’t stick. And you will have to give the entire process a fair amount of time to take place. Several years, I would think.
The whole process might be helped along considerably if you were to find a good psychotherapist to help you. There are many different kinds of therapy out there. For this self-growth purpose, you would probably do best to find a therapist who can offer you a growth-oriented variety of therapy. A therapist who represents him or herself as psychodynamic or humanistic in orientation might do best by you (as opposed to a more behaviorally oriented type which is more oriented towards problem solving).
A closing thought. Someone like yourself who has made such extensive use of a fantasy life to construct a false self might also be prone to dissociation, a process akin to hypnosis in which you can lose yourself inside a fantasy and in so doing, make separations inside yourself so that one part of yourself isn’t very aware of what the other parts are doing. If this is the case, your task will be a little harder to accomplish as it is hard to become yourself when you are divided inside. Explore the idea with your therapist if you get a chance, so as to rule it out or address it.