Why Hiding Who We Are Hurts Us

Person stands at bridge holding balloon in front of faceIn my first meeting with Nora and Jeff, Nora told me (actually, she was yelling and crying): “He’s so passive, he’s driving me crazy. Jeff never lets me know what he’s thinking. He doesn’t make clear what he wants; when we disagree, he doesn’t explain what he thinks or feels.” As I got to know Nora and Jeff, I could imagine that most people would describe Jeff as a passive person—not actively taking part, compliant, meek. But I have come to understand that, more accurately, Jeff is a person in hiding.

While both Nora and Jeff contributed to the difficulties in their relationship, I am going to focus on Jeff.

Passivity as Protective Hiding

Several months into my work with the couple, this particular session was not the typical discussion of the vicious circle where Jeff’s passivity evokes Nora’s anger which makes Jeff more passive and around they go. Instead, Jeff started the session. Looking frightened but sounding more filled with feelings than usual, he told Nora: “I’m tired of this fighting. I’ve tried so hard to give you what you want, to be the good guy. All you do is criticize me and make me feel like the bad guy. You’re always screaming, but now I do feel like the bad one. This isn’t me. I’m always the good guy. I can’t stand that you don’t see me that way anymore. I don’t know what to do.”

In my work with Jeff and Nora, I learned a lot about Jeff’s need to hide and came to understand his passivity as his way of hiding himself to stay safe. Jeff projected a self to the world that was easygoing, undemanding, and kind. In our sessions, Jeff slowly revealed how this was not how he felt about himself: “I can’t say I like myself very much or think very highly of myself. I don’t know. Maybe it has to do with having such critical parents. They were horrible. They always laughed about my appearance: look at his big ears; his voice is so squeaky; ooh, he’s so hairy. They made me feel ashamed. They didn’t like my friends, complained about how I ate, dressed, ugh, everything. I finally learned to tune them out. From the time I was, I guess, about 8 or 9, I stopped reacting. I suppose I do that with everyone now.”

Nora started to cry softly in response to Jeff: “I had no idea; you never told me any of this. I’m so sorry your parents were so mean to you.”

Jeff looked shocked by Nora’s tears and words: “I don’t want you to feel sorry for me. I hate that! I can’t stand it. Now you both are going to think there is something wrong with me. I never should have said anything.”

Jeff’s “saying something” was the start of expressing his “true self,” which his false self had kept hidden and safe from harm. His false self had been engaging with a world that could be emotionally destructive and dangerous. Consequently, Jeff wasn’t totally familiar with the Jeff who had been kept in hiding. He had done a good job of protecting his young self from intolerable feelings of shame, hurt, and rage. Unfortunately, with the “true self” in hiding, there was little opportunity for Jeff to grow and develop through relationships in the real world.

False-Self Interference with Good, ‘True-Self’ Feelings

The false self develops as an adaptation that protects the individual and makes it possible for the “true self” to go into hiding. Often, the development of the false self is unconscious, and the individual may not be aware that this defense is protecting him (or her) from intolerable feelings. Over time, awareness may develop that the “me” who is acting in the world is “not me.” As these “not me” feelings get stronger, the feelings of being loved, being successful, deserving of recognition, etc., cannot be felt as me, or as the “true self.” It is, after all, “not me” who is loved, admired, or successful. This leaves no room for good self-feelings and frequently results in increased hiding to diminish the risks of being seen and known.

As the individual becomes increasingly aware of the false self adaptation, he (or she) is also aware that he (or she) may not know what will appear when the “true self” begins to emerge. It feels risky to be vulnerable and speak one’s feelings. How the person will be responded to is an unknown. The false self emerged early in development and was successful in protecting the person from intolerable feelings. Now that the false self no longer protects so well, it takes courage to begin to allow the true self to emerge. There are no assurances that the old shaming ways that required the adaptation to a false self won’t be repeated. Jeff’s relating of his early experiences with his parents, his shame, and his negative self-feelings were a brave expression of his “true self.”

Interference with Intimacy

To be intimate with another assumes a personal closeness, familiarity, and a knowing of the other. Jeff and Nora had difficulty being intimate because Jeff was in hiding and Nora had no sense of a real other self to relate to. In one session, Nora turned to Jeff and described her struggle: “I think I love you, I want to love you, but sometimes I don’t know who you are. I want this to work, but I rarely feel I know what you want.”

Sadly, no matter what loving or affectionate feelings Nora might have been able to feel for Jeff, he felt it was “not me” who was being loved. As a false self, he had no way to experience that Nora’s loving feelings had anything to do with what was true or real about him. As Jeff became more interested in shedding his false self and developing his “true self,” he was handicapped in his ability to be intimate since he didn’t feel he was a person of substance with thoughts, feelings, needs, and desires with which he could relate to Nora. It takes a strong desire and a good deal of courage to overcome the anxiety of risking a repeat of the shame and hurt as one begins to let oneself know what they are feeling and then allow the vulnerability to share oneself with significant others and then ultimately the world. Jeff is working on this with Nora and is making slow but steady progress.

Interference with Self-Knowledge

Who am I? What do I want, think, need, believe? What do I like, hate, fear, love? These are only some of the basic questions we wrestle with as we grow and develop our identities. When we grow up in an environment that feels dangerous or destructive, we need to find a safe way to protect ourselves from mistreatment and intolerable feelings. But when we adapt to a false self, we frequently miss the opportunity to develop the answers to these questions.

Who we know ourselves to be is based on the accumulation of our continuing experiences of the interactions between ourselves and others. This relational dialogue—all these back-and-forth responses—are the building blocks of self-knowledge. We develop the ability to self-reflect and think about self and other. We discover what we want and don’t want. We learn how to get what we want and from whom. But we can’t do this when we keep ourselves hidden from the world. The “true self” must participate in these interactions if we are to come to know who we are.

The development of a sense of identity—this is who I am; this is what I know and feel about me—helps us to locate ourselves in the world. The sense of self that we carry with us, including feelings of confidence and self-esteem, are constantly evolving as we engage in our relationships in the world. When we sequester our “true self” to keep it safe, it loses the opportunity to have “true self” experiences, which are the building blocks of identity. The false self may have kept Jeff safe from intolerable feelings, but it deprived him of becoming a person who could see himself and be seen as a person with a large number of positive and negative attributes (valuable, funny, smart, stubborn, courageous, mean, loving, etc.).

Jeff and Nora have a lot of work to do individually and with each other if they are going to be able to develop a trusting, loving, intimate relationship. When our defenses no longer protect us, as when Jeff’s false self no longer protected him from intolerable feelings of shame, badness, and anger, we become more motivated to make changes in the way we think about ourselves as individuals and in relationships. Jeff’s growing awareness of how hiding himself was damaging not only to his relationship with Nora, but also to himself, became a driver of his openness to learning the ways in which hiding himself was having severe consequences in his life.

Note: To protect privacy, names in the preceding article have been changed and the dialogues described are a composite.

© Copyright 2014 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Beverly Amsel, PhD, therapist in New York City, New York

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • Gordon

    Gordon

    November 20th, 2014 at 10:49 AM

    I sense that I have been in relationships before where either I have put up a wall or the woman has and much of it comes as a protective or defense mechanism because we have been hurt in the past and do not want to have to experience that kind of pain again.

    The problem with that is that that when you put up those walls and defenses, it does keep you from being who you truly are and therefore it keeps someone from really ever getting to know your true and authentic self.

  • Jerry

    Jerry

    November 20th, 2014 at 3:37 PM

    I think that many of us do this at first in a relationship because are afraid that if the other person sees the real us then they might not like something, so we try to become a little more like what we think that they would like. But what we forget is that eventually they are going to learn who the “true” version of us is anyway, so why not just put that out there from the very beginning? that way there is no deception, no lies, and nothing but the out and honest truth to share with another person/.

  • Mikael

    Mikael

    November 20th, 2014 at 8:45 PM

    Dating a girl who is exactly like how you describe Jeff here. She has absolutely nothing to say and is extremely hesitant in sharing her feelings with me. From what I have seen, she does this with everybody-her cousins, friends and just about anybody.

    I like her a lot and even see a possible future with her but as someone who believes in speaking out and sharing his feelings especially in a romantic relationship, this behavior of hers constantly hurts me. I did talk to her about this but it seems like she has been this way all her life.

    Sometimes I feel like I’m trying to change her which is not a good thing. But is a positive change not good?

    I don’t know what to do about her but I really want to make this work. Please help.

  • Barrett

    Barrett

    November 21st, 2014 at 10:25 AM

    I kind of think that I have been doing this game of hiding who I am from other people for so long that I sometimes forget who the real me really is.

  • Mike

    Mike

    November 21st, 2014 at 3:47 PM

    I’ve been in therapy a long time and have developed a lot of insight over these issues. One thing I’m aware of is that I have a “positive shadow side”–that is, my happiness and capacity for love are what make up my shadow self (rather than the unlikable parts of me being in the shadow). I’ve reached a point where I can express a lot of care and love for other people, but I still often feel like I’m just watching myself do that and that it’s not really me. A distressing experience.

  • Estelle

    Estelle

    November 22nd, 2014 at 2:09 PM

    There is nothing more sad than seeing someone who is convinced that the things that they are not are better than the things that they actually are.

  • buddy

    buddy

    November 24th, 2014 at 3:45 AM

    I have never been much for letting too many people in because I have been hurt so much that I just feel like if I keep the walls up then I don’t have as much chance to get hurt. When I met the woman that I knew that I would one day marry she told me that I was too opaque, that she knew that there were things underneath that facade but that she always felt like she couldn’t get through to, and that it was those things that could never allow her to marry me. That was the encouragement (threat) that I needed to make some changes. It still is hard for me to let my guard down at times because I don’t like that hurt and pain that can come along with that, but it helps knowing that now I am being the real me, and that others can just take it or leave it.

  • Kymberly Rosenzweig

    Kymberly Rosenzweig

    November 26th, 2014 at 2:47 PM

    I comparable this web place so a large amount, bookmarked. “Respect for the fragility and importance of an individual living is still the mark of an educated man.” by Norman Cousins.

  • Carmen

    Carmen

    November 27th, 2014 at 1:39 PM

    The safety that you may feel by hiding from the truth is only temporary.

  • PrIsCiLLa

    PrIsCiLLa

    November 28th, 2014 at 9:02 AM

    anything that causes you to hide your true self and emotions is never going to be a good thing

  • Ebony

    Ebony

    December 19th, 2014 at 4:40 AM

    This is so me and I hate it. I didnt realize it until about 6 months ago and now I find myself isolating from people because I dont want to be fake. I have no clue how to change and be the real me.

  • Andy Hahn Psy.D

    Andy Hahn Psy.D

    February 22nd, 2015 at 4:54 PM

    Hi Beverly,

    thank you think you have written a very clear, poignant, and revealing article. 2 thoughts, first, people can humiliate you,they can’t make you feel ashamed. Only you can do that to yourself.

    2nd, I think there are two different kinds true selves and two different kinds of protecting limiting identities.the one you are describing in this article is what we call a blocked identity. Something happens in your life that is too hard to handle and, as a result, you make the best choice you can, which is to cover over the true self with a protecting identity. you forget that you made a choice and believe you are the limiting identity, even though you know it is not who you fundamentally believe you are.
    Thus your identity gets stuck at that moment

    the second one has nothing to do with life experience. In fact, It’s a lens through which we experience all of life experience.if for example in your case, jeff Has a Mediator personality structure, he would then be a person who is a self forgetter who finds an identity by merging with the identity of others. He will then tell a story of why he is passive. In my experience, his story rationalizes his personality structure. And in my experience, life experience can’t create personality structure any more than if you only feed a cat only if it will bark it becomes a dog.

    if Nora has a ProtecteR personality structure, she will also be A Self forgetter but be the most active aggressive of all types. Therefore, unless she is very mature, his passivity will drive him crazy. Shadow work. anyway, I think many therapists don’t consider personality structure enough. Have found the Enneagram to be one of the most useful tools to really understand someone else from the inside out. I’d love to hear any reflections and again I deeply honor the wisdom and clarity of your article

    Sincerely,
    Andy Hahn Psy.D

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