“The “false self” is a defence of constantly seeking to anticipate others’ demands and complying with them, as a way of protecting the “true self” from a world that is felt to be unsafe”.

– Donald Winnicott

Vulnerability is one of the real buzz words in relationship speak these days and I seem to be reading the term everywhere I look. I’m not knocking it. Of course, there is no doubting that openness to being vulnerable is one of the keys to finding and staying in relationships. Without doubt if we don’t have vulnerability in our lives we’re unlikely to have intimacy. Think for a moment about someone you know who struggles with being vulnerable and I’m pretty sure you’ll find that same person struggles in relationship. Trouble is you might not know it because they probably fear the vulnerability of telling anyone – it’s a catch-22.

But the big question is do people really know what it really means to be vulnerable and open in relationship? And, importantly, how can I as a psychotherapist and couples therapist with almost 20 years experience in this profession help you to understand it? Well, I am going to give it a good try. I am going to integrate a lot of what I have been taught theoretically in all my psychology and psychotherapy training and put it together in some plain English for you.

The key, in my view, to being able to be open and authentic in a relationship is through being real or having a ‘true self’. Influential British paediatrician and psychoanalytic pioneer in the 1950s, Donald Winnicott, suggested that the “false self” develops when an infant or small child is forced to accommodate her or his own needs to the needs of those upon whom he is dependent.

Basically, the baby or child learns to attune to those who care for them early and create a world where their (the caregivers) needs are more important than his or her own. This happens particularly strongly in situations where the mother or caregiver may lack empathy and for whatever reason, such as grief, depression or character type, have an inability to attune to their child’s needs.

As surprising as it may seem, babies and children learn very early that their wellbeing depends on the internal states of their caregivers. If a child feels insecure or threatened they will quickly adapt to the needs of their parents to help them feel “OK”.

When a template for this sort of ‘managing’ the emotions of the caregiver is laid down it reappears later in life, particularly in attachment relationships but the processes are occurring outside of our awareness i.e. unconsciously.

Sometimes things do not go so well in relationships due to previous negative experiences and often fear of rejection with a partner or lover is the cause of disconnection due to the partner showing a “false self” in order for the relationship to survive.

This can cause one of the partners to adapt to the needs of the other and in the process they push down their own desires, needs, expectations and wishes.  A couple in “survival” mode will not grow or be a relationship, which features essential ingredients like spontaneity, connection and authentic love.

Relationships without these elements will not flourish. When we have to shut down important part of ourselves internally in relationships we experience a lack of aliveness, which eventually causes disconnection, and often break-up and heartache.

So how do you know you are adapting to your partners needs and therefore bringing your “false self” in the relationship? Quiet often you know because things often seem “a bit off”. You start to notice how you change plans, push down your needs, say what you think your partners likes to hear and also experience a general feeling of unhappiness in the relationship. You start to notice that you are a little less enthused about making your partner your priority or focusing on what makes them happy.  You start to notice that what you want in the relationship just doesn’t seem important to your partner and you can start to feel sad or withdrawn.

The good news is that there are lots you can do when this awareness hits you.  Some of these things include:

  • Tell your partner what you are noticing and ask them to include you more in decision making.
  • Ask them to consider your needs more, put yourself first and set an example.
  • Start taking some of the lead in your relationship, make plans and make suggestion and wait and see if these are accepted.
  • Start creating your own hobbies and interests to encourage your partner to notice that that you are not always just there for them and them only.
  • Become attuned to the shifts you notice in the relationship – does your partner accommodate you or just get angry that things are changing?

As a couple therapists I often notice that the partner that is doing all the “adaptation” to the relationship doesn’t listen to internal cues that tell them things need to change. This is caused by some states of “denial” because to acknowledge some of these painful truths can be too difficult.

Being aware of what is happening and making adjustments while being authentic (dare I say vulnerable) and connected is the key to not only initial but also long lasting relationship success. If you’ve had a good solid go at some of the things suggested and you remain troubled it might be a signal you need to see a professional couples therapist. Getting to one early helps avert the problem before it gets too serious and ultimately damages your relationship.