This column originally appeared in the Orange County Register.

We are too often saturated with regrettable accounts of public figures exposed in salacious but banal trysts.  Illicit sex sells.  What a thumping bore.

It also permits everyone to feel superior to the poor unfortunate who exercised impaired judgment or poor impulse control.  Gotcha!  Indignant outrage, as thoroughly arousing as the actual incident, ensues as every pundit or civic leader savors each last tantalizing morsel, repeating it again and again.  While it’s the meat and potatoes of the celebrity circuit, it constitutes election year fast food.

The carefully crafted persona becomes a false self

Paradoxically, the individual who’s been exposed has carefully cultivated a life of municipal or religious service, condemning vice and attacking it everywhere.  The very transgression for which he (or she) is caught is usually the exact vice he’s excoriated for decades.

In fact, that’s precisely why it’s compelling.  A great schism between an individual’s inner and outer dimensions has been revealed.  Who cares about a pornographer caught with a stripper?

It’s the discrepancy that’s compelling.  “That guy?  You’re kidding.  Really?”  Everyone focuses on the manifest exposure – the president, the intern and the dress; the minister, the hooker and the congregation – but what’s really dropped are the psychological drawers.   A powerful individual has exposed vulnerability.

What’s stunningly obvious is that the transgression might have been easily avoided. “What was he thinking?”  Well, maybe it was less about what he was thinking than what he was feeling, a deep conflict between pressing inner needs and outer posturing.

While these are dramatic examples, we all have an interior self and an exterior self, a private world and a social identity.  We inhabit two parallel worlds simultaneously, shifting focus subtly as one moves forward while the other recedes.

There are parts of ourselves that we readily share while other parts remain undisclosed.  Daytime television has replaced the coliseum as excessive self-disclosure becomes mindless entertainment, no less bloody than being thrown to the lions.

Self awareness has limitations

The illustrious pediatrician and psychoanalyst, Donald Winnicott, proposed that at the depths of our being reside features that will remain unknown even to us.  We cannot know ourselves absolutely.  A complex person cannot be comprehended like a simple fact.

The blue circus

The blue circus

As I’ve written before, every person is an entire world of composite systems.  Healthy psychological maturity is attained when all our parts are bound together, integrated by an observant core self that recognizes each facet as part of a unified “me.”  I am this and that.  My patients and I often refer to these facets as inner characters, and throughout the course of therapy, they come to know one another much better.

The compartmentalized or fragmented self

Tabloid news begins when inside and out conflict or fragment to such a degree that the individual’s inability to remain integrated is exposed.  The individual appears to have split into disconnected or starkly opposing component parts.  We begin to notice what is called a “false self,” an exterior posture of pseudo-strength that protects a weaker, less developed inner self that has yet to integrate its discrete parts.

As these protective traits are increasingly relied upon for strength, they expand, cutting off emotional blood supply to the embryonic “real” personality within, becoming more “me” while genuine characteristics shrink or disappear from awareness altogether.  Except when they cannot be controlled and make startling appearances.  Disavowed parts maintain a life of their own outside conscious awareness, revolving like transparent moons around a planet.  Eventually they come into view.

Men are at risk

Men are particularly prone to false self presentations, because they often feel culturally pressed to hide, deny or shear away qualities deemed unmanly.  Analytic therapy begins to marry these severed parts, redirecting blood supply to the smaller inside self, permitting it to resume development.  The individual comes to feel authentic rather than hollow or false.

The false self is merely a husk masking a weaker, less developed inside self.  Existing to defend embryonic characteristics from dangers of recognition and exposure, it’s not much different from a really detailed theatrical set.  It looks solid, but it’s merely a prop.

Theatrical sets dazzle, but I wouldn’t want to live in one.  Well, I admit there have been a few…   They say, “Hey, look over here, not behind the curtain.”  And we do.  We enjoy the illusion because we know its limits.  We readily comprehend that behind the curtain are ropes, pulleys and actors.

The false self as protective cover

The mind devises powerful means to insure survival, and a false self does just that.  While it is a brilliant maneuver, the authentic self pays a tragically high price.  It fails to develop.

Crepuscular old man

Crepuscular old man

Shame, feelings of inadequacy and often a sense of deadness lurk just behind the velvet drapes.  The more these feelings try to make themselves known, the more stringently the husk tightens its grip.

A person may behave in ways that directly oppose or deny inner impulses and feelings in an attempt to quiet them.  The greater the schism, the more likely rigid reliance upon false self mechanisms is employed as ballast.  But pretense eventually collapses, and we’re left with Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci, the weeping clown.

False self origins in childhood

The child who enacts a rigid family role throughout early life to accommodate an unsupportive environment does so at the expense of his or her own personal development.  The child valued solely for performing a particular family function to gratify a parent may ultimately become an actor on and off the screen, more comfortable exchanging exterior masks than developing a cohesive inner self.  Surrogate character traits are assumed when an authentic self is undeveloped or denied acknowledgment.

Shameful exposure

Relying upon consecutive, professional false selves, politicians and celebrities are frequently victims of public exposure when their undeveloped personalities are revealed via chronic drug abuse or gross parental and marital ineptitudes.

Their professions permit them to foster pseudo-identities and avoid grappling with inner fragilities.   A consummate actor works from a fully developed authentic self.  Each character represents another opportunity to make full use of specific character traits.  Those who confuse inside and outside, living within the confines of a psychological prop, founder tragically.  Applause is a poor substitute for love and connection.

Recall the most recent accounting of a fire-setting firefighter that emerged during the recent October inferno.  It illustrated what this inside-out conflict sometimes looks like.  Hoping to feel heroic, a female firefighter was arrested for setting a tremendously destructive conflagration.

Intending to extinguish it and be proclaimed valiant, the flames became too fierce to control.  She fought “out there” what was most undeveloped inside and was shamed profoundly when her vulnerabilities were exposed.  She got burned.

Problems that can’t be spoken are enacted behaviorally

Even if she had been successful, her gratification would have been temporary, and she would have had to act out again and again.  If we begin to think analytically, we start to realize that what often looks like public service may in actuality be the enactment of a very personal psychological mini-drama.

Las dos Fridas

Las dos Fridas

Problems begin when the outer false self starts to crumble, unable to fully contain the inner feelings of fragility.  Instead of exploring painful sexual conflicts, the governor of New York lived a double life, fighting vice legislatively while acting it out with prostitutes.  This is less a morality tale than a psychological one.

When his false self was penetrated and dismantled, his shame was exposed to derision and public commentary.  Not only did the entire metropolitan collective witness his schism, he was forced to witness it himself.

There is reason for optimism, though.  Fully aware of his embattled parts, he is now in a position to reconcile them and become more fully integrated.  If he’s brave enough, he will begin the psychological work required to link inside and out.

One of my patients, a retired military professional, turned to me one day after several years of exploring devastatingly painful aspects of his life and said, “This is the hardest thing I’ve ever done.”  I know.  In order to work as an analyst, I’m required to complete at least four hundred hours of my own personal analysis.  I’ve completed many more.

We might consider that his choice of military profession was directly linked to the ways in which he tried to externalize his his inner dragons, to “fight” them out there in the world of warfare.  Similarly, young boys wage war with toy soldiers because they feel small and powerless, and their play is actually very important psychological work.

Eventually, my patient realized that the terrorists were his own, and he began to look within.  Many choose not to pursue it, preferring to feed the false self at the expense of genuine authenticity.  Alas, the exposed televangelist is too often weeping for dollars not psychological integration.

The benefits of analytic therapy

People often begin therapy when the protective husk grows brittle and begins to shred.  “I have a good job and life, but I’m so unhappy,” they guiltily confess.  The very choice of occupation often speaks to the rift between inside and outside, a compromised attempt to reconcile inner and outer worlds.

That is why analysts must be well analyzed, themselves.  A career chosen to gratify the false self will be experienced as unrewarding even if financially gratifying.  Ironically, an initial observation of schism portends an important shift toward health.   The undeveloped authentic self longs to resume its thwarted developmental course.  While arduous and challenging, analytic therapy facilitates personal growth of this magnitude.

Success is not defined by attaining perfection, but by being fully conscious.  I worked for many years with high risk adolescents in the public school system, perfectly poised to reconcile inner and outer aspects of self.  “Be awake,” I’d say.  “Your job is to grow up.”  And you know they really tried.  Children inherently seek authenticity.

Authentic and real

That I’m surrounded by thoughtful and often luminous minds at my Psychoanalytic Institute is a joy.  But what I love most about my colleagues are their peccadilloes, the mannerisms and fragilities that make each of them humanly real and accessible.  I hope they love mine.  My role as an analyst is not to strengthen the husk but to help people discard it by finding wholeness and meaning within themselves.

This column originally appeared in the Orange County Register.

Contact Dr. Heller at www.mlheller.net or 714/662-7975

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