The idea of being ‘authentic’ pops up often in popular psychology. It’s now common parlance to say, ‘just be yourself’. But if you are like me, at some point, you might have frustratingly wondered what does that mean? And what does it mean when we are not being authentic?
Dr. Donald Winnicott’s theory of true and false self is helpful in answering these questions. In his work as a pediatrician and psychoanalyst, he saw infants as essentially a ball of needs and desires that expresses themselves spontaneously through cries, laughs, screams, and bites. Healthy development, in his view, requires a period when the child doesn’t have to be concerned with the worries and expectations of those who are taking care of them. This requires caregivers to adapt and create a holding environment that allows them to express themselves however they wish. This period of authenticity is the foundation for building a self that knows what I like what I don’t like, what my interests and passions are, and a sense that my needs are legitimate, and I can reasonably expect others to respond to them.
We run into trouble when we are required to comply to the demands of others far too early and not having experienced much of that holding environment that allowed us to be ourselves. Perhaps a parent was depressed and overwhelmed, or a parent was often annoyed or in a rage. In these circumstances the child would have to prematurely comply, to take care of others, and to be another version of themselves—a false self. In adult life, we may become very good at taking care of others’ needs but struggle to feel satisfied in relationships. We might excel at work but find it unfulfilling. We might find ourselves having the right ‘things’ in life but lacking vitality.
Psychotherapy is almost like a second chance for us to be in a holding environment where we can reconnect with thoughts, feelings, desires, physical felt sense that has been put away and forgotten. To be able to experience joy, anger, aggression; to scream and to laugh without being punished or shamed. From there, a more authentic sense of ourselves filled with vitality can be grown.
Clinicians at CFIR take an integrative approach that incorporate multiple approaches such as psychodynamic, emotion-focused, and cognitive-behavioural therapies to help you reconnect with your authentic self and foster vitality in your life.
Shaofan Bu is a Doctoral Candidate at McGill University studying Counselling Psychology. He is a Registered Psychotherapist (Qualifying) under the supervision of Dr. Dino Zuccarini.