Shirah Vollmer MD

The Musings of Dr. Vollmer

The False Self

Posted by Dr. Vollmer on July 30, 2015

A traveling exhibition by Active Minds, an advocacy group, consists of 1,100 backpacks representing the approximate number of undergraduates who commit suicide each year.


Some transitional age youth,  budding adults who are trying to find their way in the world, pressured to succeed at Ivy League colleges, pressured to reflect well on their parents, are pushing back, not by failing out of school, or joining a cult, but by saying goodbye, by calling it quits. Each story is unique, and yet the common thread seems to be Winnicott’s concept of the “false self.” Living a life which does not feel genuine or authentic creates anxiety and distress, which when extreme, can feel that the only solution is to shut off the console, shut off the life force. This black and white thinking, so common in young adults who have not figured out the nuances of the world, puts them at high risk for drastic behavior. As the adage goes, “suicide is a long-term solution to a short-term problem.” The problem is that at this tender age, when these “kids” have worked so hard for a college admissions letter, their mental interiors can be shallow, with few resources to navigate internal pain and suffering.

Clay, twenty, female, comes to mind. She had an eating disorder in high school, but when she was admitted to a “respectable” college, her eating normalized. For years, she studied hard, worked on building her resume, and drilled down into the game of college admission. She never gave much thought to what her life would be like when she went to college; she only cared about getting in. When she finally went East for college, despite how proud her parents were, she felt no pleasure in the experience. She felt, by her description, that she was “around a lot of privileged kids who do not understand the world.” She said that not only did she feel empty, she felt that everyone around her did too. The world, by her account, was a meaningless game of giving her parents something to talk about at dinner parties. She resented her parents for making this step, her emergence into the adult world, so much about their narcissism, but she could not express that to them. As a result, she avoided talking to her parents, and if she did, she always said things were “fine.” Yet, things were not “fine”. She had multiple serious suicide attempts, which managed to fall below the radar because she regretted her behavior and then she only told me, months after the fact. When she confessed, she emphatically said that those thoughts are “gone now,” preventing me from being able to discuss her behavior with her parents. Clay, eventually, dropped out of college, reporting that she was now feeling more authentic. She was no longer suicidal, by her report, but she reports painful confusion over what college is supposed to be about. “If I could see how it was for me, I would have stayed, and maybe I should have stayed, but at the time, all I could think about was that I never wanted to go to college, I only wanted to get into college.” Clay’s parents feel she made a horrible mistake, causing Clay to be both resentful of them, and scared for herself. “Maybe I did,” she says, “I just don’t know,” she continues with pain which speaks to her dilemma as to whose life is she leading: hers or her parents? The question remains.

7 Responses to “The False Self”

  1. Shelly said

    Doesn’t Clay have any long-term goals for herself? If she did, then she should have pursued those goal in meaningful ways instead of thinking that her own happiness would be based on “getting in to college.” It seems to be the trend to blame the parents for preventing oneself to achieve in the world. I personally hear it all the time from my husband. How is dropping out of college making her feel authentic if she has no idea what she wants out of life? How can someone have several “below the radar” suicide attempts without anyone knowing about it?

    • No, Clay has no long term goals for herself. She feels confused and bewildered about growing up. She feels like she spent all of her energy getting into college, and now her map has ended. She has no guideposts, by her report. I am not sure that Clay blames her parents, as much as she blames the culture she grew up in. This is a culture where all of her friends’ parents think the same way. Getting into an Ivy League school is the holy grail to life’s success-that is the culture she is railing against. It is this thinking that she feels hurt her growth and development, but she also takes responsibility in that she knows she is also afraid of growing up and so she is stalling. Many people have below the radar suicide attempts, in that they seriously wanted to die, but they changed their minds before there was evidence. Thanks.

  2. Ashana M said

    Lack of authenticity precludes connection to others. We are social animals. Isolation makes us anxious and depressed. Competition comes at the cost of community.

    • Thanks..but I do not think it is either/or. Competition is important for challenge and growth and development, but it must be balanced with deep connections and fulfillment. As with most things in life, moderation in all directions is the key. Thanks again.

      • Ashana M said

        It does not make sense to me that one would need competition for challenge and growth development. I cannot see any reason why this would be true.

  3. Eleanor said

    Shirah the idea of a “false self” has been a topic of interest for me for a very long time as I watch parenting in our present day culture rob kids (certainly not all by any means, but many) of the freedoms to make their own choices, to make and learn from their mistakes, to be “less then perfect”…to be “who they are” as unique separate beings from their parents. The former freshman dean of students at Stanford, Julie Lythcott-Haims, has written a book “How to Raise an Adult” and has articles on this subject featured in such publications as Time Magazine:

    and the New York Times:

    One of my personal favorite lines is “there are no perfect parents….never have been and never will be”, but when I see the over the top controlling, helicopter, narcissistic, programed “keep up with or ahead of the Joneses”, lack or reasonable boundary, etc, parenting happening today, I cringe.

    • Thank you, Eleanor. You remind me that I heard that helicopter parents are turning into “lawnmower parents” meaning they try to problem solve and “cut the hedges” so the adult child can see better, and in so doing, as you said, rob the child of his sense of agency and his sense of self.

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