Why Do I Keep Acting Like Someone I’m Not? Why Can’t I Express My True Self?

You really like Italian food, but you consistently deny it or pretend not to have any food preferences when friends ask where you want to eat. You would love to have a deep, honest conversation, but instead you hear yourself constantly keeping conversations light and superficial with cheesy jokes that you don’t even find funny. You’re introverted and you really enjoy having quiet time alone, yet you force yourself to act like a super social party lover. You are really sensitive but you pretend that nothing bothers you. You hate playing football but you pretend to love it. You’re a morning person, but you pretend to love staying up late. You’re a take charge personality, but you pretend to be a follower. You’re a naturally aggressive temperament, yet you pretend to be passive (see Freezing vs. Fighting: Two Strategic Responses to Assault). You keep thinking of many kind and loving things that you’d like to say to your romantic partner, but when you open your mouth to say them, something very different comes out. You long to give gentle touches, but you’re rough instead. You long for physical affection, yet you try to physically dodge any incoming embrace. You yearn for compliments yet you scoff at anyone who gives you one.

It’s a miserable thing to feel like the true you is trapped inside yourself, unable to connect with others. It’s upsetting to see yourself consistently acting like the opposite of how you really feel. What causes this kind of self-sabotage? Why do you find it physically impossible to vocalize your honest feelings or give and receive forms of affection that you really want? Why does the presence of other people cause your true self to submerge and refuse to come out until you’re alone again?

A Learned Fear

No one is born thinking “I’m not okay as I am” or “It’s dangerous for me to express my true self.” These are fears that we learn to develop through our life experiences. Often these experiences begin in childhood when the people who we depend on to take care of us either punish us for expressing certain feelings, or they express strong preferences for certain kinds of behavior. For example, John is a very artistic man who has always wanted to learn to paint flowers. John’s father is a “man’s man” who loves hunting, fishing, weightlifting, and football. John’s father never directly criticized his son for wanting to paint. The topic never came up, because after John experienced his father praising him for participating in the activities his father liked, John decided that it would not be wise to try to express his true preferences. John was afraid of being rejected by his father, and his father only gave him focused attention when they were doing things his father loved. As a boy, John assumed that his father would strongly disapprove of his son’s true interests, and rather than risk permanently losing his father’s respect, John learned to hide his true self. As an adult, John rarely sees his father, yet he is still trying to behave like a man his father would approve of instead of letting himself finally pursue his real interests.

It is usually your subconscious that prevents you from expressing your true desires. In some cases, your soul can also get involved in this kind of stifling. The more upset the controlling element is, the stronger the stifling can be. In extreme cases, you can find yourself being forced into self-harming activities as a way of punishing yourself for inadequately stifling your true self, or as an attempt to change your true desires. To learn more about why your body will harm itself to pacify your soul or subconscious, see Self-Harming: Understanding Your Body’s Dilemma.

It’s useful to understand that you cannot change your core nature through punishing activities. All humans have a unique “template” of qualities, interests, and needs that are programmed into them by their Creator. These things can either suppressed or positively cultivated, rather like the gardener who either takes proper care of his acorn seed or abuses and neglects it. But an acorn seed will always be an acorn seed: it can’t be pressured to change into an apple seed through punishments or rewards. In the same way, you can’t change your core template–your “true you”. You will always be you at bottom; the most you can do is try to hide the real you under layers of false pretenses.

Now there are several different types of fears that can cause your soul and/or subconscious to feel extremely threatened by your true self being expressed to others. Before I get into an explanation of those things, let’s do a list making exercise.

The Public You vs. The True You

Before you can really get to the bottom of this issue, you need to get specific about what aspects of yourself you are trying to hide from others. Here is where some lists can really come in handy. Get out a piece of paper and fold it in half the long way, or draw a line down the center to form two columns. If you’re using electronic notes, you might find a spreadsheet file helpful here because columns are already drawn for you.

Label one column PUBLIC SELF and the other TRUE SELF. Your public self is the person you show to other people. Your true self is the person that feels trapped inside of you, being prevented from communicating with others. In this activity, the goal is to identify the differences between these two characters.

To get started, think about experiences you’ve had when you found yourself feeling one way inside, but behaving very differently on the outside. Now try to capture those specific differences in your columns. Under the public self column, briefly summarize one specific way that you behaved in a real life experience which was different than how you truly felt at the time. Then, in the other column directly across from that first entry, write down how you actually felt. Here are some example entries made by a woman named Tina:

Notice how each row contains entries that are related to each other. It’s very important to form pairs like this. You need to identify not only the specific qualities about yourself that you’re hiding, but also the specific qualities that you are substituting them with. Also, be sure to identify anyone who you were interacting with at the time you went into your false act.

Now when Tina looks over her list, she sees several people’s names. Jen is a friend, Kara and June are coworkers, and Bill is a man that Tina is currently dating. What names are showing up in your list? In moments when you are alone, yet still acting like someone else, do you find yourself thinking of anyone in particular? Let’s now add a third column to your list and continue this exercise.

Identifying Negative Consequences

For the second part of this exercise, the goal is to identify the specific negative consequences that you were trying to avoid in each incident that you’ve recorded. If you were with someone at the time, how do you think they would have responded if you had expressed your true self? Try to recall your thought pattern at the time. In these situations, it’s very common for your mind to flash on someone who isn’t even present at the time you go into your act, yet in your mind, you are trying to behave in a way that would please that person. For example, our friend John who wants to paint won’t allow himself to go into the art supply store near his home. Even when he is alone and thinking about going into the store to buy some painting supplies, John sees his father’s disapproving face surface in his mind and the image of that face stops him from doing what he wants to do.

When Tina does her third column, here is what she comes up with:

Right away we see a pattern emerge for Tina. She clearly feels very distressed by other people disapproving of her actions. Notice how often Jen’s name comes up in the third column. Even though the last two entries involved interactions with Bill, Tina found herself worrying about what Jen would think and trying to behave in a way that Jen would approve of.

Write down the names that show up in your third column. Put a star next to the names that come up the most. Tina’s list looks like this:

  • Jen*
  • Kara
  • June

If you really want to dig deep, it would be very worthwhile to do a thorough analysis of your personal relationships with anyone on who appears on this list. In my book What’s Wrong With My Relationships?, I walk you through many detailed exercises that can help you analyze the health of your personal relationships, as well as identify practical steps you can take to address any problems that might be occurring. It is very likely that your relationships with the people who get named in your third column are imbalanced. Some of those relationships might even be abusive. While no human relationship will thrive if everyone just blasts each other with their unfiltered selves, it’s not a good sign when you feel you must stifle your true self to extreme degrees.

Around the ladies on her list, Tina isn’t even comfortable expressing her personal preferences in sports and fashion. She’s buying uncomfortable clothes, under eating, and even pushing away a man she’s really interested in all because she’s trying to please these three ladies (especially Jen). Tina’s behavior indicates that she feels the approval of these ladies (especially Jen’s) is extremely important–more important than Tina’s own happiness, health and physical comfort. Things are out of balance for Tina, and she needs to take steps to address those imbalances.

Now regardless of whether or not you decide to do the in-depth relationship analysis using my book, there is more work we need to do here. This list making activity has been very useful to help you see exactly what aspects of yourself you are trying to hide, and who you are most concerned about hiding from. That’s a very important piece of the puzzle. But we now need to do more work to determine how you ended up forming your specific concerns.

Subconscious Strategies

As I said earlier, the main push to hide your true self can come from your subconscious or your soul. It can also end up being a combined effort in which case both elements push for you to suppress your true self. There is value in sorting out which element is riled up in your particular case, because the subconscious and soul have different priorities, and therefore different agendas in pushing you to hide your true self.

Your subconscious is primarily concerned with protecting you from harm. There are different kinds of dangers in the world. The four dangers that your subconscious is most concerned with are physical threats, social threats, emotional threats, and psychological threats. Because your subconscious considers other humans to be the primary sources of social, emotional, and psychological threats, it is very concerned about what is happening in your human relationships. In abusive situations, humans can also become a major source of physical threats. But even without any physical abuse happening, other people still have the ability to harm you in three of the areas that your subconscious cares most about.

As is the case with all of your elements, your subconscious has its own core needs. It feels that many of those things (such as emotional affirmation and social interaction) can only be supplied by other humans. Can you see why your relationships with other humans are so critical? You always have logical reasons for behaving the way that you do, and when we take the time to appreciate the way your subconscious views things, it becomes easier to understand why your subconscious might decide that it’s worth adopting some negative behaviors in order to protect you from harm and/or get critical needs met.

Your subconscious feels directly responsible for your body and your conscious. Your body has many physical needs, therefore your subconscious feels very invested in helping you get your physical needs met as well as keeping you from physical harm. All humans have a physical and psychological need to receive affirming touch from both males and females. Affirming touches can be non-sexual, such as a parent’s affectionate kiss or a friend’s embrace. They also come in sexual forms, such the romantic caresses between lovers. You don’t have to have sexual forms of affirming touch to get this particular need met, but you must have some form of touch happening. Ideally, parents address this need by giving their kids lots of positive, non-sexual touch. Those kids then grow into adults who locate new sources of affirming touch through friends and lovers. The important point to understand here is that even though this kind of touch is delivered in a physical form, it has a very strong psychological impact, and this makes it especially important to your subconscious. It’s also important to understand that humans who harm your body are very threatening to your subconscious, because your subconscious feels directly responsible for protecting your body from harm.

Now let’s think about Tina’s situation. By analyzing her behavior a little, she has uncovered an important clue: she is very concerned about not upsetting three ladies in her life. Especially that Jen woman. Tina now needs to ask herself why it is so important to keep these ladies happy with her. What kind of harm might happen to her if she does something that Jen, Kara, or June don’t like? Is she afraid of these ladies physically harming her? Emotionally harming her? Socially harming her? Psychologically harming her?

When trying to do this next step of analysis, start with one of your * people. It’s often easier to pinpoint your mind’s deeper motivations when you start with the people who you are the most reactive to. For Tina, she decides to focus on Jen. She says to herself, “What would have happened if I didn’t buy that skirt that Jen wanted me to buy?” Jen would have been angry. Okay, but so what? Your subconscious doesn’t care about anger in other humans until it feels directly threatened by it. So what if Jen is annoyed about Tina blowing off her fashion advice? She’ll get over it…won’t she?

Often the people who you feel most threatened by are people who you have learned to expect over-the-top responses from. For example, Jen is the type of woman who doesn’t just “get over” stuff. She hangs on. She sulks. She keeps harping on the subject over and over until she gets her way. She socially punishes the people who won’t let her control them. In addition to passing out social punishments, Jen cuts off all emotional and physical forms of affirmations. No more friendly hugs or pats on the arm. No more compliments or encouragement. If none of that works to get Tina back into submission, Jen will turn up the heat by coming up with some painful verbal zingers. She’ll use sensitive information that Tina has shared in the past to create insults and criticisms that dig deep. “If you keep stuffing in the calories, you’re going to turn back into that fat girl you used to be. What was it the other kids used to call you: Tina the Tank?”

Okay, so Jen is a jerk who quickly becomes abusive when she doesn’t get her way all of the time. If this is the case, why is Tina hanging onto this relationship? Why doesn’t she just ditch Jen and find a better friend?

Remember that your subconscious has two priorities: protecting you from harm and getting certain needs met. When it feels that it can’t do both of these things at the same time, your subconscious will go for a strategic compromise. It will decide to make sacrifices in one area in order to make gains in another. Which area your subconscious decides to make sacrifices in will greatly impact your behavior. For example, a man who isolates himself from other humans is choosing to put safety above getting needs met. By isolating himself, the man cuts himself off from critical sources of emotional and physical affirmation. But he also distances himself from those who might harm him. It’s not an ideal situation, but to a mind that believes it is impossible to get needs met without great harm being done, this kind of isolation strategy can seem worth it.

Now in Tina’s case, she’s using a different strategy. Her mind is putting needs above safety. Notice how she is inflicting misery on herself (the uncomfortable clothes, the unwanted food) in order to keep the approval of Jen. Her intense fear of Jen punishing her (which is a form of harm) is driving her to do anything to secure Jen’s approval. Whenever you see yourself sacrificing your own comfort in order to gain an emotional need (like someone else’s approval), you’re starting to get a glimpse of what your mind’s current priorities are. But now things are going to get even more complex because you’re a human, and humans are very intricate little things.

Hierarchy of Needs

You have many needs. So does Tina. Tina needs physical affirmation, which Bill is a very good source of. Bill offers Tina physical and emotional affirmation. Yet Tina can see herself rejecting Bill’s offers of these things just so she can keep the approval of Jen. This kind of behavior indicates that Tina currently feels Jen’s approval is more important than what Bill is offering. In Tina’s mind, she thinks, “But I really love Bill and I don’t want to lose him.” This can be quite true, yet whatever Tina feels about Bill, she obviously feels something even stronger about Jen, because she’s currently treating Jen like her priority, even when Jen isn’t around. This raises a very interesting question: what is it about Jen that is giving her the privilege of being Tina’s top priority?

Let’s now have you start making your own list of current priorities. Go through each row of your list and see if you can identify something you sacrificed so that you could gain something else. To show you how to do this on paper, here is what Tina’s list looked like:

Once you make your list, see if you can summarize your priorities in a way that helps you visually see what your top concerns are. Starting with the people who you mentioned most often, make a list of the things you sacrificed in order to gain something from them. Put your gains on the top of your list to demonstrate they are higher in importance, then write your sacrifices underneath. Try to summarize your sacrifices in negative terms, describing what you were willing to lose or suffer or risk in order to keep the top item. Group multiple sacrifices together. For example, when Tina thinks about the things she’s sacrificed for Jen, here’s what she comes up with:

The purpose of reorganizing your list like this is to help you get a better grasp of just how much you’re currently sacrificing to gain certain things. In Tina’s case, she’s alarmed to see the lengths she’s going to in order to keep Jen’s approval. And once again, we have to ask: What’s so special about Jen?

Now as I mentioned before, the person who shows up the most on your lists might not be physically at the scene when you’re going into your public act. Often the people who have the most power over us are only seen by us, in the privacy of our own minds, and yet the mere thought of them responding to us in certain ways can drive us to sacrifice great things in order to keep pleasing them. If, like Tina, you find that you are treating yourself rather badly in order to please a specific person, it’s time to dig deeper into the concept of symbolic partners. To learn about this particular subconscious strategy, see Why Do I Keep Falling In Love With Jerks?.

Tina’s situation follows a very common pattern in which the subconscious tries resolve its distress with a significant person from your past by obsessively trying to please someone else who is in your life today. When Tina digs deeper, she realizes that her friend Jen reminds her of her own mother in a lot of ways. Tina’s mother was also very controlling of Tina’s behavior, and very punishing if Tina ever tried to voice a different opinion or not follow her mother’s advice in some area. By practicing unhealthy levels of submission to Jen, Tina is trying to symbolically get her own mother’s approval. The problem here is that Jen is not really Tina’s mom, therefore her approval won’t ever really satisfy Tina’s need for her actual mother’s approval. Tina’s mother died ten years ago, leaving Tina with a lot of unresolved stress. Before Tina will feel free to express her true self, she needs to process the death of her mother in a healthy way. If you suspect that you might also be stuck trying to please someone who has died, see Dealing with the Death of a Loved One for help in how to move on.

Now we aren’t always being controlled by the dead. Sometimes the person we are inwardly obsessed with is very much alive and constantly expressing their opinions of how we are running our lives. In these situations, you often need to change the way you are handling the relationship before you will be able to break out of your habit of constantly stifling yourself. For help with how to do this, my book on relationships walks you through an in-depth analysis of where things might be going wrong.

Whew! By now we’ve done a lot of thinking, but we’ve only just scratched the surface of what is often a complex issue. But since I can’t possibly cover all potential scenarios in a single post, let’s turn our focus onto the soul, because in many cases, it is your soul and not your mind, that is causing all of the distress.

Soul Agendas

When your soul is the one trying to block your true self from being expressed, it is often doing so due to moral concerns. An example here would be the gay man who pretends to be straight because he feels morally ashamed of his homosexual desires. All kinds of immense pain and angst can occur when you try to disguise something as powerful as your sexual appetites. Trauma driven sexual appetites (such as homosexuality and pedophilia) tend to feel especially intense, therefore trying to suppress them causes extra angst. Now let’s be clear: acknowledging your desires is different than acting on them. A man who wants to molest children certainly shouldn’t start acting on those desires, but he does need to discuss them with a safe person (such as a counselor who has empathy for child molesters). When you absolutely refuse to acknowledge some burning desire, drive, or need within yourself, you are only going to cause yourself immense internal torment. Suppression is a very clever defense strategy which can be very helpful in getting you through crisis situations. But long-term suppression always does more harm than good. Your true self must be allowed to express itself somewhere in your life. The same is also true for your current load of stresses and fears. Any topic which keeps surfacing in your mind over and over indicates that you are stressed by that subject. The best way to relieve stress is to talk about it honestly–if not with other humans, then with your Creator. But you need to talk with someone. Otherwise you’ll just feel worse and worse.

If you are dealing with a type of soul suppression, then when you are trying to block your true self from being expressed, you’ll often find yourself feeling ashamed of who you really are. Often in these cases, false beliefs about God can be complicating things, such as the theory that you can’t be fully devoted to God and have an intimate bond with a human spouse. A whole lot of unnecessary grief goes on for Catholic priests who try to suppress their natural desires for a spouse in the name of “honoring God.” Religious communities are famous for teaching false beliefs about God which then cause sincere souls all kinds of trouble down the line when they try to make great sacrifices in order to please a God who they have really misunderstood (see Relating to God: The Trap of Symbolic Pain).

If you feel that you are generally inferior to other people, unlovable, unforgivable, or undesirable, you probably have a case of soul suppression happening. It is your soul that is focused on issues like your value as a human being, your moral character, and your ability to please a Divine Judge. To resolve cases of soul suppression, specific false beliefs often have to be identified and corrected. To learn more about how a distressed soul can stop your life and the importance of correcting false beliefs, see Your Soul vs. God: Two Different Judges.

Conclusion

As a human, you always have logical reasons driving your behavior. You also have an ever-changing set of beliefs which your soul and subconscious are constantly acting on. The happy news is that harmful logic and wrong beliefs can be revised and corrected to free you up in life.

This post was written in response to a reader’s request.

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