I often return to this memory in my own work as a therapist because so many of the people who come to see me complain of similar difficulties with feeling real. Jennifer, a reading specialist in her thirties, also lived behind a mask. She told me that when she was a child, her schoolteacher father leaned on her heavily for emotional support, confiding in her—inappropriately—about his depression from being in a loveless marriage. Her job was to reassure him, constantly and lavishly: "I had to tell him that I loved him way more than I did," she confided. "I couldn't just say, 'I love you'; I had to say, 'I love you, please don't die!'" Because she was still a child, her survival depended on not losing her father's love and protection. She had no choice but to make his emotional needs her priority. For the sake of her father, Jennifer learned to disguise what she was really feeling, but she sacrificed her authenticity. She developed what the pioneering psychoanalyst Helene Deutsch called an "as if" personality: She could act as if she cared, but she couldn't admit to her ambivalence—the mix of love and hate, resentment and pity that would have made her real. To embody her true personality and recognize her true feelings would have been much too threatening to Jennifer's relationship with her father.
Another patient of mine, a musician named Steve, uncovered a similar oversensitivity to the needs of others at the root of his feelings of falseness. Steve told me he often had the uncomfortable impression that he was never the central character in his own life. He began to pick this apart in a recent session when he noticed what he thought was a partially stifled yawn on my part, and then quickly averted his eyes so as not to make me uncomfortable by witnessing my fatigue. He caught himself trying to protect me from his observations and said so.
I wondered aloud what might happen if he didn't protect me. "I'd feel too big," Steve said. His remark was revealing. When he was not paying attention to someone else, not being a nice guy, he felt there was something dangerous in him that made him "too big." Like most people who had learned as children to suppress unpleasant emotions, he had a fear that he might be overpowering if he were anything but supernice and overcontrolled.
Next: Where the "masked" feeling comes from