Do You Hide Your True Self When Dating?

Do you feel like you always have to be on your best behavior? If so, you could be a "gifted child."

woman in a car looking contemplative
(Image credit: Peter Beavis)

Do you have a deep-set fear that people don't love you when you're being yourself — that they only love you when you act a certain way? Maybe by acting happy all the time, or pretending to be completely self-sufficient. Or maybe it's more about trying to crack jokes non-stop or that it's simply about always being on your best behavior... Regardless, do you feel like it makes dating hard?

I bring all this up after reading a piece in The Awl about the late great writer David Foster Wallace (whose novel-in-progress, The Pale King, was released posthumously last month). The story takes a look at his private library, which contained a number of carefully-read, diligently-marked self-help books, including The Drama of the Gifted Child: The Search for the True Self, by psychotherapist Alice Miller.

The Awl writer contends that Wallace felt "revealed to himself" by that book because he blamed his mother for quite a lot of his suffering: "He returned to [the book] over and over again; his notes were made at many different times, in wildly differing sizes and styles of penmanship, states of mind. … The thesis of The Drama of the Gifted Child is that particularly high-achieving children are damaged because their mothers did not allow them to be themselves, but instead through their own insecurities gave their children the impression that only achievement could win them love. That any deviation from right behavior was unlovable, that they would be rejected unless they performed well."

Intrigued, I read a little more about The Drama of the Gifted Child and found that author Alice Miller wasn't talking only about "high-achieving" children. She wrote: "When I used the word 'gifted' in the title, I had in mind neither children who receive high grades in school nor children talented in a special way. I simply meant all of us who have survived an abusive childhood thanks to an ability to adapt even to … cruelty by becoming numb… Without this 'gift' offered us by nature, we would not have survived."

My guess is that many of us who struggle with relationships will read that last paragraph and say, "Me! Me!"

Here's an interesting passage from The Drama of the Gifted Child:

[The] comes to the emotional insight that all the love he has captured with so much effort and self-denial [from a parent or parents] was not meant for him as he really was, that the admiration for his beauty and achievements was aimed at this beauty and these achievements, and not at the child himself. In analysis, the small and lonely child that is hidden behind his achievements wakes up and asks: "What would have happened if I had appeared before you, bad, ugly, angry, jealous, lazy, dirty, smelly? Where would your love have been then? And I was all these things as well. Does this mean that it was not really me whom you loved, but only what I pretended to be? The well-behaved, reliable, empathic, understanding, and convenient child, who in fact was never a child at all? What became of my childhood? Have I not been cheated out of it? I can never return to it. I can never make up for it. From the beginning, I have been a little adult. My abilities — were they simply misused?"

So, here's what I'm wondering: Do you feel like you were a "gifted child," and forced to to hide your true feelings — your emotions, your anxieties, your desires, your needs — in childhood? Do you similarly feel like you have to hide them from anyone you're dating? Does doing that get exhausting sometimes? Do you start to feel too tired to keep up the farce?