How Your Darkest Secret Can Empower You

darkest secret

Throughout much of our lives, instead of following our bliss, we’re busy trying to avoid being seen a certain way.  Perhaps we’re designing our lives to make sure we aren’t perceived as selfish, arrogant, weak, incompetent or something else.  Whatever way we don’t want others to see us, the compulsion to make sure others don’t think of us like that feels overwhelming.  Our anxiety about being viewed the wrong way can be so intense that it’s almost as if we’d be hurt or destroyed if others ever learned the “awful truth” about us.

We don’t want people to hold these beliefs about us because, on some level, we’re convinced that those beliefs are true.  We’d have no reason to fear someone calling us incompetent, for instance, if we didn’t have a deep-seated conviction that we actually are.  Not only that—we believe, consciously or otherwise, that if people discovered our “dark secret,” no one would want anything to do with us.  We’d be left completely alone and helpless.

Given how scary this is, it’s no surprise we put so much effort into making sure no one finds out the “awful truth” about us.  Each person’s approach to covering up their dark secret depends on what the secret is.  For instance, people who believe deep down that they’re powerless might strive to accumulate possessions and prestige to convince the world they’re actually powerful.  People who see themselves as weak might go out of their way to act tough and convince others they’re actually strong.  People who think of themselves as insignificant may talk loudly and incessantly to make sure others know that they matter.  And so on.

Unfortunately, the strategies we use to prevent others from seeing us in certain ways often achieve the opposite of what they’re supposed to do.  Human beings are highly empathic creatures, and we can readily tell when someone is trying to prevent us from seeing something about them.  Even if we don’t know exactly what they’re trying to conceal with their behavior, we get a vague sense of unease, as if something isn’t quite right about them.

For instance, when we see someone bullying or being overly critical of others, we can often tell immediately that they’re trying to compensate for their own feelings of weakness.  When we see someone talking loudly and nonstop, we can easily see that they’re trying to conceal their feelings of shyness or unimportance.  In other words, by trying so hard to make sure others don’t think something about us, we often ensure that they think exactly that, or at least that they feel uncomfortable around us.

Even more unfortunately, often we’ve been using these behaviors to cover up the “awful truth” about ourselves for so long that we’ve forgotten that other approaches to living are possible.  The bragging we do to conceal our sense of inadequacy, the overwork we use to hide our feeling of laziness, and so on become unconscious and automatic, and sometimes we aren’t even aware that we’re doing them.

A Process of Self-Knowledge

The good news is that, if we can find the places where we’re trying to conceal a perceived inadequacy in ourselves, we can make great strides toward achieving our goals in life.  When we let go of the strategies we’re using to make sure people don’t perceive us a certain way, life becomes easier and more fulfilling.

How do we gain this valuable self-knowledge?  In working on myself and with clients, I usually think of it as a three-step process, which I’ll describe below.  This type of self-discovery can take a while—you aren’t likely to come up with definitive answers the first time you ponder these questions.  Moreover, it’s sometimes difficult to answer these questions on your own, and the outside perspective of another person or a group can often help you arrive at the answers where your own efforts cannot.  However, I’ve found that the rewards, if you follow through with this process, can be tremendous.

1.  Find Your False Core

We can start by pondering this question:  what’s the worst thing someone could find out about me?  Or, to put it differently, what do I try to ensure that no one thinks about me?  For instance, am I determined to make sure no one thinks I’m irresponsible, unattractive, helpless, or something else?  When you come to the answer, you’ll likely have a strong, instinctive feeling that you’ve found the truth, and perhaps a sense that many of your behaviors and hangups “make sense” in a way they didn’t before.

Psychologist Stephen Wolinsky, in his book The Way Of The Human, has a great term for the “darkest secret” each of us believes to be true about ourselves:  the “False Core.”  The False Core, in his view, is a belief we unconsciously adopt as infants to explain why, in the process of being born, we were physically separated from our mothers.  In other words, our young minds assume we must have been detached from our mothers because something is wrong with us, and the False Core is what we believe to be the problem.

Whenever something happens to us that “proves the False Core right”—when someone really does see us as incompetent, selfish, or whatever our False Core is, we relive the suffering we endured in being separated from our mothers.  The threat of this pain is the reason we try so hard to conceal the False Core.  But ultimately, the False Core is, as its name implies, false—it’s an incorrect conclusion we draw about ourselves when we’re too young to understand how the birth process works.

Of course, you don’t have to accept Wolinsky’s ideas about how the False Core comes about to find the concept useful.  You can just think of the False Core as a deep-seated negative belief you hold about yourself and are designing your life to cover up.

See if you can find your own False Core by asking the questions I described above.  If it’s hard for you to think of what you’re most afraid of people finding out, think for a second about an embarrassing or painful moment you regularly replay in your mind.  And ask yourself:  what did people say, or believe, about you in that moment that created so much suffering?  Or, what were you most afraid that they’d concluded about you?  Answering this question may help reveal your False Core.

For instance, one of the ways I recognized my own False Core was by thinking about a particularly painful argument I’d had with an ex-partner, and tended to find myself mentally reliving.  One day, I recognized that, when I replayed the interaction in my mind, I kept having the thought “she wouldn’t have said that to me unless she thought I was powerless to get back at her.”  In that moment, I recognized how deeply I feared being seen by others as helpless or powerless.  “I’m powerless,” I realized, was my False Core.

2.  Find Your False Self

In Wolinsky’s terms, the “False Self” is the face we show the world, or the set of strategies we use, to make sure people don’t see our False Core—i.e., perceive us in ways we don’t want to be seen.  For example, someone with a False Core of “I’m helpless” might create a False Self like “I never ask for anything from anyone, and I always take care of everyone else.”  This person might do all the chores and pay all the bills in their family, and refuse to allow anyone else to take responsibility for those tasks, no matter how overworked they became.

To discover your own False Self, ask yourself:  what behaviors do I use to make sure no one sees my False Core?  In other words, what do I do to ensure that people never see the part of me I want to hide?  For instance, if your False Core is “I’m bothersome to people,” perhaps your False Self is meek and quiet, and shies away from interacting with people to make sure you don’t “bother” them.  Similarly, if your False Core is “I’m too emotional,” maybe your False Self is cold, deadpan or robotic.

In my own case, when I recognized that my False Core is “I’m powerless,” many of the anxieties I’d had in my life began to make sense—and, interestingly, to feel less intense.  For a long time, I was extremely driven to acquire money, prestige and credentials in my work.  Lurking in the background was a constant fear that people would discover some inadequacy about me if I didn’t work hard enough.  My “workaholism,” I realized, was an aspect of the False Self I used to compensate for my feeling of powerlessness.

3.  Notice How Your False Self Is Limiting You

Once you have an understanding of your False Core and False Self, you’ll likely start to see some of the ways your False Self has been limiting your fulfillment and achievement in life.  Most importantly, when you become conscious of how these behaviors are holding you back, you start to feel a greater sense of choice around how you live—and perhaps even that you don’t need your False Self to get along in the world at all.

For example, when I started having the intuition that I was designing my life to make sure people didn’t see that I was powerless, I came up with a surprisingly long list of behaviors I was using to make sure no one saw my False Core.  As I mentioned earlier, overworking was one example, but there were many others.  I tended to be overly agreeable, and avoid conflict in, my relationships to make sure my partner never did or said anything that would have me feel powerless.  I held back from introducing myself to strangers for the same reasons.  And the list went on and on.

Making this list was initially depressing, as it showed me how significantly the fear that others might perceive my False Core affected the decisions I made.  However, this list also gave me profound guidance about the changes I wanted to make in my life, and has helped me come to my activities in life from a place of genuine passion and excitement, rather than one of anxiety.

I invite you to try making your own list.  Write down the False Core and False Self you’ve discovered within yourself, and then put down all the ways the False Self you’ve adopted has been holding you back in life.  A brief example of such a list might look like this:

I must never be seen as:
(False Core)
To make sure people don’t see me that way, I:
(False Self)
My False Self limits me in these ways:
ObnoxiousKeep really quiet and make sure I never upset anyone1. It’s hard for me to meet people2. I have trouble asking for a raise at work
3. I have trouble taking leadership positions
4. I feel like others take advantage of my meekness

When you have a clear idea of the behaviors that are limiting you in life, and the fears that motivate those behaviors, you experience not only a sense of freedom to choose different behaviors, but also a sense of peace.  With an understanding of the false ideas about yourself that have held you back comes the realization that what you are, in your essence, is far too extraordinary and beautiful to be expressed in any idea or belief.

Photo by Joel Bedford.

22 thoughts on “How Your Darkest Secret Can Empower You”

  1. Great article Christopher,

    Your guide is an excellent tool to seriously consider. I got through this limiting believe of hiding myself a couple years ago and it made an absolutely HUGE difference in my life in work, relationships and simply my thinking. Its freeing and I think your article is a great step to discovering that.

    Mike Kings last blog post..A Guide Specifically on How to Provide Training

  2. Christopher, thank you so much for a very thoughtful and insightful post. It’s one I think I’m going to have to come back to — it’s been on my mind on and off for most of the day!

    I haven’t completely worked out what my “false core” is yet (I think it might be something to do with the fear of letting other people down, or the fear of being incompetent) but I do suspect that getting to grips with this would help me with a few issues, especially in my relationships with others.

    Thanks again for writing this, it’s a really in-depth piece that I’m sure will have a lasting impact on many others who read it too.

    Alis last blog post..The Ideal Dieting Office

    1. Ali – you summed up my response to the article perfectly. Like you, I can’t immediately pinpoint what exactly my “false core” would be. However, I am aware that I have fears and insecurities that often stop me from showing my true self and following my heart.

      Chris – thank you so much for the thought-provoking article. I have a feeling I’m going to be thinking about this one for a few days…

  3. Hi Mike — I’m glad you found some understanding of the limiting beliefs that were influencing you in the background. That sounds like valuable self-knowledge.

    Hi Chris — I’m pleased that you liked the article. I’ve also found that this kind of material definitely takes a while to percolate.

    Hi Ali — I’m glad you found the article helpful. It sounds like you are already getting some value out of this work and you can see the potential it offers.

    Best, Chris

  4. What a great idea to list down all the things that we do not want to be known as! I also like the fact that you distinguish between the meanings of a False Core and False Self. I know my list is going to make me feel terrible but recognizing discomfort and making changes is the way to bringing about self growth.

    Evelyn Lims last blog post..Blessings For Healing

  5. Hi Evelyn — thanks for your comment. I know it’s been sobering for me to come up with the ways I limit myself by trying to make sure people don’t find out my “darkest secret.” But it’s also felt liberating — when all the ways I hold myself back in life start to “make sense” to me, I start feeling more free to play full out. — Best, Chris

    Chris Edgars last blog post..Guest Article At The Change Blog: “How Your Darkest Secret Can Empower You”

  6. Chris,

    Nice article. I really like the way you’ve explained these concepts and the practical approach you give for identifying false self-beliefs. I’ve found journaling to be indispensable in working through this process, and before that–and seemingly much more difficult–just maintaining an awareness so that I can actually recognize that there’s an issue that needs to be address. It seems like we carry most of these beliefs with us for so long, they form so gradually, and we create such effective defense mechanisms that they can be really hard to spot.


  7. Great article! I believe, similar to you, that the path to self-discovery can be revealed by slowly and methodically recognizing who we are not.

    From childhood our self becomes “covered” by social expectations and social conventions, which are compounded by physical world distractions, such as media noise and language.

    Once we eliminate “who we are not,” we slowly but surely “uncover” our true self…

    “One’s own self is well hidden from one’s own self; of all mines of treasure, one’s own is the last to be dug up.” ~ Friedrich Nietzsche

    “We get so much in the habit of wearing disguises before others that we finally appear disguised before ourselves.” ~ Francois de la Rochefoucauld

    Kent @ The Financial Philosophers last blog post..There is More Power in the Hidden…

  8. Hi Alex — thanks, I’m glad you found the post helpful. It sounds like you’ve got a lot of useful self-knowledge in this area already.

    Hi Gabe — I’ve also found journaling very useful, even if I’m just recording situations that “triggered” me or had me feel scared or challenged. Later on, sometimes I can pinpoint the belief I had about the world that had me feel upset, although — like you observe — I can be too wrapped up in my reaction in the moment.

    Hi Kent — I’ve also found that my relationship with myself does so much to create how I relate with the world. It’s always remarkable to me how much we all have to learn about ourselves, which we often assume we’re the experts about.

    Thanks everyone for your comments.

    Best, Chris

  9. I really like this train of thought, as we all suffer from that inner debate. For those who can quell this conversation with the darker self, a more enjoyable life is at hand. By this I mean that just not having that constant struggle is rewarding enough.

    I think that there is also power in putting something down on paper. It brings a degree of objectivity to a situation, and literally forces you to use a different part of your brain to process your thoughts as you see them on paper. I would say that this alone can help halt the inner conversation.

    Doggie Senseis last blog post..Something New (to me at least)

  10. Hi Doggie — that’s an interesting way of describing how many of us experience the world, as an inner conversation (or struggle) between what we might call the True and False Selves. I’ve heard some spiritual teachers describe enlightenment as the end to that internal split.

    Hi Julie — thanks for your comment. I think what you said is one of the ideas behind the piece — that the more willing we become to let go of our False Selves, the more fulfillment we can have in life.

    In gratitude, Chris

    Chris Edgars last blog post..Guest Article At The Change Blog: “How Your Darkest Secret Can Empower You”

  11. I’ve been doing this kind of Inner Work from a different angle, but this sheds new light on it. I liked the way you weaved this all together. It allows me to better name the darkness and deal with it. For example, I often worked in the past to become the indispensable one in any group I join, but then I would get overloaded, feel taken advantage of, and start getting angry. I finally realized that you teach people how to treat you, and I was teaching others how to take advantage of my volunteering nature. I was afraid of rejection, but equally afraid of being taken advantage of, so I created my own, limiting Catch-22. I’m on to all that now, and your post helped take me a bit farther down the path – thanks.

    SpaceAgeSage – Loris last blog post..Can wisdom contradict itself?

  12. Thanks so much for posting this article. It touches deep at that part of ourselves we’ve hidden so successfully that even we don’t see it. But it surfaces nevertheless in our behaviors and reactions.

    I have reread it three times already, thinking all the time about my false core and false self. This is going to take time to get at. Like you, I know one of them is not wanting to appear helpless or dependent. But to finish out the list will take some reflection.

    It’s so easy to see these things in others, isn’t it? But to hold the mirror up to ourselves is scary and potentially depressing. Thank goodness the outcome is rewarding.

  13. Thank you for sharing an new angle on looking at myself — so painful to realize that somewhere deep down I really believe myself to be unlovable — so why want it or even pursue it?


    Your post did gently guide me there (I’d been hovering)… and only reaffirms the power of secrecy. Thank you.

    Madley Katarungans last blog post..When I Die

  14. Hi Lori — it sounds like you have a lot of awareness around the behaviors that aren’t serving you. It’s always amazing to me how much just having that kind of self-knowledge, even without using techniques like therapy, NLP, emotional release and so on can do to create change.

    Hi Flora — I’ve also found that doing this kind of work takes some contemplation, which it sounds like you’re already doing. But as you say, the results that giving this some thought can create are pretty amazing.

    Thanks everyone for their comments.

    Best, Chris

  15. Hi Madley — thanks for your comment. It sounds like you feel that you’d be happier if you weren’t aware of the limiting beliefs you have about yourself. If keeping those beliefs out of your awareness is working for you, more power to you. And, in my experience working with people and on myself, beliefs like “I’m unlovable” — even if you aren’t conscious of them — will continue to run your thinking and behavior at an unconscious level. We can free ourselves from their influence only if we become aware of them.

    For example, like I say in the article, I used to be really obsessed with working, to the point where it threatened my health, and although I knew it was a problem I couldn’t seem to stop. When I started deeply exploring the reasons I was behaving this way, I came to see that it was to compensate for a sense of powerlessness. As you say, it was painful to realize that I felt this way about myself. But interestingly, once I understood the belief that was driving me to work to exhaustion all the time, I started to feel a sense of choice around my behavior. I also saw that the belief was rooted in my distant past and had very little to do with my life today, and this helped me to free myself from its influence.

    This is why I think processes like the one I describe in the article for rooting out the beliefs that create our unwanted behaviors are helpful.

    Best, Chris

  16. I think this article highlights perfectly how much we limit ourselves by focusing on what others will think: how others will perceive us, what they’ll think about what we just did, their approval or disapproval, and so on. I think that in order to be truly successful in this world–however you define success–you need to remove your focus from others and refocus it on yourself. Identifying the false core that we’re trying to hide from other is a good step in that direction. Very insightful post!

    Marelisas last blog post..Creativity Insights from Seth Godin

  17. Hi Marelisa — I think that’s a useful way to see the ideas in the article. I think taking our focus off hiding our weaknesses from others and actually pursuing what we want is one of the most important steps we can take in our personal growth.

    Hi Seamus — I don’t want to tell you what you have to do, but on the subject of “laziness” or procrastination, I will say that I’ve noticed, in moments when I’m procrastinating, that I’m holding back because I’m concerned about what others are going to learn about me when they see my work. I start putting off working, especially if I’m doing something creative like writing, because it’s easier for me to hide than to risk “exposing myself.” I wonder if this resonates with you.

    Best, Chris

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