Made Up Trauma – A Crisis of Identity

Exploring the psychological impacts of presenting a false version of yourself to the world in the process of claiming asylum

Credit to Nadine Shaabana via Unsplash
Credit to Nadine Shaabana via Unsplash

The primary aim of this paper is to consider the emotional and psychological impact of having to present a false version of self to the world in order to claim asylum in the West. It explores what the potential cost may be to the individual as they feel compelled to exaggerate, misinform and distort the reality of their life experiences to the immigration authorities. This paper does not present a case study of an individual asylum seeker or a group of people from a particular region of the world. In essence it is a broader, and perhaps sweeping, exploration of a particular group of people who present a distorted reality in order to embark on a fresh start in the hope of creating a different and better life for themselves.

In different ways and for a variety of reasons it could be argued that the 21st century is shaping up to be quite an interesting epoch, the Covid-19 pandemic notwithstanding. It would not be an over-exaggeration to suggest that the current state of affairs is characterised by uncertainties, disassociation, instability, social fissure and alienation. There is a sense that, at the wider global level, there is a readjustment and realignment of political affiliations and connections being developed. Old alliances are being questioned, in some cases dismantled, and new unions reconfigured and negotiated as countries seek to forge a new path for themselves and reimagine their future. At the narrower social and societal level, meta-narratives are not only being questioned but they are actively being deconstructed. So existing taken-for-granted assumptions about interpersonal and social relations are under close scrutiny and previous presumptions are being openly challenged.

However, it could also be argued that the current situation and the feelings of discombobulation and mental fragility that are induced are not a new or unique phenomenon but may in fact be the normal state of human affairs. The difference may be that these feelings and experiences are just more pronounced now because of the easy access to a myriad of advanced communication platforms and people’s interconnectedness. It appears that it is no longer possible for localised events to stay within their geographical boundaries; instead they quickly transform into international crises as exemplified by the Covid-19 pandemic, #MeToo, Black Lives Matter, #EndSARS, Hong-Kong Protests, Justice for Uyghurs and the state of the planet. Whilst the Covid-19 pandemic has exposed the ease with which people are able to travel around the world, reforming organisations and campaigners are more concerned about social relationships in society and the nature of the interaction between the government and its citizens. There are agitations against unfairness and inequalities that still exist, outrage against racial and religious discrimination, concerns about environmental degradation, and questions raised about how we communicate with each other and the extent to which our day-to-day interactions are influenced by unconscious biases. There is a cacophony of sounds competing for recognition, what Fukuyama (2019) identified as ‘isothymia’, which is exemplified in the discourse regarding sexual politics, social and economic disparity, environmental concerns, identity politics, and politics of creed and gender identity.

Unfolding in the background of these discourses, unrest and individualised and group battles, is the movement of people who are seeking a place of refuge and safety away from their home country. Mixed in amongst those fleeing war, tyranny, oppression and persecution are also those running away from a life of penury, an existence with no hope of a better future for themselves and their family. They feel trapped in poverty with little to no chance of breaking away or improving their situation either through employment or financial support from the government in the form of social welfare provision. Faced with such life uncertainties, they believe their only choice is to escape from their predicament and leave their hand-to-mouth existence behind in the hope of finding a stable and relatively prosperous country where they would have the freedom and opportunity to pursue a better life, or at least be given the chance to work their way up through what Maslow (1943) characterised as the ‘Hierarchy of Needs’.

Refugees, asylum seekers and economic migrants
It is important to make a distinction between people seeking asylum within the 1951 United Nations Convention and 67’ protocol and the Organisation of African Unity’s revised definition of the term, and people wanting to enter the country for economic reasons, (Aymer and Okitikpi 2000). While there is a formal structure for asylum seekers, the position of economic migrants is not so clear cut. Economic migrants do not have the same level of protection as those seeking asylum or those who have been granted refugee status. There is no international obligation towards economic migrants, thus they are subject to arbitrary rule changes by the host country. As a result of the stringent application process many Western and non-Western countries have adopted, the only recourse available for those fleeing poverty, deprivation and lack of opportunity in their own country is to try and enter a country either by posing as an asylum seeker or illegally.

For the economic migrant using the asylum route, they need to convince the authorities that they are subject to persecution in their home country for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion. They would need to present a life story about themselves which is not about wanting to improve their economic opportunities in order to provide a better future for their children, family and themselves. Instead their story has to be anchored within the refugee convention and, more importantly, it has to be convincing and compelling enough to reach the required threshold. For some it may mean adopting a manufactured story that is not too dissimilar to those they have read about, or they have been coached to recite. For others, the stress of having to memorise stories of atrocities may prove too much and therefore they may find it easier to be honest about their country of origin but instead focus on exaggerating or embellishing negative experiences that they think would support their claim. In the vast majority of cases the authorities have no way of being able to verify the stories they are being told because there are either no identity papers to scrutinise or false documents are submitted. Invariably, the name, age, place of birth and nationality provided are either false or unverifiable. The authorities are often placed in an invidious position because the information that is provided, false or not, cannot be checked with the relevant embassy of the claimant’s country in case making such an enquiry inadvertently places the claimant’s life at risk. Such causal enquiries could bring the individual to the attention of their country’s intelligence services and cause their family to be harassed and persecuted back in their home country. Importantly, to be successful the stories presented by the individual to the host authorities have to appear credible, difficult to refute or, best of all, impossible to verify without, potentially, exposing the individual to state retribution. Ultimately, whatever case is presented, it has to fit into one or a number of the categories identified in the refugee convention (UNHCR, 1951).

False self
In the desire for a fresh start and to take advantage of economic opportunities available abroad, migrants are compelled to reinvent themselves and present a false self in order to be able to apply for the documents that would grant them permanent stay in a country. In many cases, the stories presented to the authorities are so horrific that even the mere retelling of it induces fear and anxiety and potential emotional and psychological damage to the untrained. For example, being tortured with electric wire, hung-upside down, having finger nails extracted and water-boarding for merely protesting against the government; being a Christian in a predominately Islamic country and arguing that because of their faith they feel compelled to proselytise others, but the proselytising and preaching is conducted in full view of the authorities despite awareness that such practices are deemed to be a crime that carries the death penalty; being trafficked for sexual and economic exploitation, or claiming to be a member of the LGBTQ community in a country that not only actively persecutes but routinely invokes the death penalty for those who are not heterosexual; or claiming to experience persecution because of membership of the country’s opposition party; or that they are subject to persecution by an army general in the ruling government who had ordered the killing of family members and the destruction of their home because of their ethnicity.

The nature of the asylum process means that people have to tell their stories not just once but whenever they are required to do so. For example in the case of the UK, it starts from when they first enter the country, and they are interviewed by an immigration officer, then later on by a caseworker from the Home Office. It then continues when they speak to their legal representative, the detention centre administrators, and local authority officials. They may be advised to contact asylum seekers’ supporting pressure groups, sympathetic Members of Parliament, community organisations, advocacy groups and any other prominent individuals or groups who may be able to help to bring pressure to bear in support of their case. If their application is rejected, then they may have to start again with more interviews and an appearance before the first tier immigration judge and should that fail, then they get a chance to go through it all again this time in front of an immigration appeals panel. Throughout the whole process, they are having to either stick to their original story or refine it and further embellish it in order to make their case worthy and even more compelling. For those who get through the process and manage to convince the authorities that they have indeed gone through such damaging experiences, a range of support is often provided, including being encouraged towards long-term therapeutic interventions. In some cases, people have been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, self-harm, suicidal ideation, panic attacks, sleep disorders, anxiety disorders and paranoia and other mental health disorders. People report symptoms of feeling threatened and being watched and that state agents are looking to harm them in some way. There is a sense of extreme fear and intense anxiety about everyday situations and concern that their life is in imminent danger. As well as the psychological and emotional symptoms reported, there are also physical manifestations of the symptoms including restlessness, aches and pains, migraines, sleep deprivation, exhaustion and fatigue (Mental Health Foundation 2021; Silove et al 1997).

The asylum system could be argued to be predicated on the less eligibility doctrine because it is based on the idea that the condition one is fleeing from has to be so wretched that one has no choice but to try and escape. For the individual going through this process trying to maintain a coherent sense of identity and somehow compartmentalise their true identity cannot be easy. In addition, any cognitive dissonance that may be experienced would be further pronounced and not helped by the requirement to retell their stories and having to live the lie that has been woven out of necessity. Of course the presentation of a false-self is not unique to an individual or a particular group. It could be suggested that, as a matter of course, we generally present a picture of ourselves that we want the world to see. Like a photo-shopped image we smooth out the blemishes, arrange the best angle and try and put out on display only the aspects of ourselves that we think are likely to command the most ‘likes’ by those looking at us. In essence, this indeed may be an example of a false-self, however in such cases it is done for a variety of reasons, including, for example, for financial or personal gain, to encourage envy in others or to seek recognition and admiration. What is being sought by those placing their fate at the hands of the immigration authorities, however, is pity, empathy and compassion in the face of what is being conveyed to be a harrowing and cruel existence.

The questions of who we really are and what aspects of our being make up our core self, could be seen as belonging to the metaphysical realm. But how we see ourselves in relation to other people and, just as importantly, how other people see us, all have impacts on how we feel about ourselves and our place in the world. Presenting different versions of oneself to the world is well recognised and there is evidence that to some degree, that the dyad of public persona and private persona are forever locked in a duel over which one could confidently be described as the persona who truly represents who we are. Helpfully, George Herbert Mead’s ideas, explored by Brewer (2010), makes a distinction that is perhaps helpful in this context. He distinguishes the “me” from the “I.” The “me” is what others treat me as, what I am to others, that is, the social representation of me. The “I,” on the other hand, is the inner self, the impulses, that responds to others and their representations of me’. There are many other theorists, including Freud (1960), Erickson (1980), Kolb, (1983), Bronfenbrenner (1979), who are all, in their different ways, interested in exploring and developing an understanding of the personality, traits and the various influences on our psychosocial development.

The therapeutic relationship
One would have to surmise that for any therapeutic intervention to be successful or to have any chance of success, the story and experiences being revealed would need to be based on events that the individual has endured. Even if the outcome being sought is relatively modest, for example shining a light on cognitive dissonance or focusing on the here-and-now rather than regressing to an earlier stage, in order to expose and explore what may have occurred, there is still a need for the experiences to be grounded in reality. Although it could be suggested that the presentation of the false self to the immigration authorities is akin to false memory syndrome (FMS), the recollection of factually incorrect events that are believed to have taken place. However it is worth making the point that there is a clear distinction to be drawn between the two. The two phenomena may appear, at least on the face of it, to be the same in that a falsehood or incorrect and inaccurate events are being presented to the world as fact. But I would assert that there is qualitative difference between them, both in terms of the mindset of the individual concerned and whether their actions are guided by the deliberate intention to deceive. In the case of FMS, the false recollections or pseudo-memories are often part of, or may be linked to, much wider deeply-buried intrapsychic events that have surfaced and are perhaps being misremembered or unrecognised in their current manifestation. In contrast, I would suggest that providing a deliberate false representation of one’s life story and creating a dramatic and traumatic sets of events to bolster the claim would, by definition, be informed by a different mindset and motivation. At the heart of the client –therapist relationship is the importance of building a therapeutic relationship that is characterised by openness, honesty, a non-judgemental attitude and trust.

The purpose of therapy is to enable people to understand and confront the nature of the blockages that are causing the difficulties in their life. Vahrmeyer (2015), building on the work of Mate (2003), helpfully highlights what he deems to be the ultimate purposes of therapy. These are to;
• “assist clients in becoming aware of their emotional state, so they can know when they are experiencing stress;

• assist clients in learning to express their emotions safely (to themselves and to others), so they can become aware of and protect their personal boundaries;

• work with clients in separating the past from the present on an emotional level, so that they can experience their emotional response to the world based on their present needs, rather than on past trauma being re-triggered and replayed;

• teach clients to address their present and genuine needs – which will involve in turn them feeling satisfaction; frustration; and negotiating – as opposed to repressing their needs to protect an attachment”, (Vahrmeyer 2015, p.1).

In having to present a picture of themselves to the world that is not only untrue but is also emotionally and psychologically damaging, what happens to the individual's sense of self, or their true self, and their mental well-being in the process? Is it possible to inculcate, hold and maintain such extreme and damaging constructed life stories in one’s psyche and still live a life that is emotionally and psychologically unaffected by it? The question then, is whether the falsehood, the reality being presented by an individual, makes any difference to the client-worker relationship and the focus or purpose of therapy in such cases. Also is experiencing PTSD, violence and abuse in all its different forms, albeit vicariously, just as damaging and traumatic to a sense of wellbeing as actually experiencing such events first-hand? Does it matter that the individual has invented a traumatised life, or is it the case that, if they believe it to be true at that moment, then it is effectively the presenting reality that should be the focus of the work?

The aim of this paper is not to offer an insightful analysis into the nature of global migration and refugee crisis. Also, it does not discuss the merits of the UK immigration and asylum system or the shortcoming of the application processes. It offers no solace and asserts no opinion as to the moral imperative to offer a place of safety, a refuge, for those fleeing persecution, environmental disaster or economic hardship from their country of origin. It is not advocating for or on behalf of those claiming asylum and neither is it in support of a stricter or more draconian asylum and immigration system. Instead, the focus of this paper is much narrower and more specific, in essence it is about highlighting the experience of a group of people who have had to create emotionally and psychologically damaging stories about their life experiences in order to qualify as someone needing international protection and a place of safety when, in reality, all they are seeking is a life of hope and a better future for themselves and their family.

Although evidence suggests that within the therapeutic relationship some clients do lie about their experience of therapy, their feelings toward their therapist and other therapy-related areas, (Blanchard and Farber 2016), in reality it is still possible to maintain a semblance of therapeutic relationship in which the integrity and focus of the presenting difficulties or blocks are explored. So in the case of a migrant presenting as an asylum seeker, while their background story may not be true, nevertheless it is still important not to lose sight of the harrowing journey they may have had to endure in order to get into the country, the physical abuse and degrading conditions they may have experienced along the way, the emotional, psychological trauma and sexual exploitation some may have suffered, the permanent state of fear, dread and anxiety that their deceit would unravel and the devastating consequence for them and their family. Viewed through this lens, I would argue this suggests that there is still scope for therapeutic input, but the epicentre of the work to be done may not necessarily be what is at first being presented, a situation which is not unfamiliar to within the client-therapist encounter.


Dr Toyin Okitikpi was Principal Lecturer and Head of Social Work at London South Bank University. He is a regular contributor to Contemporary Psychotherapy and his profile can be found here.
Contemporary Psychotherapy Toyin Okitikpi profile photo

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