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True Self/False Self part 2: The False Self

In the last post on this topic, we talked about the concept of the true self and false self. While the true self is represented by our real feelings and desires, while the false self is a side of us that has changed its behaviour, repressed feelings and pushed needs aside in order to survive. We introduced the idea of the onion – the true self at the centre protected by outer layers of false self.

According to developmental psychologists like John Bowlby and D. W. Winnicott, children are very attuned to their parents’ feelings and needs. They unconsciously recognise that they need their parents’ approval in order to survive, so strive to meet their needs as much as possible.

The true self – the child’s real feelings, needs, desires and thoughts – is pushed further and further inside the onion. Of course, we still have all of these feelings, needs, desires and thoughts, it’s just that the adapted false self dominates: it has to.

Although this striving is necessary in our younger years, it changes us. The false-self thought and behaviour patterns we develop during childhood stay with us as adults. While they used to be helpful, they often become a hindrance as we get older and gain more independence.

While some psychologists view the true self as black and white (true self is good, false self is bad), others maintain there are two types of false self: a healthy false self and an unhealthy false self.

The Healthy False Self

The healthy false self is described as one which allows someone to be functional in society.  It enables politeness and social courtesy, even when we may not feel like it.

There are times in our day-to-day lives when it would be harmful for us to let our true selves dominate. For instance, we don’t bare our deepest feelings and thoughts while at work. That kind of vulnerability would not only demonstrate a lack of boundaries but would also open us up to potential attack from others who might not treat our feelings with acceptance.

Instead, we use our healthy false self: one that functions perfectly and allows us to live our lives, but protects the true self, keeping it safe until a time when we are around people we know we can trust.

Put simply, a major component of the healthy false self is an awareness of personal boundaries.

A healthy false self is one that works with and stays committed to the true self. It is a form of useful self-protection, in that it shields us at times when vulnerability would not be appropriate, or might even be harmful.

The Unhealthy False Self

The unhealthy false self comes from the same origins as the healthy false self. However, for our long-term well-being, the effects of the unhealthy false self are quite different to those of its counterpart.

This false-self is the one behind many dysfunctional behaviours, including narcissism and addiction. D. W. Winnicott defines the unhealthy false self as one that fits into society through forced compliance rather than a desire to adapt.

Real-life examples of the false self are based around certain beliefs that we take on in order to fit into our worlds better.

If I am pretty, I will be more likeable.

If I have a lot of money, I am successful.

If I work hard/achieve more, I will have more value.

One more glass of wine, and I’ll start feeling better.

In our society, there is a huge emphasis on altruism and being selfless. We are taught to put others before ourselves, that it is good to ‘be there’ for other people and that self-sacrifice is a virtue.

All these beliefs are false self beliefs.

Our real feelings and desires matter.

They are what they are, and they are part of who we are. The ‘shoulds’, ‘ought tos’ and ‘have tos’ are learned ideas, not part of our true selves. When we think about how many activities we may carry out in our daily lives through a sense of obligation, it might be useful to trace these ‘shoulds’ back to their origin.

The only obligation we have to anyone is to ourselves.

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  • Jake
    March 15, 2010 at 3:20 pm

    Great post. The thought that comes to mind for me is that the really damaging aspect of the false self is when it is unconscious. As long as any adaptation to surrounding people is conscious, you have the choice to stop doing it at any point if you decide it is not helpful or not healthy. But if you don’t know that you are adapting, that is really dangerous as the choice to stop isn’t there. If its not conscious then the link to the true self is lost and you start to believe that you *are* the adapted person.

  • True Self/False Self Part 3: What is the True Self? | Becoming Who You Are
    March 22, 2010 at 10:08 pm

    […] far, we’ve talked about the false self. This is something we all have, to varying degrees and effects. The healthy false self allows us to […]

  • Heiko Cochius
    April 2, 2010 at 7:45 pm

    I´d rather not differentiate between healthy and unhealthy false self. I´d rather have a definition of false self that implies a deviation from health and a definition of true self that implies health.

    Jake pointed to a solution: If I am unconsciously following expectations of others and falsely believe that these are my own wishes, then I am denying genuine experiences of mine, and that´s unhealthy.

    In my estimation Carl Rogers gave the most thoroughly thought through definition of self and distortions thereof. He wrote in 1959 “A theory of therapy, personality and interpersonal relationships as developed in the client-centered framework.”. in (Ed.) S. Koch. Psychology: A study of a science. Vol. 3: Formulations of the person and the social context. New York: McGraw Hill. Very late in his life he said that this was the theoretical work he was most proud of. To me it is a jewel and still a very good conceptual framework to think about the processes around true and false self, although it is some work to read it.
    The relevant point here is that the false self is or results from conceptual demands that some experiences should be or should not be part of my genuine experiencing. In this sense the false self is by definition in opposition to a curious inquiry into what actually is happening within me, which would be a healthy attitude towards myself.

  • shay
    September 10, 2010 at 7:54 am

    heiko… i think you might have misunderstood what’s being discussed… false self in this context doesn’t mean bad, it just means not your truest, inner most self. with the exception of newborns, no one is their truest self more than 1% of the time, ie. deeply aware of your true self and emotions. 99% of the time you’re dealing with the real world, your thoughts, your internal monologue, “masks” in either a healthy manner or an unhealthy manner. when your head is working for your heart, allowing you to function in a healthy manner in society, it’s your healthy false self. this is a good thing! your true self is completely honest and real, and this makes you vulnerable, which is extremely important to be able to share, but in the right contexts. an unhealthy false sense causes the majority of psychological dysfunction. it plays into what jake was saying.. if you’re unaware that your head is your false self, and can’t differentiate it from your true self, your heart, that’s unhealthy. when your head works for your heart, you know your head isn’t in charge, but you let it “do the math”, though not guide your intuition and decisions… you don’t let it prevent you from being true to yourself. hopefully talking about this in different contexts has been helpful… every human being has feeling and thoughts. your thoughts are the healthiest when you’re aware of your true feelings and when they’re in control. if you have negative thoughts (unhealthy false self), your feelings can help you break through and regain awareness of the truth. take care of yourself everyone :)

  • giudetta rizzuti
    July 15, 2011 at 7:02 pm

    I did a series of paintings based on the Acrobat’s Smile. This is a false smile based on pleasing an audience while one is performing. This probably fits into the category of healthy false self as being discussed here. However, pleasing people by always appearing happy does not let people really know you. It attracts some people because one appears happy and outgoing when inside one is really hiding from the fears and anxieties that are close to the service. Sometimes the happier healthy false self is covering a deep depression as was my case. Unfortunately I came to believe it and kept pushing my sadness deeper and deeper until I no longer recognized and I became quite ill, physically and mentally. I could not really relate to my husband or children but kept doing so, going through the motions as it were . Early trauma brought on this false self and it remains to this day. I have become quite the actress and it gets me into alot of new relationships. I have found someone who also recognizes this tendency in himself. We come from similar backgrounds and are both writers. Is there a way for a couple like us to work on these issues so we can be our authentic selves in a relaionship. Please say Yes. What can we do?

  • Heleena Yates
    April 3, 2014 at 10:22 am

    I am a highly skilled therapist /communicator / nurse. Yet so often I become the scapegoat of other people’s self loathing. Recently as a nurse I was blamed for situations I had nothing to do with. The choices and decisions of other naïve people exposed me to be blamed and yet when I tried to calmly stand my ground I was blamed yet again—I walked away and told them they had no awareness of me as a decent compassionate human and they could have my post. Sadly this scenario has happened too many times. Its is a message that as a baby I received that whatever I did would never be accepted or good enough. To have to continue this struggle now is exhausting —what can I do???Ive had lots of therapy and now engaged with homeopathy –this does seem to be helping. What else?? PS I grew up amongst people who witnessed the holocaust in Europe —I carry this in my psyche Heleena