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 recognize 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.