‘True self’ and ‘false self’ are terms introduced into psychotherapy by D. W. Winnicott in 1960. The true self describes a sense of self based on spontaneous authentic experience and a sense of “all-out personal aliveness” or “feeling real.”
The false self is an ego defense designed to protect the true self by hiding it. Winnicott believed the false self allows a person to present a “polite and mannered attitude” in public.
According to psychologist Abraham Maslow, the true self is the final level of psychological development that is achieved when all basic and meta (higher) needs are fulfilled. The “actualization” of one’s personal potential has taken place.
Similarly, psychoanalyst and philosopher Erich Fromm distinguished between the ‘original self’ and the ‘pseudo self.’ Fromm explained, “The person who gives up his individual self and becomes an automaton, identical with millions of other automatons around him, need not feel alone and anxious any more. But the price he pays, however, is high; it is the loss of his self.”
It is this loss of self that eventually makes its mark. After decades of nullifying our true self, symptoms appear in order to get our attention. These include depression, malaise, lack of meaning in life, relationship issues, anxiety, chronic body symptoms with no medical diagnosis, and perhaps a voice inside shouting, “I can’t do this anymore!”
When we are unable for the most part to feel spontaneous, alive or real in any part of our lives, our soul or true self suffers. Although we appear to put on a successful persona or mask of being okay, we inwardly feel a sense of being empty, dead, phony or even hypocritical. As Philosopher Soren Kierkegaard claimed, “The most common despair is to be in despair of not choosing or willing, to be oneself; but that the deepest form of despairs is to choose ‘to be another than himself.’
When we live from the true self we work from self-acceptance, sympathy, peace, wisdom, gratefulness, altruism, simplicity, unity, friendliness and social acceptance. Our true self accepts situations, takes responsibility and is focused on the present.
When we are in our false self, we often are working from pride, anger, power, intolerance, self-denial, materialism, blame, resentment and jealousy. Our false self complains, stirs up drama, and is occupied with the past or the future.
Jung resonated with the alchemists’ concept of ‘the philosopher’s stone” – an absolutely incorruptible and indestructible substance that symbolizes our inner hidden treasures. At the core of each of us there is a force or energy, an awareness that is unique and precious that defines what we most fundamentally are – this is our true self.
Take time to note when you are living your true self and incorporate more of these activities into your life. Become aware of times when your false self appears, pondering, “Why now?” Try to identify what feeling or thought has been triggered which feels you cannot simply be yourself.