The false self isn’t false. Nor is it bad; nor something to be rid of. It is the collection of personas we develop as we grow up. It’s how others see us and how we come to see and define ourselves. We call it false because it isn’t who we are in the core of our beings. We call it false because it may include defensive façades.
Messages come at us from the time we’re born; messages we internalize as definitions of who we are. They come from our parents or caregivers, our siblings, extended family, the media, friends, peers, teachers, coaches, and so forth. We naturally develop an image of who we are.
That image may be good or bad, it may be true or false, loving or unkind, helpful or dysfunctional. In most cases it is a combination. From those influences, we come to internal conclusions about who we are. We define ourselves as smart, dumb, happy, sad, winners or losers, athletes or uncoördinated, musical or tone-deaf, artistic or uncreative, etc. We all have a collection of adjectives that describe how we see ourselves because of how others saw us as we were growing up. We need these personas to function in our roles in workplaces, societies, and families.
Growing up, I got some very negative messages. I came to define myself as fearful, timid, a loser, a failure, not good enough, unlovable, and an intellectual chameleon. I also got some positive messages, so mixed with the negative were things like smart, good public speaker, skilled teacher, and leader. As an adult, my wife Kathy has helped add to the positive by telling me she sees me as creative, a good writer, a decent poet, and so on.
The shadow self is neither good nor bad. It is simply hidden. It’s those parts of us we do not see. We may not be aware of our own tendency towards egotism that we cover up with a false humility. We may not be aware of our own giftedness.
I doubt it is possible to discover our shadow selves without outside help from a therapist, coach, guide, mentor, or soul-friend. Intimate others, especially those trained to pay attention, can see things in us that we can’t. Often, we can’t see the shadow self because it doesn’t fit with the false self. There are things we suppress (again, good and bad alike) because they contradict the persona we have come to see as “us.”
My spouse is my soul friend. She, along with my spiritual director, my spiritual directing supervisors, and therapists have shown me things about myself that were hidden from my awareness. I long for wholeness and so fall into envy – not envy of stuff, but envy of other’s depth of spirituality. I take criticism much more harshly than it’s meant. I have a creative side I long denied.
The true self is the authentic, deep-down, under-it-all essence of who we are. It is that part of us that relationally connects with the Divine. It is the quintessence of our existence. It is the inner-most part of us that most people never get in touch with.
Søren Kierkegaard said, “The deepest form of despair is not being who you are.” The true self slowly surfaces into consciousness if, and only if, we are deeply contemplative, focused on spiritual growth, passionately wanting to intimately know God, and are open to in-depth self-discovery.
We need depth-psychology, spiritual direction, an anam cara to help us. Depth-psychology looks to integrate the subconscious or unconscious mind with our conscious selves. Spiritual direction is best done with an anam cara. Anam cara is Gaelic for “soul-friend.” In the early Gaelic Christian church, parishioners sought out an anam cara as a spiritual teacher, guide, companion to walk with them more deeply into the Divine.
I have a long way to go (which is fine with me – life is about the journey, not just the destination). With the help of wise others, I’m starting to see my true self – God’s beloved son, bearing the divine image, a spiritual father, singularly focused on Jesus, a calming presence, a warm blanket of peace for those in turmoil. Even as I write those words, the false self screams, “You’re none of those things. You’re a phony!”
Spiritual growth involves laying to rest the negative personas, discovering the hidden me, and entering into connectedness with the true self and the God who created me and lives within me.