The False Self

Over the past few months, there’s an idea I’ve been trying to articulate.  It’s the idea of “becoming Real” — that, somehow, embracing “who we really are” is critical to being happy and healthy, and that it is God’s love that facilitates this.  I’ve written about it in one form or another here, here, here, and here.

I finally got some clarity on it a week or so ago.  During my 12-hour drive to our new city, I listened to portions of a book called Wild at Heart by John Eldredge.  Oddly enough, it’s a book about masculinity (why I’m reading it is a long but unrelated story), but there is a section that resonated with me as profoundly universal for both men and women.

The concept is basically this…

Every human being has a deep Question about his or her own worth.  There are two forms this Question takes: “Do I have what it takes?” and “Am I wanted?”  (The book says that a man’s fundamental Question is the former while a woman’s is the latter.  I don’t  like to make broad generalizations based on sex, but I will say that in my own life anyway, that feels kind of true.  Either way, it doesn’t really matter who has what Question; what matters is that we have them at all.)   As we grow and develop, we receive answers to these Questions that are not always satisfying — in fact, they are often profoundly devastating.  We have experiences that make us assume that who we are is NOT enough; that we are NOT wanted as we are.

So we invent a False Self to compensate.

We try to “fix” our perceived deficiencies by adopting characteristics, interests, and habits that we believe will make us enough and wanted — or we construct shields around our Question by telling ourselves that we don’t care what the answer is anyway.   Often, we adopt a messy combination of both.  We are quick to anger, slow to forgive.  We are judgmental, anxious, codependent, controlling.  We are passive, addicted, restless, sarcastic.  We carry grudges.  We place blame.  We work too hard (or too little).  We put on a show of happiness, wealth, or bravado.  We relish being right.

All this arises because we have asked the False Self to give us our value.  But The False Self powerless to do so, for our value lies not in who we think we must be, but in who we actually are — who God made us to be.   This is profoundly frustrating.   We sense that it’s never enough…because it isn’t.  You could say that the negative behaviors described above are “sparks” produced from the friction of False expectations rubbing up against Truth.

Please note that there is a critical distinction between the False Self and deliberate deception.  The False Self is usually not a deliberate lie.  It is much deeper than that (and, as a result, the source of all the deliberate lies we tell).  It is a persona that we construct often without realizing it.  It can become so ingrained that it is unconscious, habitual — even natural.  In my own experience, when I was most enmeshed in my False Self, I genuinely believed I was who I portrayed myself to be.  I ignored evidence to the contrary.  It was the only way I knew to feel acceptable.

But it is not until we let go of the False Self that we can find peace with ourselves, God, and others.

C.S. Lewis wrote about this extensively (I’ve been a disciple of his for about five years and I’m just now realizing what he meant).  It is at the heart of all the sin portrayed in The Great Divorce: the Damned, fundamentally, are not Real.  They are wasting away: they have set their hearts on things that do not actually exist, so they are fading from existence, too.  Heaven is unbearable to them because it is tangible.  Realness, not “righteousness,” is what distinguishes the Saved from the Damned (and yet it is Realness that allows true righteousness to flourish).

It’s the heart of his message in Till We Have Faces, too: “I saw well why the gods do not speak to us openly, nor let us answer.  Till that word can be dug out of us, why should they hear the babble that we think we mean?  How can they meet us face to face till we have faces?”

The answer is…they can’t!  (Or He can’t.)  For while we are living Falsely, The False Self is our God.  We honor it, protect it, worship it above all else. And while we cling to  it, we leave little room for Christ to penetrate.  There is a reason that both Moses and Jesus proclaimed that we must love God first.  Idolatry — false worship — destroys our communion with Truth.

Letting go of the False Self is damnably painful.  Especially if you’ve been extremely attached to yours, it feels a bit like a bulldozer demolishing your insides.  The rubble smolders for a while.  It’s hard to know what to do once it’s gone.

But Truth has a way of flourishing when it’s given even the smallest bit of space.

C.S. Lewis (of course!) has a beautiful analogy about it…

Imagine yourself as a living house.  God comes in to rebuild that house.  At first, perhaps, you can understand what He is doing.  He is getting the drains right and stopping the leaks in the roof and so on; you knew that those jobs needed doing and so you are not surprised.  But presently He starts knocking the house about in a way that hurts abominably and does not seem to make any sense.  What on earth is He up to?  The explanation is that He is building quite a different house from the one you thought of — throwing out a new wing here, putting on an extra floor here, running up towers, making courtyards. You thought you were being made into a decent little cottage: but He is building a palace.  He intends to come and live in it Himself.

The best part is that it is not up to us to demolish the False Self.  That’s God’s job.  Our job is simply to let Him do His.  It does not take much to let Him in.  Christ said we just need faith the size of a mustard seed.   We can turn ourselves over to Him.  We can ask Him to make us whole.  He will begin the process as soon as we let Him.

Is it painful?  Yes.  But like anything worth having or doing, the pain is part of what makes it possible.  It’s not nearly as agonizing as the day-to-day grind of living from a place that isn’t Real.  If we follow the process through to completion, we will see that we have become something better than the grandest aspirations we could have ever invented for our False Self.

We will have become Real, just as He is.

About Katie L

Thirtysomething wife, mother, writer, runner, believer, and lover of good food and bad movies.

Posted on May 15, 2012, in Mental Health, Thoughts on God, Women and Happiness and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. Firstly, that photo up top is just gruesome. Gruesomely effective. Secondly, as always your insights are meaningful and poignant. It is interesting to me that your description of letting God demolish the false self sounds a lot like a description of therapy! “It’s not nearly as agonizing as the day-to-day grind of living from a place that isn’t Real.” Yet isn’t that what it is, indeed; therapy is about someone with a more broader view and a well-stocked toolbox helping you to find the truth in your life and face the truth about yourself. God has the broadest view and best-stocked toolbox of all, and it’s all at our disposal.

  2. Yes, I think that’s a big reason why (good) therapy is effective. It helps us find and embrace Truth — which allows us to live from a place that is tangible and real.

    What I’ve come to realize over the past year or so is that no Truth is so difficult to face that it is more painful than the soul-scraping tactics we employ to avoid it.

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