Some years ago Francesca Gino, Michael I. Norton, and Dan Ariely researched the impact of using counterfeit products. What they found, was that while people were buying counterfeit products to signal positive traits it had the consequence that these people also felt less authentic.
These people found themselves sending out mixed signals. They had the ‘desired signals’ of good taste, wealth, and success. But they also experienced an ‘actual signal’ of being, to some degree, fake. As both signals were sent to their own sense of identity as well as to other people, they experienced themselves and were experienced as ‘somewhat dishonest’. The experiments showed that there was a good probability that some would behave like that.
With the true self and the false self, Donald Winnicott introduced a similar concept to psychoanalysis. For him, the true self was rooted from early infancy in the experience of being alive. It is a sense of self based on spontaneous authentic experience. One that allows the baby to create the experience of a sense of reality, a sense that life is worth living.
But infants and toddlers have two basic needs: attachment and authenticity. The sense of attachment is connected with their ability to survive, whereas the sense of authenticity is connected with their ability to express their feelings as they experience them. When such feelings are met with disapproval, for example, they can’t be authentic and will sacrifice that sense to preserve attachment. When this experience of tension between their authentic and attachment needs repeats, it becomes an experience of developmental trauma, shock, and stress in close relationships. One from which the infants seek to protect themselves.
As a result, they create the false self, which is a self that allows them to comply with their parent’s and other people’s wishes and expectations. As children grow up, they develop the false self through the integration of a set of agreements with parents, family, and then partner or spouse, and culture. Eventually, it becomes what people think they are. It is a social and mental construct largely defined in distinction from others. For Winnicott, the false self served the vital purpose of protecting the true self from being exploited.
While the false self might be bogus, there is nothing bad about it. It just is there and, when attended to, the limitations it brings can be outgrown. Beliefs can be changed. Defense mechanisms can be unlearned.
The existence of a fake or false self helps to understand how challenging it can be to access one’s true self. It requires a space and sense of safety, one where the defenses people can be let go of. Whenever they remain present they also become a signal of how stressed someone is.
The ability to express and access one’s authentic emotions may also need to be relearned. It starts with caring for one’s own psychological needs regularly which then eases connecting with one’s authentic emotions.