Authentic Self vs. False Self

“No man remains quite what he was when he recognizes himself.” – Thomas Mann

We all wear masks.  Our social masks enable us to survive and to interact appropriately in a wide variety of interpersonal contexts.  We show a different side of ourselves to different people in our lives: significant others, family members, friends, professional colleagues, and acquaintances.  It is important to be aware of these different social masks and use them to help us manage our lives in a balanced and integrated way.  Without this awareness and balance, we are at risk for feeling disconnected from ourselves and others.  A clear understanding of our various selves enables us to develop a cohesive integrated identity.

According to Dr. Donald Winnicott, an English psychoanalyst hugely influential in the field of object relations, the false self develops through early environmental failure wherein true self-potential is unrealized and hidden.  The idea is that infants depend on their primary caregiver not only to meet their most basic needs for survival, but also for reliable, accurate, and empathic emotional responses.

When these emotional needs are either unmet, or met unreliably, the infant gradually learns not only not to trust the environment, but also not to trust the self.  Psychoanalytically speaking, this basic mistrust develops because infants rely on their primary caregivers to accurately mirror their emotional experiences.  It is through this accurate mirroring that infants learn not only how to label their own emotions, but to trust the validity of their internal experiences.

How does this apply to us as adults?  Whether the basic ideas of object relations and psychoanalytic thought sit well with you or not, almost all of us (except maybe those lucky few who seem to have reached complete self-actualization) struggle at times to project what we believe to be the “true” or “authentic” self.  In many ways, wearing a social mask protects our authentic selves from being constantly exposed to the nonstop demands of our interpersonal environment.

There is a natural human tendency to protect our authentic selves from the scrutiny of the outside world.  When we protect our true selves, we are able to avoid being rejected or hurt.  There is a downside to this protection though – we may miss out on the opportunity to have genuine connections with other people.

Some of us may relate to both ourselves and others from a dominantly false self position.  If we have been relating to the world in this way for many years, it can feel “normal.”

Authentic Self:

  • Thoughts, beliefs, words, and actions come from a deep-seated place within
  • Lack of disparity between values and lived values
  • Unique combination of your vast multitude of talents, skills, interests, and abilities

False Self:

  • Putting on a facade with others may result in an internal sensation of being depleted, drained, or emotionally numb
  • Possible tendencies to turn to mood-altering substances in order to feel “different”
  • Actions may feel forced, alienated, or detached

While there are clear distinctions between characteristics of acting from the authentic self versus the false self, it is important to remember that the false self, or social mask, serves many adaptive (i.e., useful) purposes.  We need to be able to utilize aspects of the false self in a variety of social contexts.  The difference between utilizing the false self in an adaptive way versus a maladaptive way has to do with both our awareness of its attributes and sense of congruence between our social masks and our core values.

When we are aware of the many sides of ourselves we are able to gain a sense of ownership and mastery over when and how we choose to show these sides.  When we are in control of what part of ourselves we choose to show, the false self is no longer foreign and detached: our social masks become congruent and integrated.  We are whole.

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

Winnicott, D. W. (1960). “Ego Distortion in Terms of True and False Self,” in The Maturational Process and the Facilitating Environment: Studies in the Theory of Emotional Development. New York: International UP Inc., 1965, pp. 140-152.

Featured image: Jackie Martinez (#31899) by mark sebastian / CC BY-SA 2.0

About Laura K. Schenck, Ph.D., LPC

I am a Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC) with a Ph.D. in Counseling Psychology from the University of Northern Colorado. Some of my academic interests include: Dialectical Behavior Therapy, mindfulness, stress reduction, work/life balance, mood disorders, identity development, supervision & training, and self-care.


  1. Amy Looper on April 14, 2011 at 8:36 am

    Hey Laura!

    Another excellent post! As you know we work with kids. I am always fascinated at how young some kids really are when they learn to wear their masks. So this is a very interesting read you’ve posted about Dr. Winnicott’s work in the filed of object relations and gives me great insight into the possibilities of what is behind this behavior for youth.

    I’ve read Dr. Robert Coles’ books on adolescent behavior where he makes a point (loosely quoted here) that kids are ever attentive witnesses of their parents and others behaviors. Now, through your post, you are reminding me of just how important it is to teach/model an integrated balance and perspective of these aspects to help kids learn healthy ways to connect with their peers, parents and other adults in their lives!

    Will you be posting insights on how some of the issues you cover in your blog affect youth specifically as well?

    Thanks again for a thoughtful post!


    • Laura on April 14, 2011 at 11:50 am

      Amy – It seems like we learn how to wear social masks very early on in the socialization process. We learn this through repeated experiences of getting particular responses when we act in particular ways. These responses serve to reinforce certain behaviors. All of these experiences build upon our constantly evolving style of relating to others. It helps me to remember that people absolutely “are the way that they are” for innumerable reasons. I will include some posts specifically geared towards youth in the future. I’m glad that you enjoyed this post!

What's On Your Mind?