“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.”
- 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
- 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.
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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