While studying psychoanalysis in the UK, I learned of a concept defined by D.W. Winnicott in 1960 as the “False Self. The “False Self” is a defense mechanism which could be simply compared to a mask that we wear to protect an authentic but more vulnerable self. He believed that mental health issues arose when we disconnected from our spontaneous and true self. Winnicott used the term “True Self” to describe a sense of self, based on spontaneous, authentic experience, a sense of “all-out personal aliveness,” or “feeling real.” So in sum and to paraphrase this clinical point of view, “if you want happy….then keep it real”
There is a pivotal scene in the film Wizard of Oz in which Dorothy’s dog Toto rescues Dorothy and her pals from being dismissed by the Wizard. Toto trots to the corner and by pulling back a curtain he reveals a little professor moving various levers to operate a machine which created the illusion that there was a magical and powerful Wizard of Oz. In reality the appearance of an angry fire breathing Wizard masked a soft and human gentleman who was, in fact, just creating an illusion of great power .Yet in the end it was his humanity which provided him with the means to help Dorothy and her friends realize that they were already able to be what they had longed to be.
This wonderful film, with references to values like intelligence, heart and courage, offers a metaphor which illustrates why we can only achieve what we want when we are authentic to ourselves and to others. It is fundamental to our mental health to be able to reveal our authentic self; to take away the mask; to look behind the curtain. Yet we live in a world dominated by social media, photo shop and steroid enhanced athletes all of which tend to create barriers to authenticity. It gets very stressful trying to be perfect or even just pretending to be perfect. Just like the typical pitch made inTV commercials, we all want to be new and improved, bigger and faster or better than all the other brands and we want it via an easy to swallow pill which takes effect in just five minutes and costs less than five dollars.
As children we all start out without any pretensions or awareness of ourselves or how others perceive us. We are without self consciousness. There is no need to pretend to be anyone other than ourselves. Our “False Self” appears when we start to worry about what others think. We start to seek recognition or we want to be perceived in a way that we feel would benefit us. Typically our false self is a reaction to a dysfunctional home environment. Our false self is a method to cope with our unfelt, unacknowledged pain. Typically we run from our self doubt or self loathing through a desperate need to look a certain way or to earn lots of money or to have lots and lots of friends on Facebook.
Although the positive may outweigh the negative, social media sites encourage people to connect in an artificial way. They insulate us and isolate us from genuine conversation and connection. The very structure of Facebook allows us to carefully select the words and images which we then send out into cyberspace so as to receive selected responses from those likely to reinforce the image we are wanting to create. We can hit a button “likes” it or post a sympathetic comment because we may be co-dependent enablers who “like” one another’s self-indulgence on the condition that it will be reciprocated. Even on dating sites you need a calculator to add or subtract the pounds or the years that have been shaved in order to get noticed.
In our first couple of years we don’t pretend to be something other than exactly who we really are. We don’t fret about our dirty clothes, bad hair or runny nose. We just live from our true self. But, over time we start developing a mental picture of ourself, our false self. Now, we have started caring about what others think of us, how we are perceived in their eyes. This causes problems. This loss of the true self or “to be another than himself “was described by Kierkegaard as the deepest form of despair. He also stated. On the other hand “to will to be that self which one truly is, is indeed the opposite of despair,” and this choice is the deepest responsibility of man’.
Masks When you look into my eyes Tell me what you see Can you see through my disguise? Can you see the real me? When your fingers touch my face Is it me you feel? or there an open space is the “Mask” you’re feeling real? There is a reason why I ask Because you’re a friend I have so many masks the “me” is just pretend I’ve been playing this game to see who I fool
I keep changing the name and breaking the rules The game is piece of pie I just paint on a smile I’d rather laugh than cry Crying ain’t my style Don’t get the wrong impression What you feel is true My face has no expression I don’t know what to do Please don’t look into my eyes you’ll just see a “mask” Look behind my disguise that is what I ask Peel through the protection It is only just skin Find the right direction and I’ll let you in Go behind the locked door Behind the lost tears Did you find what you are looking for Behind the painful fears? Just take one more suggestion You will find out too Ask yourself the same question Can I see the real you?