The Atrophied True Self


In my last post, I discussed how people tend to have three selves in play:

  1. The idealized false self
  2. The despicable false self
  3. The true self

I also discussed how many people have two problems. First, they mistake the despicable false self for their true self, and second, they don’t have much of a true self to rediscover because it’s so underdeveloped. The first problem the subject of my last post, and now I’d like to discuss the second.

There is an old saying that goes “What you feed, grows. What you starve, dies.” When you spend most of your life trying to identify with a role and project an image, whether that image you’re invested in is to appear superhuman or to appear subhuman, you are feeding one of your false selves. Time, energy, and psychic resources are all limited, so the more of them you devote to your false selves, the less of them you have for feeding your true self, so it begins to atrophy and die.

Think of a crop in soil with two bigger, very aggressive, well-rooted weeds. The roots of the weeds can end up using up all the nutrients and moisture of the soil for themselves, starving the crop of nutrition and hydration. They can also grow taller than the plant and cast shade on it, blocking the sunlight and depriving the plant of the full advantages of the atmosphere.

Similarly, for many people all their time and resources go into dealing with the false selves, and the true self ends up neglected and overshadowed as a result.

One may think the solution is simple: just toss aside the false selves the same way one would uproot and throw away weeds and then the true self will flourish. While this is not wrong in theory, the next problem comes from the fact that for many people, they only know how to deal and interact with the world through their false selves, and without their false selves they’re clueless as to who they are and how to deal with real world issues.

For example, take a guy whose despicable false self is someone who is stupid, unlovable, and lacking the emotional, social, and mental intelligence required to be accepted by his peers. Early in his adolescence, he was often bullied and ostracized as a result. Because he was bigger and stronger than the other kids, let’s say he built up an idealized false self of being a tough, take-no-crap bullying badass. At first being a bullying badass works for him. People stop picking on him, he instills fear and dread into would-be bullies, and he gets a degree of social acceptance based on intimidation. So his idealized false self, to a degree, is an effective solution, even though it’s hardly the best one.

Over the long term, this solution proves itself to be maladaptive. What that means is, it was at one point a good enough solution in the short term, and it got the job done for a time, but over the long term it proves to be a worse adaptation than originally believed, and started offering diminishing returns or even opens the door to a whole new set of problems. So in the case of the bully we’re describing, let’s say because of his bullying, badass persona he attracts friends, but they’re the wrong crowd. He gets into trouble with teachers and administrators at school so often that he gets labeled as a bad kid and falls through the cracks even more, eventually dropping out. He still is making no real deep lasting connections with good people, because you need a certain amount of vulnerability to form connections and he is incapable of showing any in his present mental state. He can’t hold down a good job for very long, so he ends up getting demeaning, rough work much of the time. He can only afford to live in bad neighborhoods and because his legal employment options feel like a dead end, he often falls in and out of criminal behavior and may even end up being sporadically incarcerated.

Bad neighborhoods, rough jobs, and prison are all environments that he ended up in because of his maladaptive idealized false self, but they’re also environments where he needs that same maladaptive idealized false self more than ever just to survive. That’s the self-perpetuating trick of false selves, whether of the despicable variety or the idealized: they are constantly perpetuating themselves by putting you in bad situations where you feel like you need them more and more to survive, despite the paradoxical and ironic fact that they’re the very reason you’re in the bad situations to begin with.

Has your idealized false self of arrogance lost you friends and made you enemies? That same arrogance will tell you that the answer is to call all those people jealous haters, double down on your arrogance, and become invested in never admitting your wrong or learning from your mistakes. Has your idealized false self of having to be physically flawless led you to a job like modeling, acting, or nightlife, surrounded by superficial people who only judge other people by their looks, and you know live in a part of town filled with plastic, superficial people to boot? The same false self that caused you to pursue beauty in the first place will now make you double down on your efforts to remain beautiful because it led you to become immersed in an environment where your survival depends on your false self more than ever.

False selves are like infections or cancer; they just want to grow and spread and thrive at all costs. False self leads to more false self. False selves are perpetually creating their own demand. The same goes not only for idealized false self like the examples in the previous paragraph but your despicable false self as well. Say for example you have a despicable false self that you identify with strongly, causing you to be a people-pleasing codependent.  You will end up surrounded by emotional vampires in your social circle. Your friends and family will all be people who are around you for your people-pleasing, low self-esteem ways. Your professional advancement will be severely impaired and you may end up trapped in a soul-crushing dead end job you can’t afford to lose with an abusive boss. Your spouse may be a sociopath or narcissist who has beaten down your self-esteem and convinced you you’re nothing without them. Your despicable false self has ensured it’s own survival and growth by putting you in an environment where everything, from your social circle to your financial livelihood to your life companionship, appeared to depend on you continuing to be a doormat and a victim. You feel so invested in this role now that if you did try to change and become more confident and assertive you would risk losing everything you have, and even though what you have is shitty, you may feel that keeping something shitty is better than having nothing. After all, remember that people are more driven by the need to avoid losses than by the desire to maximize wins.

So to repeat, false selves do what they can to ensure that they’ll survive and thrive. This is something I touched upon in the past in my post about world creation. False selves do what they can to ensure that you keep feeding them at the expense of your true self. False selves do what they can to trap you in a harsh world where you feel your only way to survive and thrive is to rely more and more on the same false self that led you to be trapped there in the first place; false selves, like drugs, create and constantly increase your dependency on them. False selves create a vicious circle where they subtly create a problem, then offer to rescue you from that same problem, but in a way that increases your dependency on the false selves and never solves the problem in a meaningful, long-term way. Not only does your true self atrophy as a result, but you start to believe if you stop feeding your false self even for a second, the forces in your life with engulf you and you will die. This is why the people who most desperately need to let of their false selves in order to start feeding and strengthening their dilapidated and atrophied true selves are also the people who find it most difficult to do so.

So there are three factors that arise:

  1. you believe your despicable false self is actually be your true self, which causes you to believe that in life your only options consist of a binary choice of being an idealized false self or a despicable false self
  2. your actual true self is too atrophied from starvation to be defined or of much use to you, and is far below your conscious level of awareness, and
  3. you believe your idealized false self to be your savior and believe it’s essential to your survival, while at the same time utterly failing to realize how responsible it is for placing you in a world where you need it to survive in the first place.

These three factors show why it’s not easy to tell people to just embrace their true selves and reject their false selves, even after you explain the existence of the false selves and true self to them. They believe their false selves are needed, even if on some level they realize that they’re maladaptive, self-perpetuating, and part of the problem. They don’t even have the faintest idea what their true self is, and they’re too scared to go without their false selves long enough to grow their true self and discover what it actually is. I see these dynamics in a question that I receive quite often: “Without my ego and without narcissism, how can I be successful? I need it to drive me!”

Sam Vaknin discusses these dynamics as well in a post called “The Dual Role of the Narcissist’s False Self.” While I recommend reading the whole thing, here are the parts most pertinent to this piece:

[T]he narcissist has no private life, no true self, no domain reserved exclusively for his nearest and dearest. His life is a spectacle, with free access to all, constantly on display, garnering narcissistic supply from his audience. In the theatre that is the narcissist’s life, the actor is irrelevant. Only the show goes on.

Once formed and functioning, the False Self stifles the growth of the True Self and paralyses it. Henceforth, the True Self is virtually non-existent and plays no role (active or passive) in the conscious life of the narcissist. It is difficult to “resuscitate” it, even with psychotherapy…

There is no conflict between the True Self and the False Self.

First, the True Self is much too weak to do battle with the overbearing False. Second, the False Self is adaptive (though maladaptive). It helps the True Self to cope with the world. Without the False Self, the True Self would be subjected to so much hurt that it will disintegrate. This happens to narcissists who go through a life crisis: their False Ego becomes dysfunctional and they experience a harrowing feeling of annulment.

The False Self has many functions. The two most important are:

  1. It serves as a decoy, it “attracts the fire”. It is a proxy for the True Self. It is tough as nails and can absorb any amount of pain, hurt and negative emotions. By inventing it, the child develops immunity to the indifference, manipulation, sadism, smothering, or exploitation – in short: to the abuse – inflicted on him by his parents (or by other Primary Objects in his life). It is a cloak, protecting him, rendering him invisible and omnipotent at the same time.
  1. The False Self is misrepresented by the narcissist as his True Self. The narcissist is saying, in effect: “I am not who you think I am. I am someone else. I am this (False) Self. Therefore, I deserve a better, painless, more considerate treatment.” The False Self, thus, is a contraption intended to alter other people’s behaviour and attitude towards the narcissist.

These roles are crucial to survival and to the proper psychological functioning of the narcissist. The False Self is by far more important to the narcissist than his dilapidated, dysfunctional, True Self…

The False Self is an adaptive reaction to pathological circumstances. But its dynamics make it predominate, devour the psyche and prey upon the True Self. Thus, it prevents the efficient, flexible functioning of the personality as a whole…

Both the True Self and the False Self depend on the gaze of others. The False Self relies on adulation and attention – narcissistic supply – for the maintenance of the precarious, confabulated, fantastic, grandiose, and counterfactual narrative that is the narcissist’s persona, his public face. Without a constant flow of such high-quality input and feedback, without the adulating gaze, the narcissist crumbles like a house of ephemeral cards and resorts to a variety of dysfunctional, self-destructive, and self-defeating behaviors and defense mechanisms.

Similarly and equally, the True Self needs a loving gaze to sustain itself. Another person’s love serves two purposes: it confirms the existence of the True Self as a lovable object and thus lays the groundwork and facilitates the necessary and sufficient conditions for self-love; and it allows the True Self to perceive the existence of a “safe”, loving, and holding other. Such insight is at the very foundation of empathy.

Do the False and True Selves ever fight it out, David vs. Goliath, Good vs. Evil, The Beaver vs. Walter?

Alas, they never do. The False Self is concocted by the narcissist to fend off hurt. It is a perfect, impenetrable, impermeable shield, a cocoon; it rewards the narcissist by flooding him with warm, fuzzy, exhilarating feelings; and it sustains the narcissist’s delusions and fantasies. The False Self is the narcissist’s dreams come true. In other words: as far as the narcissist is concerned, the False Self is adaptive and functional. The narcissist is emotionally invested in the False Self and he despises the True Self for having failed to cope with the exigencies and vicissitudes of the narcissist’s life.

Also, a related video by Sam Vaknin:


Recommended Reading:

Immortal Diamond: The Search for Our True Self by Richard Rohr

Malignant Self-Love: Narcissism Revisited by Sam Vaknin