The Two False Selves


I often talk about the idealized false self in my writing. It’s a concept that comes up very often in psychology, philosophy, and eastern spirituality, although not always under the same name.  It basically means a perfectionist persona that one believes represents the ideal type of person one should aspire to be. Neurotic people then put all their efforts into appearing to be this idealized false self. If a neurotic person had to choose between appearing to be their idealized, false self to the outside world and being secretly utterly miserable inside or being happy and at peace inside but not appearing to be their idealized false self to the outside world, they would prefer the former choice.

When you read a lot of psychological and spiritual self-help, you come across a lot of writing about false self and true self. While this distinction is very useful, it doesn’t tell the full story. There are two things lacking in this construct: first, neurotics usually have two false selves, not one, and second, not everyone has a developed true self. Today I’ll focus on the first observation, and save the second for my next post.

Karen Horney, in Neurosis and Human Growth, discusses the two false selves. Everyone has an idealized false self, an inflated persona they display to the world, and a true self, which is the more vulnerable person they are deep down in their heart of hearts and behind closed doors. However there is also a second false self in addition to the idealized false self, which I call the despicable false self. If the idealized false self can be described as everything a person feels they should try be, then the despicable false self can be described as everything a person dreads being and feels they should try to be the opposite of. The more neurotic one is, the more extreme, unrealistic and caricaturelike the polarization of both of these false selves is in their imagination.

So to review where we are, there are three selves in play:

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

What differentiates an emotionally healthy person from a neurotic person is their relationships to these three selves?  An emotionally healthy person may have a positive ideal he aspires to and a negative image that he wants to avoid, but on some conscious level he’s aware that neither of these ideals or their corresponding labels truly represents him, or are even truly attainable (although in all honesty the despised false self is probably easier to come close to attaining than the idealized one is). The neurotic, whether narcissistic or codependent, really believes his only choice is between these two ideals and totally buys into their corresponding labels, believes both are attainable, and has a constant struggle of oscillating between two damaging false selves.

These two false selves are what are at play in a previous post I did, “The Superhuman/Subhuman Dichotomy of Shame.” I suggest reading or rereading it now. What a person is doing when they’re undergoing the dichotomy of shame is oscillating between playing the roles of these two false selves, the idealized false self when feeling superhuman and the dreaded false self when feeling subhuman.

Bewlow is a diagram from this site illustrating Horney’s beliefs about the three selves:


This site also discusses Horney’s beliefs:

Horney believed that the self is the core of one’s being, their potential. If one has an accurate conception of themselves, they are free to realize their potential. The healthy person’s real self is aimed at reaching their self-actualization throughout life.

The neurotic’s self is split, however, into an ideal self and a despised self. One’s ideal self is created when one feels they are lacking in some area of life and are not living up to the ideals that they should be. What they “should” be is their ideal. This ideal self is not a positive goal, nor is it realistic or possible. The despised self, on the other hand, is the feeling that one is hated by all around them; one assumes that this hated being is their true self. The neurotic, therefore, swings back and forth between pretending to be perfect and hating themselves. Horney called this inner battle the “tyranny of the shoulds” and the neurotic’s “striving for glory”. These two impossible selves prevent the neurotic from ever reaching their potential.

That passage describes a key component of this: that most people are driven by a fear that their dreaded, despicable self is actually their true self. Much of people’s problems stem from the dysfunctional ways they deal with this fear, which as usual consist of overcompensation, surrender, and/or avoidance.

Some good examples of this can be seen in the labels people choose to admire or bash. For example men may spend a lot of time thinking about alpha males (idealized false self) and beta males (despicable false self) and which category they fall under. Women may think about whether they’re a good girl vs. a slut or a bad bitch vs. a basic bitch.

The best solutions involve first, becoming aware of the concept of the three selves, and second, identifying what the idealized false self, despised false self, and true self specifically are for you. The problem is, for many of us, we effectively don’t have a true self that we can easily identify because our true selves are so underdeveloped through neglect, similar to a muscle one never uses. It’s like those deep undercover cop movies where someone is playing a role so long and spending so little time in their real identity that they believe they’re the role and begin to forget who they really are. The role becomes more real than the person they were born as. This idea of an underdeveloped true self will be the subject of the next post.

Recommended Reading:

6 Responses to “The Two False Selves”

  1. Thanks for another post T.

    I’d like you to go deeper into what’s the true self, can you write a post about it?

    “true self, which is the more vulnerable person they are deep down in their heart of hearts and behind closed doors.:”

    That is the common sense wisdom vox populi etc about what the true self is. Consider how little we talk about it. It points that the true self is “vulnerable” and its there where “nobody is watching”

    Except the false selves are also vulnerable and also happen when nobody is watching. Example. I’ve deluded myself to no end when nobody was watching and fooled myself and trapped myself and all my armors were also vulnerable.

    And then some stuff where I was vulnerable and had wants and was just being me when no one was looking and I was being all honest with myself etc, that was also another string of bullshit stories and half identities that I was holding on to, partially because I was fed with them or I constructed them to rationalize other stuff.

    So if we can talk about what’s false, can we talk about what’s true?

    * * *

    or, this:

    “true self, which is the more vulnerable person they are deep down in their heart of hearts and behind closed doors.:”

    Is good in the sense that everyone can look under their own skin and “feel” what’s true about them, and contrast that against their projections and ideas. But think about it, this “feel” means nothing, really, it is just another layer, another surface, another shade of the same dream to put it in a poetic way. It’s still not enough.

    Actually I find that talking about the false ego is so entertaining precisely because how safe it is. You put the finger against the false = it validates the finger as true. Such a magic trick.

  2. Great post.

    About this division between two false selves I found very interesting the book “The Pathwork of Self-Transformation” by Eva Pierrakos. It’s focused on the spiritual side, so be warned.
    Anyway I think the difference between the “Mask” (idealized false self) and the “False self” (The despicable false self) and the True self are well discussed in it.

  3. Wow, amazing . Great post.

  4. Claudio: That is the second Eva Pierrakos book I’ve been recommended. By any chance were you the person who referred me the first one, via email? I bought both, but haven’t read them yet.

  5. No, this is my first comment and I never emailed you, even if I really like your blog. You are doing a great work.

  6. Okay Claudio, that means two different people told me about the same author in a short amount of time. Now I’m really curious. This Eva Pierrakos must be very good.

Leave a Reply