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:
- The idealized false self
- The despicable false self
- 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.
- Neurosis and Human Growth: The Struggle Toward Self-Realization by Karen Horney
- Understanding Human Nature by Alfred Adler