Dec 14, 2020

The False Self: Armor of Invincibility

The False Self: Armor of Invincibility

The False Self: Armor of Invincibility

Nathan King

It's an iconic, vivid scene: after a perilous and strange journey, the heroine stands before the throne of the great Wizard of Oz.

He looms over her, seemingly invincible and all-knowing. She is terrified.

Everyone can relate to it, with or without ruby red shoes. What happens in this scene represents an important aspect of reality.

The pivotal moment comes when a small dog tugs at a curtain to reveal the "wizard" as nothing but a mirage. He's a small man turning dials. He has no real power at all.

The False Self

Someone projecting his identity with theatrics and booming voice, while hiding his real self out of view is the definition of what psychologists, mystics and theologians call the "false self."

No one lives without a false self. It wreaks greater or lesser damage, on the individual and those around him, based on his mental (un)health and emotional and spiritual maturity.

The goal of the false self is to protect us from harm. At our core, we fear that our true self will be crushed. We seek to erect an armor of invincibility to protect us. [1]

We don't know exactly how the "wizard" decided to create this false representation of himself, but we all instantly recognize what is going on. Here's a man, small and imperfect, who seeks to project power, even omnipotence. To do so, he amplifies part of himself, projects a power that he doesn't really have, and in the process, he hides.

Here's where the real world departs from Oz. In Oz, the Wizard knows exactly what he is doing. In the real world, people don't always consciously know they are behind a curtain. They internalize a projection of who they are, and, become trapped. As psychologist James Hollis says[2], "that of which we are not aware, owns us."

The False Self Is at War with You

I once led a small team that hadn't received a coherent strategy from our leadership. I had a plan to introduce a new strategy, give purpose to the team, and make an impact with the team. My team was anxious, and I knew clarity would help them.

My plan was smart and unique (I thought), but I knew I had to get my boss to approve it before i announced it. The problem was that I couldn't get an answer. It wasn't a priority for the company. I learned that he had taken it to his boss, who was busy and didn't have time to evaluate it.

I urgently wanted them to adopt any plan. The team needed direction. So I decided to go for it. I announced my plan to them, and presented it as though it represented the company's strategy.

And when the reality of my plan became known to my leadership, it became clear to me that it would never be approved.

The thought of going to my team and telling them the truth was nearly impossible to entertain. What would they think of me? Weak, foolish, incompetent?

It felt like walking the plank to tell them the truth. But when I openly acknowledged my failure, they accepted it. They thanked me for trying to help them. It somehow made us a better team.

I had come close to telling the team nothing other than the plan was canceled, offering no explanation, demanding that they just put their heads down, seeking to manipulate them into following somehow. That is what my false self wanted to do.

It was a rare and better moment to relate to them authentically and come clean. But it felt like I was going in front of a firing squad.

This is what Brene Brown [3] calls vulnerability: exposing the fragile, true self of who we are in all our imperfection. It is so difficult that many of us hide it away.

The day I told my team that the plan I had presented to them wasn't going to happen taught me that people want to forgive you when you make a mistake, because in their hearts they know invincibility doesn't exist.

As difficult as it is to reveal who we are in all our imperfections, doing so is the only sure path to having an impact on the people around us and the world. Otherwise we are always at risk of a small and pesky dog ripping down the curtain and exposing our fraudulence.

[1] The false self is a widely accepted and broadly used concept. The definition I used here comes from Boundaries and Relationships by Charles Whitfield.

[2] This quote is from the book Finding Meaning in the Second Half of Life, by James Hollis.

[3] Brown memorably speaks about vulnerability in this Ted talk which has a scant 51,000,000 views.




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