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False Self-True Self: The Perils of Living a Lie to Fit In

Exploring the link between authenticity and mental health.

Key points

  • Some scholars have linked the development of a true (or authentic) self to better mental health.
  • Barriers to the development of a true self include peer pressure, family preferences, social norms, and cultural expectations.
  • This can lead to a discrepancy between internal desires and lived reality, contributing to the development of a "false self."
  • A "false self"—and the dysfunctional choices that may arise as a result—have been linked in research to poorer mental health.

One of the defining characteristics of modern society is the extent of choice and opportunity available. In times past, choices were constrained by culture, tradition, and convention. But today, we have the opportunity to pick and choose from a vast array of lifestyle choices related to diverse domains including diet, fashion, sexual behavior, spiritual practices, consumer habits, cultural activities, fitness regimes, employment, and education.

The True Self and Mental Health

This growth in choice and opportunity has been praised by many psychologists. For example, Carl Rogers argues that this expansion of choice allows humans the scope to develop a "true" (or "authentic") self, unfettered by the manacles of tradition and convention.

The true self is achieved through the conscious creation of a lifestyle commensurate with individual goals and desires—previously unattainable in eras where choices were more constrained.

In a similar vein, psychologist Kenneth Gergen states that modern society allows people to develop what he calls a "pastiche personality," allowing them to playfully pick and choose various lifestyle choices according to their own needs, desires, and appetites.

In short, these authors praise the freedom, autonomy, and opportunity offered in modern societies, linking this to the development of a true or authentic self, which they argue can lead to greater mental, spiritual and human well-being.

Social Context and the False Self

However, it is important to recognize that lifestyle choices do not occur in a social vacuum. The choices of individuals are still heavily influenced by peers, parents, or others in the community such as religious leaders. Choices are also shaped by cultural expectations and social norms, which may vary according to age, gender, and other socio-demographic variables.

Moreover, social media trends may also affect individual decisions, with some research indicating that young people sometimes make lifestyle choices based on "fear of missing out" (FOMO) or attempts to convince others that they are living a "my fun-filled life" version of reality.

In other words, evidence suggests that many people still make lifestyle choices based on social expectations and the desire for external validation, rather than internal desires and individual preferences. Can this mismatch between desires and reality negatively affect well-being?

Psychiatrists such as D. W. Winnicott have suggested that this can lead to the development of a "false self." This is not an official psychiatric diagnosis, but a reference to a common feeling among some individuals that they are "living a lie" or "wearing a mask" in their daily lives, mainly in an effort to meet socio-cultural norms and familial/peer expectations.

False Self and Mental Health

Indeed, some research shows that this false self is often encouraged by peers and family, who can make aspects of their love, friendship, or support contingent on certain choices being made. This can lead many people to sacrifice their own authentic desires in the service of people-pleasing. In their writings, psychiatrists such as D.W. Winnicott and R.D. Laing have linked a "false self" to poorer mental health.

In fact, research indicates that many people make choices that can damage their mental health in an effort to fit in. For example, evidence suggests that alcohol use and drug abuse in young people often arise from peer pressure and aspirations to be part of a cool and trendy "in-crowd," rather than deep desires to use these substances.

Similarly, other research suggests that individual eating habits and exercise patterns are heavily influenced by a variety of factors such as social norms, family preferences, and media messages regarding ideal body types.

This can lead to many dysfunctional choices—for example, pathological dieting or over-exercising, both of which have been linked to the rise of eating disorders and body dysmorphia in young people. Again, these choices may not reflect a "true self."

The Conflict Between True Self and False Self

To be sure, this era of untrammeled choice offers boundless opportunities to engage in a myriad of activities and build a "pastiche personality" which expresses a true (or authentic) self. Indeed, this is one of the joys of living in a free and open society.

However, this vision of free individuals making free choices in a free society is somewhat Panglossian, and fails to recognize the social and cultural constraints experienced by many, including "fear of missing out," people-pleasing, and other forms of "living a lie" to fit in. In his famous poem "The Hollow Men," T.S. Eliot wrote:

Between the idea
And the reality
Between the motion
And the act
Falls the Shadow

In sum, the discrepancy between internal desires and actual choices can create a reality that casts a shadow over the lives of many people, which can have ramifications for mental health. This may mean we should all ask ourselves the question: Am I living a lie to fit in?

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