The Real Self and The False Self – Psychological And Spiritual Perspectives

by Jerry Wagner, Ph.D.

     The Enneagram distinguishes between our essence and our personality.  Other traditions speak of our real self vs our false self.  In this article I will present some psychological perspectives on the real self – false self dichotomy and then some spiritual perspectives on this division.

     The false self is easy to talk about.  That’s where I spend most of my time. This is the automatic part of me; the repetitious part; the rigid fixed part.  It’s closed and boundaried. This is the part that provokes the reaction: “Here I go again; I’ve heard that complaint, excuse, blame before.  I recognize those beliefs, thoughts, feelings, behaviors.”  They keep repeating themselves.  They give true meaning to Freud’s phrase “repetition compulsion.”

     It’s not that the false self is completely useless.  It’s not like a pill that Tom Condon once wryly described as having only side effects.  It’s helped us survive thus far.  But it does have varying degrees of collateral damage or side effects ranging from manipulative to neurotic to psychotic.  The false self can damage our self-esteem and our relationships.

     Also, the false self has ties to our real self.  It exaggerates it, caricatures it, mimics it, compensates for our loss of contact with it, and reminds us what our true self is.  If we follow our personality back to where it came from, it connects us with our original essential nature.

     The real self, on the other hand, is not so easy to pin down.  That’s the part that’s spontaneous, creative, fluid, flexible, open, unboundaried.  No wonder it’s so hard to describe.  What is the shape of water?  It’s not as easy to define as a block of ice.

     Depictions of the real self can seem abstract and not as easily recognizable as descriptions of the false self.

     So, let’s see what psychology has to say about who we are and, as we go deeper, what spirituality says about who we really are.


     The following are some representative psychological perspectives on the real and the false self.


     D.W. Winnicott, a British analyst and child psychiatrist, wrote explicitly about the true self and the false self.  The true self manifests in authentic and spontaneous living; while the false self shows up in compliant, overly adaptational living.

     The true self, nurtured in a non-impinging environment, represents our inherited potential which experiences a continuity of being, and acquires in its own way and at its own speed a personal psychic reality and a personal body-scheme.  It experiences aliveness. 

     At the center of each person is an incommunicado element, and this is sacred and most worthy of preservation. The self struggles for an individuated existence which at the same time allows for intimate contact with others.    

     When a mother is able to resonate with the baby’s wants and needs, the latter becomes attuned to his/her own bodily functions and impulses, which become the basis for her/his slowly evolving sense of self.

     The emergence of the true self involves the development of the capacity to be alone. It is important for the mother to provide a nondemanding presence when the infant is not making demands or experiencing needs.  The infant is in a state of going on being. This is an experience of formlessness and comfortable solitude

     Maternal failures are of two kinds:

  •  The inability to actualize the hallucinatory creations and needs of the infant when s/he is in excited states
    • translation: through empathic attunement, intervene and provide the infant what s/he needs and is imagining
  •  interference with the infant’s formlessness and integration when s/he is in quiescent states
    • translation: leave the infant be

     Any interference with these functions is experienced by the infant as an “impingement.”  Something from the outside is making claims on him, demanding a response.  She is wrenched from her quiescent state and forced to respond, or she is compelled to abandon her own wishes. As a result, the infant has to acknowledge and accept prematurely the feeble and unrealistic nature of his own demands, and to mold himself to what is provided for him.

     The true self, the source of spontaneous needs, images, and gestures, goes into hiding, avoiding at all costs the possibility of expression without being seen or responded to.

     The false self provides an illusion of personal existence whose content is fashioned out of maternal expectations and claims.   The child becomes the mother’s image of him.   The false self comes to take over in some sense the caretaking functions which the environment has failed to provide.  The false self covertly protects the integrity of the true self; it functions to hide the true self which it does by compliance with environmental demands.


     Karen Horney was trained as a traditional Freudian analyst but drifted.  While considered a neo-psychoanalyst, she fits just as well in the humanist tradition.

Here’s what she says about self realization:

  • You need not, and in fact cannot, teach an acorn to grow into an oak tree; but when given a chance, its intrinsic potentialities will develop.
  •  Similarly, the human individual, given a chance, tends to develop his/her particular human potentialities.
  •  In short, s/he will grow, substantially undiverted, toward self-realization.

And conditions of growth:

  • But, like any other living organism, the human individual needs favorable conditions for his or her growth “from acorn into oak tree.”
  • She needs an atmosphere of warmth to give her both a feeling of inner security and the inner freedom enabling her to have her own feelings and thoughts and to express herself.
  • He needs the good will of others, not only to help him in his many needs, but to guide and encourage him to become a mature and fulfilled individual.
  •  He also needs healthy friction with the wishes and wills of others.
  •  If she can thus grow with others, in love and in friction, she will also grow in accordance with her real self.
  • Karen Horney, Neurosis and Human Growth: the Struggle Toward Self-Realization

And our different selves:

  • The real self: the core of your being, your potential, the need to be who you are truly (the subjective view of the actual self).
  • The actual self: the person you actually are –regardless of anyone’s perceptions.
  • The despised real self: negative view of the self, based on the lack of love and acceptance by others.
  • The ideal self: the perfect self you think you should be, so you can be loved.
  • The despised real self says:
    “I am truly a disgraceful creature, a bad person, someone no one can truly love…”
  • The idealized self says:
    “People would love you if you were kinder, more athletic, more outgoing, more unselfish, a better friend, parent, mate. They would love you if you were more courageous, more disciplined, achieved more…”

     Claudio Naranjo liked Karen Horney and added his version of idealized images around the Enneagram circle. 

  1. I am good; I am right
  2. I am helpful
  3. I am efficient, successful
  4. I am special, sensitive, conform to elite standards
  5. I am wise, perceptive
  6. I am obedient, faithful; I do what I ought
  7. I’m OK
  8. I’m powerful; I can do
  9. I am settled

For Horney, the task of therapy is to:

  • Help patients relinquish their defenses
    • Break through their idealized image
    • Replace the search for glory (idealized self image) with striving for self realization 
  • Accept selves as they are
  • Be in touch with the real self


     Carl Rogers was one of the founding fathers and mothers of the humanist tradition.  He, along with Abraham Maslow, another progenitor, writes about the self-actualizing tendency.

  • The self-actualizing tendency is a part of human nature.  Moreover, this urge is not limited to human beings; it is a part of the process of all living things; it is the urge that is evident in all organic and human life – to expand, extend, become autonomous, develop, mature – the tendency to express and activate all the capacities of the organism, to the extent that such activation enhances the organism or the self.
  • The organism’s experiences are evaluated using the actualizing tendency as a frame of reference.  Does this experience or behavior come from and contribute to the unfolding of my actualizing tendency?
  • Experiences in accordance with the actualizing tendency are satisfying and are approached and maintained.
  • Experiences that are contrary to the actualizing tendency are unsatisfying and are avoided or terminated.

          Rogers makes a distinction between a fully functioning person and a maladjusted person.

  • The fully functioning person has experienced unconditional positive regard (they are loved for who they are) which leads to positive self regard (they value themselves as they were valued) which leads to the unfolding of the actualizing tendency which leads to the enhancement and enrichment of life.
  • In contrast, the maladjusted person has experienced conditional positive regard (they are loved if they are and do what is expected of them) which leads to conditions of worth (I’m loved if I’m perfect, helpful, successful, special, smart, do what I’m told, am happy, strong, not a bother) which leads to defensive behavior (Enneagram strategies) which leads to the maintenance of life and seeking affirmation.

     Rather than talking about the real self and the false self, Rogers distinguishes between characteristics of the actualizing tendency vs defensive tendencies.

  • Open to experience vs defensive
  • Existential living: here and now and adaptable vs preconceived plan; rigid; distorted perception
  • Organismic trusting vs disregarding the organism; should’s; proscriptions
  • Experiential freedom vs manipulating self and others; being determined
  • Creativity vs conformity; following cultural constraints
  • Internal locus of evaluation vs external locus of evaluation
  • Willingness to be a process vs a rigid life style; being a product

     Finally Rogers says the healthy person is congruent while the unhealthy person is incongruent.

     When people are congruent, there is a match between:

  • Who you really are (real self)
  • Who you think you are (self-concept)
  • Who you show you are (persona)

     When people are incongruent:

  • They no longer use their organismic valuing process as a means of determining if their experiences are in accordance with their actualizing tendency.
  • Instead, they use introjected values or conditions of worth in place of their organismic valuing process.

     For Rogers, therapy:

  • Is designed to eliminate incongruity between experience and the self.
  • As therapy continues, clients’ concepts of self become increasingly congruent with their experience; that is, they now include many experiences which were previously threatening. 
  • As clients feel less threatened by experience, they become less defensive.


     Abraham Maslow was another founder of the humanist and transpersonal traditions.  Maslow originally studied motivation and is known for his hierarchy of needs.

  • Physiological needs that are directly related to survival, such as food, water, sex, elimination, and sleep.  If these aren’t met, we don’t have to worry about the higher needs because we’ll be dead.
  • Safety needs for structure, order, security, and predictability.  When these needs are in place, they assure us our physiological needs will be reliably met.
  • Belonging and love needs for affiliation, friends, companions, group, family, and intimacy.  With these needs filled, we don’t feel alone and empty.
  • Esteem needs for recognition from other people, feelings of prestige, acceptance, and status.  When we are looked up to by other people, then we can look up to ourselves which is called self-esteem.
  • Self-actualization needs which involve the unfolding and fulfillment of our potentials, capacities, and talents as well as fulfillment of a sense of mission or call, fate, destiny, or vocation.  This involves a fuller knowledge and acceptance of our own intrinsic nature and a trend toward unity, integration, or synergy within ourselves.
  • Two additional needs: the desire to know and understand and aesthetic needs.

     Maslow doesn’t talk about the real self and false self but distinguishes between being motivation and deficiency motivation.

     When our basic needs are met, the self-actualizing person’s life is governed by:

  • Being Values such as beauty, truth, and justice.
  • Metamotives including the above and wholeness, aliveness, simplicity,
  • Growth Motivation
  • B Cognition which involves letting oneself be reached, touched, or affected by what is there so that perception is richer.
  • B Love that is non-possessive, less envious, disinterested, altruistic, desirous of the other’s growth, etc.  (Cf. St. Paul)

     When our basic needs are not met, then we are governed by deficiency motives.  We are influenced by the absence of such things as food, love, or esteem.  Rather than being motivated by abundance such that goodness wants to flow from us, we are motivated by a lack and a need to fill ourselves up.  Here we are governed by:

  • Deficiency motives to fill in what we are lacking.
  • Metapathologies that are caused by the failure to satisfy the various B Values.   These include disbelief, mistrust, selfishness, vulgarity, polar-thinking, deadness, depression,
  • D Perception or need-directed perception that is looking for objects that will satisfy our needs.
  • D Cognition that narrows and distorts our perception.  Instead of seeing things as they are, we see things as we are.
  • D Love which is motivated by the lack of fulfillment of the need for love and belongingness.  Here we crave love, like craving food, to fill an emptiness within us.

     According to Maslow’s estimation, only 1% of the population is self-actualizing.  That includes us and a few of Abe’s friends.  He found the following characteristics in self-actualizing individuals:

  • They perceive reality accurately and fully.
  • They demonstrate a greater acceptance of themselves, others, and of nature in general.
  • They exhibit spontaneity, simplicity, and naturalness.
  • They tend to be concerned with problems rather than with themselves.
  • They have a quality of detachment and a need for privacy.
  • They are autonomous.
  • They exhibit a continued freshness of appreciation.
  • They have periodic mystic or peak experiences.
  • They tend to identify with all of humankind.
  • They develop deep friendships with only a few individuals.
  • They tend to accept democratic values
  • They have a strong ethical sense
  • They have a well-developed, unhostile sense of humor.
  • They are creative.
  • They resist enculturation.

     These qualities might also be said to characterize the real self.


     Breaking from Freud, Carl Jung labeled his approach analytical psychology to distinguish it from Freud’s psychoanalytic method.  Jung writes about the Self archetype.  While the ego is the center of consciousness, the self is the center of the total psyche, including the conscious and the unconscious.  The Self is the component of the psyche that seeks to harmonize all the other components.

     Individuation is the human striving for unity, wholeness, and integration of the whole personality.  This process involves:

  • Innate urge towards wholeness
    • Coming to selfhood
    • Self-realization
    • Moving toward greater freedom

     Jungian therapy involves a circumambulation of the soul.  In this walking around the soul, one encounters the persona or mask or false face.  This is the character we assume through which we relate to others.  It is our social role and public self.  It is a small part of the psyche by which we are known by other people.

     There is a pathology called the “inflation of the persona.”  This is the situation in which the persona is valued too highly.  It can develop at the expense of other components of the psyche.  A dominant persona can smother the individual.  Those who identify with their persona instead of their Self tend to see themselves only in terms of their superficial social roles and facades.

     The complex is another Jungian concept that has some bearing on the real self/false self dichotomy,    

     A complex is a personally disturbing constellation of ideas connected by a common feeling tone.  This is reminiscent of the Enneagram’s fixation and vice interaction.  The fixed or bad idea calls up the vice which in turn fuels the fixation in an ongoing vicious (so to speak) circle.

     Among others, Jung speaks of a mother complex, a father complex, an inferiority complex, et. al.  While the Enneagram addresses perfection, savior, success, special, privacy, security, variety, power, and comfort complexes around the circle.


     Fritz Perls and his wife Laura are the father and mother of Gestalt therapy.  This approach emphasizes organismic self-regulation (which would characterize the real self.)

  • The organism is a living being that has organs, has an organization, that is self-regulating within itself.
  • The organism is a system that is in balance.
  •  Any imbalance is experienced as a need to correct this imbalance. 
    • When deficiencies exist, the organic system remedies them.
    • When excesses are present, it rids itself of them.
  •  The organism is striving for the maintenance of an equilibrium which is continuously disturbed by its needs and regained through their gratification or elimination.
  • Organisms must be aware of themselves.
    • Organismic self-regulation is a continuing process of
      • Distinguishing the needs of the organism
      • The means whereby those needs can be gratified
      • Organizing them into a cohesive whole of comprehension and activity
      • Carrying out that activity to its satisfying conclusion.

     Signs of healthy functioning are attention, concentration, lively interest, concern, clarity, strength, excitement, and grace.

     Symptoms of unhealthy functioning include confusion, diffusion, boredom, dullness, compulsions, fixation, anxiety, amnesia, stagnation, and self-consciousness.

    These indicators can be used to discern whether we are functioning from our real or false self.


     Heinz Kohut was the originator of Self Psychology.  He describes the self as the recipient of impressions and a center of initiative. 

     Qualities of a robust self involve cohesion, organization, and continuity in space and time.  Here you would say of yourself: “I’ve really got it together; I’m firing on all cylinders; I’ve got the energy of a thousand suns, etc.”

     On the other hand, expressions of an unhealthy self would be: “I’m falling apart here; I’m feeling deflated; I’m depressed; I’m feeling fragmented; I don’t know who I am; my center does not hold, etc.”

     For Kohut, the self rests on three pillars or “poles:”

  • The pole of nuclear ambition – general desire and initiative to achieve goals
  • Guiding ideals – final goals one aspires to achieve
  • Talents and skills that link ambition and goals and channel our energy into achieving our goals.

     So the healthy functioning self has tamed their narcissism into realistic ambition, has formulated their ideals into achievable goals, and has cultivated their talents and skills to reach their goals.  All of these would be characteristic of the real self.


      The existential tradition, represented by Rollo May, Irvin Yalom and others, distinguishes between authentic and inauthentic living instead of real self and false self.

      Existential living means being fully present in the moment; being fully aware; and experiencing a kind of appreciation of being. Each person is innately endowed with a unique potential that the person will inevitably realize to some greater or lesser degree.  This is the existentialists’ version of unfolding one’s potential.

     Being authentic involves realizing one’s deepest nature through living from moment to moment. The extent to which someone is not fully being, is inauthentic, is untrue to one’s deepest nature

     Being authentic also means confronting the givens of existence: death (which is counter-acted in finding faith), freedom (which means accepting responsibility), isolation (which is mitigated by fostering relationships), meaninglessness (which involves creating meaning).

     A person living authentically is aware of, acknowledges, accepts, even embraces, the givens of life.  The degree of existential guilt that one experiences in confronting life’s requirements is the single best indicator of the authenticity of one’s existence.

     As human beings, we live in four worlds and need to be responsible caretakers in each.  

  • We may ignore or feel alienated from the Umwelt
    • The physical world
  • We may let others down in the Mitwelt
    • The people world
  • We may violate our sense of integrity in our Eigenwelt
    • The self world
  • We may fail to live up to the ideals comprising our Uberwelt
    • The spiritual world


     If we delve beneath the psychological conceptions of the real self/false self dimensions, what do we find?  When we ask ourselves “Who am I, really?” What do we discover?   Now we’re in the realm of transpersonal psychology or spiritual psychology or spirituality.  What or who do we find in our deepest self (or non-self)?  What have other explorers found?  What do the mystics tell us about who we really are?

     The Enneagram’s map is broad and deep enough to traverse both the psychological and spiritual realms.  So, what do Enneagram and other spiritual authors have to say about the real and false self?


     I’ll start with Sandra Maitri, one of the earliest students of the Enneagram, whose wonderful books The Spiritual Dimension of the Enneagram and The Enneagram of Passions and Virtues explore these deeper aspects of the person.  Allied with A.H. Almaas and the Diamond Heart approach to inner realization, her reflections are reminiscent of a Buddhist take on reality.

     What follows is in her own words.


  • The ultimate nature of all of existence – its spiritual depths – is what I will refer to as Being, the Ultimate or True Nature of everything
    • Soul is an individual manifestation of our divine nature, Being
    • Each of us is a unique arising of Being
    • Being is what is left when all the constructs of the personality dissolve
    • Essence is Being experienced through our individual soul
  • Like Platonic Forms, Being is impersonal and timeless
    • Our human soul comes into contact with and knows these eternal qualities
    • Our soul experiences and in time embodies the universal principles of Being

    Essential Aspects:

  • Essential nature is our innate and unconditioned state of consciousness
  • Essence may arise in consciousness as different qualities such as compassion, peacefulness, clarity, acceptance, etc. – Essential Aspects

     Ultimate Nature:

  • Our ultimate nature is who we are without our history, without our mental constructs defining our experience both of ourselves and of the world around us
  •  It is who and what we truly are, stripped of all conditioning 
  • It is our beingness, the substance and nature of our soul

     Soul and Personality:

  • Soul = personal consciousness = I = alive consciousness = locus of awareness and experience that understands itself to be either the personality or Being
  • Personality structure is a mental construct, a set of beliefs and internal representations
    • Our soul takes the shape of our personality structure
  • Egoic experience vs essential experience (beyond the conditioned self)
    • Experience of deficiency at core of personality
    • Loss of contact with our true nature

     Dimensions of Being

  • There are a number of dimensions of Being that it is possible to experience, each progressively freer of conceptual veils, until we reach a state beyond all concepts, even those of being and non being, existence and non existence – beyond even consciousness – which is called the Absolute.

     True Nature

  • As our consciousness deepens, we see that the True Natureof our soul is the True Nature of everything.  We experience Being, then, in its boundlessness – unlimited by any form, even that of our own soul.

     Divine Nature

  • It is likely that we are wired so that we can consciously know Being, so that we can know the Divine as our nature. 
  • So rather than simply being the embodiment of and being made up of Being, which is what all of manifest reality is, we have the unique opportunity to know ourselves as such.
  • It may be that this is how the Divine can know itself through our human soul’s experience
  • What we are talking about is radical personal transformation, such that we know ourselves to be the Absolute, the Divine Itself.
  • It is more appropriate to conceive of our inner state as one of transparency, an openness to our depths, with progressively less of a self present to interfere with our direct expression and embodiment of Being.  To speak of alignment with Being at this state ceases to be accurate, since we know ourselves to be Being, living a human life.

     Differentiation and sense of separateness

  • When this assumption of our inherent separateness is suspended, what we see is that our ultimate nature and the nature of all that exists are the same thing
  • We experience ourselves as unique manifestations of one thing or as different cells in the one body of the universe
  • The essential realm is present all the time; we have just forgotten it or screened it out of awareness

     Process to reexperience original connection to Being

  • Begin with experience of deficiency (holes)
  • Feel into this hole and be curious about it rather than escaping from it
  • What was experienced as a deficient emptiness changes
  • The emptiness becomes a spaciousness
  • Over time all of the qualities of Being will gradually arise in your consciousness
  • Being will feel like the ground of your experience


     Coming from a Christian tradition, Thomas Merton was a Trappist monk and a modern-day mystic who taught contemplation.  Toward the end of his shortened life, he became interested in and wrote about Zen and Sufism.  But the beginning of his mystical journey began on a street corner in the far-off land of Louisville, Kentucky.  Here is what he writes of his vision:

I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all these people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers. It was like waking from a dream of separateness.”

Then it was as if I suddenly saw the secret beauty of their hearts, the depths of their hearts where neither sin nor desire nor self-knowledge can reach, the core of their reality, the person that each one is in God’s eyes.

If only they could all see themselves as they really are. If only we could see each other that way all the time. There would be no more war, no more hatred, no more cruelty, no more greed.  I suppose the big problem would be that we would fall down and worship each other. But this cannot be seen, only believed and “understood” by a peculiar gift.

     Here is what Merton has to say about the true and false self.

True Self

     At the center of our being is a point of nothingness which is untouched by sin and by illusion, a point of pure truth, a point or spark which belongs entirely to God, which is never at our disposal, from which God disposes of our lives, which is inaccessible to the fantasies of our own mind or the brutalities of our own will.

     This little point of nothingness and of absolute poverty is the pure glory of God in us. It is so to speak [God’s] name written in us, as our poverty, as our indigence, as our dependence, as our sonship (and daughtership).

     It is like a pure diamond, blazing with the invisible light of heaven. It is in everybody, and if we could see it, we would see these billions of points of light coming together in the face and blaze of a sun that would make all the darkness and cruelty of life vanish completely. I have no program for this seeing. It is only given. But the gate of heaven is everywhere.

     Merton–as well as anyone deserving of the title mystic–believes that God is always recognizing God’s Self in you and cannot not love it. This is God’s “steadfast love” (hesed) with humanity. That part of you has always loved God and always will. You must learn how to consciously abide there.

     As Meister Eckhart says, “The eye with which I see God is the same one with which God sees me. My eye and God’s eye is one eye, and one sight, and one knowledge, and one love.” God is recognizing God’s Self in you, and you are recognizing yourself in God.

     Once the two-way mirror begins to reflect in both directions, it will gradually move you toward a universal seeing.

     Once accepted in yourself, the divine image is then seen everywhere else too–and just as gratuitous

     A door opens in the center of our being, and we seem to fall through it into immense depths, which although they are infinite – are still accessible to us.  All eternity seems to have become ours in this one placid and breathless contact.

     This door needs to open only once in your lifetime, and you will forever know where home base is.

False Self

     Every one of us is shadowed by an illusory person: a false self. This is the man [or woman] that I want myself to be but who cannot exist, because God does not know anything about him [or her]. And to be unknown of God is altogether too much privacy.

     That’s why the false self is so fragile. It’s inherently insecure because it’s almost entirely a creation of the mind, a social construct. It doesn’t exist except in the world of perception–which is where we live most of our lives–instead of in God’s Eternal Now. When you die, what dies is your false self because it never really existed to begin with. It simply lives in your thoughts and projections. It’s what you want yourself to be and what you want others to think you are. It’s very tied up with status symbols and reputation.

     Whenever you are offended, it’s usually because your self-image has not been worshiped or it has been momentarily exposed. The false self will quickly react with a vengeance to any offenses against it because all it has is its own fragile assumptions about itself. Narcissists have a lot of asserting and defending to do, moment by moment. Don’t waste much time defending your ego.               

    My false and private self is the one who wants to exist outside the reach of God’s will and God’s love–outside of reality and outside of life. And such a self cannot help but be an illusion

    We are not very good at recognizing illusions, least of all the ones we cherish about ourselves. For most of the people in the world, there is no greater subjective reality than this false self of theirs, which does not even exist. A life devoted to the cult of this shadow is what is called a life of sin.

    All sin starts from the assumption that my false self, the self that exists only in my own egocentric desires, is the fundamental reality of life to which everything else in the universe is ordered. Thus, I use up my life in the desire for pleasures and the thirst for experiences, for power, honor, knowledge and love, to clothe this false self and construct its nothingness into something objectively real.


     Richard Rohr is a Franciscan priest who was influenced by Thomas Merton. 

As far as I know, Merton was not familiar with the Enneagram.  Richard, on the other hand, has written or edited several books about the Enneagram as well as an inspired and insightful book Immortal Diamond: the Search for Our True Self.

     Here, in his own words, is what he says about the true self and the false self.

True Self

  • A Zen master would call the True Self “the face we had before we were born.” Paul would call it who you are “in Christ, hidden in God” (Colossians 3:3). It is who you are before having done anything right or anything wrong, who you are before having thought about who you are.
  • Your true self is who you are and always have been in God
  • The discovery of our true self is also at the same time a discovery of God
  • At its core, it is love itself


  • True self = soul = participation in the eternal life of God
    • Your true self is that part of you that knows who you are and whose you are

Your soul or true self is that eternal part of you, the part of you that knows the truth about you, a blueprint tucked away in the cellar of your being, an imago Dei

Image and Likeness

  • We are created in the image and likeness of God
  • Image: our objective DNA that marked us as creatures of God from the very beginning, before we could do anything right or anything wrong
    • The divine indwelling was a total gratuitous gift
    • It is the Holy Spirit living within us – uncreated grace
  • We were the containers, temples, or recipients of this gift
  • It had nothing to do with us and yet said everything about our core identity
  • This is the Original Blessing
  • It gave every human being an inherent dignity – our true self
  • God has always loved his image and himself in us, even when we refuse to love and honor ourselves
  • The indwelling divine image moves toward fulfillment in each of us
  • Likeness:  our personal appropriation and gradual realization of this utterly free gift of the image of God
  • We all have the objective same gift, but how we subjectively say yes to it is quite different.
  • Eastern Church emphasized image
  • Western Church emphasized likeness

True Self / God Self

  • The Perennial Tradition concludes that you initially cannot see what you are looking for because what you are looking for is doing the looking.
    • The vantage point switches from looking at God to looking out from God.
  • In finding your true self, you will have found an absolute reference point that is both utterly within you and utterly beyond you at the very same time.
  • Before radical conversion, you look for God as if God were an object like all other objects.
  • After conversion, you look out from God with eyes other than your own.
  • “The eye through which I see God is the same eye through which God sees me; my eye and God’s eye are one eye, one seeing, one knowing, one love.”  (Meister Eckhart)
  • All humans are doing is allowing God to complete the circuit within us – until we both see from the same perspective.
  • That which you long for, you also are.  Longing for God and longing for our true self are the same longing.
  • It is God which is even doing the longing in us and through us through the divine indwelling or the Holy Spirit.
  • You already are what you are seeking.
    • “My deepest me is God!”  (St. Catherine of Genoa)
  • But you are not entirely absorbed into God
  • And you are not the same as God, which would be pantheism
  • You are, however, inherently in union with God
  • And the relationship is continually given and offered from God’s side

True Self / Christ Self

  • The Risen Christ archetype represents the final perspective of every true self:
    • A human-divine one that is looking out at God from itself – and yet knowing that it is God-in-you seeing God-who-is-also-beyond-you.
  • Christ is the archetypal True Self offered to history
    • where matter and spirit finally operate as one
    • where divine and human are held in one container.
  • The True Self is neither God nor human. 
    • The True Self is both at the same time, and both are a total gift.

East / West Perspectives

  • Buddhist tradition:
  • Form is emptiness, and emptiness is form
    • All forms eventually return to formlessness once again
  • Christian tradition:
  • Incarnation – death – resurrection – ascension
    • All of creation comes forth as individuals and then goes back into God, into the Ground of all Being

False Self

  • The false self poses and thus substitutes for the real thing.
  • The false self is bogus more than bad, and bogus only when it pretends to be more that it is.
  • Your false self is your incomplete self trying to pass for your whole self.
  • The false self is our small self or ego; our true self is our soul.
  • The false self is who you think you are.
  • It is a social construct.
  • It is your container for your separate self, the “wineskin” that Jesus spoke of.
  • The false self is the separate self.
  • Our fear of death largely comes from the imagined loss of an imagined individuality.
  • The false self has no substance, no permanence, no vitality, only various forms of immediate gratification.

True Self / False Self

  • Thinking creates the false self, the ego self, the insecure self. The God-given contemplative mind, on the other hand, recognizes the God Self, the Christ Self, the True Self of abundance and deep inner security. We start with mere seeing; we end up with recognizing.
  • Your true self is that part of you that sees truthfully and will live forever. It is divine breath passing through you.
  • Your false self is that part of you that is constantly changing and will eventually die anyway.
    • It is in the world of passing forms and yet it sees itself as a central reference point–which is never really true.      
    • The false self is passing, tentative, or as the Hindus and Buddhists might say, “empty.”
  • Some form of suffering or death–psychological, spiritual, relational, or physical–is the only way we will loosen our ties to our small and separate false self. Only then does the larger Self appear, which we would call the Risen Christ, the soul, or perhaps the True Self.
  • The physical process of transformation through dying is expressed eloquently by Kathleen Dowling Singh, a woman who has spent her life in hospice work: “The ordinary mind [the false self] and its delusions die in the ‘Nearing Death Experience.’ As death carries us off, it is impossible to any longer pretend that who we are is our ego. The ego is transformed in the very carrying off.” This is why so many spiritual teachers say we must die before we die.
  • The manufactured false self must die for the True Self to live, or as Jesus himself puts it, “Unless I go, the Spirit cannot come” (John 16:7).
  • Theologically speaking, Jesus (a good individual person) had to die for the Christ (the universal presence) to arise. This is the universal pattern of transformation.
  •  Letting go of the original “good person” that we are is always a huge leap of faith precisely because it is all that we know at that point.
  • What has to die is not usually bad; it is just extraneous to our essence, and thus gets in the way.


  • In order to fully experience the intrinsic union we already have with God, who is Love, it seems that we need to first be love ourselves in some foundational way. We can only see what we already partly are, which is why I like to call it a mirroring process. Contemplation helps us to rest in this love; as we gradually take on the likeness of love, we will see love over there too. What you see is what you are. That’s why Jesus absolutely commanded us to love. This is necessary for the mirroring process to begin! Our inner state of love is alone able to receive and reflect the ultimate outer Love (2 Corinthians 3:18).
  • The deepest Truth of every human is Love, as we are created in the image and likeness of an infinitely Loving God (Genesis 1:26-27), which Christians call Trinity.
  • If we are in a state of negativity, what Julian of Norwich calls “contrariness,” we won’t be love or see love. We must watch for this contrariness–we all experience it quite frequently–and nip it in the bud. This contrary self often takes three forms: comparison (common in the female); competition (common in the male); and contrariness or oppositional energy (common in all of us). Our false self is actually relieved and empowered when it has something to oppose. The clearest identifier of untransformed people is that they are living out of oppositional energy, with various forms of comparing or competing, judging and critiquing. As long as we do this, we never have to grow up; we just show how others are wrong or inferior.


     Dr. David G. Benner is a depth psychologist, author and wisdom teacher. The central organizing thread of his life and work has been to help people live the human journey in a deeply spiritual way and the spiritual journey in a deeply human way. Drawing on the insights of science, philosophy, and the perennial wisdom tradition, Benner has worked toward integrating psychology and spirituality.

     In his book The Gift of Being Yourself, he writes about the Enneagram and the true and false self.  The following are his thoughts in his own words.

True Self and God

  • The self is where we meet God.
  • If we find our true self, we find God and if we find God, we find our  most authentic self.
  • All (creatures) give glory to God by being exactly what they are.
  •  For in being what God means them to be, they are obeying him.
  • The true self is your total self as you were created by God.
  • It is the image of God that you are – the unique face of God that has been set aside from eternity for you.
  • We do not find our true self by seeking it. 
    •   Rather, we find it by seeking God.
  • It is by losing our self in God that we discover our true identity.
  • There is no true life apart from relationship to God.
  • Therefore, there can be no true self apart from this relationship.
  • Our true self – the self we are becoming in God – is something we receive from God.
  • Any other identity is of our own making and is an illusion.
  • Knowing ourselves must begin by knowing the self that is known by God.  If God does not know us, we do not exist.

False Self

  • Our false self is the self we develop in our own likeness.  This is the person we would like to be – a person of our own creation, the person we would create if we were God.
  • The false self is the belief that my value depends on:
    • what I have,
    • what I can do
    • what others think of me.

True Self and Love

  • Genuine self-knowledge begins by looking at God and noticing how God is looking at us.  God cannot help seeing us through eyes of love.
  • Love is our identity and our calling, for we are children of Love.  Created from love, of love and for love, our existence makes no sense apart from Divine love.
  • The God who is Divine community is known only in human community.  Deep knowing of perfect love, just like deep knowing of ourselves, demands what we be in relationships of spiritual friendship.

True Self and Christ

  • As we become more and more like Christ, we become more uniquely our own true self.
  • Jesus is the True Self who shows us by his life how to find our self in relation to God. 
  • The self we find hidden in Christ is our true self, because Christ is the source of our being and ground of our true identity.


  • Our vocation is grounded in the self that from eternity God has willed that we be.  Our calling is to become that self and then to serve God and our fellow human beings in the particular ways that will represent the fulfillment of that self.  Our identity is not simply a possession.  It is a calling.

     And so psychology brings us to our true self and spirituality brings us to God.  If we stop at our ego, we miss our self.  If we stop at our self, we miss the Ground of our Being.  As Rick Steves, the travel guide, says: “Keep on travelin’.”


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