True and False Self

Note: I am taking a break from my series, “The Way the World Works,” to explore a theology of personality through Paul’s letters in this four-part series.

The Enneagram is predicated on a vision of the self that sees both true and false elements within the individual.  The false self (read: Enneagram type) developed as an artificial mechanism to fulfill our own needs.  The concept of a more true or essential self has been traced back as early as Homer, but Plato was perhaps the first to popularize the notion of the true self through his assertion that the intellect constitutes the essenceof the person.[1]

The concept of true self/false self has persisted to the modern period.  In the 1960s, pediatrician and psychoanalyst D.W. Winnicott popularized the following perennial philosophy of the self: he described the inner world of a child when they are generally comforted and accepted regardless of how they express their feelings or desires. Children who grow up in mostly loving environments learn it is safe to express their needs and their emotions are welcome.  They grow to trust their world is a safe place where they can express honest feelings and thoughts.  Winnicott called this “good enough” parenting and reasoned convincingly that this kind of childhood develops our capacity to live more organically out of our true self.  To the degree that we lack “good enough” caregiving, we are compelled to live out of a false self, a mask of elaborate personality designed to meet the perceived expectations of others.  We learn to internalize and emulate the behavior of others in order to please those around us.[2]

Our false self can be identified in the roles or personas that we find ourselves playing.  In life we will place our identity in our roles as professionals, friends, spouses, siblings and parents. These roles are ingredients of the false self, and they are important to know early on in life.  It’s good to name them.  They are sources of identity with a small “i,” and they tend to answer questions about competency, belonging, and belief.[3]

Good parents instinctively know how important it is to help a child know these things.  They message their children in powerful ways by saying things like, “You’re such a good artist… We’re Baptist and here’s what we believe… We’re Joneses and that’s not the way Joneses act.”  It is important, especially in the early stages of development, to take on the false self; but as we grow, we tend to rely on it too much in order to gain safety/security, power/control, and esteem/affection.  The problem with the false self is that we suffer from amnesia--like so many great, epic characters, we have forgotten our true identity.  We have forgotten who our Father is, and we have come to believe we are merely the sum of our thoughts, feelings, roles, and accomplishments.[4]

In light of this, the goal of the spiritual life is to name the ways in which we over identify with the false self, and relocate the essence of our identity in our true self, which is hidden in Christ. You might say that all sounds well and good, but as a Christian you might ask, “Where is that vision of the spiritual life displayed in Scripture?” We will take up this question together in this four-part series.

[1]Richard Sorabji, Self: Ancient and Modern Insights about Individuality, Life, and Death. (University of Chicago: Chicago, Illinois), 2006, 35.


[2]Angela Reed et. al. Spiritual Companioning: A guide to Protestant Theology and Practice, (Baker: Grand Rapids), 2015, 30-31.

[3]Burt Burleson, unpublished essay. 


[4]David Benner, Soulful Spirituality: Becoming Fully Alive and Deeply Human, (Brazos: Grand Rapids, MI), 2011, 60.