The Source of Our False Self

By Kathy Keary

Part 2 of 3. All the parts are here.

‘For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it,
but whoever loses his life for my sake
and that of the gospel will save it.’

— Mark 8:35

As mentioned in our last article, Imprinted with the Image of God, Thomas Merton referred to the self we are to lose as the false self. A discussion on the formation of the false self will bring light to how we can tame it in order for the true self to shine forth.

Our experiences in life form the foundation of our falsity. As humans, we have basic needs for security, affirmation, control, and belonging. Our first years of life have a significant impact on the person we become. Faced with the challenges of life, we develop ways to cope, which can move us away from our true self – the one God created us to be.

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When one of our basic needs is not met sufficiently, it becomes exaggerated, and our need to satisfy the need is exaggerated. We think we will be happy if the need is met, so we go after it in an unhealthy way. Our exaggerated needs dictate how we are in the world, in our relationships with others, and with God. We exert a lot of energy trying to meet our unfulfilled need. Each of us typically struggles with one of these needs. It would be a rare person who escapes the formative years unscathed.

As we explore each need, reflect on the need that perhaps is exaggerated in your life.

1. Need for security: A baby feels safe in the womb but is then thrust into life on the outside. The primary need of an infant is to feel safe. It is so important that infants bond with their parents. If this is fulfilled, they can trust that they will be taken care of. This basic trust established in the first year of life allows us to trust others and to trust God.

If this is not fulfilled, unconsciously the child concludes, “I am not safe,” and looks for security. Happiness for them becomes having it their way to feel safe, having what they want to feel safe, having it right now, and having more and more of it. So often it is money that gives a person a sense of security. Of course, we need security. We are talking here about an exaggerated need.

2. Need for Affirmation: Between the ages of two and four, it is important that a child feel special and valued for their own uniqueness. It’s vital that they are loved as they are and not as their parents want them to be. If the child develops the sense that they are not loveable, they will view happiness as not being criticized, having others affirm them, and being recognized by others. They go to great measures to assure that they will be valued.

3. Need for Control: Between the ages of two and four, it is important that a child feel that they have control over their life. They lose the sense of control when a parent exercises a very tight rein or is over protective. It could also stem from the lack of control or consistency in the home which causes the child to develop an exaggerated need for control. This manifest itself in a “it’s my way or the highway” attitude and in telling others what to do.

4. Need for Belonging/Conforming: Belonging becomes important when a child is between the ages of four and seven. We have a need to belong to a family. A sense of self-worth is formed as we identify with our family. When we go to school, we belong to our class. Having friends is important in our development.

If a person does not have the experience of family, it is common for them to think they have to conform to belong. Gangs are common when this need is not met. Sometimes a person will take on biases and prejudices in order to be a part of the group. When living out this exaggerated need, an individual will stick by their group whether their ideals are righteous or not. They recognize only strengths of the group and not weaknesses. It is important for them to measure up to others’ expectations.

By the time we are seven, our emotional program for happiness is in place. Between seven and fifteen, we rationalize, justify, and glorify this emotional program. We view happiness as having everything we desire, being esteemed, being in control and having power, and belonging to a group whether its ideals are honorable or not.

The false self is our fixation around our exaggerated needs. These exaggerated needs are what distance us from God. The Gospel of Matthew warns: “If your hand or foot causes you to stumble, cut it off” (18:8). Jesus is encouraging us to examine and detach from our exaggerated need in order to purify our thoughts, motivations, choices, and actions. In so doing, the transformation into the person we were created to be will begin.

In our next article, we will focus on taming our false self as a path to rediscovering, reclaiming, and embracing the innocence, goodness, and love of our true self.

Resource: Sister Maria Tasto, OSB , A Transformed Life.  Sisters of St. Benedict, Ferdinand, IN, 2011. DVD series.

Note: New articles in this series are posted to the website every Monday. The full series can be found here: An Invitation to Something New: The Contemplative Life. On Thursday’s we’ll send an email to remind you of the articles.

[Kathy Keary, a Precious Blood Companion and spiritual director, holds a master’s degree in theological studies and is a graduate of the Atchison Benedictine’s Sophia Center’s Souljourners Program, an intense study of spirituality and spiritual direction. Kathy believes that the divine is present and active in all of life and encourages others to be awakened to the God in all including the divine within. She enjoys accompanying others on their journey to wholeness discovering the person they were created to be.]

Top image by Stefan Keller from Pixabay.

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