Self-compassion, Self-Love and Self-Directed Kindness

Do We Have a True Self and False Self?

I once heard someone talk about our True Self and a false self.

And I sensed that they were talking about something important. But I didn’t completely understand the concept at the time.

Recently I was reading some of the work of psychologist and philosopher Erich Fromm. His writing can be helpful in illuminating the difference between the True and false self.

In his book The Sane Society, Fromm notes that human beings possess a drive to actualize all their constructive human capacities.

These are capacities like care, compassion, joy, generosity, courage, playfulness, creativity, and wisdom, just to name a few.

Through such capacities, human beings combine their reason, emotions, and imagination to create a more beautiful, just, and kind world together.

Fromm argues that only love allows us to forge productive relationships with other people. Such productive relationships allow us to actualize our loving capacities while allowing others to do the same.

About love, Fromm writes,

Love is union with somebody, or something, outside oneself, under the condition of retaining the separateness and integrity of one’s own self.

It is an experience of sharing, of communion, which permits the full unfolding of one’s own inner activity[1]

You can read these ideas in Fromm’s book The Sane Society, which you can find at your local bookstore or at Amazon here: The Sane Society.

Someone who has this loving orientation has a primarily biophilic drive towards life, Fromm argues.

And as such, a majority of their attitudes and actions aim towards actualizing their positive human capacities and supporting others so they can do the same.

“The Pilgrim Folk” by Marie Spartali Stillman, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Regarding the idea of our True Self and false Self, I like to think that when we act from a biophilic drive towards life, we act from our True Self.

Our True Self longs to connect with ourselves and others constructively and lovingly. We do this to nurture our humanity. This drive is the most authentic, original part of us.

Nevertheless, sometimes our biophilic drive gets blocked. Or, sometimes we get disconnected from this drive.

When that happens, Fromm argues, another drive takes over—the necrophilic drive.

The necrophilic drive is the opposite of the biophilic drive.

So, if our biophilic drive aims to support growth and the actualization of all constructive human capacities, the necrophilic drive aims at the opposite.

Namely, it aims to control, to keep things the same, to possess things and people, rather than supporting them.

Photo by Sivani Bandaru, courtesy of Unsplash.

And sometimes the necrophilic drive just wants to destroy–ourselves and everyone else.

If the biophilic drive is our truest, most original drive, why do we sometimes express the necrophilic drive?

There are several reasons.

Consider that the biophilic drive, rooted as it is in love, requires us to respect our own freedom as well as the freedom of other people.

That’s because actualizing our constructive human capacities requires us to cultivate morality and imagination, which grow out of our human freedom.

So loving people means that we honor their freedom to make good choices as well as bad choices.

And it means that we take responsibility to act well, even though we realize we can make mistakes or make bad choices.

However, such freedom is risky and often feels terrifying.

Our personal freedom can make us feel alone and terrified of our responsibility to choose.

The freedom of others can also terrify us because we realize other people can make bad choices, which can impact our lives negatively.

True love and freedom make us vulnerable.

So, Fromm argues, we often retreat from both freedom and love in our terror.

Such terror can drive us to hand over our freedom to a leader who makes all our decisions for us. In such cases, we feel like if we just submit or obey, we will know we have made the right choice.[2]

Sketch of Erich Fromm, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Fromm wrote during World War II and people’s capitulation to authoritarian leaders like Hitler and Mussolini inspired many of the concerns about which he wrote.

Such leaders often portray a tough or macho persona (as Hitler and Mussolini certainly did), suggesting that people should entrust their freedom and thinking to the leader.

Fromm also notes that many aspects of contemporary culture encourage us to focus on possessing and acquiring rather than being and developing our loving, productive capacities.

Acquiring material goods (often unnecessary ones) is another unproductive way we try to handle the terror of freedom, Fromm argues.

Picture by Miguel Gascoj, courtesy of Unsplash.

As you can see, such negative responses to our terror of freedom can drive us to harmful behavior like abdicating personal responsibility, or acting in cowardice, aggression, control, destructiveness, and greed.

Fromm suggests that when we become driven by such behavior, we become destructive.

He writes,

The person who is driven by machoism, envy, jealousy, and all other forms of greed is compelled to act; yet his actions are neither free nor rational but in opposition to reason and to his interests as a human being [3]

Once again, this behavior demonstrates the necrophilic drive.

I think of the necrophilic drive as the drive which turns us into zombies.

Picture courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Zombies are no longer concerned with love or nurturing their own or other people’s productive capacities. They are concerned merely with controlling, consuming, destroying.

The self consumed with such destructive goals is the false self. I call it the false self because it is not our original drive towards life. It develops as a result of negative aspects of the human condition such as ignorance, terror, greed, and distorted social pressures.

As you can imagine, ideas similar to the True and false self play an important role in spiritual traditions like Christianity, Buddhism, and Hinduism.

Thomas Merton, a Catholic Priest and friend of Eric Fromm writes about the false self from a spiritual perspective. He notes,

My false and private self is one who wants to exist outside the reach of God’s will and God’s love . . . 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. [4]

New Seeds of Contemplation by Thomas Merton has influenced both me and this blog profoundly. You can find the book at your local bookseller or on Amazon hereNew Seeds of Contemplation.

The Important of Understanding the False and True Self

And this brings us the importance of understanding the difference between the false and True Self.

Whether we come from a spiritual tradition or not, all of us at one time or another act in our false self.

It’s scary being a human being. We all face the terror of being human, social pressure, and unhelpful experiences before we know how to handle them.

So while we natural aim towards biophilia and connecting positively with others, this drive can easily become blocked.

Or we easily become disconnected from it.

So we lose our connection with our True Self and start acting from our false self.

If we don’t understand that there is a difference between our false self and True Self, we make two common mistakes.

First, we may mistakenly assume that our false self is simply who we are. As such, we may feel stuck in destructive habits. And we may feel we can never change.

Secondly, if we fail to recognize the difference between or false self, we may avoid self-reflection and any sort of criticism.

That is because most of us want to feel like a good person.

But if we really want to be a good person, it can be extremely hard for us to believe there are destructive parts of us.

We might feel like acknowledging negative or destructive parts of us automatically means we are a bad person, which can feel intolerable.

But this is why recognizing the difference between our false and True Self can be so helpful.

If we recognize that our negative, destructive patterns proceed from our false self, rather than our True Self, it gives us the courage to face these destructive patterns.

it gives us the courage to seek out our True Self so that we can reconnect with love.

Picture by Shane Rounced, courtesy of Unsplash.

This allows us to reconnect with ourselves and everyone else.

Eric Fromm suggests that this reconnection restores the power of our biophilic drive, which gives us true power.

My friend and colleague Joan Braune is an expert on Erich Fromm. You might like this article of hers:

“Erich Fromm and Thomas Merton: Biophilia, Necrophilia, and Messianism.”

You might also like Joan’s recent book: Erich Fromm’s Critical Theory: Hope, Humanism, and the Future

I tend to think of our True Self and false Self as our Wise and wounded Self. You can read a post about this here: Our Wise and Wounded Self (and Why It Matters)

Also, contemplative practices are one way we can reconnected with our biophilic drive. You can read about this here: Contemplative Practices: A Post for Everyone


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[1] Fromm, Erich. The Sane Society, pgs. 30

[2] Ibid

[3] Fromm, Erich. Man for Himself, pg. 87

You might also like this book by Erich Fromm, which you can find at your local bookstore or Amazon: Man for Himself

[4] Merton, Thomas. New Seeds of Contemplation. Pg. 36

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