People as social beings
People are social beings that are connected to each other in various ways. The history of humankind suggests that we cannot survive on our own and cannot exist alone. We need each other in a physical and psychological sense since our physical behaviour leaves a trace on our psyche and vice versa. To be more specific, people have always lived in various kinds of groups in order to help each other with, for example, building houses, villages, cities, producing food, inventing things etc. The goal of our socialisation is to survive, breed, adapt to nature and make our life easier. What is more, our ‘’physical’’ existence is intertwined with our psyche, since we are considered to be emotional beings with basic (Ekman, 1992) and moral (Haidt, 2003) emotions.
People realized that working in groups had great benefits; that it brought a structure to their lives and that they could only survive as part of a group. As Haidt (2003) writes, an individual invests an important part of their emotions into social events which do not have a direct connection with him. Such emotions are called moral or ‘’self-conscious’’ emotions and ‘’are linked to the interests or welfare either of society as a whole or at least of persons other than the judge or agent’’ (p. 853).
As Barrera and Sandler claim, people are nowadays dependent on social relationships because of the potential resources of support and because it’s useful to them (as cited in Ernst, Pfeiffer & Rothlauf, 2013). Cohen and Willis (1985) state that informational (psychical) and instrumental (physical) support is among the most important resources (as cited in Ernst, Pfeiffer & Rothlauf, 2013) available to individuals. According to Cohen and Willis (1985) informational support is intangible (emotional, advice) and helps people to cope with situations and circumstances which involve stress whereas instrumental support, on the other hand, is tangible and helps people with materialistic things, like money and various services (as cited in Ernst, Pfeiffer & Rothlauf, 2013).
The need to belong
Baumeister and Leary (1995) hypothesise that the need to belong is a ‘’fundamental human motivation’’ (p. 520) in which forming and losing relationships has important emotional and cognitive effects on an individual. According to their research, people tend to form social bonds (relationships) under various conditions; even when these conditions are adverse or even if they have nothing or very little in common but they frequently see each other at the same place (Baumeister & Leary, 1995). People also don’t like to lose relationships even if the material that ‘’glues’’ the relationship together no longer exists (Baumeister & Leary, 1995). They propose two aspects of the need to belong: ‘’That is, people seem to need frequent, affectively pleasant or positive interactions with the same individuals, and they need these interactions to occur in a framework of long-term, stable caring and concern’’ (Baumeister & Leary, 1995).
The question is what are people ready to do or to be/become in order to belong? How much of who we are are we ready to sacrifice in order to belong and be part of the society we live in? Both questions are very important when considering how much people stay true to themselves and how much they adapt their behaviour in order to be a part of the group.
The theory of the True Self and the False Self
This brings us to the theory of the True Self and the False Self in the early stages of our lives. For example, if the caregiver (most often the mother) is not able to implement the infant’s omnipotence and repeatedly fails to recognise the infant’s gesture, she will substitute this lack of gesture with her own gesture, which is given sense by the compliance of the infant. “This compliance on the part of the infant is the earliest stage of the False Self and is a result of the caregiver’s inability to recognise her infant’s needs” (Winnicott, 1965, p. 145). However, the problem with the False Self is not that it exists. Namely, the False Self is in ‘’no doubt an aspect of the True Self’’ and is needed because it allows the individual to adapt to social norms and function in society (1956, p. 387, as cited in Balick, 2013). We have to give up part of our True Selves in order to become (and stay) a part of the society. This by itself, according to Winnicott, should not pose a problem for our True Self. The problem, however, arises when our False Self starts to dominate over our True Self (our authenticity and vitality). The problem arises when ‘’a False Self that is consistently present, either hiding or defending the True Self, or tentatively seeking out new worlds in which to express the True Self, limits the individual’s capacity to fully and significantly interact with her environment, to be more specific, to genuinely interact with real, environmental other’’ (Roberts, 2011, p. 29).
Implication in everyday life
We may observe this kind of behavior in our everyday lives. There are many individuals who seem to be functioning and interacting with other people but are too careful (or fake) in their activity. It happens among friends, partners, co-workers, on social media, etc. For example, a man who has recently gone through a nasty break up doesn’t want to share all the details with his friends, because he isn’t sure how his friends will react or what they think about it, even if he is sad and devastated. He rather says nothing or changes the subject to something more understandable, more rational – ‘’safer’’. What is more, he interacts with his environment in order to achieve a certain goal. It looks as if he is using his False Self to not only be part of his circle of friends but also to achieve his own goals that are not primarily aimed at his authenticity and vitality, but rather at hiding from, for example, his True Self’s structural lack of the capacity to be alone.
Which brings us to the main question: how long can we function as False Selves? Do we have enough energy to be able to fake and pretend indefinitely? The formation of various symptoms like increased anxiety, changing moods, irritability, feelings of being “trapped“, low self-esteem, etc. and self-destructive behavior, like alcohol abuse, sex addiction, drug abuse, self-harm, etc. is the answer to that questions. Picture yourself as a pot full of water. Each time you fake and go against your True Self the water gets hotter. You are right to think that there comes a point in your life when the water reaches boiling point and eventually explodes.