One of the great tragedies of life for any leader is to live out of a “false self” and in so doing miss out on God’s best for our human journey.
We all long to live in a way that leads to happiness. It is perhaps our deepest human desire. And so we spend our lives scrambling for our best shot at personal fulfillment.
But not all routes lead to happiness because not all routes are authentic and true to our deepest self. Unfortunately, many leaders default to strategies for happiness that are grounded in what psychologists and spiritual writers call “the false self.”
The false self is born out of a misguided belief that our deepest happiness will come from living life our way, not God’s way. Oh sure…we may say that we trust God, that we have surrendered to his will, but deep in the core of our being we live in a way that doubts God will secure our happiness.
And instead, we seek fulfillment through inordinate attachments that preserve an image of ourselves that we think makes us special, to ourselves and to those whose impression of us is super important. And so over time, we come to live with a mask on. We learn how to present ourselves in the best possible light to others.
This dark side of pretending then evolves into an identity…it’s the way we really see ourselves.
But it’s an identity based on an illusion we have constructed. Someone has said the false self is like the air we breathe. We have become so accustomed to its presence that we are no longer aware of it.
The false self is afraid of being unmasked, so it wraps itself in experiences…of power, pleasure, honor, esteem, security. And so the false self is a life of excessive attachments. Maybe we cling to possessions, or accomplishments, memories or friendships, fashions or control of others.
These attachments to external things and experiences falsely anchor us and make us feel good…temporarily. They help us escape from our feelings of vulnerability, of fear, even of shame. The false self is like a fig leaf that we hide behind.
But in reality, these attachments, and the illusion of the false self they foster are very hazardous to our spiritual and psychological health. They make our contentment dependent on their fleeting presence, instead of finding our contentment and peace in God.
It’s interesting that we can often readily see the false self at work in others, but it is never easy to recognize the lies that we tell our self. The good news is there are clues that can help us throw off our illusions about ourselves.
One of those clues is defensiveness. We bristle easily when our false way of being is attacked or threatened. Another clue is to zero in on the pattern of our compulsions. Compulsions can point to excessive attachments which preserve our false self.
At the core of the false self is a propensity to place my value in what I have, what I can do, and what others think of me.
In Matthew 4:4 the tempter invited Jesus to choose to live out of a false self. But Jesus rejected all three of his not-so-subtle temptations: to power, to prestige and to finding his identity in possessions.
How about you and me? Are we living out of a wholesome, life-giving identity that is grounded in the love our heavenly Father has for us? Are we living out of an identity firmly rooted “in Christ,” in his love, his friendship, his acceptance, and his promises?
Doing so is the only route to experiencing the flourishing life Jesus promised when he said,
“I have come that you might have life and have it to the full.” (John 10:10)
Or are we living an illusory life? A life of excessive attachments to things and experiences that we falsely believe are the source of true fulfillment?
Achieving excellence in business, in life, and in spirit means rejecting the false self and coming out from behind our fig leaves. It means recognizing what makes us feel vulnerable. It means listening to God’s invitation and allowing him to embrace us just as we are. It means reflecting on our excessive attachments and trusting God enough to let go of these illusions about our self.
Perhaps King David said it best,
“Whom have I in heaven but you? And earth has nothing I desire besides you” (Psalm 73:25)
With acknowledgment to David Benner’s “Unmasking the False Self” in The Gift of Being Yourself.
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