In my previous post on identity, I warned against the rise of the impostor, also known as the false self. If you’re like me and most of the men I’ve met, you have either overcome the false self, or you are living the life of the false self.
What is this False Self you speak of?
Different teachers have called it different names — the False Self, the Impostor, the Poser — but it’s all the same thing. A wounded man — and let’s face it, we’re all wounded to some degree — seeks to cover his vulnerability by building on his natural abilities. He seeks out opportunities to excel where his giftedness won’t betray him, and avoids environments where he fears he might be exposed. It’s a way of rigging the game, of stacking his schedule with less-than-challenging opponents.
The result can be quite convincing for a while. Casual acquaintances may never catch on. But inside the man is miserable and increasingly angry — and unfortunately, he spreads his misery to his wife and children. I know, because I lived it.
My False Self – a not-very-cool origin story
I’ve written and spoken before of how I was named for my paternal grandfather and how he taught me so many good things. As I child, I idolized him. There was nothing he couldn’t do. I wanted to be like him, and his approval was everything.
After my parents separated when I was ten, we moved back to my parents’ hometown — an hour away from my dad. My grandfather became that much more important to me, in his influence and proximity. I spent many Saturdays at his elbow, working in the yard, repairing things around the house — learning a lot of the very useful things men learned from their fathers and grandfathers.
On many of these occasions, my grandfather would send me to his shop or his storage shed to bring a tool, a fastener, or some other needed part to him. He would explain what it looked like, and where to look for it. He would always ask if I understood. If I said I didn’t, we’d go through it again. Most of the time, I found the item and brought it back straightaway. Other times I’d get distracted and come back without it. Sometimes it wouldn’t be where he said it would be. But sometimes, I lied and said I knew what he was talking about so he’d think well of me.
On one of those latter occasions, I returned without the thing he sent me to get. Exasperated, he look at me disgustedly and said, “You haven’t got the sense God gave a goose.” I didn’t cry. I didn’t complain. But I was devastated. In some ways that one remark was a greater wound than the one dealt by the death of my parents’ marriage. This was because I knew that my parents’ impending divorce was not my doing. Even though it was like a wildfire wrapped in a tornado in an earthquake, I knew it wasn’t my fault. By contrast, my grandfather’s disapproval and his harsh words — directed at me — delivered a blow to my heart.
As a result, I became the competent one. I was going to have an answer — the answer — and I was never going to be unprepared or feel that humiliated again. I threw myself into striving. I sought approval everywhere. School was easy, and it provided ready feedback. I’ve always been good with words, so verbal jousting and bantering was an easy way to establish my place in the pack. I was active in scouting, so again it was easy to tick off requirements and earn badges. Ultimately, the false self made me an addict — and approval was my drug of choice.
Years later, when I became a follower of Jesus, I concealed the pain that had shaped me. I was able to pick up the dialect and the false self let me hide in the context of the church. I appeared to be a capable leader
I was nearly 40 years old by the time I understood what had happened and why I was trapped in a prison of rules (conformity), approval — and my “favorite,” the fear of failure. looking back it is easy to see. But I was young at the time and badly hurt. And the ones who should have helped me overcome this woundedness to help me see my true identity on the other side of this — were the two men who wounded me.
Ultimately, my story had a happy ending, as I admitted to God and myself that I was damaged, and He began healing me. Part of the way my pain was redeemed was the process of masculine initiation I undertook with each of my sons. Part of it was committing to honoring the vows I made to my wife. Part of it was realizing that my grandfather and my father were wounded themselves and forgiving them. And part of it is in writing this blog to help those of you with a similar story find the joy and freedom of your true identity.
Those gifts you’re leaning on are good gifts. Your mistake is thinking they define who you are. They were meant to emanate from your identity, not take its place.
The Unbearable Lightness of Being
When you live according to external appearances — and you stake your identity on what you have and or what you do, you are falling into the trap of ontological lightness. It sounds paradoxical to say that the way through pain is to admit how bad it hurts, but I know it to be true because that is the path I took. Even though my healing came over 15 years ago, there are still times when I am tempted to fall back on the false self, the all-capable one. Then I remember.
As I hope you see, living according to the false self is exhausting. You can never let down your guard or else someone — the dreaded and ubiquitous “they” — will see you’re a poser. It’s like the doofus on the beach trying to appear more muscular by sucking in his gut. Eventually, he has to let it out. Based on my experience, it’s better to surrender your mask than to have it stripped from you. And that is what God, our Father, wants to do for you, His sons.
I am healed and I am free, and I want you to have the same freedom to live from your redeemed heart. If I can do it, you know it can be done.