Why More of us Feel the Need to Create a 'False Self'

Published: 17th June 2015 10:03 AM  |   Last Updated: 17th June 2015 10:03 AM   |  A+A-

The curious case of Rachel Dolezal has made for fascinating, if barely believable, reading over the past few days. Ostensibly a black civil rights activist, Dolezal was forced to stand down from her position as head of the Washington branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) earlier this week, after her own parents exposed her as a Caucasian imposter - complete with childhood pictures of her with long, blonde hair and snow white skin, to prove it.

Since 2007, it seems, Dolezal (now 37) had been slowly distorting her hair, skin tone, speech and family history in order to pass as African-American. The pretence may be even more serious, if suggestions that she faked the race-hate crimes she claimed to have suffered also prove to be true.

While details of the extent of her deception accrue, it is still unclear why she lied, so convincingly, to so many. To fit in, to stand out, to further her career? Whatever her motivation, the creation of a "false self" is more common than you might imagine.

Only two months ago, 23-year-old Australian food blogger Belle Gibson was forced to come clean, after fooling millions into believing she had cured herself of brain cancer with her own wholefood remedies. Documenting her struggle online had won Belle not just a huge social media following, but a recipe book deal from Penguin and an offer to create her own healthy-eating app on the new Apple Watch. But Belle didn't have cancer - and never did have. "None of it is true," she was finally forced to admit, in a magazine interview in April, after friends cast doubt on her story.

Many more may remember James Frey, whose memoir, A Million Little Pieces - a supposedly honest account about overcoming his struggle with drugs - was lauded by Oprah Winfrey, until it emerged it was semi-fictional, at best.

So what prompts such attention-seeking deception to begin with? "Childhood is absolutely huge in leading people to form a false self," says Dr Craig Malkin, Harvard Medical School psychologist and author of Rethinking Narcissism, the Bad - and Surprising Good - About Feeling Special. "If you feel as though [people] don't care about you, your needs or feelings, or that you don't matter based on who you really are, the creation of a false self is used to feel connected and gain a sense of belonging."

In this context, Dolezal - whose interest in African-American culture began in earnest when her parents adopted four black siblings - may merely be one of the most spectacular examples of an increasingly modern phenomenon.

"It's human nature to shape ourselves to our environment and expectations," argues Dr Malkin. "But if who you present is completely at odds with who you are, it crosses the line into disturbance and narcissism."

In fact, we seem to be in the midst of a "narcissism epidemic", according to a gamut of recent research - one study of a group of 37,000 college students in the US, showed that narcissistic personality traits rose just as quickly as obesity from the Eighties to the present.

Much of the blame, as with just about everything these days, appears to lie with social media - given that Instagram, Twitter and Facebook encourage and enable the creation and spread of a rose-tinted version of your real self that you'd like everyone else to see.

Perhaps it's equally unsurprising, then, that research shows those under 25 are more likely to adopt narcissistic attitudes, as they forge a place for themselves within work, school and social groups. "Young people are just beginning to form their identities and are more likely to show this type of behaviour," says Dr Malkin. "They get caught up in using a false self to feel good."

This can spiral into an unhealthy, unrealistic obsession. "Like a drug, people get addicted to feeling celebrated and liked. Living as the 'false self' can become the only way a person is able to feel special. They start to believe the hype."

In other words, as every X Factor auditionee already knows, sob stories sell. But when someone's only real struggle is with the truth, it can develop into something more serious, even if the deception is never uncovered. "Ultimately, the strain of maintaining a false identity can lead to depression and anxiety later on in life," says Dr Malkin. "We can't hide our true selves without a price."

Which just goes to show that, one way or another, your sins will likely find you out.


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