False Selves

In 1960 D. W. Winnicott published what appeared to be an inconsequential article describing “the false self.”  Winnicott argued that, in self-defense, we all build versions of ourselves.  Those “false selves” are designed to offer a version of ourselves to the world that keep us from being hurt and promote public civility, ordering our impulses and the ways in which we act on them.  Winnicott argued that in those who are emotionally troubled, the false self looms so large that the “true self” is hidden from view.

Writer Brennan Manning uses this concept to good effect to describe the difficulty he faced in acknowledging his alcoholism.  He was so attached to his image as a priest, that it took a long time to admit that he was seriously addicted.  Then, when he became sober, he became overly attached to the false self that was his image as a priest who was willing to acknowledge his addiction.  As Manning describes it, the spiritual progress he has made toward ever greater intimacy with God has depended upon his ability to live as “his true self” in God’s presence.

Manning’s work is and has been profoundly helpful, and others have made similar arguments that have proven equally helpful. (See, for example, the work of Richard Rohr.)  But from the vantage point of spiritual direction — the reality of our evolving spiritual selves can be far more complicated that this one application might suggest.

For one thing, the alternative or formal images that we use to protect ourselves serve a legitimate purpose, even into adult life.  Not everyone we meet can be trusted with “our true selves” and it is a mistake to assume that anyone and everyone can be trusted in that fashion.  People who lie, keep secrets, or who use what they know about us to harm, injure, or manipulate us should not be trusted and there is nothing about the Christian faith that requires that kind of trust.  As the Scots observe, “Fool me once, shame on you.  Fool me twice, shame on me.”

Two, “false selves” are not always false and they are not just about self-protection.  They can also be about aspirations. Longing to be something that reflects a life’s vocation or holy ambition is not a bad thing in and of itself.  Dealing with those images as if they were simply destructive or misleading is a mistake.  Years ago a directee told me he liked being a Christian because it was a place where you could live into being a failure.  That is a strange perversion of the Gospel.  Grace is not given to us so that we can fail with impunity.  It is given to us so that we can be remade in the image of God.

Three, what we are meant to be is a journey into God.  The process of discovering what it means to be a child of God is not a matter of embracing a fixed reality.  It is about growth and experience — a journey into that sacred childhood.  We can “lose ourselves” along the way, by acting with a lack of integrity or by betraying our values.  But our true selves is not just something that exists whole cloth, out there.  It lies ahead as we live into ever greater intimacy with God.

So how do we evaluate the competing definitions of who we are that offer themselves along the way?

  • Remember that we are on our way into that gift which is childhood in God.
  • Some of what we embrace along the way nurtures that journey and other things do not.
  • Understandings of our lives that draw us closer to God can be useful, even critical to that journey, if they do not become a substitute for standing before God in vulnerable honesty and transparency.
  • Any understanding of ourselves that becomes a substitute for that journey, or masks some part of ourselves from God is spiritually problematic.
  • The problem may lie in the image itself, in that it is foreign to God’s purposes — in those cases it is important to abandon that image as quickly as possible.
  • If the image is not alien to the purposes of God, the problem may be attachment: Images that invite what an older generation called “holy ambition” can contribute to spiritual growth if we acknowledge that they are ours to receive, not control.

Above all, it is important to remember: The most important questions in life are not about what we should do.  They are about becoming.


About Frederick Schmidt

The Reverend Dr. Frederick W. Schmidt, Jr. holds the Rueben P. Job Chair in Spiritual Formation at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary in Evanston, IL, and directs the Job Institute for Spiritual formation. He is an Episcopal Priest, spiritual director, retreat facilitator, conference leader, writer, and Consulting Editor at Church Publishing in New York. He is the author of numerous published articles and reviews, including forty-four entries in Doubleday’s Anchor Bible Dictionary, as well as articles in Feminist Theology and The Scottish Journal of Theology. He is author of A Still Small Voice: Women, Ordination and the Church (Syracuse University Press, 1998), The Changing Face of God (Morehouse, 2000), When Suffering Persists (Morehouse, 2001), in Italian translation: Sofferenza, All ricerca di una riposta (Torino: Claudiana, 2004), What God Wants for Your Life (Harper, 2005), Conversations with Scripture: Revelation (Morehouse, 2005) and Conversations with Scripture: Luke (Morehouse, 2009). His latest work, The Dave Test (Abingdon Press) will appear in the autumn of 2013. He is also the series editor for the new Anglican Association of Biblical Scholars Study Series.

From 2000-2012, he worked as Director of Spiritual Life and Formation and Associate Professor of Christian Spirituality at Southern Methodist University, Perkins School of Theology in Dallas, Texas. As one of Perkins’ senior administrators, Dr. Schmidt was responsible for programs in formation, serving over 500 students. He developed the School's program in Spiritual Direction which has thus far served over 150 students from across the country; the program in Anglican and Episcopal studies; and the spiritual formation track in the Doctor of Ministry program. Prior to his arrival at SMU, he served as Canon Educator, Director of Programs in Spirituality and Religious Education, and Acting Program Area Manager at Washington National Cathedral. In this capacity Dr. Schmidt was responsible for the development of a program of religious education and spirituality that annually provided resources for broad-based audiences of over 5000 adults. He also designed and produced workshops and seminars for ecumenical and interfaith constituencies; hosted foreign dignitaries from the Middle East and the former Soviet Union on behalf of the Meridian Institute; and developed the programmatic work and daily operations of the Cathedral Center for Prayer and Pilgrimage. Before going to the Cathedral, Dr. Schmidt served as special assistant to the President and Provost of La Salle University in Philadelphia and as a Fellow of the American Council on Education. From 1994 to 1995, he resided in Jerusalem, where he was Dean of St. George’s College and Residentiary Canon of the Cathedral Church of St. George the Martyr. He has also served in numerous parishes, including St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, All Saints Episcopal Church in Hershey, Pennsylvania and St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Dallas, Texas.

His work in higher education includes service as associate professor of New Testament Studies, as a lecturer in New Testament studies at Oxford University, and as a tutor at Keble College, Oxford. He has been a guest lecturer at the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, DC, at the National Cancer Institute in Bethesda, Maryland and the Southwestern Medical Center at the University of Texas, Dallas.

Dr. Schmidt holds a bachelor’s degree from Asbury College, the Masters of Divinity from Asbury Theological Seminary and the Doctor of Philosophy from Oxford University. His honors include a Fellowship in administrative leadership with the American Council on Education; a Senior Fellowship with the W.F. Albright Institute of Archaeological Research; the Young Scholars Fellowship presented by the Catholic Biblical Association; nomination to Class XI of the Clergy Leadership Project, sponsored by Trinity Church, Wall Street; the Angus Dun Fellowship (Episcopal Diocese of Washington); and an Ecumenical Service Award given by Christian Churches United (an ecumenical organization covering a tri-county area and based in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania). He is a recipient of the F. W. Dillstone Scholarship awarded by Oriel College, Oxford; the Hall Houghton Studentship awarded by the Theology Faculty of Oxford University; and an Overseas Research Student Award, presented by the Committee of Vice Chancellors and Principals of the Universities of the United Kingdom. Dr. Schmidt is a member of the American Academy of Religion, the Society of Biblical Literature, the Catholic Biblical Association, the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion, and the Society for the Study of Christian Spirituality. From 1998 to 2000 he served as a member of the Institutional Review Board for Heart, Lung and Blood Research at the National Institutes of Health and he currently serves on two Data Safety Monitoring Boards for NIH. He is Secretary-Treasurer of the Anglican Association of Biblical Scholars and a member of the Board of Examining Chaplains for the Episcopal Church, USA.

In addition to his work in the academy and the church Dr. Schmidt currently serves as a patient safety and ethics consultant on Data Safety Monitoring Boards for the National Institutes of Health and Allergan, Inc.

He lives with his wife, Natalie (who is also an academic and an Episcopal priest), and Hilda of Whitby, their Gordon Setter.