Ideal, Real, or False –Which “Self” are you?


“The struggle to be real will always come up against our desire to avoid pain and disappointment. Where will you land?”

By Philip K. Hardin, M.A., M. Div., LMFT, LPC

By Philip K. Hardin, M.A., M. Div., LMFT, LPC

When I lived in Philadelphia, I lived a life of striving. I fought hard to be who I thought I was supposed to be and any time I failed, I fell into a hole.

Our friends and ministry partners invited Karla and I to dinner one night at their home. After 2 hours, the wife leans over to Karla and says, “I have no idea who Phil is. He seems nice and smiley, but there’s not much beyond that.”

When we got home that night, Karla shared what Mary Jo had said. What a wake-up call. It was sobering to think that in all my efforts to be who I thought God, my wife, and others wanted me to be, I wasn’t seen for who I really was, I was seen for being “no one.”

There I sat, ashamed by the man I was and afraid to try and be anyone else.

As I work with countless men and women in my office and at our Workshops, the struggle to live authentically pervades each person at his core. I hear countless stories of how secrets have destroyed relationships in every capacity –and how easily someone can slip into a life of False-Self-living.

In writing Lions Were Born to Roar, I used an excerpt from The Velveteen Rabbit to illustrate becoming real:

“What is REAL? Asked the Rabbit one day, when they were lying side by side … “Does it mean having things that buzz inside you and a stick-out handle?”

“Real isn't how you are made," said the Skin Horse. "It's a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become Real." "Does it hurt?" asked the Rabbit. "Sometimes," said the Skin Horse, for he was always truthful. "When you are Real you don't mind being hurt." "Does it happen all at once, like being wound up," he asked, "or bit by bit?" "It doesn't happen all at once," said the Skin Horse. "You become. It takes a long time. That's why it doesn't happen often to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in your joints and very shabby. But these things don't matter at all; because once you are Real you can't be ugly, except to people who don't understand.”

The story speaks to a great longing in the human heart—the longing to become our real selves. To lay bare all our flaws, weaknesses, and frailties, and—to be loved anyway. UNCONDITIONALLY!

We all long to be free. We want to be REAL—to be free to be our true self.  To put it simply, being REAL is the ability to own all our parts—the Good and the Bad.

The reality of life is that we are in a daily war between the Spirit and the Flesh –the Good and the Bad. Below is a diagram that portrays our personhood in three parts.

The REAL is where we want to live.


Ideal Self

The Ideal Self is how God designed and intended us to live. We want and desire the Ideal. We long to be good, sinless, perfect.  

Because we live in a broken world, we cannot achieve the ideal. However, many can get stuck here. People who live life in the ideal self live in a fantasy world, idealizing how life should work and how they and others should be. If there is a disruption to their fantasy, like a child, they write it off as bad and avoid working it through.

Each of the “three Self’s” work with the dynamic of Good & Bad uniquely.

The Ideal Self takes the Good & Bad and splits it, making life a dichotomy. People who get stuck in the Ideal Self tend to be very “black & white” in their thinking, seeking to determine if a circumstance, relationship, or they themselves= is Good OR Bad.

When the Ideal Self fails (and it always does), we move to the False Self in an attempt to resolve the loss of the Ideal Self on our own terms.

False Self

The False Self is our survival strategy to manage the pain of life. It is a role you come up with to keep you safe from more hurts –like a protective shield. Though the shield may protect you from some hurts, it also keeps us from REAL connection.

The shield we carry may look like one of these: “I will be the good boy.” “I will be the funny one.” “I will be the smart one.” I will be the “black sheep.”

The False Self’s primary goal is to survive, therefore, it will do either Good OR Bad to accomplish survival.

Real Self

The Real Self is the only circle that works.

This Self is the only one that can experience intimacy and true connection. When we embrace the Real Self as the way of life, we experience freedom.

The Real Self embraces BOTH, our Good Parts & our Bad Parts. This is what makes the Real Self the only circle that works because every person contains Good & Bad. Even the worst of men, have good in them. And, even the best of men contain bad.

To be REAL involves Truth-telling, Weakness, Vulnerability, and Connection. The Gospel of Jesus gives us the freedom to tell and own our full story without shame, condemnation, or rejection, even though we fear all those things.

A Final Thought

The Ideal Self will always judge the Real Self and label it as “not good enough.” This is often why we experience shame, fear, anger, or anxiety.

The Good News we often forget is that for those who have trusted in Jesus to be the Savior of their failed attempts at the Ideal, can be REAL until the day that we are brought to completion and become the Ideal that God originally designed.

When we commit to being Real we can embrace “good enough” and imperfect as being acceptable.

In the Velveteen Rabbit, Williams called being loved “becoming Real.” 

I want to be REAL. Therefore, I am willing to allow my Good Parts and my Bad Parts to be known. I am growing in my awareness of my gifts and I am growing in courageously and vulnerably acknowledging my weaknesses. Mature people do that!

YES! I want to be REAL!