THE FALSE SELF
Both psychoanalysts and actors, from different perspectives, have spoken about a “false self,” which is a disbelieved, unclaimed self, a part of “me” that is not “really me.” To the psychoanalyst, the false self embodies our acceptance of early parental requirements that we act so as to please others, at the expense of our own needs and desires. This sociocentric, other-directed self comes to live a separate existence from the self we claim. In the extreme case, the false self may set itself up as the real self, which remains completely hidden. More commonly, the false self allows the true self a life of its own, which emerges when there is little danger of its being used by others.
The actual content of feelings—or wishes, or fantasies, or actions—is not what distinguishes the false self from the true self; the difference lies in whether we claim them as “our own.” This claiming applies to our outward behavior, our surface acting: “I wasn’t acting like myself.” It also applies to our inner experience, our deep acting: “I made myself go to that party and have a good time even though I was feeling depressed.”
Professional actors think of the false self as a marvelous resource that can be drawn upon to move audiences to laughter or tears. They find some margin of unclaimed action and feeling to be wonderfully helpful in getting into the part. The danger for the actor lies in becoming the part he plays, in feeling that he is Hamlet.*
Among ordinary people, the false or unclaimed self is what enables one to offer the discretion, the kindness, and the generosity that Noble Savages tend to lack. It is a healthy false self. By giving up infantile desires for omnipotence, a person gains a “place in society which can never be attained or maintained by the True Self alone.”15
; Christopher Lasch has recently speculated that our culture’s latest model of an unhealthy false self may be the narcissist.16 The narcissist feeds insatiably on interactions, competing desperately for love and admiration in a Hobbesian dog-eat-dog world where both are perpetually scarce. His efforts are self-perpetuating because he must discount the results: what admiration he does receive, after all, is offered to his false self, not his real one.
But our culture has produced another form of false self: the altruist, the person who is overly concerned with the needs of others. In our culture, women—because they have traditionally been assigned the task of tending to the needs of others—are in greater danger of overdeveloping the false self and losing track of its boundaries. If developing a narcis-
* Stanislavski warned: “Always act in your own person, as an artist. You can never get away from yourself. The moment you lose yourself on the stage marks… the beginning of exaggerated false acting. For losing yourself in the part, you kill the person whom you portray, for you deprive ‘him’ of the real source of life for a part” (1965, p. 167).
sistic false self is the greater danger for men, developing an altruistic false self is the greater danger for women. Whereas the narcissist is adept at turning the social uses of feeling to his own advantage, the altruist is more susceptible to being used—not because her sense of self is weaker but because her “true self” is bonded more securely to the group and its welfare.
Added to the private sexual division of emotional labor is now the trend toward organizing the ways in which public – contact workers manage emotion. Organizations do this in hopes of having the worker’s true self come to work. They hope to make this private resource a company asset. Yet the more the company offers the worker’s true self for sale, the more that self risks seeming false to the individual worker, and the more difficult it becomes for him or her to know which territory of self to claim.
Given this problem, it becomes all the more important to have access to feeling itself. It is from feeling that we learn the se^-relevance of what we see, remember, or imagine. Yet it is precisely this precious resource that is put in jeopardy when a company inserts a commercial purpose between a feeling and its interpretation.
For example, flight attendants in Delta’s Recurrent Training classes were told: “When you get mad at some guy for telling you that you owe him a smile, you’re really mad only because you’re focusing on yourself, on how you feel. Get your mind off yourself. Think about how the situation looks to him. Usually he doesn’t mean a thing by it. And anyway that kind of behavior isn’t going to change for a long, long time. So don’t get mad at that.” When a flight attendant feels angry at a passenger in this situation, what does her anger signal? According to the teacher in Recurrent Training, it indicates that she is mslocating herself in the world, that she is seeing the man who demands a smile in the wrong sort of way—that she is oversensitive, too touchy. It does not signal a perception about how emotional display maintains unequal power between women and men, and between employees and employers. It indicates something wrong with the worker, not something wrong with the assumptions of the customer or the company. In this way the company’s purposes insinuate themselves into the way workers are asked to interpret their own feelings. It raises questions for them at every turn. “Is that how I should think about my anger? Is this how the company wants me to think about it?” Thus the worker may lose touch with her feelings, as in burnout, or she may have to struggle with the company interpretation of what they mean.
Coping with the costs of emotional labor calls for great inventiveness. Among themselves, flight attendants build up an alternative way of experiencing a smile or the word “girl”—a way that involves anger and joking and mutual support on the job. And in their private lives—driving back home on the freeway, talking quietly with a loved one, sorting it out in the occasional intimacy of a worker-to-worker talk—they separate the company’s meaning of anger from their own meaning, the company rules of feeling from their own. They try to reclaim the managed heart. These struggles, like the costs that make them necessary, remain largely invisible because the kind of labor that gives rise to them—emotional labor—is seldom recognized by those who tell us what labor is.
On Broadway Avenue in San Francisco there was once an improvisational theater called The Committee. In one of its acts, a man comes to center stage yawning, arms casually outstretched as if ready to prepare himself for bed. He takes off his hat and lays it methodically on an imaginary bureau top. Then he takes off his hair, a wig apparently. He slowly pulls off his glasses and massages the bridge of his nose where his glasses had rubbed. Then he takes off his nose. Then his teeth. Finally he unhitches his smile and lies down to sleep, a man finally quite “himself.”
This insinuation of the “false” into the “true,” of the artificial into the natural, is a widespread trouble. One main cause of it, as it applies to feeling, is that people are made increasingly aware of incentives to use feeling. Those who perform emotional labor in the course of giving service are like those who perform physical labor in the course of making things: both are subject to the rules of mass production. But when the product—the thing to be engineered, mass – produced, and subjected to speed-up and slowdown — is a smile, a mood, a feeling, or a relationship, it comes to belong more to the organization and less to the self. And so in the country that most publicly celebrates the individual, more people privately wonder, without tracing the question to its deepest social root: What do I really feel?