The false self, or ego, leads to destructive thinking and acting. Learning to overcome your ego and to live from your true self is critical for spiritual transformation.
As a child of younger than 7 years, you don't have an awareness or image of yourself (self-reflexive consciousness) yet. This type of awareness that develops mainly in the first half of life is your false self or small self as many have come to refer to it. At that stage, you're just who you are, even if that doesn't really present a pretty picture. (Do you know any mature toddlers who care a lot about presenting themselves well? Definitely not mine!)
The False Self
In your first couple of years you don't pretend to be something other than exactly who you are. You don't fret about your dirty clothes or runny nose. You just live from your true self.
But, over time you start developing a mental picture of yourself, your false self. Now, you start caring about what others think of you, how you are perceived in their eyes. This causes problems. It's typical of people living only from their ego to need excessive recognition, and to need to be perceived as someone who contributes something meaningful and significant to society.
Or just someone who plays the game of life very well, and makes lot's of money...
If someone now disappoints you, cheats you, or treats you contrary to your liking, it's devastating. And you can't do anything with the pain that's caused except sending it back out in the form of some kind of revenge or hatred. The behavior that normally follows is destructive, and not quite what Jesus had in mind for someone living in the new reality He came to announce. One will unhesitatingly damage relationships and act very immature just to defend his/her image, or ego. The problems such behavior causes in society are obvious and there have even been a good couple of wars fought simply to protect a leader's pride.
All this negative talk about ego might make it seem like having an ego is a bad thing. Initially it surely isn't. In fact, you can't overcome your false self before you develop one. Developing an ego or a consciousness of yourself is all part of the process. It's part of nature, and the way we've been created. What would be sad though, is to get stuck in a life lived only to please, satisfy, and protect your ego — and dying with the spiritual maturity of a toddler. That's what needs to be avoided.
I see the true aim of all healthy religion and spirituality as transformation. You don't have to belong to a certain group, or agree with certain doctrines to be mature... You need to be transformed. And the only thing that truly transforms is the awareness of God's presence within you. That's the oil in the lamps of those wise virgins Jesus taught about... true, deep transformation.
And after such transformation, you'll be able to transform pain. If events that would cause an immature person to retaliate come up, you can react in a way that doesn't reflect, or 'bounce-back' the pain.
It's almost like all painful things stop with you. You don't hurt others because they hurt you. You don't spread hurtful, untrue, or character-destroying stories. You start seeing pain around you and devise plans to alleviate it. Sounds a bit like the way Jesus lived, right?
So, to be truly mature, you have to live out of your true self. You need to overcome your ego, and the boundaries of your life that it so violently defends. You need to life from your core... your innermost being.
Contemplative prayer is highly necessary if you are to have any hope of achieving freedom from your ego, or false self. It's the only discipline I know of that really helps you overcome the ego, and the unhealthy ways of thinking caused by this small self.
"How do you make attractive that which is not?
How do you sell emptiness, vulnerability and nonsuccess?
How do you talk descent when everything is about ascent?
How can you possibly market letting-go in a capitalist culture?
How do you present Jesus to a Promethean mind?
How do you talk about dying to a church trying to appear perfect?
This is not going to work (admitting this might be my first step)"
— Richard Rohr at the beginning of his book Everything Belongs...