What is a ‘true’ and ‘false’ self?
It’s often said that to be truly happy we should align to our ‘authentic’ self, and be ‘true to ourselves’. It sounds like good advice – but how do we know who or what is our true self? And how do we connect to that genuine version of ourselves?
The theory of a true self and a false self was advanced by British psychoanalyst Dr Donald Winnicott in a series of papers in the 1960s. Winnicott contends that everyone is divided into these two selves, and that people develop a false self to protect their inner, more vulnerable true self.
The true self refers to a sense of self based on authentic experience, and the feeling of being truly present and alive. The false self is a defensive façade, behind which the person can feel empty, it’s behaviours being learnt and controlled rather than spontaneous and genuine.
The process of developing a false self begins at a very young age. As babies, we are at our truest. We cry, laugh and react in a way that is wholly authentic to our needs; we are simply being. For Winnicott, healthy development requires us to fully experience this time when we have no concern for the feelings and opinions of those looking after us.
However, if as babies we are denied this opportunity to be ourselves, we learn to modify our impulses in a bid to receive the love we crave, and start constructing a false self. This manifests in various dysfunctional behaviours in adults, from feeling unanchored and lacking in spontaneity to suffering extreme psychological disorders such as schizophrenia.
Good enough parenting
For Winnicott, the mother is the infant’s universe, and the mother-baby relationship forms the basis of the child’s subsequent development. The ideal parenting model for Winnicott is the ‘good enough mother’, one who provides a ‘facilitating environment’, in which the child’s inner potential to develop a ‘true self’ can unfold.
It is the mother’s role – and biological impulse – to enter a state of ‘primary maternal preoccupation’ in which she has complete oneness with her baby and mirrors back to the infant the sense that it is held and that its needs are being anticipated. This symbiotic relationship is what makes it possible for the infant to think – we learn to think by being thought about.
The ‘good enough mother’ doesn’t need to be perfect, but she doesn’t neglect the baby, nor does she overprotect him. Winnicott’s term for an excessively attached caregiver is the ‘ordinary devoted mother’, who hampers the infant’s emerging capacity to embody a secure ‘true’ self by not adequately responding to its spontaneous needs.
The ‘good enough mother’ is both there for the infant whenever needed, and capable of separating herself sufficiently so the infant can develop into his or her own self.
Rise of the false self
If ‘good enough’ parenting is not in place – maybe because the mother is anxious or depressed – the infant’s spontaneity is in danger of being suppressed by the need for compliance with the parent’s wishes.
In this instance, the stress of the external world is indirectly brought to the child. As a strategy for dealing with this anxiety, the child tries to win back the mother’s attention and love by falling into line with her needs, and thus suppressing his or her own desires.
The infant begins to create a false self, where ‘other people’s expectations can become of overriding importance, overlaying or contradicting the original sense of self, the one connected to the very roots of one’s being’.
This false self is inauthentic because its spontaneous desires are hidden away. He or she has learnt to comply far too early, and become obedient at the expense of his or her ability to feel authentically.
When the interaction between mother and baby fails, the ‘experiences of existential continuity’ occur, according to Winnicott. This means there has been a radical interruption of the baby’s spontaneous development. This is what gives rise to the false self: the baby learns to show only what his mother wants to see; he becomes something that he isn’t.
The false-self continuum
Different degrees of responsive mothering determine true and false self-development, and there are varying levels of ‘falseness’, from healthy to unhealthy. A healthy false self enables us to be polite and comply with rules and regulations, even when we don’t want to. Indeed, Winnicott asserts that a healthy false self is necessary and desirable for us to exist in the world.
A healthy false self allows us to live our lives, but protects the true self. According to Growth Through Change, ‘A major component of the healthy false self is an awareness of personal boundaries. A healthy false self is one that works with and stays committed to the true self. It is a form of useful self-protection, in that it shields us at times when vulnerability would not be appropriate, or might even be harmful.’
Those further down the false-self scale, however, are disconnected from their true self. They tend to intellectualise reality and are largely devoid of authentic emotions and creativity. They struggle to feel valued as they feel it is their false self who has achieved any successes they may have had. This creates a breakdown with themselves and with the world.
For Winnicott, a false sense of self underpins all serious dysfunctional behaviours, including narcissism, addiction and schizophrenia – where the person is separated from himself to the point that his real self virtually disappears. In these cases, the person uses all the resources available to them to build and maintain their false self so that they can face a world that is perceived as unpredictable or unreliable.
Reconnecting to the true self
When a false self has come to be dominant, well-being is only achievable through a reclaiming of the true self, and psychotherapy is a great way regain confidence in our honest expressions. It can help us untangle our false self from our true self by regressing to that time before we learnt to be false.
As The Book of Life says: ‘In the therapist’s office, safely contained by their maturity and care, we can learn – once more – to be real; we can be intemperate, difficult, unconcerned with anyone but ourselves, selfish, unimpressive, aggressive and shocking. And the therapist will take it – and thereby help us to experience a new sense of aliveness which should have been there from the start.’
In a safe therapeutic environment we can explore our true feelings and desires openly while being listened to and understood. As we are regularly encouraged to be our true self, the urge to be false lessens.
With help, the notion of being ‘true to ourselves’ becomes much clearer and more meaningful, and we can move towards a healthy understanding of who we are, while finding the contentment and genuine connection to reality that have been missing from our lives.
Sources and further reading:
A Brief Introduction to Psychoanalytic Theory, Stephen Frosh
The Maturational Processes and the Facilitating Environment, DW Winnicott