True self and false self

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True self and false self are terms introduced into psychoanalysis by D. W. Winnicott in 1960.[1] Winnicott used the term "True Self" to describe a sense of self based on spontaneous authentic experience, a sense of "all-out personal aliveness" or "feeling real".[2]

The "False Self" was, for Winnicott, a defense designed to protect the True Self by hiding it. He thought that in health, a False Self was what allowed a person to present a "polite and mannered attitude" in public.[3] But he saw more serious emotional problems in patients who seemed unable to feel spontaneous, alive or real to themselves in any part of their lives, yet managed to put on a successful "show of being real". Such patients suffered inwardly from a sense of being empty, dead or "phoney".[4]

True self is sometimes referred to as the "real self".


Before Winnicott[edit]

There was much in psychoanalytic theory on which Winnicott could draw for his concept of the False Self. Helene Deutsch had described the "as if" personalities who have 'succeeded in substituting "pseudo contacts" of manifold kinds for a real feeling of contact with other people: they behave "as if" they have feeling contacts with people'.[5] Winnicott's own analyst, Joan Riviere, had memorably explored the concept of the masquerade - of 'the mask of the narcissist..."the trait of deceptiveness, the mask, which conceals this subtle reservation of all control under intellectual rationalizations, or under feigned compliance and superficial politeness"'.[6] Freud himself, with his late theory of 'the ego as constituted in its nucleus by a series of alienating identifications',[7] had produced a theory of 'the Ego, which does bear some comparison with the False Self'.[8] Erich Fromm, in his The Fear of Freedom distinguished between original self and pseudo self,[9] the latter being a way to escape the loneliness of freedom, at the cost of losing the original self.

Carl Rogers had independently highlighted Kierkegaard's much earlier claim that 'the deepest form of despair is to choose "to be another than himself". On the other hand "to will to be that self which one truly is, is indeed the opposite of despair," and this choice is the deepest responsibility of man'.[10]

Winnicott's conception[edit]

Despite its many antecedents, it would be wrong to underestimate the quiet conceptual revolution offered by Winnicott's 1960 article, which offered a fresh and compelling, clinically rooted picture of the human mind.

For Winnicott, in the False Self, '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'.[11] Winnicott thought that such an extreme kind of False Self began to develop in infancy, as a defense against an environment that felt unsafe or overwhelming because of a lack of reasonably attuned caregiving. Winnicott used the term "good enough" to refer to what he thought of as optimal parenting; he thought that babies need parents who are usually emotionally attuned and able to empathize with the baby, but not perfectly so.[12] The danger is that 'through this False Self, the infant builds up a false set of relationships, and by means of introjections even attains a show of being real'.[13] The result can be a 'child whose potential aliveness and creativity has gone unnoticed...concealing an empty, barren internal world behind a mask of independence'.[14] Yet at the same time the 'Winnicottian False Self is the ultimate defence against the unthinkable "exploitation of the True Self, which would result in its annihilation"'.[15]

By contrast, the True Self is rooted in, and '"does no more than collect together the details of the experience of aliveness" - this means the body's life-sustaining functions, "including the heart's action and breathing"'.[16] Out of this the baby creates the experience of reality: a sense that '"Life is worth the trouble of living". In the baby's nonverbal gesture which '... expresses a spontaneous instinct',[17] the true self potential can be communicated to, and affirmed by, the motherer.

'The False Self in its pathological guise prevents and inhibits what Winnicott calls the "spontaneous gesture" of the True Self. Compliance and imitation are the costly results'.[18] Some would indeed consider that 'the idea of compliance is central to Winnicott's theory of the false self',[19] and add, paradoxically, that 'concern for an object is easily a compliant act'.[20] Where the motherer is not responsive to the baby's spontaneity, where instead 'a mother's expectations are too insistent, they can eventually result in compliant behaviour and an impaired autonomy',[21] as the baby has 'to manage a prematurely important object....The False Self enacts a kind of dissociated regard or recognition of the object; the object is taken seriously, is shown concern, but not by a person'.[22]

It has been suggested that 'in pathology, Winnicott's distinction between "true and false selves" corresponds to Balint's "basic fault" and to Fairbairn's "compromised ego"'.[23] However, Winnicott's theory is at times criticised for not being theoretically integrated. Neville Symington writes: "Most clinicians ... when they have a clinical insight, they simply paste it onto existing theory. ... Winnicott did the same with the true and false self: he did not ask himself how the theory fitted with ego and id."[24] Similarly Jean-Bertrand Pontalis and Maud Mannoni are very reserved about the theoretical implication of Winnicott's true/false self distinction, but they acknowledge the justice of his clinical observations.[citation needed]

Similar conceptions[edit]

The last half-century have seen Winnicott's ideas extended and applied in a variety of contexts, both in psychoanalysis and beyond.


It has been suggested that 'Kohut offers essentially the same program' as Winnicott in his descriptions of 'the narcissistic disorders in which he specializes....Like Winnicott's "false-self" patients, these patients develop a shoddy armor (of a "defensive" or "compensatory" character) around their maimed inner core'.[25] Kohut himself 'has noted that his work "overlaps" with Winnicott's investigations', and others have 'regarded Kohut's contribution to psychoanalysis to be an extension of Winnicott's work'.[26]

Thus Kohut emphasises that 'to be...the maintenance of even the diseased remnants of the self is preferable to not being, that is, to accept the takeover of another's personality rather than his actively elicited responsiveness'. Similarly, he stressed that 'there is a decisive difference between the support of selfobjects that are sought after and chosen by a self in harmony with its innermost ideals...and the abandoning of oneself to a foreign self, through which one gains borrowed cohesion at the price of genuine initiative and creative participation in life'.[27]


Alexander Lowen identified narcissists as having a true and a false, or superficial, self. The false self rests on the surface, as the self presented to the world. It stands in contrast to the true self, which resides behind the facade or image. This true self is the feeling self, but it is a self that must be hidden and denied. Since the superficial self represents submission and conformity, the inner or true self is rebellious and angry. This underlying rebellion and anger can never be fully suppressed since it is an expression of the life force in that person. But because of the denial, it cannot be expressed directly. Instead it shows up in the narcissist's acting out. And it can become a perverse force.[28]


James F. Masterson argued that all the personality disorders crucially involve the conflict between a person’s two “selves”: the false self, which the very young child constructs to please the mother, and the true self. The psychotherapy of personality disorders is an attempt to put people back in touch with their real selves.[29]


Jungians have explored how 'the narcissistic longings of mothers (or fathers) to amass reflected glory through their children' can result in a situation where 'in place of autonomy, the adult...would come to obey an internal source that the psychoanalyst Neville Symington calls the "discordant source"'.[30] Symington contrasted 'two poles: one in which I am the source of my own action, where I have a creative capacity that comes from my own source of action, and the other in which an inner figure opposed to myself is the source of action.[31] He termed the twin 'sources of action the "autonomous source" and the "discordant source"', and acknowledged that 'although the formulation is different, it is along the lines of what Winnicott talks about - the true self and the false self'.[32]

His main criticism of Winnicott concerned the initial adoption or internalisation of the discordant source - wanting 'to stress that an intentional identification is what brings about the donning of the false self. Winnicott leaves out this intentional aspect in his description of its origins'.[33]


In contradistinction to the relatively optimistic reading of Winnicott, whereby 'the analytic task is to give the "true self", which can feel and is cowering behind the "false self", which cannot, the strength to a butterfly liberated from its chrysalis',[34] Alice Miller warns more cautiously that 'it would be wrong to imply that there is a fully developed, true self-consciously hidden behind the false self. The important point is that the child does not know what he is hiding'.[35] She does however consider that, when 'the true self is liberated' successfully, 'where there had been only fearful emptiness or equally frightening grandiose fantasies, an unexpected wealth of vitality is now discovered'.[36]

Orbach: false bodies[edit]

Susie Orbach saw the false self as an overdevelopment (under parental pressure) of certain aspects of the self at the expense of other aspects - of the full potential of the self - producing thereby an abiding distrust of what emerges spontaneously from the individual himself or herself.[37]

Orbach went on to develop Winnicott's account of how environmental failure can lead to an inner splitting of mind and body[38] so as to extend his concept of the False Self into that of the False Body[39] - a falsified sense of one's own body.

Orbach saw the female false body in particular as built upon identifications with others, at the cost of an inner sense of authenticity and reliability.[40] Breaking up a monolithic but false body-sense in the process of therapy could allow for the emergence of a range of authentic (even if often painful) body feelings in the patient.[41]

Jungian persona[edit]

Jungians have explored 'to what extent Jung's concept of the persona overlaps with Winnicott's concept of the False Self' - noting the way 'the antecedents of such persona-identification in the individual's life-history are usually quite similar to those of the False Self'.[42] However most would agree that it is only 'when the persona is excessively rigid or defensive...[does it] then develop into a pathological false self'.[43]

Stern's tripartite self[edit]

In The Interpersonal World of the Infant, Daniel Stern considered 'the sense of physical cohesion (..."going on being", in Winnicott's term)' as essential to what he called the Core Self - providing 'an affective core to the prerepresentational self'.[44] He also explored how selective maternal attunement could create 'two versions of reality....Language becomes available to ratify the split and confer the privileged status of verbal representation upon the false self', so that 'the true self becomes a conglomerate of disavowed experiences of self which cannot be linguistically coded'.[45]

However 'in place of true self and false self, Stern suggests the adoption of a tri-partite vocabulary: the social self, the private self and the disavowed self'.[46]

Literary examples[edit]

  • In I Never Promised You a Rose Garden, the heroine's therapist explains to her parents that 'she created a robot that went through the motions of reality, and behind it the true person drew further and further away'.[47] The heroine herself could only conceive of "normality" in terms of the false self as 'a listless frozen ghost bending her every energy to the Semblance'.[48]
  • It has been suggested of Wuthering Heights that 'the relations of the true and false self, and particularly the struggle of the true self to break forth, create the underlying psychic drama of Brontë's novel'.[49]


Foucault, a philosopher, took issue with the concept of a “true self” on the grounds that the self was a construct, not (as in the Romantic paradigm) an essential to be uncovered: anti-essentialism. Foucault stated that "In the Californian cult of the self, one is supposed to discover one's true self, to separate it from what might obscure or alienate it"[50] - whereas for him what was in question was a process of subjectification, an aesthetics of self-formation.

Foucault maintained that because "the self is not given to us....there is only one practical consequence: we have to create ourselves as a work of art".[51]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ D. W. Winnicott, "Ego distortion in terms of true and false self," in The Maturational Process and the Facilitating Environment: Studies in the Theory of Emotional Development. New York: International UP Inc., 1965, pp. 140-152.
  2. ^ Salman Akhtar, Good Feelings (London 2009) p. 128
  3. ^ D. W. Winnicott, "Ego distortion in terms of true and false self", in The Maturational Process and the Facilitating Environment: Studies in the Theory of Emotional Development. New York: International UP Inc., 1965, pp. 140-152.
  4. ^ D. W. Winnicott, "Ego distortion in terms of true and false self", in The Maturational Process and the Facilitating Environment: Studies in the Theory of Emotional Development. New York: International UP Inc., 1965, p. 146.
  5. ^ Otto Fenichel, The Psychoanalytic Theory of Neurosis (London 1946) p. 445
  6. ^ Mary Jacobus, The Poetics of Psychoanalysis: In the Wake of Klein (Oxford 2005) p. 37
  7. ^ Jacques Lacan, Ecrits: A Selection (London 1997) p. 128
  8. ^ Adam Phillips, Winnicott (Harvard 1988) p. 136
  9. ^ Erich Fromm (1942), The Fear of Freedom (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul 2001) p. 175
  10. ^ Carl Rogers, On Becoming a Person (1961) p. 110
  11. ^ Winnicott, quoted in Josephine Klein, Our Need for Others (London 1994) p. 241
  12. ^ Simon Grolnick, The Work & Play of Winnicott. New Jersey: Aronson, 1990, p. 44.
  13. ^ Winnicott, quoted in Klein, p. 365
  14. ^ Rosalind Minsky, Psychoanalysis and Gender (London 1996) p. 119-20
  15. ^ Mary Jacobus, The Poetics of Psychoanalysis (Oxford 2005) p. 160
  16. ^ Winnicott, in Jacobus, p. 160
  17. ^ D. W. Winnicott, "Ego Distortion in Terms of True and False Self ', in The Maturational Process and the Facilitating Environment (London 1965) p. 121
  18. ^ Jacobus, p. 160
  19. ^ Minsky, p. 118
  20. ^ Adam Phillips, On Kissing, Tickling and Being Bored (London 1994) p. 30
  21. ^ Patrick Casement, Further Learning from the Patient (London 1990) p. 160
  22. ^ Phillips, p. 31
  23. ^ J. H. Padel, "Freudianism: Later Developmemts", in Richard Gregory ed., The Oxford Companion to the Mind (Oxford 1987) p. 273
  24. ^ Neville Symington, Narcissism: A New Theory (London 2003) p. 97
  25. ^ Janet Malcolm, Psychoanalysis: The Impossible Profession (London 1988) p. 136
  26. ^ Eugene M. DeRobertis, Humanizing Child Development Theories (2008), p. 38
  27. ^ Heinz Kohut, How Does Analysis Cure? (London 1984), pp. 142, 167.
  28. ^ Lowen, Alexander. Narcissism: Denial of the True Self. Simon & Schuster, 2004, 1984.
  29. ^ Dr. James Masterson, expert on personality disorders; at 84
  30. ^ Polly Young-Eisandrath, Women and Desire (London 2000) p. 198 and p. 112
  31. ^ Neville Symington, Narcissism: A New Theory (London 2003) p. 115
  32. ^ Symington, p. 115 and p. 36
  33. ^ Symington, p. 104
  34. ^ Janet Malcolm, Psychoanalysis: The Impossible Profession (London 1988) p. 135
  35. ^ Alice Miller, The Drama of Being a Child (2004) p. 21
  36. ^ Miller, p. 45
  37. ^ Susie Orbach, Bodies (London 2009) p. 67
  38. ^ D. W. Winnicott, Winnicott on the Child (2002) p. 76
  39. ^ Susie Orbach, The Impossibility of Sex (Penguin 1999) p. 48 and p. 216
  40. ^ Susie Orbach, in Lawrence Spurling ed., Winnicott Studies (1995) p. 6
  41. ^ Bodies, p. 67-72
  42. ^ Mario Jacoby, Shame and the Origins of Self-Esteem (1996) p. 59-60
  43. ^ Polly Young-Eisendrath/James Albert Hall, Jung's Self Psychology (1991) p. 29
  44. ^ Daniel Stern, The Interpersonal World of the Infant (1985) p. 7 and p. 93
  45. ^ Stern, p. 227
  46. ^ Michael Jacobs, D. W. Winnicott (1995) p. 129
  47. ^ Hannah Green, I Never Promised You a Rose Garden (1967) p. 104
  48. ^ Green, p. 117
  49. ^ Barbara A Schapiro, Literature and the Relational Self (1995) p. 52
  50. ^ Quoted in Paul Rabinov ed., The Foucault Reader (1991)p. 362
  51. ^ Quoted in Jon Simons ed. Contemporary Critical Theorists (2006) p. 196

Further reading[edit]

  • D. W. Winnicott, Playing and Reality (London 1971)
  • Jan Abram and Knud Hjulmand, The Language of Winnicott: A Dictionary of Winnicott's Use of Words (London 2007)
  • Susie Orbach, 'Working with the False Body', in A. Erskine/D. Judd eds., The Imaginative Body (London 1993)

External links[edit]