Donald Winnicott used the term "self" to describe both "ego" and self-as-object. He describes the self in terms of a psychosomatic organization, emerging from a primary state of "unintegration" by gradual stages. The true self, which in health expresses the authenticity and vitality of the person, will always be in part or in whole hidden; the false self is a compliant adaptation to environmental impingement.
This characteristically fluid use of the term can be traced throughout his work, evolving in terms of true and false selves. The first paper to clarify the existence of true and false selves as entities is "Aggression in Relation to Emotional Development" (1950-55). Winnicott, from within his own object-relations theory, postulates the necessity for the innate maturational tendency to operate within the facilitating environment (1960). This is expressed in terms of the individual baby's need for an environment allowing uninterrupted continuity of being, which lays the foundations for psychosomatic integration, aliveness, and the beginnings of awareness of self, true self being "the summation of sensorimotor aliveness." In several papers, notably "Primary Maternal Preoccupation" (1956) and "Ego Distortion in Terms of True and False Self," (1960) he describes the exquisite adaptation, or primary maternal preoccupation in the new mother, whose handling (and in particular, holding) of her infant, protects the baby from "impingement," or environmental failure. Within such holding, which must involve both physical contact and empathic attunement, "going on being" is supported, and this allows the beginning of individuation. Environmental failure at this stage, when primitive agonies threaten, can result in psychosis, which Winnicott thought of as an environmental deficiency disease (1949).
Later, careful maternal adaptation must of necessity fail, gradually, and in stages (good-enough mothering), at such a pace that the developing infant can manage each stage, and replace each environmental lack with mental activity. Early on, the "good-enough mother" succeeds repeatedly in meeting and realizing the infant's sensory hallucination, or "gesture," thus allowing in infantile sense of omnipotence and the development of the later capacity for symbolization. With gradual failures of response from mother, the infant's experience of omnipotence can then be gradually relinquished, and recognition of reality, together with spontaneity and authenticity, becomes possiblehe "true self."
The "not-good-enough mother" cannot respond sensitively and empathically, and fails to "meet the infant's gesture." While the infant can adapt to this up to a point, filling the gap with hallucination, eventually this mechanism fails and the infant loses touch with their own needs, responds excessively to the environment, and becomes "impinged upon," traumatized, and incapable of symbol-usage. At this point the infant, seduced into compliance, develops a "false self," reacting to environmental demands and relinquishing or hiding the remnants of spontaneity, the "true self." The existence of the "false self" is a defense against the feared annihilation of the true self, and becomes a "caretaker self," taking over those functions unfulfilled by mother.
In some infants, particularly those well endowed with intellectual potential, the mind becomes the "caretaker self," over-valued and in conflict with the psychesoma (1949). Winnicott described five degrees of false self formation, from severe limitation of spontaneity and liveliness with convincing imitation of normality, to those ordinary social adaptations necessary for life in human society. False self personalities may be superficially successful, but empty; they may become caretakers of others while being unable to allow dependency in themselves.
Winnicott believed that in psychoanalysis regression was a necessary phase for "false self personalities," in order to work through the earliest environmental failures. He advised against inexperienced analysts taking on this kind of work.
Winnicott's work has been usefully adapted in several ways. For Ronald Fairbairn, the "schizoid personality" derives from his understanding that the infant's primary need is for intimacy. In his reading environmental failure leads to splitting and to defenses against it. Michael Balint's "harmonious mix-up" can be seen as an early undifferentiated phase; his ideas about the "basic fault" relate to primary position of the infant's desire to be loved by its mother. Heinz Kohut develops a "psychology of the self" and describes "maternal self-object functioning." Margaret Mahler locates in early childhood a "symbiotic fusion" with the mother, and describes separation/individuation phases. Daniel Stern compares the "core self" and the "self with other."
Winnicott, while not abandoning drive theory, stresses the importance of relationships from the beginning. His writing is elusive, idiosyncratic, and often cryptic. Unlike Melanie Klein, whose concern was with the infant's internal, often instinctual struggles, his focus was on the emergence of the individual from the earliest relationship, an emergence which could be adversely affected by either impingement or deficiency of provision.
See also: Addiction; Anality; As if personality; Autistic capsule/nucleus; Breakdown; Child analysis; Creativity; False self; Good-enough mother; Holding; Integration; Internal object; Lie; Narcissism; Object; Protective shield, breaking through the; Self; Splitting; Transitional phenomena.
Winnicott, Donald. (1949). Mind and its relation to the psych-soma. British Journal of Medical Psychology, 27, 1954; and in Collected papers, through paediatrics to psycho-analysis. London: Tavistock Publications, 1958, pp. 243-254.
. (1955). Aggression in relation to emotional development. In Collected papers, through paediatrics to psychoanalysis. London: Tavistock Publications, 1958, pp. 204-218.
. (1956). Primary maternal preoccupation. In Collected papers, through paediatrics to psycho-analysis. London: Tavistock Publications, 1958, pp. 300-305.
. (1962). Ego distortion in terms of true and false self. In Maturational processes and the facilitating environment. London: Hogarth Press and the Institute of Psychoanalysis, 1965, pp. 140-152.
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