How does the concept of the "self," both "true" and "false," influence theories of psychology?

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Jamie Wheeler eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Donald Winnicott, the English pediatrician and psychoanalyst coined the term “self-as-object” to describe the combination of the “self” and the “ego.” To Winnicott, the “self,” comes about by psychosomatic organization. The self must gradually emerge from a state of primal “unintegration.” When a person is mentally healthy, the true self, that is a person’s authentic and vital state, will always be partially or even completely hidden. Instead, a false self must be created to adapt to its environment .

Winnicott uses the term “self-as-object” throughout his work, although the definition evolved as his career continued. Over time, his notions of the ideas about “true” and “false” selves became more definitive. The first paper in which he discusses the idea of true and false selves, "Aggression in Relation to Emotional Development" appeared in 1950. In this paper, Winnicott argues for the necessity of the “innate maturational tendency to operate within the facilities.” Here, an infant’s need for continuity of environment is emphasized. A baby need to have a predictable environment to depend on in order for him or her to have a positive foundation for the true self to develop. The true self, according to Winnicott, is “the summation of sensorimotor aliveness." Later papers, especially "Primary Maternal Preoccupation" (1956) and "Ego Distortion in Terms of True and False Self," (1960) go into further detail. In these papers, focus is given to the mother’s preoccupation with her infant. Her constant handling of the baby protects the child from “impingement,” that is, environmental changes that may be upsetting. When she is not physically holding the baby, she must engage in “empathetic attunement,” so that the child continues to feel that he or she is supported. This support from a bit of a distance allows the baby to develop his or her individual sense of identity. Conversely, failure in these early stages of life, when a baby feels unsafe and insecure in his or her environment can result in psychosis.

As the child matures, the mother must adapt her constant care and allow the child increasing degrees of independence, until she reaches a threshold Winnicott deems “good enough mothering.” As the infant masters new skills, the mother backs off and allows the child greater autonomy. Her ability to “gesture,” towards the baby’s needs, allowing him or her satisfy his wants or needs, makes the baby feel omnipotent, and allows the development of symbolization. When the mother fails to get a reaction or response from the mother, his or her sense of self grows, as he detaches from her own identity. This detachment allows the “true self” to emerge.

Not all mothers are “good enough,” however, The “not-good-enough” mother fails to respond to the baby with empathy. She fails to “meet the infant’s gesture.” There is some room for the child to adapt to her lack of attention, filling in the space with “hallucination,” that is, pretending that her level of care is up to par. However, with repeated neglect, this coping mechanism fails. The baby cannot even identify his own needs and wants. He feels “impinged upon,” and his responses to his environment can be excessive and exaggerated. The infant is forced to develop a “false self” in order to cope with the fear that the “true self” will be destroyed. The baby must become a “caretaker self,” fulfilling his own needs, though incompletely, when the mother fails to do so.

Intellectual acuity plays a role in determining how well a baby’s “caretaker self” can cope, and a false self still forms. There are five degrees, according to Winnicott, in the formation of the false self: 1) the ability to present a façade of normality to the adaptions we must all make to function in society. On the outside, people who live with a “false self” exterior may appear to be successful, but in reality, they feel empty. Moreover, they frequently become the caretakers of others but seem unable to let others care for them.

To overcome the negative aspects of the false self, Winnicott advocated regression through psychoanalysis. This therapy must address the individual’s earliest environmental problems. Everything, both successes and failures, Winnicott believed, begins in early childhood.

His work has been very influential in psychology. Among those who use his techniques are used by Ronald Fairbain, whose work with the “schizoid personality” is largely influenced by Winnicott’s work identifying a baby’s primal need for intimacy. Likewise, Michael Balint’s ideas regarding “harmonious mix-up” are grounded in Winnicott’s identification of the “basic fault” of mothers who fail to give their infants love, which all babies require. Addtionally, Heinz Kouhut owes a debt to Winnicott’s “psychology of the self,” as does Margaret Mahler, who continued Winnicott’s work, studying the “separation and individuation phases.”

SourceInternational Dictionary of Psychoanalysis, ©2005 Gale Cengage. All Rights Reserved.

Ashley Kannan eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Theories of psychological development are impacted by the notion of the self.  The "true" and "false" senses of the self both impact psychological understanding.  When Winnicott formulates his understanding of the "true" and "false" notion of the self in the 1960s, he is pulling from the Freudian understanding of self.  While the language might different, the fundamental premise is the same. In both constructions, there is a division between the way human beings actually are and between the human beings that social acceptance compels us to be.  

It is in this element where psychological inquiry is impacted.  Theories of psychology are grounded in the exploration of such a dynamic.  The "true" self resides in an authentic expression of individual consciousness.  The "false" self is based on how individuals perceive themselves to be in the eyes of "the other."  The gulf between these two realities and how the latter can control the individual is where psychology resides.  Different psychologists take different approaches in analyzing such a dynamic.  Yet, much of understanding the individual rests in such a reality.  The individual we are and the one that society influences us to be is of vital importance to psychology.  Examining where that line rests and how individuals understand such a distinction is critical to psychological understanding, as such a condition can prove to be challenging to the individual. This dichotomy and construction of the individual is what psychological inquiry seeks to explore and better understand.  Winnicott understood this as the basis of psychological exploration:  "There is a compliant aspect to the true self and healthy living, an ability of the infant to comply and not be exposed, an ability to compromise.  The equivalent of the false self in normal development is that which can develop the child into a social manner, something that is adaptive."  The terms that Winnicott understood as part of the "true" and "false" self lie at the heart of psychology.  The ideas of "healthy living" and "social manner" strike at the basis of the relevance of the psychological field.  Exploring this dynamic in the lives of the individual is where the concepts of the "true" and "false" senses of self influence theories of psychology.