What is the "false self" in Donald Winnicott's theory of infant development?

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The concept of the “false self” was developed by Donald Winnicott. The false self is used to describe types of alternative personalities that come about due to early and repeated failures in the subject’s environment. In an effort to protect a subject’s true identity, the brain “hides” the real self. This theory is fully explained in Winnicott’s 1965 paper “The Theory of Infant-Parent Relationship,” as well as other papers.

Beginning in 1945 and continuing throughout his career, Donald Winnicott studied and documented infant development. He discovered that a baby is completely dependent on a mother’s reliable and empathetic response to his or her needs. He coined this absolute dependency “primary maternal preoccupation.” As the infant grows, he or she gradually comes to accept some shortcomings in the mother’s responses, which Winnicott calls “good enough mothering.” The child then proceeds to navigating ego independence, lessening, somewhat, his complete dependence. Those mothers who cannot or will not satisfy their infants’ needs, or ones that expect too much independence too soon are deemed by Winnicott as damaging to the child’s development. A child may well experience psychosis from repeated traumatic experiences, sometimes called “primitive dread.” When a mother favors her own wants and desires above that of her infant’s, the baby responds by sometimes imitating her or learning to silence his or her own needs. In this way, the “true self” that needs to mature does not do so but remains hidden and underdeveloped.

According to Winnicott, there are five degrees of the false self. In the worst-case scenarios, the “extreme cases,” the true self is completely hidden. The false self is required to become so strong that it appears to be the true self. Extreme cases are often successful in life, but typically their intimate lives suffer. At the other end of the scale, the “nearly normal cases” still retain a false self but meet ordinary social expectations. In some degree, therefore, everyone possesses a degree of the false self. In another type of false self, intellectual pursuits are divorced from “psychosomatic experiences.”

It is difficult to categorize all of Winnicott’s thoughts as he works “from an object-related” perspective. From this point-of-view, the infant’s ego is present from birth and enters into a relationship with his or her mother without any consciousness of doing so. The baby’s sense of self as separated from other people has not yet been established. His theory is different from Freud’s or Klein’s in that Winnicott does not address the instincts; instead, he studies the progress of the development of relationships themselves, observing how the individual becomes an individual, and assessing how infants’ environment affects the authentic self.

Donald Winnicott’s theories have similarities to those of William Ronald Dodds Fairbairn. Fairbain postulated that failures in an infant’s environment and lack of intimacy in the first few months of life necessarily resulted in great difficulties, the most basic of which are “schizoid mechanisms.” Winnicott’s contribution is to argue that people can overcome the false self by exploring regression therapy while undergoing psychoanalysis.

Source: International Dictionary of Psychoanalysis, ©2005 Gale Cengage.

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Donald Winnicott, a renowned psychoanalyst, trained as a pediatrician and introduced the concept of the "true self" and "false self" in discussing the development of an infant. The debate continues regarding the causes of individual differences caused by personal circumstances and other environmental influences. The theories of Freud, Fromm and Carl Rogers, for example, all have their own interpretations which have some bearing on Winnicott's versions of "self." Freud's "ego" intervenes between the primitive "id" and the moral "super ego" in order to create balance whereas Winnicott "false self" dominates when the true self cannot create the desired environment. He stresses the relationship between a caregiver - usually a mother or mother-figure - in defining the "true self" from which comes the need to develop a "false self," present in everyone to some degree but most noticeable in those where the "false self" dominates the infant's environment as he or she struggles to feel secure.

The ability of an infant to adapt to his circumstances has been an accepted theory even as Charles Darwin observed his own young son, "Doddy," develop and Darwin documented his findings in his journal. Winnicott, in recognizing the ability of an infant to appreciate life even in the most fundamental way of simply breathing and feeling safe, also identifies an infant's need to please his caregiver and, from this, the "false self" develops. It is a defense mechanism; that means of protection, to ensure that the status-quo is maintained and, even an infant creates this environment when his needs are not spontaneously met and he is forced to find a way to feel protected and shielded from unknown but very present threats to his safety.

In terms of Winnicott's theory, as the infant matures, he is able to mask his true self and, in a young child, this can lead to behavioral difficulties as children react apparently "out of character" when the "true self reveals itself unexpectedly. In most people, this may create some measure of discomfort but it is possible to move on from it but in those for whom the "false self" has become the reality, revealing the true self often has dire consequences as repressed emotions cause extreme reactions.

A Child' World Tenth Edition McGraw Hill

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