‘Ego Distortion in terms of True and False Self’ – A summary and reflection on Donald Winnicott’s 1960 paper.
Donald Winnicott’s ideas of the True and False Self constitute a technical description of specific state of being which can be traced back to the adult’s formative relationship with their ‘primary object’, the mother. The theory arose from his work as a psychoanalyst and paediatrician, who worked in Britain and wrote prolifically from the 1930’s until his death in the early 1970s. Winnicott’s work with mothers and infants gave him an insight into the correlation between inadequate bonding with the mother, and later developmental and psychological disturbances.
In this paper Winnicott argues that every baby develops according to one of two possible pathways which then determine whether a True Self or False Self emerges;
“In the first case the mother’s adaptation is good enough and in consequence the infant begins to believe in external reality which appears and behaves as by magic […] and which acts in a way that does not clash with the infant’s omnipotence.[…] In the second case […] the mother’s adaptation to the infant’s hallucinations and spontaneous impulses is deficient, not good enough. The process that leads to the capacity for symbol-usage does not get started […] in practice the infant lives, but lives falsely”. (1960, p. 146).
The mother’s lack of sensitivity to the baby’s needs leads to him becoming prematurely autonomous as a defence to protect the True Self from discovery. Winnicott is quite clear about what constitutes ‘good enough’ mothering, and what does not. As touched on above, a ‘good enough’ mother meets the infant’s omnipotence which means strengthening the infant’s weak ego. On the other hand, a ‘not good enough’ mother does not implement the infant’s omnipotence, and instead, substitutes her own gesture to which the infant responds by complying. The baby is not thus able to believe, for a period, in the “illusion of omnipotence” in which its true self can flourish.
This helps to understand the aetiology of the False Self – it is in large part attributed to a repeated lack of sensitivity to the true needs of the developing psyche, on the part of the mother. Her reactions do not correspond to what the baby is expecting, so they are inappropriate ‘impingements’. The repeated failure affects the pre-reflective, nonconscious mind of the baby all the way to adult life. The False Self is “evidently a real clinical state [that] exists”.
The less extreme version of the disturbance (nevertheless termed a ‘clinical illness’ ) still acknowledges the True Self and allows it a secret life. It may search for conditions which make it possible for the True Self to reign. When such conditions are not met, the result is ego ‘suicide’ which in this context means “destruction of the total self in avoidance of annihilation of the True Self.”
The True Self adult develops a wide range of cognitive and emotional skills. It learns to become truly autonomous when it is ready. It inhabits social roles comfortably and with careful consideration. It assesses its relationships independently and comports itself securely. Admittedly the True Self conception is an aspiration to which we aspire, and it could be contended that it is an idealisation.
The False Self however is concerned with identifications, false as they may be, and with a mannered and acceptable social attitude. It adheres to protocols willingly, and succumbs to external authority rather than establishing its own. It seeks to maintain relationships and gain approval even when this is detrimental to its wellbeing. These dependencies are comfortable because they buffer the True Self. Compliance and imitation are main features of the False Self.
There is some internal acknowledgement that, ‘This is not my True Self’, but the False Self’s relationships nevertheless seem very real to that individual and to others. They are in indeed in place of the real.
“Where the mother cannot adapt well enough, the infant gets seduced into a compliance, and a compliant False Self reacts to environmental demands and the infant seems to accept them. 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, so that the child may grow to be just like mother […]. The False Self has one positive and very important function: to hide the True Self, which it does by compliance with environmental demands.” (1960, p. 146-7).
Winnicott’s words are significant to me, because they suggest that the powerful influence of the False Self can overshadow any notion of the True Self. It is a defence which can outlast its usefulness.
For me, in my own experiences as a person that has sought help from the psychoanalytic model of therapy two years ago, a lot of what was revealed to me in that process rang true in light of Winnicott’s False Self theory. As I began the process of unpacking the weighty emotional baggage that had held me back my whole life, notions of a False Self emerged as my deepest issue.
In a blogpost from that time I recounted a session with my psychotherapist, in which I was asked to talk to my five-year-old self. What would I say to the child?
“The things I wanted to say, she wouldn’t understand. I want to tell her she must have the strength to be true to herself. I want to tell her she must find her own happiness. I want to tell her it’s OK to be who she is. Trust yourself. I want to tell her that it’s good to be open to love and laughter. Get out of your head more. If I could tell her just one thing, I’d say “enjoy now”. ”
This paints a poignant picture of both the adult coming to a painful realisation that something in her current position in life is terribly lacking, and that the promise of childhood was not fulfilled. We have the portrait of a child who is already not being her real self, a child who does not know anything about inner happiness, a child who looks to others for identity and belonging, a child who is afraid of spontaneous, joyful responses, a child who lives in her intellect already, who doesn’t have a conception of living in the moment.
What was startling for me reading Winnicott’s 1960 article, was his recognition of the “danger of the […] not infrequent tie-up between the intellectual approach and the False Self.” He wrote of the tendency for the mind to become the location of this Self, creating a dissociation between intellectual activity and psychosomatic existence. A fine intellect and a high degree of academic success were always important to me but even now I cannot articulate why.
It was something that my psychotherapist picked up on very early. I used to write notes during our sessions, with my rationale being that since I was paying to have these insights, I might as well capture them on paper so I can work on them properly.
“The subject of my reliance on thinking/writing also came up. G came to the conclusion I use my strongly developed mind instead of my feelings. I justify and rationalise all kinds of things, that then have an effect on my behaviour. And once poisoned thought becomes feeling then action, all hell breaks loose.” and
“G pointed out that it was obvious the inflated emphasis I put on cerebral activities. I had not realised before that there was an alternative. My mind is always crowded with thoughts about something and nothing. These aren’t necessarily productive thoughts such as ideas, but can instead be circular, neurotic, mildly paranoid and self-sabotaging.”
This reveals an interesting facet of the False Self. Rather than detaching from pursuits that may require one’s own authentic opinion, as intellectualism does, it can be set up as a defence. Academic success is only another thing to hide behind and it is eventually found to be lacking. “The individual “feels ‘phoney’ the more he or she is successful” For someone with a False Self, safe places are always being sought. The only satisfactory ones, sadly, are in one’s own mind.
How do we find and express our True Self? I am sure there are many ways but for Winnicott the solution was to take part in psychoanalytic work in which a “period of extreme dependence” takes place after the individual’s own acknowledgement that the False Self is operating. One of Winnicott’s most influential ideas was the ‘holding environment’ which refers to an ordinary, loving mother holding her child both emotionally and physically. An appropriate holding environment is essential for the True Self to develop as the primary self. When the holding environment in early life was deficient, the psychotherapeutic intervention may help later. “A correct and well-timed interpretation in an analytic treatment gives a sense of being held physically that is more real…than if a real holding or nursing had taken place. Understanding goes deeper”. The therapy relationship in essence recreates that early relationship.
For me, the False Self was never fully resolved, as the therapy was short term. I certainly found it very wrenching and emotionally exhausting to spend so long being back in early life, and didn’t have stable structures in place to be able to cope with that. Opening the floodgates is all very well but without flood defences, you will drown. I’ve sought changes via different, personal means such as love, service and faith, not through being inward-looking nor dwelling in the past.
 Winnicott, D. W. (New York, 1965). ‘Ego Distortion in Terms of True and False Self’, in The Maturational Process and the Facilitating Environment: Studies in the Theory of Emotional Development, p. 140 (Accessed via Gestalt NYC: http://tinyurl.com/z7h4r2a)
 Ibid, p 143
 Winnicott, D. W. (1965) p. 147
 Winnicott, D. W. (1965) p. 144
 Winnicott, D. W. (1965) p. 144
 Ibid, p. 151
 Casement, Patrick (London, 1997) Further Learning from the Patient, pp. 96–7