“I just don’t know who I am” “I don’t feel like I exist” “I don’t feel alive”
These are complaints I often hear in therapy, and these symptoms seem mystifying and untreatable to people suffering from emptiness and identity crisis. These are patients who have robust False Selves that dominate their personalities and require validation from others’ reactions. These False Selves learned long ago their job was to keep the True Selves hidden.
The concept of the True and False Selves, articulated in Ego Distortion in Terms of True and False Self (1960), is the work of important 20th century psychoanalyst and pediatrician DW Winnicott, whose early studies of the mother-child bond paved the way for a whole generation of theorists of what is presently the best-researched area of psychology – attachment. Winnicott’s work emphasized the critical importance of the mother-infant dynamic, and how a good bond between them was necessary for healthy development.
According to Winnicott, an infant is born unintegrated – meaning that he cannot tell the difference whether a perception is coming from within himself or from the environment. When distress such as hunger emerges and then is satisfied by the mother, the infant feels omnipotent. He is not aware yet that he is separate from the mother, who responds to his cries, but rather that his needs are met by his own will.
Of course, despite this unity, the infant will have impulses to express himself completely naturally. This natural expression, or “spontaneous gesture” is the beginning of the baby’s individuality being expressed in the world.
How the mother meets natural expression determines the degree to which the “True Self” develops. This is where Winnicott implements likely his best-known concept, the “good enough mother”. It is up to the “good enough mother” to meet this spontaneity with positive encouragement or “mirroring”, to allow the infant’s ego to grow along the lines of the True Self.
“…the infant begins to believe in external reality because of the… mothers relatively successful adaption to the infant’s gestures and needs, and which acts in a way that does not clash with the infant’s omnipotence. On this basis the infant can gradually abrogate omnipotence. The True Self has a spontaneity, and this has been joined up with the world’s events.”
The “not good enough mother’ rather than meeting the baby’s expression, will substitute her own expression…for example, will shut down the infant’s spontaneity with her own gesture such as harshness or lack of engagement. The “not good enough mother” either cannot, for whatever reason, sense her infant’s needs, and/or allows her own needs or misattuned emotional states to predominate.
These early messages are critical because they determine to what degree the child will be able to express himself naturally or to get the message he has to be compliant to continue to receive care.
As stated by Winnicott:
“It is an essential part of my theory that the True Self does not become a living reality except as a result of the mother’s repeated success in meeting the infant’s spontaneous gesture…”
If the spontaneous gesture is met with acceptance, then the infant develops to understand that his authentic impulses have a place in the world to imagine and be creative as he develops his ego and personality.
So what happens if, in fact, the True Self is not cultivated? In this case, a “False Self”, propelled by that early capitulation to compliance begins to emerge. This False Self becomes a deep-seated defense whose express purpose is to keep the True Self hidden, as the early perceived rejection of the True Self indicates that only be keeping the dismissed True Self hidden will the infant’s needs continue to be met.
Ultimately, the False Self personality will continue the pattern of looking for validation from outside sources, and be rigid in his adherence to fixed ideas about himself, as the ability to have flexibility in understanding experience is in the domain of the True Self
Winnicott knew the real purpose of the False Self was to be able to enable a person to operate in society. A healthy expression of the False Self was that it functioned as just that – a bridge between the True Self and society. Pathology emerged when the False Self took over, by varying degrees, the personality and the entire self by making its purpose instead to hide the True Self. This False Self presented a persona cultivated by the “not good enough” mother who elicited what she needed from her infant instead of mirroring and encouraging his spontaneity.
Under the dominance of the False Self, certain symptoms, such as emptiness and “not knowing” who one really is, manifest. Winnicott believed that it was under the influence of the False Self that patients reported complaints of “not feeling like they ever existed”, not knowing who they were, and not feeling “alive”
“The spontaneous gesture is the True Self in action. Only the True Self can be creative and only the True Self can feel real. Whereas the True Self feels real, the existence of a False Self results in a feeling unreal or a sense of futility”
People who suffer from a robust False Self don’t fully feel their vitality; they do not feel authentic. And why should they? The foundation of their personality is built on someone else’s agenda. They have not had an opportunity to creatively explore who they really are.
But the True Self can be cultivated through unveiling its existence, confronting the reality of the past, and getting a chance – in therapy and/or through relationships with empathetic and authentic others – to honestly experience one’s spontaneity. When the True Self is finally uncovered, a patient can start to explore that self and to really live…possibly for the first time ever.