False Self

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The false self, in Donald Winnicott's developmental schema, refers to certain types of false personalities that develop as the result of early and repeated environmental failure, with the result that the true self-potential is not realized, but hidden. This idea appears in many papers and is fully presented in "The theory of infant-parent relationship" (Winnicott, 1965c).

From 1945 onward Winnicott described the infant's development. In the earliest object relationships the infant is most of the time unintegrated and absolutely dependent, requiring at first the mother's totally reliable and empathic response (primary maternal preoccupation). Later the infant accepts her gradual but tolerable failures in provision (good enough mothering) and proceeds to ego integration and relative dependence. "Not good enough mothers," those who are unable to satisfy the excited infant's needs or who demand an inappropriately integrated response from an infant unable to give it, Winnicott describes as impinging and traumatizing. When repeated traumas occur very early in development, the infant experiences extreme dread or primitive agony, and psychosis may result. To such a mother, who fails to meet the infant's gesture and substitutes one of her own, the older and more integrated infant responds in a compliant fashion. In this way the infant may develop a false self that builds up a set of relationships based on compliance or even imitation, the potential true self being unrealized and hidden.

Winnicott described five degrees of false self. In the extreme case, the true self is completely hidden, and the false self appears authentic and is frequently successful, though failing in intimate relationships. In nearly normal cases, the false self is bound by the ordinary restraints necessary for social adaptation. Winnicott emphasizes a particular type of false self in which intellectual activity is dissociated from psychosomatic existence.

Winnicott is elusive in style, because he writes from an object-related point of view. In this viewpoint, the undifferentiated infant ego exists from the beginning in a relationship without knowing it, because the sense of self and other does not yet exist. Winnicott's developmental approach, of which the concept of a false self is one aspect, differs from those of Freud and Klein. He does not directly address instincts in themselves, for instance, since his focus is on the developing and dynamic relationship between what will become the individual and the environment in which that individual will grow. His theory parallels but also differs from that of Fairbairn. On Fairbain's theory, environmental failure and lack of early intimacy must result in defensive splitting, schizoid mechanisms being the most basic. From there, there are many subsequent possibilities in terms of character development and psychopathology. Winnicott held that one can ameliorate false-self organizations of personality only by facilitating regression in analysis.

Jennifer Johns

See also: As if personality; Internal object; Lie; Normality; Self (true/false); Splitting.


Winnicott, Donald W. (1945). Primitive emotional development. International Journal of Psycho-Analysis, 26. (Reprinted in his Collected papers: through paediatrics to psycho-analysis [1958].)

. (1958). Psychosis and child care. In his Collected papers: through paediatrics to psycho-Analysis (pp. 219-228). London: Tavistock Publications. (Original work published 1952)

. (1965a). Ego distortion in terms of true and false self. In his Maturational processes and the facilitating environment (pp. 140-152). London: Hogarth and the Institute of Psycho-Analysis. (Original work published 1962)

. (1965b). Ego-integration in child development. In his Maturational processes and the facilitating environment (pp. 56-63). (Original work published 1962)

. (1965c). The theory of infant-parent relationship. In his Maturational processes and the facilitating environment (pp. 17-55). London: Hogarth and the Institute of Psycho-Analysis. (Original work published 1960)

. (1975). Through paediatrics to psycho-analysis. London: Hogarth Press and the Institute of Psycho-Analysis.

. (1989). Development of the theme of the mother's unconscious as discovered in psycho-analytic practice. In his Psychoanalytic explorations (pp. 247-250). Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.