Most of us present different sides of ourselves depending on the situation. People would generally not make jokes and say curse words at a business meeting, just as they would most likely not show their professional and “all business” side at home with loved ones. These types of changes in our presentation enable us to work, play, and love in the many situations we experience in our daily lives. They are adaptive and necessary to live in a social world. But what happens when we lose the ability to express our authentic selves spontaneously and creatively all or most of the time? When can our “false self” become unhealthy?
Donald Winnicott (1896–1971) was a pediatrician and psychoanalyst who introduced the concept of the True and False Self. The true self, also called the “real self,” is our spontaneous and natural self-expression, a sense of being alive in mind and body that allows us to be genuinely close to others. The false self, similar to Freud’s concept of the superego, develops in compliance with social rules and the moral majority.
Winnicott’s theory posits that both the true and false self develop during infancy in reaction to and interaction with one’s caregivers. When a caregiver fails to respond, for instance, to a baby's spontaneous and genuine reactions to the world and instead imposes expectations, the baby, after repeated experiences of this, will become compliant and may experience impairment in her autonomy. Even worse, the baby may begin to feel that it is unsafe to express her true self.
For example, if a caregiver is severely depressed, the baby may experience a sense of anxiety about her neglect. Fearing that crying may provoke a negative response, however, she may try to be a “good baby” to win the attention of the distracted and unhappy caregiver. In this sense, the infant bases her feelings, thoughts, and experiences not on her own initial desires but on the caregiver’s behavior. The infant develops a false sense by internalizing her caregiver’s behavior as her own. If she does not develop and express her true self, the false self will become her dominant personality, the only way of experiencing and expressing herself.
As the baby grows into adulthood, her behavior of anticipating the demands of other people and satisfying their needs becomes the way she functions in the world. As such, she cannot express her true self. As with most defense mechanisms, this is an unconscious process. She is not aware that her dominant way of feeling, being, and experiencing is through her false self.
You may know or have heard about people who are successful, who seem to “have it all,” but who are unhappy and unfulfilled with themselves and life. We wonder how this can be. It is likely that these people are living their lives through their false selves most if not all of the time. As such, they feel a deep sense of lack and sadness even in the face of success and social gains.
To reconnect with their true selves, people need to become aware of their tendencies to satisfy other people’s wants and needs at the expense of their own wants and needs. It is when they become aware of their defense mechanisms and the roots of their development that they will begin to unleash their true selves. Due to the deep unconscious nature of their defense mechanisms, and the significant feelings of emptiness and sadness, psychotherapy would be indicated to help support this process.
Having a false self is healthy and adaptive in certain situations, and as such our true self will always be in part hidden. Having a healthy false self can happen when both parts of our personality are aware of each other and can remain compliant to the expectations of others without betraying our creative, spontaneous, and natural self-expression. It takes both parts of ourselves to give us the ability to be kind, compassionate, and loving toward others, while at the same time being kind, compassionate, loving, and accepting toward ourselves, our true selves.