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True self and false self

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Title: True self and false self  
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Subject: Enlightenment (spiritual), Counterdependency, Superficial charm, Narcissism, Self
Collection: Conceptions of Self, Narcissism, Psychoanalytic Terminology, Self
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True self and false self

True self and false self are concepts introduced into psychoanalysis in 1960 by D. W. Winnicott.[1] Winnicott used "True Self" to describe a sense of self based on spontaneous authentic experience, and a feeling of being alive, having a "real self".[2]

"False Self" by contrast Winnicott saw as a defensive facade[1] — one which in extreme cases could leave its holders lacking spontaneity and feeling dead and empty, behind a mere appearance of being real.[1]


  • Characteristics 1
  • Precursors 2
  • Later developments 3
    • Kohut 3.1
    • Lowen 3.2
    • Masterson 3.3
    • Symington 3.4
    • Miller 3.5
    • Orbach: false bodies 3.6
    • Jungian persona 3.7
    • Stern's tripartite self 3.8
  • Literary examples 4
  • Criticisms 5
  • See also 6
  • References 7
  • Further reading 8
  • External links 9


Winnicott saw the True Self as rooted from early infancy in the experience of being alive, including blood pumping and lungs breathing – what Winnicott called simply being.[3] Out of this the baby creates the experience of a sense of reality, a sense that life is worth living. The baby's spontaneous, nonverbal gestures derive from that instinctual sense,[4] and if responded to by the motherer, become the basis for the continuing development of the True Self.

However, when what Winnicott was careful to describe as good enough parenting — i.e. not necessarily perfect![5] — was not in place, the infant's spontaneity was in danger of being encroached on by the need for compliance with the parents' wishes/expectations.[6] The result for Winnicott could be the creation of what he called the False Self, where “Other people's expectations can become of overriding importance, overlaying or contradicting the original sense of self, the one connected to the very roots of one's being”.[7] The danger he saw was that “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”,[8] while in fact merely concealing a barren emptiness behind an independent-seeming facade.[9]

The danger was particularly acute where the baby had to provide attunement for the mother/parents, rather than vice versa, building up a sort of dissociated recognition of the object on an impersonal, not personal and spontaneous basis.[10] But while such a pathological False Self stifled the spontaneous gestures of the True Self in favour of a lifeless imitation, Winnicott nevertheless considered it of vital importance in preventing something worse: the annihilating experience of the exploitation of the hidden True Self itself.[11]


There was much in psychoanalytic theory on which Winnicott could draw for his concept of the False Self. Helene Deutsch had described the "as if" personalities, with their pseudo relationships substituting for real ones.[12] Winnicott's analyst, Joan Riviere, had explored the concept of the narcissist's masquerade — superficial assent concealing a subtle hidden struggle for control.[13] Freud's own late theory of the ego as the product of identifications[14] came close to viewing it only as a false self;[15] while Winnicott's true/false distinction has also been compared to Michael Balint's "basic fault" and to Ronald Fairbairn's notion of the "compromised ego".[16]

Erich Fromm, in his The Fear of Freedom distinguished between original self and pseudo self — the inauthenticality of the latter being a way to escape the loneliness of freedom;[17] while much earlier the existentialist like Kierkegaard had claimed that “to will to be that self which one truly is, is indeed the opposite of despair” — the despair of choosing “to be another than himself”.[18]

Later developments

The last half-century have seen Winnicott's ideas extended and applied in a variety of contexts, both in psychoanalysis and beyond.


Kohut extended Winnicott's work in his investigation of narcissism,[19] seeing narcissists as evolving a defensive armor around their damaged inner selves.[20] He considered it less pathological to identify with the damaged remnants of the self, than to achieve coherence through identification with an external personality at the cost of one's own autonomous creativity.[21]


Alexander Lowen identified narcissists as having a true and a false, or superficial, self. The false self rests on the surface, as the self presented to the world. It stands in contrast to the true self, which resides behind the facade or image. This true self is the feeling self, but it is a self that must be hidden and denied. Since the superficial self represents submission and conformity, the inner or true self is rebellious and angry. This underlying rebellion and anger can never be fully suppressed since it is an expression of the life force in that person. But because of the denial, it cannot be expressed directly. Instead it shows up in the narcissist's acting out. And it can become a perverse force.[22]


James F. Masterson argued that all the personality disorders crucially involve the conflict between a person’s two “selves”: the false self, which the very young child constructs to please the mother, and the true self. The psychotherapy of personality disorders is an attempt to put people back in touch with their real selves.[23]


Symington developed Winnicott's contrast between true and false self to cover the sources of personal action, contrasting an autonomous and a discordant source of action — the latter drawn from the internalisation of external influences and pressures.[24] Thus for example parental dreams of self-glorification by way of their child's achievements can be internalised as an alien discordant source of action.[25] Symington stressed however the intentional element in the individual's abandoning the autonomous self in favour of a false self or narcissistic mask — something he considered Winnicott to have overlooked.[26]


Alice Miller cautiously warns that a child/patient may not have any formed true self, waiting behind the false self facade;[27] and that as a result freeing the true self is not as simple as the Winnicottian image of the butterfly emerging from its cocoon.[28] If a true self can be developed, however, she considered that the empty grandiosity of the false self could give way to a new sense of autonomous vitality.[29]

Orbach: false bodies

Susie Orbach saw the false self as an overdevelopment (under parental pressure) of certain aspects of the self at the expense of other aspects — of the full potential of the self — producing thereby an abiding distrust of what emerges spontaneously from the individual himself or herself.[30] Orbach went on to extend Winnicott's account of how environmental failure can lead to an inner splitting of mind and body,[31] so as to cover the idea of the False Body — a falsified sense of one's own body.[32] Orbach saw the female false body in particular as built upon identifications with others, at the cost of an inner sense of authenticity and reliability.[33] Breaking up a monolithic but false body-sense in the process of therapy could allow for the emergence of a range of authentic (even if often painful) body feelings in the patient.[34]

Jungian persona

Jungians have explored the overlap between Jung's concept of the persona and Winnicott's False Self;[35] but, while noting similarities, consider that only the most rigidly defensive persona approximates to the pathological status of the false self.[36]

Stern's tripartite self

Daniel Stern considered Winnicott's sense of "going on being" as constitutive of the core, pre-verbal self.[37] He also explored how language could be used to reinforce a false sense of self, leaving the true self linguistically opaque and disavowed.[38] He ended however by proposing a three-fold division of social, private, and of disavowed self.[39]

Literary examples

  • Wuthering Heights has been interpreted in terms of the true self's struggle to break through the conventional overlay.[40]


  • Neville Symington criticised Winnicott for failing to integrate his false self insight with the theory of ego and id.[42] Similarly continental analysts like Jean-Bertrand Pontalis have made use of true/false self as a clinical distinction, while having reservations about its theoretical status.[43]
  • The philosopher Michel Foucault took issue more broadly with the concept of a “true self” on the anti-essentialist grounds that the self was a construct — something one had to evolve through a process of subjectification, an aesthetics of self-formation, not something simply waiting to be uncovered:[44] "we have to create ourselves as a work of art".[45]

See also


  1. ^ a b c
  2. ^ Salman Akhtar, Good Feelings (London 2009) p. 128
  3. ^ Mary Jacobus, The Poetics of Psychoanalysis (Oxford 2005) p. 160
  4. ^ D. W. Winnicott, "Ego Distortion in Terms of True and False Self ', in The Maturational Process and the Facilitating Environment (London 1965) p. 121
  5. ^ Simon Grolnick, The Work & Play of Winnicott (New Jersey: Aronson 1990) p. 44
  6. ^ Rosalind Minsky, Psychoanalysis and Gender (London 1996) p. 118
  7. ^ Winnicott, quoted in Josephine Klein, Our Need for Others (London 1994) p. 241
  8. ^ Winnicott, quoted in Josephine Klein, Our Need for Others (London 1994) p. 365
  9. ^ Rosalind Minsky, Psychoanalysis and Gender (London 1996) p. 119-20
  10. ^ Adam Phillips, On Kissing, Tickling and Being Bored (London 1994) p. 30-1
  11. ^ Mary Jacobus, The Poetics of Psychoanalysis (Oxford 2005) p. 160
  12. ^ Otto Fenichel, The Psychoanalytic Theory of Neurosis (London 1946) p. 445
  13. ^ Mary Jacobus, The Poetics of Psychoanalysis: In the Wake of Klein (Oxford 2005) p. 37
  14. ^ Jacques Lacan, Ecrits: A Selection (London 1997) p. 128
  15. ^ Adam Phillips, Winnicott (Harvard 1988) p. 136
  16. ^ J. H. Padel, "Freudianism: Later Developmemts", in Richard Gregory ed., The Oxford Companion to the Mind (Oxford 1987) p. 273
  17. ^ Erich Fromm (1942), The Fear of Freedom (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul 2001) p. 175
  18. ^ Quoted in Carl Rogers, On Becoming a Person (1961) p. 110
  19. ^ Eugene M. DeRobertis, Humanizing Child Development Theories (2008), p. 38
  20. ^ Janet Malcolm, Psychoanalysis: The Impossible Profession (London 1988) p. 136
  21. ^ Heinz Kohut, How Does Analysis Cure? (London 1984), pp. 142, 167.
  22. ^ Lowen, Alexander. Narcissism: Denial of the True Self. Simon & Schuster, 2004, 1984.
  23. ^ Dr. James Masterson, expert on personality disorders; at 84
  24. ^ Neville Symington, Narcissism: A New Theory (London 2003) p. 115 and p. 36
  25. ^ Polly Young-Eisandrath, Women and Desire (London 2000) p. 198 and p. 112
  26. ^ Neville Symington, Narcissism: A New Theory (London 2003) p. 104
  27. ^ Alice Miller, The Drama of Being a Child (2004) p. 21
  28. ^ Janet Malcolm, Psychoanalysis: The Impossible Profession (London 1988) p. 135
  29. ^ Alice Miller, The Drama of Being a Child (2004) p. 45
  30. ^ Susie Orbach, Bodies (London 2009) p. 67
  31. ^ D. W. Winnicott, Winnicott on the Child (2002) p. 76
  32. ^ Susie Orbach, The Impossibility of Sex (Penguin 1999) p. 48 and p. 216
  33. ^ Susie Orbach, in Lawrence Spurling ed., Winnicott Studies (1995) p. 6
  34. ^ Susie Orbach, Bodies (London 2009) p. 67-72
  35. ^ Mario Jacoby, Shame and the Origins of Self-Esteem (1996) p. 59-60
  36. ^ Polly Young-Eisendrath/James Albert Hall, Jung's Self Psychology (1991) p. 29
  37. ^ Daniel Stern, The Interpersonal World of the Infant (1985) p. 7 and p. 93
  38. ^ Daniel Stern, The Interpersonal World of the Infant (1985) p. 227
  39. ^ Michael Jacobs, D. W. Winnicott (1995) p. 129
  40. ^ Barbara A Schapiro, Literature and the Relational Self (1995) p. 52
  41. ^ Hannah Green, I Never Promised You a Rose Garden (1967) p. 117 and 104
  42. ^ Neville Symington, Narcissism: A New Theory (London 2003) p. 97
  43. ^ V. R. Sherwood/C. P. Cohen, Psychotherapy of the Quiet Borderline Patient (1994) p. 50
  44. ^ Paul Rabinov ed., The Foucault Reader (1991)p. 362
  45. ^ Quoted in Jon Simons ed. Contemporary Critical Theorists (2006) p. 196

Further reading

  • D. W. Winnicott, Playing and Reality (London 1971)
  • Jan Abram and Knud Hjulmand, The Language of Winnicott: A Dictionary of Winnicott's Use of Words (London 2007)
  • Susie Orbach, 'Working with the False Body', in A. Erskine/D. Judd eds., The Imaginative Body (London 1993)

External links

  • Self (True/False)
  • The Wikiversity course Unmasking the True Self
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