Donald Winnicott And The Theory Of The False Self

Donald Winnicott and the False Self Theory

Donald Winnicott was a famous British psychiatrist, psychoanalyst and pediatrician who developed an interesting theory about personality. Being a pediatrician, he focused his reflections on children. In particular, he analyzed the relationship between mother and infant and all the consequences that derive from it.

He collaborated with the famous psychoanalyst Melanie Klein, including in the treatment of one of her children. He was president of the British Psychoanalytic Association, as well as a famous twentieth-century thinker.

One of his most interesting contributions is certainly the false self theory , or false self  theory,  together with the concepts of “good enough mother” and “normally devoted mother”. Likewise, his concept of “transitional object” has been adopted by many psychological currents.

The relationship between mother and child according to Winnicott

In line with the thinking of other psychoanalysts, Winnicott argues that during the first year of life, the mother and the infant constitute a single unit. The baby cannot be considered as a separate entity from the mother. The two constitute an inseparable psychic unity.

Mom cuddles baby

Winnicott defines the mother as the first environment a human being has. The absolute basis of its subsequent development. Especially in the first months of life, it is fair to say that the mother is the universe of the baby. For him, the world is synonymous with mom.

In this regard, Winnicott introduces the concept of “good enough mother”, the one who gives the right attention to the little one in a spontaneous and sincere way.  She is willing to be the “base” and “environment” that the child needs. She is not perfect, she does not overdo the attention, but she does not neglect the child. This mother gives rise to a true self .

At the same time, the “normally devoted mother” is the one who develops excessive attachment or overprotection towards her child. He is unable to react to the child’s spontaneous manifestations by giving rise to a false self .

Winnicott and the False Self

The mother is like a mirror to the child. The baby has a vision of himself that corresponds to the way his mother sees him. Learn to identify with mankind through his figure. Little by little, the baby detaches itself from the mother and she just has to adapt to this change.

The child will begin to make spontaneous gestures that are part of his individuality. If the mother accepts these gestures, the baby will feel that he is real. However, if these gestures are ignored, the child experiences a feeling of unreality.

Child feeling estranged

When this interaction between mother and child fails, what Winnicott calls a “break in existential continuity” occurs. Put simply, it is a sudden interruption of the child’s spontaneous development process. This is where the origin of the false self or false self resides .

Winnicott points out that in this case it is as if the child becomes “his own mother”. This means that he begins to hide his true self to protect himself. He starts showing only what his mother wants to see, so to speak. He turns into someone he really isn’t.

The Effects of the False Self

There are various levels of self-falsification. At the lowest level we find those who adopt a courteous attitude and adapt  to norms and orders. At the opposite extreme we find schizophrenia, a state of mind in which the person appears dissociated, up to the point where, practically, his true self disappears.

According to Winnicott, in all serious mental pathologies there is a component linked to the false self. In these cases, the person employs all his energies in creating and maintaining this false self, in order to be able to face a world that is perceived as unpredictable and unreliable.

Winnicott states that much of the efforts of a person with a very strong false self are directed towards the intellectualization of reality. These people tend to transform reality into an object of reason, and not of emotion, affection and creative acts. When intellectualization is successful, the individual is finally perceived as normal. However, he does not live life as his own, but perceives it as something foreign.

Man with camera on his head

He cannot feel happy for his achievements or appreciated, even when he actually is.  This happens because he feels that his false self is actually successful or appreciated. This marks a break with himself and with the world. His true self remains confined, fantasizing and experiencing a malaise that he will never be able to truly understand.

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