Modern Psychoanalysis

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Tuesday, December 12, 2006

The False Self

The False Self

One of the most elegant discussions of the concept of "the False Self" is given by D.W. Winnicott in his article entitled "Ego Distortion in Terms of True and False Self." (1960).

In this writer's opinion that article also presents one of the best ways of understanding the concept, i.e., through a description of its usual origin in early childhood. Winnicott says that in this respect there are "two possible lines of development…" (1960, p. 145):

"(i)n the first case the mother's adaptation is good enough… (i)n the second case… the mother's adaptation… is… not good enough. The process that leads to the capacity for symbol-usage does not get started (or else it becomes broken up, with a corresponding withdrawal on the part of the infant from advantages gained)… in practice the infant lives, but lives falsely. The protest against being forced into a false existence can be detected from the earliest stages. (1960, p. 146, emphasis omitted).
Later, "(t)hrough this False Self the infant builds up a false set of relationships, and… even attains a show of being real. (Winnicott, 1960, p.146).

Thus, the personality structure of an individual may be built on this False Self foundation. Similar ideas have been discussed as narcissistic, "as if" personalities, or other terms of art; though the use of the term "False Self" seems to capture human experience on a root level. Perhaps it has something to do with Winnicott's practice as a pediatrician, which he continued along with his practice as a psychoanalyst.

Individuals operating from the position of the False Self typically experience greater than usual difficulties in connecting to others and forming meaningful relationships. The result is often a feeling of emptiness, as though a huge hollow existed in the center of the person. The person may even have the impression that he or she is "not really living" or "sleepwalking through life."
Winnicott also says that:
"(a) particular danger arises out of the not infrequent tie-up between the intellectual approach and the False Self… The world may observe academic success of a high degree, and may find it hard to believe in the very real distress of the individual concerned, who feels 'phoney' the more he or she is successful. When such individuals destroy themselves in one way or another, instead of fulfilling promise, this invariably produces a sense of shock in those who have developed high hopes of the individual." (1960, p. 144).
Additionally, some have "… a need to collect impingements from external reality so that the living-time of the individual can be filled by reactions to these impingements." (Winnicott, 1960, p. 150).

Like most other defensive structures, the False Self organization is not always unwanted. A certain amount of False Self organization is present in everyone and is necessary for survival. Do we want our police or military interacting with others based upon the spontaneous expression of their True Selves?

Dr. Winnicott explains that "(i)n health: the False Self is represented by the whole organization of the polite and mannered social attitude…" and that "the False Self defends the True Self…" (1960, p. 143); though "… the False Self, however well set up, lacks something…" (1960, p. 152).

A further consideration in treatment is that "(t)he patient's False Self can collaborate indefinitely with the analyst in the analysis of defences, being so to speak on the analyst's side of the game." (Winnicott, 1960, p. 152).

Modern psychoanalysts are well-versed in the False Self organizations that individuals may present. In addition, the techniques of modern analysis are ideally suited to treatment of these individuals. The training and emotional resilience of the modern analyst becomes decisive in the successful analysis.


Winnicott, D. W. (1960). "Ego Distortion in Terms of True and False Self," in The Maturational Process and the Facilitating Environment: Studies in the Theory of Emotional Development. New York: International UP Inc., 1965, pp. 140-152.

© 2006, James G. Fennessy, M.A., J.D.
Matawan, New Jersey 07747


Unknown said...

Very helpful paper - thank you - have just ordered Abrams book on Winnicott so soon I won't need to trawl the net for references relating to him!

maggie said...

What theoretical approaches do clinicians use to work with the False Self? Object relations and Self Psychology seem like traditional approaches. Do you know of others?

Jim said...

An excellent question, though the answer may be a bit more problematic. Modern psychoanalytic education usually includes theoretical understanding of classical and other approaches such as those mentioned. So, a modern analyst might look at a case theoretically using any of those (or other) approaches; or s/he might look at the case through a maturational perspective, i.e., what in the patient's development contributed to the false self organization? The theoretical perspective chosen may help the analyst understand the overall case.

However, the theoretical perspective used to analyze a patient may have little or no influence on the course of treatment. For example, in my practice I silently analyze the patient's material during each session; during this process I may, or may not, connect the material to a theoretical approach; but under no circumstances would a patient be aware of my analysis unless intervention with one of the techniques of modern analysis was warranted.

The emphasis in modern psychoanalysis is much more oriented to the patient's actual words and needs during the session than it is to any particular theory. In fact, I suspect many modern analysts share my view that too much attachment to a theoretical view interferes with successful treatment.