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The True and the False Self
One of the most surprising but powerful explanations for why we may, as adults, be in trouble mentally is that we were, in our earliest years, denied the opportunity to be fully ourselves, that is, we were not allowed to be wilful and difficult, we could not be as demanding, aggressive, intolerant, and unrestrictedly selfish as we needed to be. Because our caregivers were preoccupied or fragile, we had to be preternaturally attuned to their demands, sensing that we had to comply in order to be loved and tolerated; we had to be false before we had the chance to feel properly alive. And as a result, many years later, without quite understanding the process, we risk feeling unanchored, inwardly dead and somehow not entirely present.
This psychological theory of the True and the False Self is the work of one of the twentieth century’s greatest thinkers, the English psychoanalyst and child psychiatrist Donald Winnicott. In a series of papers written in the 1960s and based on close observations of his adult and infant patients, Winnicott advanced the view that healthy development invariably requires us to experience the immense, life-sustaining luxury of a period when we do not have to bother with the feelings and opinions of those who are tasked with looking after us. We can be wholly and, without guilt, our True Selves, because those around us have – for a time – adapted themselves entirely to our needs and desires, however inconvenient and arduous these might be.
The true self of the infant, in Winnicott’s formulation, is by nature asocial and amoral. It isn’t interested in the feelings of others, it isn’t socialised. It screams when it needs to – even if it is the middle of the night or on a crowded train. It may be aggressive, biting and – in the eyes of a stickler for manners or a lover of hygiene – shocking and a bit disgusting. It wants to express itself where and how it wants. It can be sweet of course but on its own terms, not in order to charm or bargain for love. If a person is to have any sense of feeling real as an adult, then it has to have enjoyed the immense emotional privilege of being able to be true in this way, to disturb people when it wants, to kick when it is angry, to scream when it is tired, to bite when it is feeling aggressive. The True Self of the child must be granted the imaginative opportunity to destroy the parent when it is in a rage – and then witness the parent surviving and enduring, which lends the child a vital and immensely reassuring sense that it is not in fact omnipotent, and that the world won’t collapse simply because it sometimes wishes or fears it could.
When things go well, gradually and willingly, the child develops a False Self, a capacity to behave according to the demands of external reality. This is what enables a child to submit to the rigours of school and, as it develops into an adult, of working life as well. When we have been given the chance to be our true selves we do not, at every occasion, need to rebel and insist on our needs. We can follow the rules because we have, for a time, been able to ignore them entirely. In other words, Winnicott was not a thorough enemy of a False Self; he understood its role well enough, he simply insisted that it belonged to health only when it had been preceded by a thorough earlier experience of an untrammelled True Self.
Unfortunately, many of us have not enjoyed such an ideal start. Perhaps mother was depressed, or father was often in a rage, maybe there was an older or younger sibling who was in a crisis and required all the attention. The result is that we will have learnt to comply far too early; we will have become obedient at the expense of our ability to feel authentically ourselves. In relationships, we may now be polite and geared to the needs of our partners, but not for that matter able properly to love. At work, we may be dutiful but uncreative and unoriginal.
In such circumstances, and this is its genius, psychotherapy offers us a second chance. In the hands of a good therapist, we are allowed to regress before the time when we started to be False, back to the moment when we so desperately needed to be true. In the therapist’s office, safely contained by their maturity and care, we can learn – once more – to be real; we can be intemperate, difficult, unconcerned with anyone but ourselves, selfish, unimpressive, aggressive and shocking. And the therapist will take it – and thereby help us to experience a new sense of aliveness which should have been there from the start. The demand to be False, which never goes away, becomes more bearable because we are regularly being allowed, in the privacy of the therapist’s room, once a week or so, to be True.
Winnicott was famously calm and generous towards his patients when they were attempting to refind their True Selves in this way. One of them smashed a favourite vase of his, another stole his money, a third shouted insults at him session after session. But Winnicott was unruffled, knowing that this was part of a journey back towards health, away from the deadly fakeness afflicting these patients in the rest of their lives.
We can be grateful to Winnicott for reminding us that contentment and a feeling of reality have to pass through stages of almost limitless delinquent selfishness. There is simply no other way. We have to be True before we can be usefully a bit fake – and if we have never been allowed, then our sickness and depression is there to remind us that we need to take a step back, and therapy is there to allow us to do so.