Florence had had the importance of academic success drummed into her by her parents from when she was knee-high to a grasshopper.  Fortunately she was very bright and co-operated fully.  She’s now a highly successful academic at a prestigious university.  You may think she’d be happy.  But she isn’t.  She has the strange feeling she has not yet started her life and not yet found out who she really is.  She feels a phoney and that sense increases the more successful she becomes.

The true and false self

Donald Winnicott wrote about people like Florence.  This brilliant British psychoanalyst developed the idea of the true and the false self.  In an extreme case, he said, other people will believe that a person’s false self is the real them, but it’s not.  In fact it’s a massive shell existing to protect and hide the true self inside – the true Florence.

How it happens

Winnicott described how this state of affairs comes about.  If you can get past the weighty title of his famous 1960 paper Ego Distortion in terms of True and False Self, what he says is fascinating.  He says that a ‘good enough mother’ will sense, meet and encourage her baby’s needs, expectations and spontaneous behaviour.  By her attuned devotion she will nurture and strengthen the baby’s true self – the central place in the infant from which authentic impulses come.

A ‘mother who is not good enough’, however, can’t do all that.  Instead, she will substitute her own needs, desires, expectations and behaviours for the baby’s and make the child comply with them.  Gradually the baby will be forced into a false existence.  In time they may grow into a person whose whole self is based on compliance with someone else’s wishes.  They may evolve a false set of relationships, grow up to be just like their parent or parents and find employment in areas into which they have been more or less subtly steered.

The job of the false self

The only good thing about this false self which the person has created is, as I’ve said, that it’s protecting a vulnerable and fragile true self from a parental encroachment that would destroy it.  So the true self is still in there somewhere, hiding.  And waiting.

What it feels like

A person living from  their true selves, Winnicott tells us, will feel spontaneous, creative and real.  But it’s likely that a person living from their false self will feel unreal or futile – to which I would add ‘and perhaps depressed or anxious’.


Not surprisingly, a career in acting can attract people with a false self structure.  As Winnicott shrewdly remarks about people in that profession, ‘there are those who can be themselves and who also can act, whereas there are others who can only act and who are completely at a loss when not in a role and when not being appreciated and applauded’.  The famous example often cited here is Peter Sellers who struggled to know who he was when not acting the part of someone else.  Significantly perhaps he felt that his greatest performance was his last, that of Chance, the gardener, in the film, ‘Being There’.  Chance is an empty shell of a person onto whom other people project their own suppositions.

A healthy false self

To some extent we all have and need a false self.  You couldn’t get by in society without one.  Most of us don’t go round saying exactly what we’re thinking or feeling and doing whatever our impulses prompt.  So in that sense a degree of false self is healthy.  But when you’ve never or only partly been your true self then there’s a problem.

A way out

Psychotherapy may be able to help here.  It can enable people to start to live.  Nothing short of that.  The man who, for example, grew up having to be perfect at all times and for whom any slight misdemeanour or academic shortfall was a disaster in his parents’ eyes can (literally) be liberated when, maybe in a therapy group, he finds himself for the first time saying bluntly what he really thinks and decides to follow the vocation of rap singer that he’s never dared to explore.

In the light of that, I’ll end with something Winnicott wrote about one of his patients:

‘In one case, a man … who had had a considerable amount of analysis before coming to me, my work really started with him when I made it clear to him that I recognized his non-existence.   He made the remark that over the years all the good work done with him had been futile because it had been done on the basis that he existed, whereas he had only existed falsely.  When I had said that I recognized his non-existence he felt that he had been communicated with for the first time.’

Powerful stuff!

So anyway where are you on the spectrum of true to false self?