New Year New Who?
Posted on 31st January 2023 at 21:27
There seems to have been a bit of a push back on the ‘New Year New You’ movement this year? While the start of a new year is an opportunity to set new goals and make changes, it had become somewhat hijacked by various commercial enterprises that seem to emphasise the message “You are not acceptable as you are and need fixing.” Any apparent push back may be a triumph for people accepting themselves as they are or at the very least, not succumbing to commercial agendas and pressure.
But what does ‘just be yourself’ really mean?
In psychoanalytical psychotherapy, we talk about the True Self and False Self, largely based on the work of Donald Winnicott, though the concept is also to be found in philosophy and certain religions. The self refers to how an individual experiences themself. How the self develops has been the subject of debate within the field of psychoanalysis. Sigmund Freud and Melanie Klein maintained there is no sense of self present at birth but that it is acquired by the introjection of parents. Others such as Fairbairn, Winnicott and Stern believed that infants are born with a core self which goes through further maturation that is either nurtured or impeded by the infant’s environment. I am going to stay with Winnicott’s contribution for the remainder of this piece.
Donald Winnicott was a highly influential paediatrician and psychoanalyst from the 1940s into the 1970s. His theory on the True and False Self was written in 1960  and he linked it back to Sigmund Freud’s division of the self into a central part powered by the instincts and a part that turned outward towards the world. According to Winnicott, the True Self is that which emerges when an infant experiences ‘good enough’ mothering, where the mother is highly attentive and attuned most of the time to the infant’s needs and creates a facilitating (nurturing) environment as the infant progresses. Winnicott specified the mother but acknowledged that it applied to whoever the primary care giver is. The infant thus has the capacity to be spontaneous – doing whatever they need to do while acquiring the help and reassurance of the ‘good enough’ mother who meets their needs but does not overprotect either, recognising and separating herself sufficiently so that the infant can develop into his or her own self. This type of responding allows the child to integrate the belief that if it cries out, it will be heard, understood and assisted. Their needs are thus validated, they feel related to and that their feelings are manageable. They grow up feeling confident enough to be their True Self in the world. If the mother cannot respond to the needs of their child like this, due to illness or other demands perhaps, the child internalises that their needs and desires are not acceptable or manageable and they become compliant, unconsciously adjusting their behaviour to meet the parental wishes and expectations. This conformity is the child’s way of trying to protect themselves from further disappointment and let down. Thus, they develop a False Self, compliant to the needs of the parent. The False Self is what we call a defence and its purpose is to protect the True Self from exploitation that would result in its destruction. The True Self may long for a hug but the False Self will contradict that saying “I don’t need anyone,” in order to protect the True Self from the hurt and disappointment of not getting needs met. The pattern of compliance continues into adulthood. The person can of course be successful but deep down there is a sense of dissatisfaction, of futility and of not being real. Winnicott says that if the split is not too great, “there may be some almost personal living through imitation, and it may even be possible for the child to act a special role, that of the True Self as it would be if it had an existence.”(p.147). He goes on “By contrast where there is a high degree of split between the True Self and the False Self which hides the True Self, there is a found a poor capacity for using symbols, and a poverty of culture living. Instead, of cultural pursuits, one observes in such persons extreme restlessness, and inability to concentrate, and a need to collect impingements from external reality so that the living time of the individual can be filled by reactions to these impingements.” (p.150)
For Winnicott, a false sense of self manifests in all serious dysfunctional behaviours, including narcissism, addiction and schizophrenia – where the person is separated from their True Self to the extent that it virtually disappears or is non existent. In these cases, the person uses all the resources available to them to maintain their False Self so that they can exist somehow, in a world that is perceived as unpredictable or unreliable.
Winnicott believed that if it were not possible for the False Self to find conditions to protect the True Self, the clinical result is suicide – the destruction of the whole self being preferable to the destruction of the True Self. The need for the continued existence of the False Self also ceases (p.143).
The psychoanalyst and poet Nuar Alsadir, applies Winnicott's concepts of True and False Self to impostor syndrome (or impostor phenomenon as it was originally described). She views the associated anxiety of impostor syndrome as deriving from “a False Self that is so fortified by layers of compliant behavior that it loses contact with the raw impulses and expressions that characterize the True Self.” Obstructing the discovery of the True Self bolsters the belief that its discovery would be rejected. 
In literature, Emily Brontë's Wuthering Heights has been suggested to portray the True Self's struggle to break through the False Self and the social structure that makes the False Self socially acceptable. Also, Sylvia Plath's poetry has been interpreted in terms of conflict between the True Self and the False Self. 
Is it possible to reconnect the True Self? Psychoanalytical psychotherapy offers a safe place to allow this reparation to take place. Since relationships are what primarily form our sense of self, the therapeutic relationship is a space in which you can return to basics, exploring what you truly feel as opposed to what is acceptable and therefore less threatening. Like the good enough parent, the therapist listens, understands and does not judge. With the therapist’s encouragement, acting in loco parentis, it is possible to gain an understanding of who you really are and what you want, while learning to trust the world’s ability to accept you. To quote from The Book of Life:
"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." 
Polonius advises in Shakespeare’s Hamlet “to thine own self be true” and this becomes possible as we progress towards a healthy understanding of who we really are. We finally find the contentment and that true connection to reality that have been missing from our lives.
If any of this resonates with you and you would like to do some work around this, get in touch here and let’s start the journey together.
1. Winnicott, D. W. (1960). 'Ego distortion in terms of true and False Self'. The Maturational Process and the Facilitating Environment: Studies in the Theory of Emotional Development. New York: International Universities Press, Inc: pp.140–57.
2. Alsadir, N. (1922) Animal Joy: A Book of Laughter and Resuscitation. Minnesota. Greywolf Press.
3. Schapiro, Barbara (1995). Literature and the Relational Self. p. 52.
4. Kroll, Judith (1976). Chapters in a Mythology: The Poetry of Sylvia Plath. pp. 182–84.
Tagged as: Ego, False Self, Impostor Syndrome, Relating, Self, Suicide, True Self
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