Comments on “The true self”

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True Self

Anonymous 2011-10-15

Hi David,

Read this one:

Classic stuff!

Joshua Jonathan

Winnicott and false self

David Chapman 2011-10-15

Joshua, thank you very much for this! It’s a brilliant paper.

Funny: I read it ages ago when I was studying psychodynamic personality theory in graduate school, and had forgotten it until you pointed it out. At the time, I thought Winnicott’s work—I remember this and his “transitional objects” paper, particularly—was the best in the whole psychoanalytic school. Quite apart from its intellectual interest, I found it useful in understanding and debugging my own psyche.

There’s lots I’d like to say about this now, but I have little time…

In terms of what I eventually hope to write here, what I’d suggest is that Winnicott captured what is right in the true self / false self idea, which goes back to the German Romantics.

Winnicott points out that there is a spectrum of degrees of splitting between the true and false self. In a healthy person, the “false self” is simply the ability to be polite and sociable and to not have to vomit your emotions on everyone else all the time. This is good. Also, it represents (as he says) an “aspect” of functioning, rather than a separate “self”. It is only when the true and false selves are made into distinct subjects that it becomes pathological.

The Romantics recognized, correctly, that modern civilization forces everyone into false-self organization to some degree, and that this can be bad. Unfortunately, the Romantic approach is to reject the false self and idolize the true self. This actually deepens the split between them, and strengthens the illusion that they exist as distinct persons, rather than as modes of functioning.

Near the end of the series I’m writing now on my Wordpress blog, I will suggest that this true self / false self thing is a specifically modern phenomenon. It’s a symptom of there being a complex but unitary and inflexible social/cultural organization that individuals have to comply with. (This is parallel to the inflexible demands of Winnicott’s “not good-enough mother.”)

Since the modern period ended, around 1980, there is no longer a unitary culture. This means that the unitary false self is much less likely to be a problem. We can choose to live within a copacetic subculture, or swim in a kaleidoscopic stream of culture-fragments.

That gives rise to new, non-modern psychological/spiritual problems, which I am only starting to articulate. The experience is of fragmentation (or even atomization) and distraction and trivialization, rather than the existential alienation that comes with a false/true split.

I hope to be able to say more about this, and how to deal with it, in this book. (And, before then, briefly at the end of the “Buddhist Consensus” series on Wordpress.)



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