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True Self, False Self


Disciplines > Psychoanalysis > Concepts > True Self, False Self

Description | Discussion | See also



True self

There is true self that has a sense of integrity, of connected wholeness that harks to the early stage.

False self

When the person has to comply with external rules, such as being polite or otherwise following social codes, then a false self is used. The false self constantly seeks to anticipate demands of others in order to maintain the relationship.

In early development, the false self is split off as an adaptation to a mother or carer who reflects her own defenses onto the infant rather than reflecting the infant's actual moods.

Healthy false self

When the false self is functional both for the person and for society then it is considered healthy. The healthy false self feels that that it is still being true to the true self. It can be compliant but without feeling that it has betrayed its true self.

When the situation becomes difficult, the true self can still override the true self and so acts as an effective conscience or super-ego.

Unhealthy false self

A self that fits in but through a feeling of forced compliance rather than loving adaptation is unhealthy.

When the false self wins debates against the true self, the person finds that they are unable to be guided by their true self and so has to adapt to the social situation rather than assert its self.


The true and false selves were identified by Winnicott. An unhealthy and pathological false self never gains independence from the mother, and so never gets to transition to independence.

These principles help explain how people seem at ease or are constantly in tension and so act in dysfunctional ways. It also indicates how treatment is not about exposing the fragile true self, which most of us naturally fear, but helping the individual move on, both letting go of the unhealthy portions of the false self and building a healthy replacement.

See also

Winnicott, Values


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