True or false? There is such thing as an authentic self? We look into the complex nature of what is means to truly represent one’s self.
Answering what it means to truly represent one’s self is among humanity’s greatest questions, contemplated in multi-disciplinary discourse throughout history.
It piques frameworks as diverse as humanistic psychology and metaphysics. Greek philosopher Aristotle referred to one’s ‘essence’ as a sort of immutable aspect distinct from existence (mortal) while French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre promoted the absolute freedom of the self ‘for itself’ (pour soi).
Unlike existentialist reckonings with their abstract constructs, psychoanalytic theorist D.W. Winnicott differentiated between the ‘true self’ and the ‘false self’ in the context of his theory of infant development within the mother-infant dyad. According to him, a baby has an innate sense of its own potentiality and originates needs, wants and desires by enacting gestures and spontaneously interacts with the world on its own terms.
This is its ‘true self’. Assuming there is a ‘good enough’ match between the baby’s expectations and the responses the mother actual gives at key developmental stages, individuation occurs and the true self overcomes excessive concern with defining itself by others’ perceptions. In such cases, the true self goes on to accurately assess its relationships with others.
Yet in cases where the baby’s needs and mother’s responses aren’t reconciled satisfactorily, the self remains driven by the need for approval and to maintain relationships at any cost – much like its early interactions with the mother. This desperate, need-based self is often thought of as a ‘false self’ in the sense that its gratification stifles expression of one’s true wishes and needs.
According to a literature review of Winnicott’s work, the false self lies on a spectrum and has different developmental levels. At one end of the spectrum, the false self is construed by the self and others as the true self, as thought to be the case in narcissistic personality disorder (NPD). A milder manifestation reveals the true self to the individual but consigns it to a ‘secret life’ consciously kept from view. At the healthiest end, ‘false self’ is not mistaken as being any more than a social self used to interact in socially appropriate ways when the true self can’t.