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  • One of the most surprising but powerful explanations for why we may, as adults, be in trouble mentally

  • is that we were, in our earliest years, denied the opportunity to be fully ourselves, that

  • is, we were not allowed to be wilful and difficult, we could not be as demanding, aggressive,

  • intolerant, and unrestrictedly selfish as we needed to be. Because our caregivers were

  • preoccupied or fragile, we had to be preternaturally attuned to their demands, sensing that we

  • had to comply in order to be loved and tolerated; we had to be false before we had the chance

  • to feel properly alive. And as a result, many years later, without quite understanding the

  • process, we risk feeling unanchored, inwardly dead and somehow not entirely present. This

  • psychological theory of the True and the False Self is the work of one of the twentieth century's

  • greatest thinkers, the English psychoanalyst and child psychiatrist Donald Winnicott. In

  • a series of papers written in the 1960s and based on close observations of his adult and

  • infant patients, Winnicott advanced the view that healthy development invariably requires

  • us to experience the immense, life-sustaining luxury of a period when we do not have to

  • bother with the feelings and opinions of those who are tasked with looking after us. We can

  • be wholly and, without guilt, our True Selves, because those around us havefor a time

  • adapted themselves entirely to our needs and desires, however inconvenient and arduous

  • these might be. The true self of the infant, in Winnicott's formulation, is by nature

  • asocial and amoral. It isn't interested in the feelings of others, it isn't socialised.

  • It screams when it needs toeven if it is the middle of the night or on a crowded

  • train. It may be aggressive, biting andin the eyes of a stickler for manners or a lover

  • of hygieneshocking and a bit disgusting. It wants to express itself where and how it

  • wants. It can be sweet of course but on its own terms, not in order to charm or bargain

  • for love. If a person is to have any sense of feeling real as an adult, then it has to

  • have enjoyed the immense emotional privilege of being able to be true in this way, to disturb

  • people when it wants, to kick when it is angry, to scream when it is tired, to bite when it

  • is feeling aggressive. The True Self of the child must be granted the imaginative opportunity

  • to destroy the parent when it is in a rageand then witness the parent surviving

  • and enduring, which lends the child a vital and immensely reassuring sense that it is

  • not in fact omnipotent, and that the world won't collapse simply because it sometimes

  • wishes or fears it could. When things go well, gradually and willingly, the child develops

  • a False Self, a capacity to behave according to the demands of external reality. This is

  • what enables a child to submit to the rigours of school and, as it develops into an adult,

  • of working life as well. When we have been given the chance to be our true selves we

  • do not, at every occasion, need to rebel and insist on our needs. We can follow the rules

  • because we have, for a time, been able to ignore them entirely. In other words, Winnicott

  • was not a thorough enemy of a False Self; he understood its role well enough, he simply

  • insisted that it belonged to health only when it had been preceded by a thorough earlier

  • experience of an untrammelled True Self. Unfortunately, many of us have not enjoyed such an ideal

  • start. Perhaps mother was depressed, or father was often in a rage, maybe there was an older

  • or younger sibling who was in a crisis and required all the attention. The result is

  • that we will have learnt to comply far too early; we will have become obedient at the

  • expense of our ability to feel authentically ourselves. In relationships, we may now be

  • polite and geared to the needs of our partners, but not for that matter able properly to love.

  • At work, we may be dutiful but uncreative and unoriginal. In such circumstances, and

  • this is its genius, psychotherapy offers us a second chance. In the hands of a good therapist,

  • we are allowed to regress before the time when we started to be False, back to the moment

  • when we so desperately needed to be true. In the therapist's office, safely contained

  • by their maturity and care, we can learnonce moreto be real; we can be intemperate,

  • difficult, unconcerned with anyone but ourselves, selfish, unimpressive, aggressive and shocking.

  • And the therapist will take itand thereby help us to experience a new sense of aliveness

  • which should have been there from the start. The demand to be False, which never goes away,

  • becomes more bearable because we are regularly being allowed, in the privacy of the therapist's

  • room, once a week or so, to be True. Winnicott was famously calm and generous towards his

  • patients when they were attempting to refind their True Selves in this way. One of them

  • smashed a favourite vase of his, another stole his money, a third shouted insults at him

  • session after session. But Winnicott was unruffled, knowing that this was part of a journey back

  • towards health, away from the deadly fakeness afflicting these patients in the rest of their

  • lives. We can be grateful to Winnicott for reminding us that contentment and a feeling

  • of reality have to pass through stages of almost limitless delinquent selfishness. There

  • is simply no other way. We have to be True before we can be usefully a bit fakeand

  • if we have never been allowed, then our sickness and depression is there to remind us that

  • we need to take a step back, and therapy is there to allow us to do so.

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One of the most surprising but powerful explanations for why we may, as adults, be in trouble mentally

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The True and the False Self

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    Evangeline posted on 2018/04/20
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