The “true self,” coined by psychoanalyst David Winnicott, is the foundation for healthy maturation and expression of the individual. Sadly, for many people, including codependents, things go awry during the critical developmental period when the true self emerges. Instead, a false self predominates, while the true self recedes; sometimes, into oblivion.
The true self is not a separate part of us, but is merely our natural being. However, in the early months of life an infant has no sense of Self, but is at one with its caretaker (referred to here as its mother).
Together they create the baby’s need-fulfillment system. Ideally, the infant’s basic needs are satisfied without too much frustration. The mother empathizes with and timely feeds her child, keeps it warm and dry, mirrors facial expressions, and talks to and holds it tenderly. Her baby experiences a happy, welcoming mother when gazing into her eyes and a comforting mother when it cries. It feels wonderful, lovable, and good inside. It’s a blissful time for both mother and child, where the mother is attuned to her baby.
The True Self
This heavenly symbiosis lays the groundwork for a true self to emerge as a bodily sensory-motor map of perception, movement, and reactions. The baby develops awareness of its aliveness – that “I am” connected to “my body.” When needs get met, the “I-body” feels good. Mind and body integrate, rather than dissociate. The body is not objectified as other but is me. The true self is spontaneous, creative, and connected to bodily instincts, feelings, wants, and needs.
Happy associations of an attuned mother become internalized. This builds optimism, a sense of well-being, empowerment, and trust in a benevolent environment. The baby trusts that its needs will be fulfilled and gradually learns to respond to itself, satisfy its needs, and make things happen. Thus, an attuned, responsive mother builds her child’s first sense of mastery and self-esteem. Trusting its mother also allows a baby to tolerate minor frustration and postpone gratification.
Psychological Birth of the True Self
According to psychoanalyst Margaret Mahler, the self undergoes a process of “hatching” around the fifth month when the baby begins to experience itself as separate from its mother. (Subsequent theorists maintain that a core self is present at birth.) Babies begin to investigate the world through touch, climbing, crawling, and then walking, but they need to feel safe to explore their surroundings and satisfy their curiosity. Although toddlers venture off, they look for their mother and return to reconnect. Hopefully, a mother allows her baby to relish self-assertion, confidence, and newfound independence without anxiety or reprimand.
From about 10 to 18 months, toddlers develop self-esteem through their accomplishments when encouraged and praised by their parents. They’re having a “love affair with the world” and feel pride and empowerment as their healthy narcissism grows. But they still very much need to reconnect with their mother – even more, which actually allows them to separate and stray further.
The “terrible two’s” are marked by an internal and outer struggle to individuate. Toddlers feel expansive, make demands, and assert their autonomy, exclaiming, “No,” but cling to their mother for reassurance. They are expressing their true self. A toddler proudly feels “I am,” full of wants, feelings, needs, and curiosity. Confusing and distressing incompatibilities and misunderstandings between mother and child arise, which she must tolerate so her child can integrate a cohesive sense of self and others.
A mother’s attention, acceptance, and delight in her child’s independence and skills are critical. This allows the toddler to invest in his or her true self, rather than worry about losing or displeasing his or her mother. Her support protects her child from deflation and loss of self-esteem and enables him or her to successfully traverse this challenging separation-individuation process.
Problems show up as separation-anxiety, tantrums, clinging, and depression. The lack of confidence and self-esteem can create blunted affect seen in a withdrawn or “good” little boy or girl who has surrendered their own individuality to accommodate their mother. The emotional abandonment resulting from our mother’s failure to accept both our needs and independence sow the seeds of shame and codependency. Grief for our lost self and brief feelings of exhilaration of freedom and omnipotence remains buried.
When a mother accurately responds to her baby’s needs, it feels that it can influence what happens, which builds a sense of mastery and self-esteem versus anxiety and powerlessness. On the other hand, if the baby’s needs aren’t adequately and timely met and its cries go unheeded, a baby can panic, lose trust in its environment and mother, and feel lonely, helpless, abandoned, and depressed.
A mother’s reactions and her ability to mirror her baby and fulfill its needs depend on her own early mothering and inner sense of security. If a mother wasn’t held, she may be ambivalent about holding her baby. Rather than provide physical comfort, she might talk to it or pick it up and put it down again. Another mother might be too anxious or tense to calmly change and bathe her baby or allow it to crawl in the grass. She might startle it, handle it roughly, or leave it unattended or in an unsafe area. Feeling threatened, an insecure mother might react angrily to her toddler’s healthy self-assertion, which she experiences as “demanding” or “taking over.”
Similarly, a mother who lacks self-esteem might take personally her baby’s colic or budding independence as rejection. A deprived, overwhelmed, or narcissistic mother might be hostile toward her baby and spank her baby for crying, withhold gratification of love, attention, or nourishment, or taunt or punish it. All these and other impingements on a baby’s idyllic existence create insecurity and diminish a toddler’s sense of self, power, and competence to be able to get its needs met.
Creation of the False Self
The true self is reinforced when the mother accurately responds to her baby’s gestures, feelings, and needs, but when she doesn’t, her baby increases behaviors that encourage its mother to meet its physical and basic emotional needs, particularly the needs for love and connection. Over time, her baby molds its identity around her non-empathetic reactions and forms a false self.
The false self is an artificial persona created to protect the authentic true self from re-experiencing stress and trauma in its close relationships and also provides a way to connect to the dysfunctional parent. Yet, in doing so, the baby abandons its natural impulses. It becomes anxious and hypervigilant and looks away from itself and to its environment for need-satisfaction. It disconnects from its inner bliss and focuses on the external world in distress, not with curiosity, but with the aim to get what it needs.
With paradise lost, the baby is busy, preoccupied with survival. Thus, the infant begins to attune to the mother’s comings and goings and facial expressions. Instead of feeling relaxed and safe to “be,” it starts doing. In this way, the false, codependent self is created to adapt to dysfunctional parenting. It doesn’t learn, “I have an okay feeling or a need. Now it’s time to satisfy it.” As the child matures, it learns to meet others’ needs and ignore its own. If the deprivation is severe, the feeling and need themselves are repressed. Development of a fully-embodied self is stunted by this system of accommodation.
Individuation and Codependency
Although the individuation process continues throughout life, the foundation is generally completed by three years old. The child who successfully separates from his or her mother has achieved “self-constancy,” meaning it has a stable, separate sense of self that integrates both negative and positive aspects of the self. Similarly, “object constancy” is attained to some degree, meaning an internal, loving maternal image becomes part of the self that provides the child a sense of security, self-esteem, optimism, and comfort in the same way that the real mother ideally did. This enables the child to engage other people with flexibility, autonomy, and emotional relatedness.
However, individuation is delayed once the false self takes hold. Such children become codependent. Their boundaries are confused. They continue to look outside for comfort, often developing sensitivity to other people’s body language, moods, and emotional cues. They react to them and ignore their own. This is the definition of codependency. (See Codependency for Dummies.) Codependents can’t identify or may feel ashamed of or indifferent to, their feelings and needs, especially emotional needs, such as for intimacy, pleasure, support, autonomy, or social contact, and even physical needs, such as privacy, space, or touch. Trauma in the mother- or father-child relationship derails normal development and can lead to the formation of a personality disorder.
A codependent self may adopt various personalities, such as controlling, bullying, seducing, helping, entertaining, or pleasing other people. You may have learned that saying “no” risked disapproval and emotional abandonment and became compliant, or you learned that you got your needs met by throwing tantrums and becoming aggressive. Sometimes the false self uses the mind to figure out other people and its own dilemma. However, this defense of intellectualization creates a further barrier walling off the bodily-felt sensations of the spontaneous true self, which remains buried under layers of anxiety and shame.
Although individuation may not have been successfully achieved in early childhood, the process continues to evolve. We have opportunities, particularly in our teens, to make up for earlier deficits. But because the false self is insecure and weak, the same obstacles are likely to exist. We lack the clear boundaries, resilience, and courage that our true self provides. Assertiveness, self-esteem, and independence unclaimed in toddlerhood and limited by a dysfunctional family system hamper our ability to fully individuate in adolescence and adulthood.
I and many others imagined that marriage, financial independence, or parenthood would complete the process. Autonomous action helps the physical separation from our parents, but usually, we bring our unresolved emotional issues into new relationships and the workplace. Although our false self may be competent in the world, our true self remains hidden and doesn’t individuate until we do the work of recovery. Then life truly begins.
The true self lies hidden beneath the codependent self until it can be safely coaxed to awaken to its full aliveness. Practicing authenticity strengthens it. Doing the steps in Conquering Shame and Codependency: 8 Steps to Freeing the True You can guide you on the journey, along with CoDA or Al-Anon meetings and a therapist who helps you connect to your forgotten true self.
© 2021 Darlene Lancer 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: 140–57.
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