Academic journal article Journal of Psychology and Christianity

The False Self in Christian Contexts: A Winnicottian Perspective

Academic journal article Journal of Psychology and Christianity

The False Self in Christian Contexts: A Winnicottian Perspective

Article excerpt

The phenomenon of the false self has fascinated Christians and psychologists alike for decades. Object relations theorist D.W. Winnicott described the false self as an adaptive layer of personality that develops around a person's true self and thus impedes authentic self-expression. He posited that a false self develops in response to an inadequate or "not good-enough" environment. The current article explores how the Winnicottian false self may manifest and be maintained in Christian contexts such as local churches. Clinical and pastoral-care implications are discussed as well.

The concept of the false self has captured the imagination of popular Christian authors for decades (e.g., Benner, 2004; Eldredge, 2001; Finley, 1978/2003; Manning, 1994; Merton, 1961). Although such discussions often have psychological overtones, they do not tend to revolve around an explicitly psychological theory of the false self, such as the one offered by object relations theorist D. W. Winnicott (1896-1974). Using Winnicott's theory, this article seeks to deepen the popular-Christian discussion of the false self by providing a sustained psychological frame. Further, it seeks to extend the psychological discussion of the false self to an exploration of how Christian contexts (e.g., churches) may contribute to the false selfs manifestations and maintenance. We aim to help Christian counselors and pastors understand the false self from a psychological standpoint, particularly its origins, manifestations, and maintaining factors. We also hope to provide practical suggestions for undermining and reducing Christians' false-self expressions while fostering and increasing their true-self expressions.

Winnicott's Theory of the False Self

Winnicott (1960a/1965) sets his theory of the false self within a developmental context - a context which acknowledges the false self's counterpoint, the true self, as well. According to Winnicott, the emergence of either aspect of the self is directly related to the quality and consistency of a person's early caregiving environment.

The True Self as Counterpoint

During his career, Winnicott wrote a good deal on the nature and development of the true self (Winnicott, 1954/1958, 1955/1958, 1956/1958, 1959/1965, 1960a/1965, 1963a/1965, 1964/1986), usually discussing it as a counterpoint to the false self. In fact, he once asserted: "There is but little point in formulating a True Self idea except for the purpose of trying to understand the False Self, because it does no more than collect together the details of the experience of aliveness" (Winnicott, 1960a/1965, p. 148). For Winnicott, the true self begins in the "motility" (i.e., the spontaneous motor movements) of the infant, which the primary caregiver ideally responds to (1956/1958). Winnicott argued that early personality development occurs within the context of a mother-infant "unit" that only later separates into two recognizable individuals (1952/1958).

During this early period, the mother plays a key role in her child's development, optimally through providing what Winnicott called goodenough mothering (i.e., being attuned to and appropriately meeting the child's needs). According to Winnicott (1960b/1965), what constitutes good-enough mothering varies according to where the child is in his/her developmental progression "from absolute dependence, through relative dependence, to independence" (p. 42). Over the course of this progression, goodenough mothering facilitates the child's growth toward a healthy sense of self, as separate from yet related to its environment and its caregivers. In other words, children are aware of and develop a sense of their own interior life while becoming aware of and developing a shared life in connection with others around them.

During early infancy, good-enough mothering ideally involves a primary maternal preoccupation in which the mother is temporarily consumed with fulfilling her baby's spontaneously-arising needs (Winnicott, 1956/1958). …

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