Phenomenological Psychology

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Winnicott, the “False Self” and Contemporary Media Celebrity

May 3rd, 2009 by David Kronemyer · 2 Comments

One of Winnicott’s important distinctions is between the “true self” and the “false self.”  He gives these terms a specific, technical definition that’s different from our conventional understanding of them.  They arise out of his theory of infant development.  A baby has an innate sense of its own potentiality.  It originates needs, expresses wants and desires, communicates by enacting gestures and spontaneously interacts with the world on its own terms.  This is its “true self.”  Winnicott’s use of the word “self” is problematic because of course the baby has no theory of mind.  Nonetheless the baby comes to expect (non-consciously, prereflectively) that the mother will intuit its requirements and address them in a manner that meets its (implicit) conditions for what counts as a satisfactory response.

In the meanwhile the mother has her own set of expectations and fulfillment conditions.  She offers the baby a phenomenal experience that may not correspond to what it anticipates.  She may misinterpret the baby’s solicitations and withdraw or even retaliate.  Winnicott calls these disconnections “impingements.”  They are concernful, even threatening to the baby, whose primary instinct is survival.  In reaction to them it recalibrates and reconfigures in order to maximize the likelihood its requirements are met.  It becomes increasingly attuned to the mother’s world.  It learns to comport itself within that world and its constraints.  As it complies with them, it neglects its own.  It subordinates its “true self” in favor of a more effective “false self.”  The false self is attenuated completely to facile and transparent interaction with the mother.  The experience of discontinuity with the mother is reduced because the baby mimics the mother, attribute by attribute and feature by feature.

The best outcome occurs when where the mother anticipates the baby’s needs and requirements and establishes an appropriately facilitating environment to respond to them.  Rather than being experienced as sudden, unexpected and overwhelming, disruptions to the baby’s sense of continuity are titrated so the baby learns to become independent.  It individuates and develops a repertoire of cognitive and emotional skills.  While the mother’s behavior and attitude may never be optimal, there is a zone where they are “good enough.”  Mother and baby reach a kind of rapprochement.  When successfully negotiated, this gives the baby what Winnicott calls an “illusion of omnipotence” in which its “true self” can flourish.

The dichotomy between “false self” and “true self” continues as the infant matures.  The false self’s primary concern is compliance with conventions, rules, customs and protocols.  It defines itself in terms of others and how others perceive it.  It succumbs to the conditions and constraints of these other worlds instead of establishing its own.  It is driven by a need to maintain relationships at any cost, and for approval, much like its early interactions with the mother.  These dependencies may be comfortable and satisfying because they buffer or insulate the true self from the risk of discovery or (in the worst case) destruction.  They lead however to a kind of split personality.  The now-adult’s world lacks stability and subjacent lateral support.  It is fragile, uncontained and susceptible to erosion, fragmentation and breakdown.

The true self on the other hand comfortably inhabits social roles.  It independently assesses its relationships with others.  It comports itself circumspectively and securely within a world where premises and satisfaction conditions have been devised, implemented and are effectively maintained.  Although there is no evidence for any connections, the “true self” is something like what Heidegger would call the “authentic” self.

An interesting application of Winnicott’s concept of the “false self” is to contemporary celebrities such as Paris Hilton and Lindsay Lohan.  I don’t mean to pick on them particularly, they mainly are the current incumbents of carefully-circumscribed roles and if it wasn’t them it’d be somebody else.  They are coagulation points for media impressions.  Their careers are single-mindedly devoted to propagating an illusion of style, trend-setting and influence.  Even as they do nothing in particular they constantly grasp for acknowledgement and recognition.  The media in turn panders to and exacerbates a pathology of exhibitionism because this is its most effective way to monetize itself and supply profitability.

Pop culture is based on notoriety, media recognition and the accumulation of consumer impressions.  These act like rocket fuel for the false self.  Winnicott would say that aspirants to iconic status within the milieu of pop culture necessarily present a false self because they are dependent on fame and require constant media nourishment for stimulation and containment.  (The entire premise of some celebrity aspirants is split identity, such as the case of Miley Cyrus, who masquerades in Disney productions as Hannah Montana, or possibly vice versa.)  To take the argument a step further, because of the mutually-interdependent relationships between fame and celebrity, if they weren’t dependent on fame, they wouldn’t be famous to begin with.  In today’s media environment I don’t think it’s possible to be famous yet still have a Winnicott-like “true self.”  A quietly famous self is a contradiction in terms.