D.W. Winnicott’s concept of ‘false self,’ is ubiquitous in the fields of psychology and psychoanalysis. The term has come to have particular meaning in the understanding and treatment of eating disorders.
In brief, Winnicott, a British mid 20th century psychoanalyst, influenced the course of Object Relations Theory. He was student of Melanie Klein, but rejected Klein’s emphasis on ‘phantasy’ in the service of greater emphasis on the actual relatedness between child and caregiver. He described the false self in this way:
"In the cases on which my work is based there has been what I call a true self hidden, protected by a false self. This false self is no doubt an aspect of the true self. It hides and protects it, and it reacts to the adaptation failures and develops a pattern corresponding to the pattern of environmental failure. In this way the true self is not involved in the reacting, and so preserves a continuity of being. However, this hidden true self suffers an impoverishment that derives from lack of experience." (From "Clinical Varieties of Transference," 1955-56)
How does the False Self ‘work’ with Eating Disorders?
If one accepts that the eating disorder is a metaphoric mask, which safe guards the individual from exposure to true feelings, thoughts and ultimate experience of a real ‘self,’ then one can perhaps infer that this mask is synonymous or at least an example of Winnicott’s False Self. The goal then of eating disorder therapy, and all therapy through this lens, is to enable the individual to experience and express a true self so that authenticity and real relatedness to others can emerge.
Who is the authentic person behind the eating disorder?
As the individual becomes more trusting in therapy, through a process of feeling understood, respected and where empathy is a necessary and natural component in the therapeutic relationship, the true self has an opportunity to emerge thereby enabling the individual to ‘let go’ of the defensive (protective) use of the eating disorder - the vehicle adopted to get through life.
What if the false self (the eating disorder) was really the true self?
What if the eating disorder really enabled the person to behave in ways that are otherwise warded off by the individual? Remember, the eating disorder serves the purpose of camouflage and protection, but it also serves the purpose of giving the individual a vehicle through which they can express their despair, rage, individuality, autonomy, separateness, and competitiveness. The eating disorder perhaps then is the proverbial henchman for the true self.
Winnicott states that the false self is an aspect of the true self, but perhaps the false self is a powerful aspect of the true self as well. The true self includes not only the person who is in need of being understood and respected for what they think and how they feel, but is also the person who needs to express, experience and tolerate, without the use of symptoms, negative, aggressive, competitive and autonomous characteristics and qualities as well. These are natural components of being human too; Freudian Drive Theory existed before Object Relations Theory and remains the foundation for most modern psychoanalytic thinking.
Disconnection from the aggressive and sexual self is typically apparent in the early states of recovery. Often, patients cannot identify or articulate how they feel, particularly when it comes to negative emotion. Perfectionism and people pleasing tactics dominate their personality and relationships. When I ask, “what purpose does people pleasing and perfectionism serve, or, to use the vernacular, ‘how’s that working for you? Often the answer is, “it’s not.”
I respond, “ Ah, but it must be providing something for you? Is it possible that these qualities, though admirable on the one hand, also keep you from the wish to be out of control, not perfect and not concerned about what others think about you? Wouldn’t that be nice, to not worry or care about being so good all the time?” Often times, the answer is, “Yes!” When I state that this way of living can be exhausting, it is rare that the person who sits before me disagrees.
Who does the person become in the absence of an eating disorder?
What is discovered through the process of recovery is the opportunity for the individuals to experience the all aspects of themselves including the aspects that are unlikeable, negative, perhaps loathed, or not tolerated….the aspects that are not perfect. Their true self can emerge with all its glory and pimples.
Are the true and false selves confused, reversed or at best, integrated, when a person is in an active state of an eating disorder?
It is quite possible that the false self is really doing an ok job at being the true self through the symptoms of an eating disorder.
The false self then is good if it enables the individual, through the use of symptoms, to express how they really feel?
NO! Remember, eating disorders are self-defeating at best, more likely they are self-destructive and interfere or eliminate the capacity to be in any kind of intimate or authentic relationship - the ED is always in the room - either as the elephant that is seen but not talked about or is secret, unbenounced to anyone besides the sufferer.
So, let’s suppose that the false self is really a part of the true self that is split off from the individual through the use of symptoms. The symptoms give permission to behave in ways that are really part of the true person. In the absence of symptoms, what appears to be the false self can then be integrated as part of the true self – a person living and expressing a full range of emotions, integrating a self-concept and relationships with all their complexities, ambiguities, ambivalences and imperfections.
Judy Scheel, Ph.D., LCSW