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Journal of Psychology and Christianity Copyright 2009 Christian Association for Psychological Studies 2009, Vol. 28, No. 4, 315-325 ISSN 0733-4273 The False Self in Christian Contexts: A Winnicottian Perspective Stephen Parker Edward Davis Regent University 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 devel- ops 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 self (Winnicott, 1954/1958, 1955/1958, imagination of popular Christian authors for 1956/1958, 1959/1965, 1960a/1965, 1963a/1965, decades (e.g., Benner, 2004; Eldredge, 2001; Fin- 1964/1986), usually discussing it as a counter- ley, 1978/2003; Manning, 1994; Merton, 1961). point to the false self. In fact, he once asserted: Although such discussions often have psychologi- “There is but little point in formulating a True cal overtones, they do not tend to revolve around Self idea except for the purpose of trying to an explicitly psychological theory of the false self, understand the False Self, because it does no such as the one offered by object relations theo- more than collect together the details of the rist D. W. Winnicott (1896-1974). Using Winni- experience of aliveness” (Winnicott, 1960a/1965, cott’s theory, this article seeks to deepen the p. 148). For Winnicott, the true self begins in the popular-Christian discussion of the false self by “motility” (i.e., the spontaneous motor move- providing a sustained psychological frame. Fur- ments) of the infant, which the primary caregiver ther, it seeks to extend the psychological discus- ideally responds to (1956/1958). Winnicott sion of the false self to an exploration of how argued that early personality development Christian contexts (e.g., churches) may contribute occurs within the context of a mother-infant to the false self’s manifestations and maintenance. “unit” that only later separates into two recogniz- We aim to help Christian counselors and pastors able individuals (1952/1958). understand the false self from a psychological During this early period, the mother plays a standpoint, particularly its origins, manifestations, key role in her child’s development, optimally and maintaining factors. We also hope to provide through providing what Winnicott called good- practical suggestions for undermining and reduc- enough mothering (i.e., being attuned to and ing Christians’ false-self expressions while foster- appropriately meeting the child’s needs). Accord- ing and increasing their true-self expressions. ing to Winnicott (1960b/1965), what constitutes good-enough mothering varies according to Winnicott’s Theory of the False Self where the child is in his/her developmental pro- Winnicott (1960a/1965) sets his theory of the gression “from absolute dependence, through false self within a developmental context—a relative dependence, to independence” (p. 42). context which acknowledges the false self’s Over the course of this progression, good- counterpoint, the true self, as well. According to enough mothering facilitates the child’s growth Winnicott, the emergence of either aspect of the toward a healthy sense of self, as separate from self is directly related to the quality and consis- yet related to its environment and its caregivers. tency of a person’s early caregiving environment. In other words, children are aware of and devel- op a sense of their own interior life while The True Self as Counterpoint becoming aware of and developing a shared life During his career, Winnicott wrote a good deal on the nature and development of the true
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