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 earliest months of life, an infant has no sense of its Self, but is at one with the primary 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.