True Self: Beneath The Layers of Our Learning.

“Finally, I am coming to the conclusion that my highest ambition is to be what I already am. That I will never fulfill my obligation to surpass myself, unless I first accept myself, and if I accept myself fully in the right way, I will already surpass myself”. Thomas Merton.

This is one of my favorite Thomas Merton quotes. It captures both the complexity and simplicity in accepting oneself. Speaking specifically to the genuine necessity in knowing your own truth, purpose, or true self.

As a clinician finding this true self is what, I believe, the work of therapy (if not life in general) is about.

At the core of us, all of us, lays our beginning self. The self we were born to the world with. The essence that was there before the world conditioned it, to wait beneath the layers, for our return.

In brief description, utilizing a psychological framework, the concept of true self was developed by psychoanalyst and pediatrician Donald Winnicott (1896-1971). Winnicott, an original contributor to psychoanalysis and human development described the true self as “the sense of self based on authentic experience. A sense of feeling alive or all-out personal aliveness”.

It is a longing for return to this aliveness, this freedom, and almost innocent wonder that we most seem to want. This longing can show up for us as a sense of emptiness, disconnect, or longing. It can show up as an internal voice, that seems to say, I don’t know what I want, I don’t know who I am, or something is wrong with me. It is this sense of longing (for finding or returning) that facilitates searching for who we are.  

It is likely that we can all relate to this concept. It is additionally unlikely (because we are human) that we have escaped the conditioning of our society. This conditioning, from the very beginning of our birth, takes shape in our earliest interactions with our parents who received their own conditioning and disconnect from self. It then molds and shapes us through life in the form of family, educators, friendships, media, literature, and so on. It is this conditioning that is at the heart of our human and societal experience. We must learn the dance of our family and society (early in life) to navigate its many expectations. We can become quiet successful (by life’s material standards) in learning our dance well. It is, in truth, how we survive our childhoods but also what takes us from our true essence.

Our survival comes through the development of, what Winnicott termed, our false self. The self we show the world. The self that greets us in the mirror each morning and begins anew each day in its work of keeping us disconnected. Winnicott saw the development of the false self as a psychological defense or defenses designed to “protect the true self by hiding it”. Finding this self (the true hidden and awaiting self) takes many forms (both internal and external) and is (in my learning) at the heart of human unhappiness or the human search for happiness.

Winnicott saw the false self as protector, the “polite and mannered” social self. Of course, it is not always polite and mannered. At times, it is angry and unruly. It shows up in many ways to protect its more vulnerable internal self. It is our defense (or set of defenses) and, it is as genuinely individual as we are. It is, in essence, the mask we show the world and, again ourselves, as we begin and end each day.

The false self leads us to believe that we can find our happiness through external pursuits. While the true self is communicating the need (from deep within) that we need to return to us. It is in this return that we find freedom, acceptance, and even joy. That innocent wondering and curiosity we were born with.

Psychological defense, as discussed often on this blog, takes many forms. It can show up as distancing and withdrawal, attempts to please or perfection, anger, defiance, and /or aggression. It runs along a continuum of compliance to defiance and has many faces. At its core, as Winnicott so eloquently describes, it is there to protect the self that was conditioned to hide.

The true self (sends its messages through feelings that something isn’t right) is really just saying return. It is the false self (the holder of our defense) that engages in external (and ideally eventual internal) pursuits in its search. It is responsible for many things (again along a continuum) such as withdrawal from life and relationship, beginning relationships, to thrill seeking, drug and/or alcohol use, spiritual seeking, and much more.

In terms of offering further understanding, it is important to consider the work of Carl Jung (1902 -1987). Jung expanded Winnicott’s work and further developed the ideology around the internal self. He specifically created the modality known as client focused treatment (at the heart of internal work) and concepts such as conditional positive regard, shadow self, and collective unconscious. Jung believed that we, through our social learning, adopt conditions placed on our ideas of love and belonging. It is these ideas that both Jung and Winicott (among other notable clinicians and researchers) believed needed exploration (unlayering) in the quest for the true self. In essence, the eventual unearthing of that which has bound us.

As we begin the second month of our new year (the year 2021) I am thinking about the true self, false self, and shadow self. Revisiting the vast body of work and deeper understanding left to humanity by Donald Winnicott and Carl Jung. In truth, if we are to change the many unearthed realities revealed to us in 2020 it will take much self and societal learning. In my learning,  facilitating true change, will only come through reflection and introspection. I don’t foresee a whole world , or even our own immediate society, owning this philosophy or difficult work.

This unlayering requires a deep look at our learning. It requires us to look at the parts we both see and those hidden within our shadow self and false self. Per Jung’s work, it includes those ideologies that are universal (both positive and negative) and those that are simply human conditions. Those that live within what Jung described as our collective unconscious. Note, if this article interest you, the following articles which explore this ideology, may be of interest. Shadow’s Voice: Red Man Blue Man and /or Ho ‘Oponopono: Ancient Wisdom for 2021.

What I know, for certain, is if we do this work individually (whether in a clinician’s office or through other introspective activities) we can get closer to something that resembles self-acceptance. It is this acceptance of self (wrapped in the cloak of self-understanding (with compassion and not judgement) as Thomas Merton suggest) that allows the freedom of self. And, it is in this acceptance of self ( a true understanding of self) that acceptance of other comes.

As always, it is my hope that something written here will resonate with you. I am always curious about your thoughts and welcome your impressions and insights.

With deepest respect,


Copyright Protected Material: © 2014 ~ 2021 LaDonna Remy MSW, LICSW. All rights reserved. Written content on this blog (Perspective on Trauma) is the property of the author LaDonna Remy, MSW, LICSW. Any unauthorized use or duplication without written permission of the author/ owner of this web log is prohibited. Excerpts or quotes may be shared in the event the author is fully cited with reference and direction to this blog.

Professional Disclaimer: It is important to recognize that all information contained in the Perspective on Trauma Blog is informational. It is not intended to provide advice, assessment, treatment, or diagnosis. Content is not intended as a substitute for clinical care. It is not possible to provide informed care through web content, or to engage in an informed treatment relationship within this format. If you or a loved one need support; it is important that you access this care from your own (specifically assigned) health care provider.

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National Hotlines:  Treatment Referral Helpline: (1-877-726-4727)

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Photo: Pixabay


Accessing the Clinical Genuis of Winicott. Quatman Teri

Collected Worls of C.G. Jung. Jung, C.G.

Playing and Reality (Routedge Classics). Winicott, D.W.

The Essential Jung. Storr,Anthony.

The Work and Play of Winnicott. Groninick, Simon A.

48 thoughts on “True Self: Beneath The Layers of Our Learning.

  1. What a lovely article, LaDonna. Well written and super insightful. I completely agree with your take on, what I’ll term here for my own ease, the precarity between self-development and societal development. This line here sums it up for me: “In my learning, facilitating true change will only come through reflection and introspection.” That is truth, and, yet as a sociologist, who is also a developmentalist, I hope for a day when we can see that reflection and introspection on a societal scale. Yet, I also know it starts with each of us. A paradox, and not. Loved this piece. Be well, my friend. ❤❤

    Liked by 4 people

  2. In my early 20s, my parents and brother came to visit. I’d just started a new job and had to work late. I left the key under the mat, ordered dinner for them and when I got home, found them well into a bottle of Scotch having a robust conversation about… me. Specifically, all the things that were wrong with me. I listened for a while, and as I was accustomed to, tried to defend myself — as was their custom, they just ignored me. Eventually, I told them I was going to bed and if they were staying, they needed to quit talking about me. They didn’t, so I asked them to leave. My mother told my sisters I’d kicked them out. I said I was trying to save myself.
    And thus began the journey Merton so beautifully describes – I had to learn to accept myself in Love.
    It has been filled with ups and downs, twists and turns and some really dark alleys but, it has brought me here. That night of being judged so harshly was painful – but it put me on this path. And I am so very, very grateful for this path.
    Thank you LaDonna for a fabulous article. I’ll check out the others you recommend too.
    And yes, compassion along with self-compassion, is vital.
    Much gratitude.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Louise, Thank you for sharing your experience here. It sounds both painful and life changing .I am glad you are who you are and strong enough to journey this important and affirming path. I am sending you lots of care this evening and hope the week ahead is a good one.

      Liked by 2 people

  3. Well written one LaDonna! Somewhere there is a lot of individual differences and hierarchy of needs that also goes into the whole concept of true self. Also, many times ignorance can lead to multiple personality disorders also known as dissociative. I am with Jeff on the reflection and introspection part.

    I think there seems to be some issue, this post did not come on my feed for some reason. Be well!

    Liked by 3 people

  4. Yes, Jung said we must accept our shadow, the part that isn’t always so good, happy, pleasant before we can truly accept the light in us. Jesus Christ tells us, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” (Matthew 22:36-40; Mark 12:30, 31 Holy Bible — New King James Version). Since Jesus loved the sinner as well as His followers, this says he was telling us we must love and accept the parts of ourselves we see as bad in order to love others because we all have both good and bad within us. If we are unable to accept our shadow self, we are not truly able to accept our light or the shadow/light of others. We are always searching for something better in ourselves and others. You have shared some important parts of introspection. Thank You!

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Thank you for sharing your thoughts. It is most certainly a deeper work and in essence higher calling to engage in the processes needed on the path to finding acceptance of self and other. I appreciate your comments and insights.

      Liked by 2 people

  5. LaDonna, well done. Your delineation between true and false selves, reminded me of what I read in James Clavell’s “Shogun,” I believe. Since the Japanese live so close to one another, there are layers of facades they use to protect that intimate true self. For some reason, I remember six layers, which I do not think I can exactly define, but here goes.

    Like peeling layers of an onion back, there is a formal self that is put forward in public settings and to strangers one meets. Then, there is the self for acquaintances, followed by one for friends and extended family, then one for the nuclear family. The almost true self is one saved for very intimate friends, and the true self is one you keep alone.

    I found this delineation interesting, not saying it is true or not true. But, it helped explain things in my own culture. Keith

    Liked by 2 people

  6. This is a wonderful post. One of my favourite movies, American Beauty, really resonated with me because it showed the life of an ordinary family… and what happens within the walls of their home and the self they show to the rest of the world. I saw this movie when I was in university, a time in my life when I was really trying to figure out my identity.

    Now as I am nearing my 40s, one of the joys I find with getting older is really caring less about the self that I have to project to the world.

    I also think a lot about my little T and I am always amused when I watch him play and behave with total abandon and care for what the world thinks. It makes me kinda sad to think that gradually will fade away as he has to build his external self as you noted in response to what the world has to say and to condition him towards.

    But alas, as we get older, we hopefully learn to dig back to the essence of our truer self!

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Thank you for your insightful response. It is most certainly a process and journey. I think most of us can find our way back and I expect T will have a pretty good idea of who he is based on the way you support him in relationship. I genuinely appreciate your thoughts and what you have shared here.IN particular, caring less about the self projected onto the world. 💗

      Liked by 2 people

    1. Thank you. I appreciate your reading and commenting. I enjoy your writing very much. I currently post each month and am glad you are continuing to read. I hope your Friday is good and you are looking forward to a nice weekend 🤍.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. I spent two years working with pre-school children as a music and physical education teacher. During this time I coined the phrase, “Thrive Like You’re Five.” Most of these little ones had not yet learned how to hide their true self. I don’t know if the experts agree, but I find it helpful to think back to how I was at age five—especially If I am trying to find the most genuine me.

    Thank you. This was most helpful increasing my understanding. Blessings.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I love that phrase. “Thrive like your five”. Thank you for sharing your experience and insights. 💗 I hope you have a good upcoming weekend and many many days where you “thrive like your five”. Lovely. 💗


  8. You have given valuable insight to the concept ‘self ‘ and I love how you expand on the works of Jung and Winnicott’s. You make psychology as a subject and it’s concepts very easy to understand. Thank you for an interesting lecture and yet through all of your teachings I also get to do introspection on myself to understand the ‘self’ a little bit better. Great post as always 💕🌸

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you for the thoughtful comment. I’m very glad these concepts resonate with you. I think understanding and having compassion for ourselves is one of the greatest gifts we can give ourselves – and truly others. 💗💗💗.

      Liked by 1 person

  9. Excellent post! I can’t even stop myself putting on a mask for my psychiatrist who has seen me for 16 years. I hope he sees right through it…Only my husband and late mother saw my real self and loved me despite it. I think I need to read this again and mull it over. Thank you.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I am glad you found something that resonates here. Thank you for your thoughts and sharing your experience. It takes time to find our true selves again and it’s a very worthwhile journey. Sending you lots of care and hope for a lovely weekend ♥️.

      Liked by 1 person

  10. LaDonna, thank you for this wisdom. I love traveling deep inward to discover what’s not readily available to the eye. Not an easy journey, for sure, but one that guides us steadfastly towards our true self. ❤

    Liked by 1 person

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