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Strengthening the True Self and Healthy False Self after Military Service

Caroline Walsh


Caroline is a PhD student in the University of San Diego’s Leadership Studies program. She is a Coast Guard and CIA veteran who serves as a mentor in the Armed Service Arts Partnership’s comedy bootcamp courses. Her book, Fairly Smooth Operator, is now available.

Due to the rigidity of life in the military, when service members leave the military and re-enter the non-military environment as veterans, it is almost as if many need an opportunity to relearn their True Self and healthy False Self to respond genuinely and appropriately to the world around them. Applying Donald Winnicott’s theories of development, which include using a transition object and holding environment to develop the various selves, may help facilitate a healthy transition out of the military and into the civilian world. Organizations supporting veterans, such as the Armed Service Arts Partnership (ASAP), have naturally created programs congruent to Winnicott’s developmental theory and found impact in developing confidence and sense of self in the veteran community they serve.

Winnicott’s theories

Donald Winnicott was a pediatrician and psychoanalyst who focused on children’s psychological development, having been influenced by his experience as a consultant pediatrician during World War II. He proposed the concepts of the “True Self” and the “False Self.” The True Self is a person’s real thoughts, feelings, and creativity while the “False Self,” is the self that presents to society and protects the true self (Winnicott, 1965). The False Self searches for conditions that will make it possible for the True Self to emerge. When those conditions are not detected, the False Self presents and hides the True Self. For example, the False Self shows when meeting someone new and a person acts polite and well-mannered instead of being genuine or spontaneous. Winnicott looks to the environment to find causes of mental and social issues, proposing that an aversive environment could cause the strong positioning of the False Self, to protect the True Self (Gupta, 2005).

Winnicott examines early childhood development and environmental relationships to explain where the True Self may have been underdeveloped and the False Self overdeveloped. He explains that children experience a “holding environment,” a space within which the infant is protected without necessarily knowing he is protected. Children will sometimes use a literal “transitional object,” (like a teddy bear) that helps them gain independence from their caregiver as a process in their development (Gupta, 2005).

Although military veterans are very different from children, the idea of starting over in the civilian world and transitioning from dependence on the military structure and culture to a healthy interdependence with their environment could be viewed as an emergence. It could even be seen that it’s a transition in which a “rebirth” and reintegration with the world is necessary. The word “infant” comes from the phrase “not talking,” (Gupta 2005) and because those coming from strict military environments tend to be discouraged from authentic expression of themselves, Winnicott’s theory of child development can serve as a guide for veterans’ development of their Selves.

Winnicott notes that to develop, one is not to remain dependent. Interacting with the environment is what can facilitate conditions to realize one’s potential (Gupta, 2005). He emphasizes the importance of creativity because it relates to how we handle the future and sees that play helps us make plans and think of different possibilities (2005). Play helps us explore a place between reality, where we follow social norms, and imagination, where we can put aside some rules (2005).

The goal is not to become completely independent. The goal is to be well integrated into our environment rather than be isolated (2005). Social context and the individual are important in the process of developing the selves. Winnicott believed it is our fellow human beings that help use become interdependent (2005).

Military experience: Death to your true self

In the military, new members enter a new adulthood where their choices are non-existent and speaking out when their emotions arise tends to be stifled. As part of assimilation into the military, new recruits are often trained to regress from communication skills they have learned thus far in their lives. They additionally are not in control of many decisions about their lives — potentially missing decision-making opportunities that might normally be a chance to live according to the genuine and spontaneous True Self. The already learned communication skills that become disrupted by the military environment include simply being able to respond according to one’s feelings.

As an example, during one’s the introduction to the military, a person in boot camp is trained not to provide explanations for their mistakes, but is told to respond with “No excuse, Sir/Ma’am,” when a superior identifies an error. Expressing their genuine feelings of perhaps regret or sharing knowledge that they are in the right if only the supervisor could understand the situation, is not allowed. Later in their career, they might be exposed to training that encourages more spontaneous input, however they are likely still wary of the hierarchy and regulations that can be punitive. This rigidity serves its purpose in the military world, which requires movements of large numbers of personnel and clear hierarchy to control the masses, however, once service people leave the military world, it is necessary to relearn how to communicate in order to thrive in the non-military environment. Civilian positions often require personnel to provide their feedback and expression of emotion helps create connection between employees that enables creative collaboration. Without some expression of the True Self, the connection and collaboration become less genuine.

Applying Winnicott’s concepts, being in the military overly develops the False Self because the conditions where one can be creative and spontaneous are extremely limited. Thus, the protective False Self takes over to navigate the military norms, knowing that the True Self must remain hidden or the person will face conflict or punishment. The strengthening of the False Self occurs simply by learning the military environment and does not take into consideration the additional strengthening of the False Self that may occur from various military environment related traumas, like incidents of sexual assault or engagement in combat. Additionally, due to culturally hostile attitudes in the military, a woman (Trobaugh, 2018) or member of the LGBTQ community (Mark, McNamara, Gribble, Rhead, Sharp, Stevelink,Schwartz, Castro, and Fear, 2019) in particular, may experience less of the rare opportunities for the True Self to emerge and develop. Even when others find momentary conditions suitable for their True Self to play and reduce stress, the lack of a supportive environment for women and LGBTQ personnel in the military means their False Self often remains in place.

Transition programs: Object and environment

Transitional programs become key to helping military veterans transition to a healthy interdependence with their new environment. As Winnicott notes, creativity and play are important in imagining a future. Programs like the Armed Service Arts Partnership’s (ASAP) Comedy Boot Camp is one example of a place where military veterans can find safety for their True Self and develop healthy False Self. In ASAP’s programs, veterans are given a “holding space” where they can bend the usual social norms by brainstorming jokes and creative projects. Their “transitional object” becomes a notepad, a microphone, or a stage they can use to still feel connected to the military while moving into their new civilian environment. Veterans have the opportunity to create an interdependence with others in the organization and often use the experience to further connect with outside arts groups or translate the skills learned to other environments like on the job or with family. ASAP’s impact report concluded that through participation in one of ASAP’s programs, “participants learned to accept, honor, and integrate their life experiences as part of themselves to promote their well-being,” (ASAP 2019).

Beneficial military transitional programs are not limited to the arts. Organizations like Team Read, White, and Blue, which aims to enrich veterans’ lives though connection to their community via physical and social activity (Team RWB, 2021), also provides a holding space and perhaps the transitional object of running shoes or the less concrete object of fitness. This organization encourages a space where veterans and non-veterans of the same local community connect and create an interdependence and increased understanding of each other. The sense of safety with the community means a veteran’s True Self is more likely to come out, explore, and develop.


Applying Winnicott’s concepts may help military veteran focused organizations reach excellence in their impact on improving veteran’s transition into the non-military world. The holding environment and transitional objects may vary, but the supportive place where veterans can create an interdependence with others and re-establish their True Self is key. Likewise, if veteran-serving organizations are struggling to have impact, a closer examination of the holding environment and feedback from participants about whether veterans feel safe genuinely expressing themselves may indicate where program improvements are needed.


ASAP. (2019). Thriving through the Arts: A program impact evaluation of the Armed Service Arts Partnership (ASAP).

Gupta, A. (2005). Kierkegaard’s Romantic Legacy: Two Theories of the Self. Ottawa: University of Ottawa Press. doi:10.2307/j.ctt1ckpgbc,

Mark, K.M., McNamara, K.A., Gribble, R. Rhead, R., Sharp, M-L., Stevelink, S.A.M., Schwartz, A., Castro, C., and Fear, N.T. (2019) The health and well-being of LGBTQ serving and ex-serving personnel: a narrative review, International Review of Psychiatry, 31:1, 75–94, DOI: 10.1080/09540261.2019.1575190

Team RWB. (2021). Enriching veterans’ lives.

Trobaugh, E.M. (2018). Women, Regardless: Understanding Gender Bias in U.S. Military Integration. Joint Force Quarterly, (1).

Winnicott, D.W. (1965). The Maturational process and facilitating environment. International Universities Press, Inc. New York,

<a href=”">Cropped view of man in camouflage uniform pouring coffee in cup at kitchen —</a>



Caroline Walsh

Former CIA Analyst and Coastie. PhD Student. Author of Fairly Smooth Operator: My life occasionally at the tip of the spear, available now!