Digressions on the Concept of Character in Christopher Bollas: Approaches and Distinctions with Winnicott.



Vera Barbosa

In the introduction to his book Hysteria, Christopher Bollas considers that, by approaching something as complex as hysteria, we are obliged to use all points of view and knowledge to distinguish the essential features and to have an integrated view of the functioning of the hysterical character. Equally relevant are the biological factors, the stages of psychic development, the object relations and the formation in culture. Although some character disorders may be more complex than others and, therefore, more difficult to cope with, we believe that the author’s considerations are valuable for understanding all pathologies, as well as for a better grasping of the very distinction that the author makes between character state and character disorder. This invites us to think about the option he makes for the use of the term character, and not for the term personality, traditionally found in psychoanalytic writings. In this essay we focus on some questions about these concepts and point out some possible differences between Bollas’s and Winnicott’s thinking on the theme.

We will begin with some digressions around the choice for the term ‘character’. The etymological origin of the word comes from the Greek ‘charakter’ meaning ‘stamp’, ‘imprint’, ‘mark’, which refers us directly to the Bollasian concept of personal idiom. In the first chapter of Hysteria, “The Characters of Psychoanalysis,” the author explains that each person is born with an essential core of the self, which he calls a personal idiom (fingerprint), a sort of psychic fingerprint that can be compared to a physical fingerprint. That is, the personal idiom is the stamp, the mark, the fingerprint of the self and this allows us to make an association between character and self.

If, on the one hand, the choice for the term character is related to its etymological origin, which meaning is the same for the concept of idiom in Bollas, on the other hand, that word in English, the author’s native language, presents some interesting semantic nuances, very pertinent to the Bollasian theory. ‘Character’ means ‘personality’, ‘trait’, ‘mark’, ‘symbol’, ‘a style of writing’, etc.; but it also means ‘a fictional being’, ‘persona’, etc. Considering that Bollas thinks the self as unlimited and plural, both subject and object, the word ‘character’, which concomitantly involves idiom and character, refers us to his own concept of self. And it leads us to conjecture that the option for the term is due to the fact that it has all this load of meanings, in order to favor understanding and facilitate the management of concepts present in the Bollasian metapsychology.

However, what calls attention most and causes a mental short circuit is the idiosyncratic meaning that Bollas confers to the term ‘character’. ‘Character’, both in the English definition and in its Latin origin, means ‘persona’, ‘a fictitious being’. This latter sense is most commonly used in art and psychoanalysis, and in many other areas. Bollas, however, makes use of the term to refer to a singular form of presentation of the self — the aesthetic form of the self — a pattern of being and relating. For him, when entering the world, the self begins to organize the personality and to constitute itself as character.

In The Metapsychology of Christopher Bollas: An Introduction, Sarah Nettleton explains that the way Bollas uses the concept of character reflects his academic literary background. Bollas refers to literature, plays and films, and states that these fields deal centrally with the character’s simulation and its effects. He says that one character will always have an impact on the other, but while our character may be observed by others, in the way we interact with our objects, we may never know our own character. Because our character is crossed by our idiom, it is the aesthetics of our idiom. For Bollas, we can recognize an artist by her work, her idiom is transmitted by the characteristic form of her work, an opera, a painting, a poem, regardless of content or theme. However, when confronted with our own work, our voice in a recording, a video, etc., we see ourselves as an external object, which often causes us some estrangeness. Bollas’s explanation inspires me to bring up a clinical vignette, something that occurred during the writing of this essay, and that well illustrates the speech of the author.

A patient tells me that, as an academic activity, he had recorded texts in audio and video to be presented in classroom. He said, “When I heard my voice on the audio I found it very weird, I did not recognize my own voice, I did not recognize myself in my voice. With the video, it was a bit better, although I saw myself doing more twists and grimaces than I imagined I would, at least I found myself nice and handsome”. In addition to illustrating Bollas’s explanation, that we can never know our character, and we strange it when we observe it externally, the vignette also illustrates a communication between our selves. It was impossible for me not to feel affected by that incident.

Thinking about the idiosyncratic use that Bollas makes of the term character, I came to ask if there is and, if so, what would be the possible relations with the false self as conceptualized by Winnicott. Can we think of the false self as being a character in the fictitious sense, a persona? If so, we have some divergence in the conceptions presented by the two authors, and this shows the singularities of Bollasian metapsychology. Let us begin with the distinction between false self and true self in the Winnicottian theory, which does not find support in the Bollasian theory.

Bollas does not give particular emphasis to the concept of false self. For Winnicott the false self has an important task, that of protecting the true self. In the book The Maturational Processes and the Facilitating Environment, Winnicott relates that the false self was named by a patient as self-caretaker, he asserts that it is a structure that exists to defend and conceal the true self. In The Winnicottian Language, Jan Abram says that only the true self can feel real, as far as the false self results in unreality and futility; and she quotes Winnicott: “In a way, I say that each person has a civilized or socialized self, as well as a private self that cannot be observed, except in intimacy. This is what we usually come across, which we could claim as normal. If we look around, we will see that in health this cleavage of the self is an acquisition of personal growth; even in disease, cleavage refers to a schism, occurring in the mind, which may have the most varied intensities; the most intense of these is schizophrenia” (2000, 231). And the author explains that the sound false self is similar to the persona, the Latin term for mask.

Here we can see clearly the difference between Bollas’s and Winnicott’s meaning and use of the term character. For Bollas, the concept of character is related to the presentation of the self, with a singular mode of communication between selves, between idioms, and it processes through form. He states that what is communicated is there, is presented in the character, and even if it has content nothing can be said about it, without plot, without narrative, without words, it simply is. For Winnicott, the concept carries the fictitious sense. That of a person who is structured to care for and protect the fragile true self in order to preserve the individual from the environmental conditions emerging from the maternal failure in the caring and adaptation of the baby. The false self deploys itself as real and observers tend to think that it is the real person. But the false self is not the real person but a persona. The false has polite and loving social attitude, whose gain constitutes in taking over a place that can never be reached or maintained by the true self.

Another issue that we want to mention, in order to compare these two authors, are the concepts of character disorder in Bollas and of “pathological false self” in Winnicott (2000, p.231). Bollas makes a distinction between character state and character disorder, and he explains that the idiom, or the self’s character, is powerful and does not hide itself, unlike the true self in Winnicott, whose secret life needs to be protected by the false self. Idiom is a power that wants to unfold itself and this happens in the infinite encounters with objects, from the beginnings in the relation mother-baby, and during all the life, making transformations possible. A self, having a good enough environment, unfolds into an integral self, which Winnicott defines as a person capable of distinguishing between self and not self.

According to Bollas the idiom is innate, singular, the core of our self, which is constituted and organized through intersubjective relationship. And it is the internalized parental process that gives form. As the baby grows, it moves operationally, without thinking (for example crawling), then becomes adult and complex, and the idiom continues to operate in the processes of creation and directing consciousness, it makes spontaneous choices and determined by the unconscious, through which it expresses and unfolds the self to have jouissance (enjoyment, pleasure). For this to take place one needs to have the necessary confidence, which is acquired in the primordial relationship with the primary object; the baby’s subjectivity is maintained by the mother when it allows her to participate in her world of thoughts and dreams. Bollas writes: “It is a pleasure (jouissance) of subjectivity to discover the means of ‘being dreamed’ until you reach reality; it is a true joy to encounter an object that contains an experience that is transformational for us” (1998, 39). If this right is not assured, the child will not feel confident to release the elements of the self for their trials, to be a character. The feeling of abandonment is perceived as a threat to life, and it causes withdrawal and fixation.

In unfolding itself via relations with objects, the idiom is modeling its uniqueness in order to generate a personal aesthetic that gives form to character, a proper way of being and relating to experiences, which will guide the relationship with the world. “Being a character, releasing his own idiom for the lived experience, requires a certain risk, because the subject does not know its outcome; in fact, to be a character is to be free to be, not as an entity known per se, but as an expressive idiom that makes explicit a human form” (Bollas, 1998, p.39). In this case the person can move through all states of character, going in and out diverse mental states, narcissistic, schizoid, hysterical, for all kinds of conflicts, although temporarily they may become ill, are normal, as long as the self is free to articulate its way of being and of relating.

According to Bollas the structural fixation comes about when there is partial interruption of the self in being, and what in a state of character would be only a trace is framed as a category. When, in the complex pregenital mother-baby relationship, a restriction of the baby’s underlying nature occurs, and the development and unfolding of the self ceases, the character is prevented from being formed, in which case character disorder will take shape and pathology is established. Every character disorder may be partially understood as a restriction of the self tied to the anguish in the mother-baby relationship, an adjustment in the relationship, which certain types of conflicts bring to the surface. Character disorder, whatever it may be, borderline, perverse, neurotic, according to Bollas: “refers to the structure of the self-conflict with a specific primary object at any moment in time” (2000, p. 13). Being a character is the communication, the expression, the release of the idiom to experience, not being able to be a character is not being able to make the idiom explicit, is to be trapped, fixed, without experimenting. To achieve reality is to come to being, using objects that stimulate the personal idiom and release it in lived expression.

For Winnicott, a true self begins to experience life when the mother is able to complement the baby’s omnipotence expressions by strengthening her ego. The healthy baby supports the invasion of the environment and experiences a return to a state in which there is no need to react, which, according to Winnicott, is still the state when the self can begin to exist, and the baby can establish the separation between the self and the not self. This happens when there is mental organization, the baby develops complexity and becomes able to relate to reality; if not interrupted, strengthens the feeling of being real. When the mother’s adaptation is not good enough, which depends not only on her mental health but also on the environment, she will not complement the baby’s omnipotence, she fails to satisfy his gesture, replacing it with her own gesture, in this case the baby is seduced into submission, a false self submits to the environment experiences and builds a set of false relationships, as a defense against annihilation of the true self.

For both Bollas and Winnicott, the pathologies occur in the fixation with the mother in the pregenital relationship. The two agree on the mother’s role in the baby’s healthy development. However, Winnicott defines the mother as environment and affirms her importance in complementing the baby’s omnipotence to strengthen the true self. Bollas understands the mother as a process and emphasizes her importance for the unfolding of the self. In both cases, pathologies are generated when the baby is in the pre-genital stage. But for Winnicott the false self, understood here as persona, is developed to protect the true self in a pathological scenario, for Bollas the character, in the real sense, in similar circumstances, is prevented from forming and expressing the idiom.



Bollas, C. Character and interformalities. In: The Christopher Bollas Reader. London: Routledge, 2011.

________ Hysteria. São Paulo: Listen, 2000.

_________ Being a character. Rio de Janeiro: Revinter, 1998.

Jan Abram. The Winnicottian Language. Rio de Janeiro: Revinter, 2000.

Winnicott, D.W. The Environment and Maturation Processes. Porto Alegre: Artmed, 1983.

Nettleton, S. The Metapsychology of Christopher Bollas: An Introduction. São Paulo: Escuta, 2018.








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