Donald W. Winnicott
Donald W. Winnicott was both a practicing pediatrician and a psychoanalyst for most of his professional life. He worked with many categories of patients – including regressed adults, disturbed and delinquent adolescents, and problem children – and treated mother–infant-toddler pairs. Working with such a diverse population of patients, he experienced the deficiencies of both the libido and the structural theories. The libido theory fo-cuses on drives and anergic concepts; the structural theory con-centrates on oedipal development and, in Freud’s formulation, places the “narcissistic neuroses” (i.e., the psychoses) in a sepa-rate group without a framework for treatment. Although he found the existing theories to be problematic, Winnicott attempted to fit his ideas within them. He handled his disagreements with Freud’s ideas by reinterpreting them to meet his need to deal with highly disturbed early relationships. For example, he reworked the Oedipus complex to emphasize Klein’s conflict between love and hate, rather than Freud’s conflict between instinctual de-sires and fear of castration. (Winnicott acknowledged his debt to Klein, particularly with reference to the depressive position; Winnicott, 1954–55). Another way in which Winnicott reinter-preted Freudian theory was to focus on the central function of an early maternal “holding environment”. This primacy of early bonding contradicted Freud’s concept of “primary narcissism”, which held that the infant is at first not oriented toward others and that relationships become important only later, secondary to drive frustration.
Every individual, according to Winnicott (1960), devel-ops true and false selves. Insofar as the mother is empathically attuned to her child, without intruding on the child, there is a core feeling of wholeness and goodness from which the true self develops. With appropriate “mirroring”, the child learns to play, to be creative and to be alone with comfort. Those developmen-tal achievements create the fundamental organizer, the true self (at times also called the ego by Winnicott). However, insofar as there is a mismatch in the relationship, the child’s develop-ment is stunted, and the child develops a false self. In healthy people, the false self is relatively minimal. It is represented by politeness and social manners; however, in extreme states of illness, it may be the main self-representation. A lifelong feel-ing of unreality and futility results, with a severely unempathic mother, in Winnicott’s view. One positive function of the false self is that it protects the nascent true self from a damaging environment
Winnicott’s (1951) transitional object is a concrete, real external object (unlike the intrapsychic objects that we have been discussing). It is the infant’s first “not me” possession and is im-bued psychologically with attributes of both mother and infant. The transitional object evolves out of activities occurring in the “space” between infant and mother. These activities generally have close links to the mouth or the mother’s body. For example, the child may at first put a fist or thumb in the mouth or stroke the corner of a blanket. The blanket gradually becomes special and essential to the child (the familiar security blanket). A stuffed toy such as teddy bear or even a hard toy may become a transitional object. This process is based on the facilitating, appropriate re-sponse of the mother. The blanket may become smelly, yet it must not be washed; and the teddy bear may become tattered, yet it must accompany the toddler everywhere. The evolution of the transitional object is the precursor of the child’s ability to play. As an intermediary object, the transitional object also serves as a precursor of the ability to be alone. There is wide variation as to when the transitional object develops, but it usually evolves from about 4 to 12 months.