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Donald Winnicott

Donald Winnicott

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Donald Winnicott

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  1. Donald Winnicott

  2. Lived 1896 – 1971 in England. Eventually became President of the British Psychoanalytic Association. Variously described as a pediatrician, psychiatrist, sociologist, and psychoanalyst, who at one time gave various BBC talks. Apart from a distinct way of describing child development, he introduced the following key terms: holding environment, transitional object, and the true- and false-self.

  3. To start your evaluation of Winnicott’s work you need to grasp the imaginative simplification which lies at the heart of his theorising, but you also need some context for such work – this is supplied here by first making reference to Freud – the ‘father’ of psychoanalysis – and then Piaget and Vygotsky – two cognitive theorists featuring on the Early Childhood Pathway.

  4. For Freud, the limit case between the mind and biological (physiological) instincts is set by the mediating notion of the ‘drive’. Freud indicates that human mental life is structured around the consequences of a fundamental contradiction in our biological make-up. On the one side there are ‘individual’ instincts that are said to be selfish and self-preserving, while on the other, there are others which have developed to aid human survival within groups. Maturation of the body involves maturation of the instincts, and this is experienced in terms of the strengthening, disappearance, or modification of the ‘drives’ as one ages.

  5. Piaget emphasises the individual’s exploratory capacity in relation to his immediate environment. For Piaget, the individual’s capacity to react to an environment changes through this process of exploration so that the individual, the individual’s relationship to its environment, and the nature of that environment itself as experienced, becomes ever more complex. Again, maturation forces the pace, and while the readiness to explore one’s environment may diminish with age, its nature does not change. Instead of the Freudian ‘drives’, Piaget argues for the existence of mediating ‘schemas’ for interactions devoted to different forms of social and individual survival.

  6. Vygotsky – the other, principal psychologist studied within the Early Childhood Pathway, places much greater emphasis on the importance of language in social maturation. His main contribution is to emphasise the significance of educational discourse in which the child is brought to re-assemble its existing knowledge – sometimes by incorporating new material – through its interaction with a more knowledgeable ‘other’ – usually an adult. (Growth is said to take place within a Zone of Proximal Development.) Like Piaget, Vygotsky is more properly described as a psychologist, rather than a psychoanalyst.

  7. And so to Winnicott – a psychoanalyst following the Freudian system of theorising, rather than cognitive science. Putting the matter of their differences very crudely, while Piaget and Vygotsky operate within a developing field of science, both Freud and Winnicott operate ‘scientifically’, but in a field of study that lacks clearly defined objects. What I mean by this is that both men theorise about the unconscious largely by means of analogy, metaphor, and the adaptation of ideas taken from the arts and sciences, e.g. drama, mythology, but also economics, physics, etc.

  8. For Winnicott, then, the greatest mystery of early childhood life is how children come to recognise the meaningfulness of things - how, in other words, they come to accept that their entire experience is not only meaningful to them but - by a process of mediation using abstract symbols – how they gain the ability to share experiences with others. Clearly this involves language, but Winnicott’s focus is general – he wants to explain how we enter the symbolic world, how we maintain ourselves within it, how we may develop – and, of course, being a psychoanalyst, how such developments can go wrong.

  9. This last point introduces a topic that has been the focus of cultural critique in its own right. Each theory of development attempts to represent a process of ‘normal’ development, and by implication also says something about what constitutes ‘abnormal’ development. This falls very much within the scope of Michel Foucault’s historical studies. My recommendation is rather than reaching for his famous Discipline and Punish – typically cited in relation to education – you will find it more helpful to read his: Madness and Civilisation.

  10. It’s also helpful to know something about Winnicott’s initial research context:- The group of psychoanalysts he worked with during the Forties and Fifties included John Bowlby – the ‘father’ of what is now known as ‘attachment theory’. During the Second World War, he was employed as a consultant psychiatrist for the evacuee programme. This involved predominantly urban children being removed from their cities to places of greater safety from bombing - usually rural and small-town communities. Inevitably, there were problems and it is these children who were Winnicott’s first patients.

  11. There is a further aspect to this same context, Winnicott’s authority within British psychoanalysis (based on the Tavistock Institute, in London) resulted in him being invited by the BBC throughout the Fifties to contribute to a number of programmes discussing the desirable conditions for child nurture. But by the Sixties, feminist criticism was suggesting that his emphasis on the importance of the mother had been endorsed and adopted by the State for propaganda purposes, rather than for its scientific accuracy. The suggested rationale was to persuade women to stay at home with their children so as to free-up factory places for the men who were returning home after the war.

  12. A Holding Environment Winnicott’s concept of the ‘good-enough mother’ assumes that she will exercise what might be described as an ordinary level of devotion and loving care. He identifies this as the basic foundation for any child’s later psychological health. A central aspect of this interaction between mother and child is what Winnicott calls a ‘holding environment’. He describes in unusual detail the processes by which a baby is picked up, handled, bathed, cleaned, played with, etc. – all of which are said to contribute to the baby’s first idea of the mother.

  13. Winnicott argues that the child’s sense of its own embodiment – its recognition of its own body as the place where its experiences are focussed – cannot develop adequately without an initial period in which the experience of its own unrecognised dependency is met by consistent forms of loving handling. This allows the infant to continue living within an illusion of its own omnipotence until such time as it can begin to interact with the environment unaided by the mother. This, of course, entails a sometimes extended period in which the mother must progressively reduce the level of her own interventions on the child’s behalf.

  14. Winnicott uses the concept of the ‘holding environment’ as a metaphor to explain a necessary developmental pre-condition. He argues that as the child develops, so too do its forms of dependency. For normal development to take place there has to be an equivalent to the infant’s initial holding environment, only now this holding is done by other carers, by siblings, by the family, and eventually extended social groups, such as school, university, and work-place. (You might find certain novels illuminating here, e.g., J. P. Hartley’s The Shrimp and the Anemone introduces a form of sibling holding, Jeannette Winterson’s Oranges are not the Only Fruit introduces the embrace of a committed social group, while Gunter Grass’ The Tin Drum leads back to the Second World War and an extraordinary version of ‘holding’.)

  15. The Anti-Social Tendency An implication of Winnicott’s extended concept of holding is that dependency itself must change with maturity, so that the form of holding appropriate to one form of dependency may no longer offer an adequate form of holding in a new situation. Anti-social behaviour is, at root, a cry for help - a search for a new form of holding, and also an expression of the sense of having lost a previously successful social integration – a lost balance between need and response. Rather like Vygotsky, Winnicott sees the value of creative play, arguing that it offers the child a means to constructs for itself a holding environment.

  16. The Sense of Being – the major ‘driver’ of Winnicottian theory Without an adequate initial holding environment the child’s sense of being can be lost. This results in the development of a ‘false’ sense of being. The characteristic feature of this will be various forms of docile compliance relative to whichever holding environment the child is currently experiencing. Winnicott’s diagnosis implies that the development and maintenance of a true sense of being will always result in a level of conflict between individuals within the relevant holding environment. (It may be helpful to compare this with Rousseau’s notion of amour-de-soi.)

  17. Playing and Reality Winnicott describes initial play as taking place in the potential ‘space’ between the ‘baby’ and the ‘mother figure’ – the quotes are here to remind you that for Winnicott the structure of critical events in early infancy give specific form to all subsequent developments that are equivalent in kind. For instance, a ‘play situation’ refers to the good-enough mother’s readiness to initiate play with the baby, and for the baby to recognise this initiation as coming from a trusted mother figure. Given the baby’s initially weak sense of self, much depends on the nature of the mother’s responsiveness.

  18. For Winnicott, then, the whole momentum of development is dependent on the mother’s behaviour and attitude, and how this is expressed will have a profound impact on all subsequent development. The good-enough mother will be consistently responsive to the infant, allowing its sense of self to develop through an illusion of omnipotence which she can at least temporarily sustain. The true sense of self can only flourish in such an environment, i.e., one which relies on the mother’s optimal responsiveness to the infant’s expressions. (And, just to make the point again, in relation to later forms of play, creativity itself demands as a pre-requisite the re-creation of a ‘maternal’ environment.)

  19. Transitional phenomena, creativity, and reality. When playing within a holding environment, Winnicott identifies a specific feature which he terms the ‘transitional object’. This is an object that is not-me, and yet not not-me either! A familiar example would be the favourite teddy bear or doll, etc. which the child needs to an almost obsessive degree in times of stress and almost always when going to sleep. Winnicott argues that the transitional object is the means by which the child copes with separation – and as the child develops, the identification of its equivalent is a vital ingredient in healthy development.

  20. Like Vygotsky, Winnicott recognises the positive and creative aspects of play, rather than just its capacity to act as a form of self-administered therapy for stress. In these situations, it is the child’s interpretative leap into new holding environments that is at issue, and the transitional object – whether found or self-made – became the means by which the shock of the new is mediated in a transitional space so that the child can reach towards it from the initial familiarities of its present holding environment. For Winnicott, then, play leads to creativity, and creativity leads to the opening up of new possibilities and new ways of being.

  21. Given the enormous importance of imitation in human learning, what Winnicott has to say about those situations when the transitional object fails to materialise may seem odd. He argues that just as in early infancy, where a false sense of being is a constant developmental danger, in play lacking a transitional object one ends up with a child (or adult) making imitative leaps that lack substance -silly or embarrassing impersonations, assumed forms of maturity which cannot be sustained, i.e., a form of infant compliance. These comments seem Rousseauesque – think amour-propre - as does his view that a weak sense of true being exposes one to the risk of falling prey to the expectations of others.

  22. Given the significance of the true self, it is helpful to develop the concept a little further. For Winnicott, the true self is close to that residuum that even Locke recognised as marking the essence of an individual, but Winnicott is following Freud in this: he wants to think of this feature of the self as each individual’s unique patterning of the drives – those limit points of psychic life that Freud understood as mediating between the mind and the instincts – if you like, we are dealing with the ‘mental life’ of the instincts. But note Winnicott’s selection of descriptive words – he talks of integrity, and uses phrases such as ‘connected wholeness’ which are said to characterise an ‘authentic’ sense of being alive.

  23. Rousseau’s Émile offers few grounds for compromise until Émile becomes a self-sufficient adult – Winnicott is more flexible. He extends the notion of the false-self so that it is used to cope in a ‘healthy’ way with the social sacrifices that Freud writes about in his Civilisation and its Discontents. A healthy false self allows for social compromise without risking the integrity of the true self. This implies that in each situation there is a continuum between the two kinds of self, and it is the false sense which is a constant source of danger. The false self presents a mask, or persona (character) which attempts to anticipate the demands made by the social situation on the individual in order to maintain social position.

  24. For infants, matters may be more serious. If the mother is not good-enough, she is unable to respond adequately to the individuality of her infant’s needs and instead looks for the reproduction of her own gestures, attitudes, etc. Repeated compliance by the infant becomes the grounds for a false sense of being starting to dominate proceedings, i.e., the true sense of self is swamped. If this happens, an entire set of false social relations can be built up by the child, and it may end with it living in a world that lacks any possibility of individual reality (experience gained through the child’s true self). The child grows up to be like its mother, or whoever dominates the initial holding environment at the time of the self’s mis-direction.

  25. You might also find it useful to use Google to investigate what is known as Object-Relations theory – particularly the version developed by Melanie Klein. This was judged by many to be ‘eccentric’, and stood in opposition to the much more orthodox, Freudian interpretation of childhood developed by Anna Freud, Freud’s daughter. Klein’s work, however, speculates in dramatic ways about some of the earliest experiences of childhood; it is, literally, a ‘cracking’ read!