Donald W Winnicott was a renowned British psychoanalyst whose theories and works have had a major impact on the study and practice of psychotherapy. He was born in Plymouth, England in 1896 and studied medicine at the University of Oxford.
Winnicott was a leading figure in the fields of child development, psychoanalysis, and psychotherapy. He is best known for his theories of the "good enough mother," the "true self," and the "false self," and for his pioneering work in the concept of the transitional object. His work has greatly influenced the fields of psychology and psychiatry, and he has been described as one of the most influential psychoanalysts of the 20th century.
Donald Woods Winnicott was born in 1896 to an upper-class family in Plymouth, England. His father was a well-to-do merchant who was very strict and distant from his children. Winnicott remembers his mother being depressed and withdrawn in his youth.
Educational and professional background
In 1914, Winnicott enrolled in Jesus College in Cambridge to study medicine. In 1917, he joined the British Royal Navy. Upon returning, Winnicott completed his medical training and received a degree from the University of London’s St. Bartholomew’s Hospital Medical College, and in 1923 qualified as a pediatrician. During his medical school years, Winnicott began reading Freud’s works, and recognized the importance of the unconscious in psychotherapy.
While working as a pediatrician, Winnicott was undergoing his own analysis with James Strachey while training under the famous psychoanalyst Melanie Klein. He completed his analytic training in 1935, and in 1936 qualified as the first male child analyst. In the 1950s, Winnicott would become one of the prominent figures of the Independent School of the British Psychoanalytical Society in London. The members of the Independent School were known for their reformulation of infantile psychology, development, psychic conflict, and creativity.
Much of Winnicott’s contributions to developmental psychology and clinical psychotherapy are the products of his extensive work with children and families. His work is replete with references to conversations he had with the parents of his young patients. He is also well known for his elegant communicative abilities, and delivered talks on the BBC on numerous occasions on the topic of developmental psychology designed for parents with children.
Theory of psychoanalysis
Winnicott’s primary concern in psychoanalysis was the development of the person and the integration of the self.
Phases of Winnicott’s writings
Scholars have identified three phases of Winnicott’s thinking.
- Phase One 1935 – 1944 - The environment-individual set-up
- Phase Two 1945 – 1960 – Transitional phenomena
- Phase Three 1960 – 1971 – The use of an object
Phase one, the environment-individual set-up, was developed during Winnicott’s early years of writing papers and giving lectures on psychoanalysis. During this period, he was beginning to discover the importance of the relationship between an infant and its environment. The famous line of this period, “There is no such thing as an infant,” reflects the profundity of this discovery. Rather than thinking about the individual infant and his or her personal development, Winnicott thought that the therapist needs to focus more on the actual relationship between the infant and their caregivers. The familial, material, and social context in which the person develops is as important as their inner life. This marked Winnicott’s movement away from the major ways of thinking in psychoanalytic circles, dominated by Melanie Klein and Anna Freud.
During phase two, Winnicott discovered that children adopted certain objects or phenomena into their lives during their development. These objects, such as a blanket or toy, would typically come into the picture between four and twelve months of age, although he was not too strict on the chronological age. He called these objects transitional objects or transitional phenomena. The transitional object helped to facilitate the transition from the infant’s narcissistic “Me” to the more other-oriented “Not-Me” psychic development. He believed that, while there was never fully a one-ness or fusion melding the infant to his or her mother, the space that was present—and growing during development and maturity—frustrated the child. Within this space, the transitional object would function as a place-holder and allows the child to play and experience creativity without the threat of complete separation.
Phase two is broadly recognized in the therapeutic community as Winnicott’s final split from Melanie Klein through his reformulation of aggression. Rather than referring to aggression as an innate death instinct, as Freud and Klein did, Winnicott found that aggression was the attempt of the young infant to ‘test the limits’ of the objects around him or her. Biting or scratching the mother is not born of an innate hatred towards her, but an attempt to ensure that she is “really real”, that she can survive attacks in the first place. Through this process, the infant learns that there are objects outside of its own experience that are constant and solid and independent of his or her own wishes and desires. This is the psychological basis for our capacity for objectivity, which later one can apply to science, philosophy, or other intellectual pursuits.
Significant contributions to psychotherapy
One of the most influential ideas of Winnicott had come up with was the concept of the holding environment. As a practicing pediatrician and psychotherapist, Winnicott’s work was primarily concerned with clinical practice. His most important idea for psychotherapy is that the therapist and the therapist’s office can function as a warm and secure environment in which the patient can experience themselves fully. The holding environment is an attempt on the therapist’s part to re-create the early parent-infant relationship with the goal of allowing the failed or frustrating aspects to be corrected or healed in the therapeutic relationship. The analyst would do this by reflecting the patient’s emotions and internal experiences as well as helping the patient finding the hidden meaning in their experiences. Winnicott believed this was the primary role of the parental caregiver early on in the infant’s psychic development.
True and false selves
Winnicott called the ways in which the self develops in relation to its parental environment the true and false selves. If conditions are optimal, the mother would respond to her child’s authentic needs. In this context, a certain cry would be accurately interpreted as loneliness, hunger, or fear. The mother would then intuitively know how to respond to these needs of the child, and she could respond to them in a way that satisfied. This would contribute to the child’s true self, a self that is capable of spontaneity, creativity, and authenticity. The infant will grow up learning that its needs are valid and worth attending to and caring for.
On the other hand, sometimes mothers don’t respond accurately to their child’s needs, but rather respond to their own unconscious needs and desires. The same cry from a child mentioned above might be interpreted inaccurately, perhaps as loneliness when it is the mother who is lonely, and the child is, in reality, hungry. The child will develop a false self in this environment, and learn that their authentic needs and inner experiences are not valid, and the goal of relationship is to learn how to satisfy other peoples’ unconscious, and therefore unknown, wishes. This constant attending to the other’s desires stifles personal creativity, spontaneity, and authenticity. It is widely believed that Winnicott’s personal relationship with his mother was a great influence on his ideas of true and false selves.
Good enough mothering
During his work with children and families, Winnicott discovered that a mother or parent figure need not be perfect in order to raise a happy and psychologically healthy child. What is needed, rather, is a devoted parent. General health and good intentions on the part of the parents are likely to produce an environment which is good enough. That is, good enough for the child to enjoy luxury as well as slowly get accustomed to the natural and universal frustrations in life.
Criticisms of Winnicott’s ideas
Winnicott’s writing has been criticized for often being unclear, obscure, or inconsistent. He does not do well at clearly defining his ideas or organizing his thoughts into a scientific or philosophical system, but rather writes as he experiences his clinical work: in impressions and insights, following ideas as they lead him.
Another shortcoming that some people find with Winnicott’s ideas is that he idealizes early childhood and normalizes certain modes of family life, perhaps giving in too much to his romanticism and optimism about childhood.
Some criticize his ideas of ‘true’ and ‘false’ selves as placing too much emphasis and weight on the mother in determining the psychological well-being of her child, as well as using his own personal experience to make generalizations about human development.
Winnicott’s books and significant essays
While he did not formally publish any books during his lifetime, his many lectures, papers, and essays have been edited and compiled into collections of works. These include:
- Collected Papers: Through Paediatrics to Psycho-Analysis (1958)
- The Maturational Processes and the Facilitating Environment: Studies in the Theory of Emotional Development (1968)
- Playing and Reality (1971)
His most significant papers include:
- “Primitive emotional development” (1945)
- “Transitional object, transitional phenomena” (1951)
- “Anxiety associated with insecurity” (1952)
- “Primary maternal preoccupation” (1956)
- “Antisocial tendency” (1956)
- “Communicating and not communicating” (1963)
- “Absence and presence of guilt” (1966)
Winnicott was married to Alice Taylor until 1951 when they divorced and he married Clare Britton, a prominent social worker, professor, and governmental advisor, whom he had been working with at a hospital. They remained married until Winnicott died in 1971, working together on developmental theories and social issues. They published numerous papers together, including the influential paper, “The problem of homeless children” (1944). D. W. Winnicott remains a very important and highly influential thinker and practitioner of psychotherapy.
Phillips, A. (1989). Winnicott. Cambrige, MA: Harvard University Press.