‘Winnicott envisioned the infant as born with the potential for unique individuality of personality (termed a True Self personality organisation), which can develop in the context of a responsive holding environment provided by a good-enough mother.’ Thomas Ogden (1990)
Donald Woods Winnicott was born in Plymouth, Devon, into a prosperous family; the son of Sir Frederick Winnicott and Elizabeth Martha Woods. His first marriage was to Alice Taylor in 1923, which ended in a divorce in 1951. His second marriage, in 1951, was to Elsie Clare Nimmo Britton, a psychiatric social worker and psychoanalyst. Winnicott trained to be a medical doctor at Jesus College, Cambridge, and graduated in 1920. Later, in 1923, he decided to train as a psychoanalyst under the lay-analyst, James Strachey, Freud’s English translator. In the same year, he took the post of paediatrician at the Paddington Green Children’s Hospital; a post he held for forty years. Winnicott rose to prominence as a clinical psychologist surrounded by the ‘great and the good’ of his time; through Strachey he had close links with London’s literary ‘Bloomsbury’ set, his second analysis was with Joan Riviere, his clinical supervisor was Melanie Klein, and he was close friends and colleagues with the great John Bowlby, the humanist psychiatrist R. D. Laing, and the controversial analyst Masud Khan. He became a member of the British Psycho-Analytical Society in 1935, and was to become its president twice – Bowlby served as his deputy at the British School. Winnicott’s idiosyncratic reading of classical Freudian and Kleinian theories of infancy led him to believe in a ‘middle way’ - that mental disturbance had its origin in the interpersonal relationships of infancy.
Winnicott’s lasting contribution to the field of emotional development, it can be said, was not to deny the importance of inheritance; rather, to develop the idea that schizotypal dysfunctions show up as the negative of processes that can be traced as failures in the positive processes of care-giving. His theories are primarily concerned with abandoning psychopathology in favour of the quality of emotional development of self, and the therapeutic process itself. In these senses, Winnicott’s theoretical landscape can be simply understood in the form of two overlapping modalities: the first concerning the sense of reality, personal meaning, and selfhood as a distinct and creative centre of ones own experience; the second concerning the ‘use of the transitional object’ in the transitional process from the ‘subjective omnipotence’ of the infant toward a more mature appreciation of objective reality.
Winnicott remained independent of the controversies over technique between Anna Freud and Melanie Klein within the British School. This independence was reflected in his view that the [m]Other-infant (parent-child) interaction was held to hinge upon the emotional development of selfhood as proving either positive or negative - true or false. He came to see failed emotional development as ‘False Self Disorder’; that is, a direct failure in the management of the infants personalised needs for love and responsiveness by the primary care-giver. Conversely, he came to see the successful care-giver as one characterised by a ‘primary maternal preoccupation’; that is, a selflessness of subjective interest displayed by the [m]Other who offers herself as a vehicle for the baby’s demands and desires. Furthermore, it is precisely this selflessness, with regard to the infant in its earliest stages of life, that he famously terms the defining character of the ‘good-enough mother’. Furthermore, ‘primary maternal preoccupation’, as the hallmark of the ‘good-enough mother’, to Winnicott’s thought at least, is seen as a ‘temporary madness’ that enables the [m]Other to withdraw from her own subjectivity and become the medium for the development of the subjective movements and vitalities of the infant.
One may recall that Klein’s clinical observations of children as young as two and three quarter years of age had led her to understand the earliest experience of infants as one where paranoid and persecutory anxieties dominated the internal phantasy life of the child. This she had demarked as the paranoid-schizoid position (cf. Klein, 1946), as a separate state from the chronologically later depressive position (cf. Klein, 1935). That being so, Winnicott came to realise, through his own clinical work with children, that he had to abandon the prescriptive stage theory of the psychosexual model (cf. Freud, 1905) of classical Freudian design. However, rather than fully adopting the Ps↔D positional model (cf. Klein; Bion), Winnicott, ever the independent minded psychologist, retained those aspects from both theoretical stances which best suited his own observations of children.
Thus, Winnicott had no difficulty in appreciating the pre-linguistic newborn (the infant Fr. enfant) as an undifferentiating and ruthless tyrant; which is to say, undifferentiating in the sense that s/he could not discriminate between itself and the primary care-giver - as if mother and child were in symbiotic union; and, a ruthless tyrant in the sense that s/he saw themselves as the all-powerful centre of all being - the creator of the breast that feeds, the creator of the warmth that warms; in short, the creator of their world. This is what Winnicott means when he uses the term ‘subjective omnipotence’ to describe the mental state of the neonate. It is, therefore, precisely this ‘holding environment’, provided by the ‘good-enough mother’, which brings the world to the infant in a moment of illusion that seems to the child to be one of its own wishes turning directly into its own desires. Moreover, this perhaps is the full significance of the ‘holding environment’; as if a physical and psychical space within which the infant is protected without their knowledge of this being the case. For Winnicott, then, the slow and incremental return of the [m]Other’s self regard and subjective sense of self-hood – a return to her meeting her own needs and desires – has a powerful constructive impact upon the autonomous experience of the child. That is, the child gradually comes to the realisation that not all wishes are met by desired outcomes – s/he is not omnipotent after all, and the demands and desires of [m]Others ought to also be taken into a more realistic account of the world; reality bites, and so with this break with illusion comes the emergence of the true-self out of the ‘supported unintegration’ of the ‘holding environment’.
When things go wrong, to Winnicott’s thought, the results are seen as ‘environmental deficiency diseases’; that is, the true-self is stuck in psychological time, and the false-self is left to develop. So how are we to understand what Winnicott means when he points to the failure of the ‘good-enough mother?’ Is there such a thing a bad mother? To Winnicott’s mind, the answer is a definite, yes. He characterises the emotional development of the child as nothing less than ceasing in the face of the ‘not good-enough mother.’ The kernel required for genuine personhood is suspended. The child, rather than feeling held, is left in a state of arrested development he termed ‘impingement’. Impingement, then, is the notional opposite to the holding environment and may occur in many forms. For instance, if the infant expresses a spontaneous desire and the desire is not fulfilled, then the child may feel ignored or misread. If the child falls into an ‘unsupportive unintegration’, then the child may feel forced to prematurely deal with the outside world. In short, rather than providing the child with a protected psychical space within which the child can ‘play’ within and learn about the world, the ‘not good-enough mother’ presents the child with an unmediated, uncensored outside world which impedes and arrests the emotional development and consolidation of the child’s experience of selfhood.
Winnicott did not regard emotional development as a linear sequence of stages. Rather, for him, both ‘subjective omnipotence’ and ‘objective reality’ are precious resources which together, coextensively, enable the growing child to integrate meaningful experiences and ambivalence toward the self and the outside world. He had a major impact on object relations theory, particularly so with his masterful 1953 essay, Transitional Objects and Transitional Phenomena, which focused on familiar, inanimate objects that children ‘USE’ to stave off anxiety during times of stress. Thus, for Winnicott, a third register of experience became clear – as a register that is neither ‘subjective’ or ‘objective’ – further, this register is necessarily ambiguous and paradoxical. One can say that a crucial aspect of ‘good-enough’ parenting is that it does not impinge on or challenge the ambiguous and paradoxical nature of this so-named ‘transitional object’. Here, then, the specialness of the teddy bear, doll, or action-man is not just accepted, but embraced wholeheartedly. It is, to Winnicott’s thought, the transitional object that allows for the ‘subjective’ and ‘objective’ orders to co-exist within the maturing mind of the child coextensively. He saw the cyclical process of omnipotent creation, destruction, and survival as one where the child begins to establish some greater sense of external temporal and spatial reality and with it a sense of the other.
Nevertheless, instances of maternal retaliation, or an otherwise collapse in the face of the ‘ruthless use’ by the child as it tests the liminality between self and other, prematurely focuses the attention of the child toward the persecutory anxiety offered by externality. Here, then, externality, or outside reality, is seen by Winnicott to forestall the otherwise naturalised emotional development of experiencing ones desire satiated. Without this experience of wish-fulfilment and desire, espouses Winnicott, the fear of using the object, caused by an inconsistency of the capacity for ‘holding’, leaves the infant with neurotic inhibitions. Adult reciprocal love, by Winnicott’s measure, then, necessarily entails periodic and mutual object usage (for example, one partner may be ill and require the other to care for them) and, above all else perhaps, the continuance of the mask of survivability of the self extended toward the significant other.
It is a testament to Winnicott’s lasting commonsense, contribution and legacy to clinical therapeutic practice that it does not require too great a leap of faith to extrapolate from the parent/child dyad to discern the clear implications for the ‘therapeutic alliance’ seen in the therapist/client dyad. That is to say, it is an important ethical aspect of Winnicottian thought that his theories on the ‘holding environment’ clearly point up the emotionally reparative role of the ‘good-enough’ clinician-Other. Moreover, it is here that the suggestion of an affectively emotional, responsive space be extended toward the client, which is seen as constituent to the business of building stronger relationships of trust, and as a necessary component in the pursuit of what might be considered to be the performative aspect of clinical praxis.
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