Donald Winnicott (1896–1971) is one the most original and creative thinkers in the history of psychoanalysis after Freud. His theories about the early interaction between the infant and its environment, transitional objects and phenomena, true and false self, the relation between the analysand and the analyst, and many other topics have been of great importance for psychoanalysts, psychotherapists, social workers, teachers, and others all over the world.
Winnicott’s influence continues to be powerful more than 40 years after his death, as can be seen by a quick look at the PEP Psychoanalytic Literature Search: the three most read journal articles today are written by Winnicott.
What is it about Winnicott’s texts that so attract readers? I think it is the personal, living quality of his way of writing. There is in it a mixture of depth, density, and lightness. Not all psychoanalytic writers have a personal style of their own. Winnicott possessed it to a high degree; you can sense his presence and his intelligence in the text. He had both a light and distinct hand, as well as a special ability to use ordinary words to say extraordinary things.
Winnicott does not teach or instruct the reader. He communicates and you feel yourself involved in a creative exchange that reaches and resonates in different levels of the mind. He often gives one an experience of having previously known or sensed what he is expressing but of not having thought or formulated it, and yet, at the same time his writing gives a feeling of surprise and discovery.
One basis for this experience is Winnicott’s tolerance of paradoxes, which implies an appreciation of unconscious thinking and of dream-life. Throughout Winnicott’s writings the issue of creativity and of living creatively is essential. His theories on this subject are linked to his ideas about the “potential space” and the transitional object (a concept originating from him) with its paradoxical quality of being both found and created, coming both from inner reality, fantasy and dreaming and from outer reality. In his introduction to Playing and Reality (1971) he writes:
“I am drawing attention to the paradox involved in the use by the infant of what I have called the transitional object. My contribution is to ask for a paradox to be accepted and tolerated and respected, and for it not to be resolved. By flight to split-off intellectual functioning it is possible to resolve the paradox, but the price of this is the loss of the value of the paradox itself.”
Winnicott sees the origin of a “potential space” in the early reliable relationship between the infant and the mother (or other caretaker). From the original unit mother/infant there develops a subtly increased distance between them, and in this “intermediate area” the infant intuitively selects a transitional object (a blanket, a piece of wool, a teddy-bear) which for the infant has the paradoxical quality of being both found and created by the infant. As the child grows, the transitional object will lose its importance, but this way of experiencing is preserved in the child’s playing and becomes spread out between “inner psychic reality” and “the external world”.
The potential space is the space for experiencing life creatively, be it a landscape, a theatrical or musical performance, a poem, or another individual and it is here that meaningful psychotherapy takes place. Winnicott writes:
“I have tried to draw attention to the importance both in theory and in practice of a third area, that of play, which expands into creative living and into the whole cultural life of man… [this] intermediate area of experiencing is an area that exists as a resting-place for the individual engaged in the perpetual human task of keeping inner and outer reality separate yet interrelated… it can be looked upon as sacred to the individual in that it is here that the individual experiences creative living.”
Winnicott insisted on the uniqueness of each individual and the right to, and importance of, discovering the world in a personal, creative way. This of course also applies to psychoanalysts and to psychoanalytic theory, and for that matter to any other field. In a paper given to the British Psycho-Analytical Society in 1948, he asks “… has due recognition been given to the need for everything to discovered afresh by every individual analyst?”
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