Donald Woods Winnicot (7 april 1896 – 28 januari 1971) was an English paeditricien and psychoanalyst who was expecially influential in the field of object relations theory. He is best known for this ideas of the true self and false self, and the the transitional object. We are grateful for his work and use it as an inspiration for The Leadership Lab.
One of the elements that Winnicott considered could be lost in childhood was what he called the sense of being – for him, a primary element, of which a sense of doing is only a derivative. The capacity for being – the ability to feel genuinely alive inside, which Winnicott saw as essential to the maintenance of a true self – was fostered in his view by the practice of childhoodplay
In contrast to the emphasis in orthodox psychoanalysis upon generating insight into unconscious processes, Winnicott considered that playing was the key to emotional and psychological well-being . By “playing,” he meant not only the ways that children of all ages play, but also the way adults “play” through making art, or engaging in sports, hobbies, humour, meaningful conversation, et cetera. At any age, he saw play as crucial to the development of authentic selfhood, because when people play they feel real, spontaneous and alive, and keenly interested in what they’re doing. He thought that insight in psychoanalysis was helpful when it came to the patient as a playful experience of creative, genuine discovery; dangerous when patients were pressured to comply with their analyst’s authoritative interpretations, thus potentially merely reinforcing a patient’s false self. Winnicott believed that it was only in playing that people are entirely their true selves, so it followed that for psychoanalysis to be effective, it needed to serve as a mode of playing.
Two of the techniques whereby Winnicott used play in his work with children were the squiggle game and the spatula game. The first involved Winnicott drawing a shape for the child to play with and extend (or vice versa) – a practice extended by his followers into that of using partial interpretations as a ‘squiggle’ for a patient to make use of.
The second, more famous instance involved Winnicott placing a spatula (tongue depressor) within the child’s reach for him to play with. Winnicott considered that “if he is just an ordinary baby he will notice the attractive object…and he will reach for it….[then] in the course of a little while he will discover what he wants to do with it”. From the child’s initial hesitation in making use of the spatula, Winnicott derived his idea of the necessary ‘period of hesitation’ in childhood (or analysis), which makes possible a true connection to the toy, interpretation or object presented for transference.
Many of Winnicott’s writings show his efforts to understand what helps people to be able to play, and on the other hand what blocks some people from playing. Babies can be playful when they’re cared for by people who respond to them warmly and playfully, like a mother who smiles and says, “Peek-a-boo!” when she sees her baby playfully peeking out from behind his hands. If the mother never responded playfully, sooner or later the baby would stop trying to elicit play from her. Indeed, Winnicott came to consider that “Playing takes place in the potential space between the baby and the mother-figure….[T]he initiation of playing is associated with the life experience of the baby who has come to trust the mother figure”. “Potential space” was Winnicott’s term for a sense of an inviting and safe interpersonal field in which one can be spontaneously playful while at the same time connected to others (again a concept that has been extrapolated to the practice of analysis).
Playing can also be seen in the use of a transitional object, Winnicott’s term for an object, such as a teddy bear, that has a quality for a small child of being both real and made-up at the same time. Winnicott pointed out that no one demands that a toddler explain whether his Binky is a “real bear” or a creation of the child’s own imagination, and went on to argue that it’s very important that the child is allowed to experience the Binky as being in an undefined, “transitional” status between the child’s imagination and the real world outside the child. For Winnicott, one of the most important and precarious stages of development was in the first three years of life, when an infant grows into a child with an increasingly separate sense of self in relation to a larger world of other people. In health, the child learns to bring his or her spontaneous, real self into play with others; in a false self disorder, the child has found it unsafe or impossible to do so, and instead feels compelled to hide the true self from other people, and pretend to be whatever they want instead. Playing with a transitional object can be an important early bridge between self and other, which helps a child develop the capacity to be genuine in relationships, and creative.
Playing for Winnicott ultimately extended all the way up from earliest childhood experience to what he called “the abstractions of politics and economics and philosophy and culture…this ‘third area’, that of cultural experience which is a derivative of play”.
True self and false self
Winnicott wrote that “a word like self…knows more than we do.”. He meant that, while philosophical and psychoanalytic ideas about the self could be very complex and arcane, with a great deal of specialised jargon, there was a pragmatic usefulness to the ordinary word “self” with its range of traditional meanings. For example, where other psychoanalysts used the Freudian terminology of ego and id to describe different functions of a person’s psychology, Winnicott at times used “self” to refer to both. For Winincott, the self is a very important part of mental and emotional well-being which plays a vital role in creativity. He thought that people were born without a clearly developed self and had to “search” for an authentic sense of self as they grew.”For Winnicott, the sense of feeling real, feeling in touch with others and with one’s own body and its processes was essential for living a life.”
“Only the true self can be creative and only the true self can feel real.”For Winnicott, the True Self is a sense of being alive and real in one’s mind and body, having feelings that are spontaneous and unforced. This experience of aliveness is what allows people to be genuinely close to others, and to be creative.
Winnicott thought that the “True Self” begins to develop in infancy, in the relationship between the baby and her primary caretaker (Winnicott typically refers to this person as “the mother”). One of the ways the mother helps the baby develop an authentic self is by responding in a welcoming and reassuring way to the baby’s spontaneous feelings, expressions, and initiatives. In this way the baby develops a confidence that nothing bad happens when she expresses what she feels, so her feelings don’t seem dangerous or problematic to her, and she doesn’t have to put undue attention into controlling or avoiding them. She also gains a sense that she is real, that she exists and her feelings and actions have meaning.
Winnicott thought that one of the developmental hurdles for an infant to get past is the risk of being traumatised by having to be too aware too soon of how small and helpless she really is. A baby who is too aware of real-world dangers will be too anxious to learn optimally. A good-enough parent is well enough attuned and responsive to protect the baby with an illusion of omnipotence, or being all-powerful. For example, a well-cared-for baby usually doesn’t feel hungry for very long before being fed. Winnicott thought the parents’ quick response of feeding the baby gives the baby a sense that whenever she’s hungry, food appears as if by magic, as if the baby herself makes food appear just by being hungry. To feel this powerful, Winnicott thought, allowed a baby to feel confident, calm and curious, and able to learn without having to invest a lot of energy into defences.
In Winnicott’s writing, the “False Self” is a defence, a kind of mask of behaviour that complies with others’ expectations. Winnicott thought that in health, a False Self was what allowed one to present a “polite and mannered attitude” in public.
But he saw more serious emotional problems in patients who seemed unable to feel spontaneous, alive or real to themselves anywhere, in any part of their lives, yet managed to put on a successful “show of being real.” Such patients suffered inwardly from a sense of being empty, dead or “phoney.”
Winnicott thought that this more extreme kind of False Self began to develop in infancy, as a defence against an environment that felt unsafe or overwhelming because of a lack of reasonably attuned caregiving. He thought that parents did not need to be perfectly attuned, but just “ordinarily devoted” or “good enough” to protect the baby from often experiencing overwhelming extremes of discomfort and distress, emotional or physical. But babies who lack this kind of external protection, Winnicott thought, had to do their best with their own crude defences.
One of the main defences Winnicott thought a baby could resort to was what he called “compliance,” or behaviour motivated by a desire to please others rather than spontaneously express one’s own feelings and ideas. For example, if a baby’s caregiver was severely depressed, the baby would anxiously sense a lack of responsiveness, would not be able to enjoy an illusion of omnipotence, and might instead focus his energies and attentions on finding ways to get a positive response from the distracted and unhappy caregiver by being a “good baby.” The “False Self” is a defence of constantly seeking to anticipate others’ demands and complying with them, as a way of protecting the “True Self” from a world that is felt to be unsafe.
Winnicott thought that the “False Self” developed through a process of introjection, (a concept developed early on by Freud) in or internalising one’s experience of others. Instead of basing his personality on his own unforced feelings, thoughts, and initiatives, the person with a “False Self” disorder would essentially be imitating and internalising other people’s behaviour – a mode in which he could outwardly come to seem “just like” his mother, father, brother, nurse, or whoever had dominated his world, but inwardly he would feel bored, empty, dead, or “phoney.” Winnicott saw this as an unconscious process: not only others but also the person himself would mistake his False Self for his real personality. But even with the appearance of success, and of social gains, he would feel unreal and lack the sense of really being alive or happy.