Winnicott was a British psychiatrist and psychoanalyst that brought a breath of fresh air to the psychoanalytical orientation through his theories concerning the true self, false self, transitional objects and play as a tool for development. A disciple of Melanie Kleine, Winnicott quickly finds his own voice and earns independence from his spiritual tutor, becoming a renowned psychoanalyst and even one of the representative figures of the British Psychoanalytical Society (also called “The Independent Group”). Winnicott has written numerous books and papers, the interest for his ideas continuing to remain very high even in the contemporary psychoanalytical context (Shapiro, 1998).
Main concepts and contributions:
True self and false self: In Winnicott’s view, people develop two types of self since the earliest of ages. The self that experiences itself as a state of integrity, connectivity and spontaneity is the true self. Gestures of the child that come spontaneously (a spontaneous laughter, for example) are proofs of the true self. This type of self develops in the interaction with the mother (or caregiver) and heavily relies on the mother’s availability and reactivity. As with other psychoanalytical orientations, the presence of the mother is vital, as is the healthy level of attention that she offers to the infant.
The false self represents a construct of the child that has the role, in the beginning, of defending the true self. It manifests through any unnatural gesture, behavior or attitude in which the child engages in order to hold on to the relationship with his/her mother. Thus, behaviors such as being polite and respecting the parent’s rules are proofs of the false self. The existence of a false self is normal and necessary for an individual’s healthy development (without it, everyone would act according to their own judgment and the individual’s life and society in general would become chaotic). However, there is such a thing as an unhealthy false self, represented by the situation in which intentions and need of compliance are greater than the need of adapting to a certain situation. Extremely compliant individuals (with an unhealthy false self) are oftentimes those who never overcame their addiction to the mother or a maternal figure. They are usually restless individuals, have difficulty in concentrating, are unstable and undecided.
Transitional object: In order to develop as independent individuals, people have to begin exploring the world around them and themselves and reach the realization that they are no longer one with the mother. Thus, starting from age 4 to 6 toddlers toddlers start adopting objects to substitute the maternal presence when the mother is not around (Winnicott, 1953). From toys to blankets, such objects that remind one of the mother become important for the little ones and start occupying a position in their life as objects of attachment. This way, children learn to make the difference between self and non-self. In the same time, they start seeing the mother as an object relation as well and practically learn to differentiate between the self and the others.
Play: Interested in the development of personality, Winnicott has studied young children for a long time and reached the conclusion that playing is not only a time consuming activity through which kids get distracted from crying. For children, playing represents both an entertainment method as well as a learning one. Manipulating objects, they experiment with their surrounding and gather knowledge about the world around them. With time, their games become more complex and, out of the scenarios they play out, they can recreate the surrounding environment and learn behavior models.
Winnicott’s contributions to psychoanalytic therapy are remarkably modern. Relying on his theories about the self, he considers that the psychoanalyst’s office has to be a warm and friendly place, where the patient needs to feel accepted and encouraged to discover his true self. This is important because, as Winnicott said, the patient is the only one who has the answer to his/her problems (Winnicott, 1969). Through a warm, positive and supportive presence from the part of the psychoanalyst, a presence that the patient might have lacked from the mother during childhood, he/she can get rid of the masks of the false self and actually become him/herself.
Last but not least, the idea of play during therapy, approached by both Melanie Klein and Winnicott, will have become a true therapeutic instrument by the time Carl Rogers encouraged his clients to express themselves through play, to learn through playing and, implicitly, to use it as a method of healing.
Shapiro, E. R. (1998). “Images in Psychiatry: Donald W. Winnicott, 1896–1971″. American Journal of Psychiatry (American Psychiatric Association) 155 (3): 421.
Winnicott, D. (1953). Transitional objects and transitional phenomena, International Journal of Psychoanalysis, 34:89-97
Winnicott, D.W. (1969). The use of an object, International Journal of Psychoanalysis, 50:711-716