Winnicott, unthinkable anxieties & primary maternal pre-occupation

This week’s lectures continued with the object relations theories and early child birth developmental issues.  Specifically we were hearing about the ideas of Donald Woods Winnicott (7 April 1896–28 January 1971) who was an English paediatrician and psychoanalyst. Winnicott was especially influential in the field of object relations theory.  He is best known for his ideas on the true self and false self, and the transitional object. He trained at Paddington Green hospital and Klein was his supervisor. The difference with Freud was his early child development ideas, not Oedipal.

Winnicott ideas are not a cohesive theory. He is very playful with ideas.  He stresses the importance of the environmental provision for the new born baby.  There is less stereo typical role division in conjugal roles these days when we think of mothering as a function, whether it’s a man or a woman.  We also are aware of anima and animus in both sexes and see mothering as essentially care giving. But for Winnicott he was  speaking about the biological role for the woman,  to carry the baby and to breast feed.

3 Basic stages

  1. Absolute dependence of baby on its care givers. Crucial to understand experience of being a baby. Dependency, trust, powerlessness, total reliance.  What is it like to be a baby?
  2. Relative dependence crawling enables the baby to move away.  Picking up spoon is a sign of independence.  Attempts to sit up, to walk, all mastering
    independence for the baby.
  3. Relative independence
    We are all in this stage.  We are all social creatures.

Absolute dependence These notes are almost exclusively concerned with this stage. With clients:  It is important to remember that feeling dependent is a scary business. At the opposite end of the spectrum there is avoidance, when we don’t want to get in get in
touch with dependence.

For Winnicott there is no such thing as a baby, there is always a baby and another. Therefore, our first relationships form the pattern of our later relationships.  They get embedded in our neural networks.  We are talking here of the bottom end of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Its about building the social baby (babies don’t have fully developed brains). There is basic functioning in babies but the higher functions are not yet developed.  This is the crucial role of parenting: to successfully move from the very primitive functioning to higher functioning of the brain.  Our absolute dependent baby needs a perfect environment.

Winnicott talked about the baby needing a good enough mother. The mother meets the needs of the baby through primary maternal pre-occupation.  Both parents become obsessed with babies.  Mind is constantly pre-occupied with babies.  They induce in the care giver a constant need to be checking.  Good enough mother might not get it right all the time but will try to  get it right.  She tries to sing and to be attuned to the baby’s inner environment.  An individual mother for an individual baby most of the time.

There are many books on raising babies yet the loss of the extended family is critical in child raring.

Giving the baby reasons to be angry. How else do you move forward?

2 different types of mother:

Object mother: object of infant’s desires and expressions of hate and rage.  Just like in therapy we explore powerful feelings in the transference.  What a lucky client to be able to undertake this.

Winnicott says the mother needs to protect baby from her murderous rage (mother can lose patience).  This is why single parents have such a hard time.  Pregnant women can also feel like they have been taken over by aliens.  In therapy, a therapist might not like a client but the ability to contain is powerful.   An early feeling of rejection is being transferred.

Projective identification 
Unwanted feelings are ejected onto another.  The cries of the babies are intolerable but that’s the babies experience, they feel intolerable.  As therapists, can we hold and contain?

Environment mother

Ability to nurture and protect baby.  In the womb there is a regulated amount of light,
warmth, noise etc.  Mother keeps this going outside the womb.

Babies understand the tone of voice.    This is critical to acquiring emotional intelligence.

Important to be able to repair and retune relationships. As therapists we need to be monitoring the atmosphere of the room, just like parents.  What is going on? What are we getting a sense of?  Are we present?

Unthinkable anxieties  a sense of going to pieces as a baby.  Shattering of our embryonic ego. Pre verbal developments have no language but are implicit in memory.  It is not in our explicit memory.  We get episodic memories as adults.  But implicit memories are laid down in our neural pathways.  We can anticipate rejection.  The tendency is to invoke these feelings in the therapist.  Therefore  a good assessment in therapy is to understand whether there were developmental ruptures.

How much can a client take? Where is the client in understanding any developmental ruptures. That is the role of in depth psychotherapy. These are very important considerations when working with a client. Holding gives solidity.

Falling forever Having no relationship and orientation to the body,
disconnect. These anxieties can manifest in dreams.

Complete isolation no means of communication, trying but can’t get through.

For Winnicott, ego develops by integrating a sense of time and space.  It is the continuity of being.  Building up over time a regular rythem, just like the completion of Gestalts.

Winnicott talked a lot about instincts, powerful biological drives such as instant gratification.  New born babies can’t wait.  There is a breast feeding orgy.  The fortunate baby can take mother for granted.  The joy of anticipation of breast feeding.

The baby continually needing to adapt, to family life etc., and loses its sense of self.  In the early stage the mother is making the early adapting.  Continual experiences of baby adapting? What will placate the other?  Babies are smart about picking up cues.  Just like the client working out what the therapist wants to hear.   Movement from a true to a (false) adapted self.

With clients maybe there might be multiple explanations when we try to work out what is happening.

Powerful love relationship is at the heart of Winnicott’s ideas. Always remember that the therapeutic journey is to process the feelings and to help clients process theirs.



The four key themes of Melanie Klein and Object Relations Theory

This week’s lecture was on the second part of the ideas of Melanie Klein and Object Relations Theory.

In Kleinian therapy the analyst would link your present behaviour to childhood to determine what age you were then.  The link to memories and stories is very important.  The therapist would seek to offer the client reparative experiences. 

Envy: Someone else has got something you want.  This can be seen as an attack on the breast.  The unconscious phantasy relates to intolerance and frustration and the child’s need for instant gratification.  The first hurdle for a child is to develop a healthy ego.  If un-negotiated then powerful feelings get stirred.

Jealousy: This is the same principle as envy but two or more people need to be involved.  Jealousy is wanting a person in particular rather than just wanting a relationship, for instance. There is a deep terror that the good breast is not available.  This has links to the Adlerian birth order. It relates to a triangular (oedipal) relationship – it is whole-object oriented

Greed: Impetuous and insatiable craving in excess of what is needed and what can be realistically given.  Greed is manifested when one desires to possess all of the good that is available regardless of the consequences.  Greed can be caught up with introjection, while envy with projection. Indiscriminate idealization can be fuelled by greed, since the need to get the best from everywhere interferes with the capacity for selection and discrimination.

Guilt: This arises from feeling too much of a burden and from realising that bad object that has been broken could have been the good object all along.  This can manifest in
therapy as negative transference. A client wasn’t rejected so kept attacking the therapist.  The therapist becomes a very important person in the client’s world and needs to absorb the attacks.

Gratitude allows the love object to be assimilated.  What is split becomes whole.  The ego becomes strong enough to contain and manage the conflicted feelings.  The destructive forces of envy are overcome by love. Reparation is the healing of the paranoid schizoid split. For Klein it was all about forming a healthy ego, just like for Jung, it was all about the integration of the shadow.      The  constancy of therapy can mirror the good parent.      

Qualities to be observed

persecution, frustration, guilt, self pity, idealization, acting out, ambition, disapproving, aggression, manic defences, intolerance, hatred, destructiveness, self-destructiveness, sabotaging, discounting, etc.

rivalry, rejection, suspicion, exclusivity, possessiveness, tense relationships, immaturity, grievance, hostility, etc.

craving, selfishness, insensitivity, poor discrimination, self-denial, dissatisfaction, demanding, insistent, (or, as a defence: emptiness, low self-confidence, over-adaptation, etc.)

acceptance of limitation, generosity, sharing, healthy relationships, grace, tolerance, creativeness, repressed guilt, etc.


Developments in Kleinian thought
Klein revisited
Melanie Klein – a history
Melanie Klein – Beyond Freud







The ideas of Melanie Klein and Object Relations Theory

Last week’s lecture was on the ideas of Melanie Klein and Object Relations Theory.

The ideas of Melanie Klein are not easy and it is difficult to get your
head around them. But her ideas provide useful material when seeing clients, especially for experiential learners.  By all accounts she was an unpleasant woman, if you believe what her daughter said about her. Apparently she would not even say hello to her clients as they entered her therapeutic room.  Klein is known as the mother of object relations theory.  She was a contemporary of Freud but was laughed out of the room at the time by Freudians. Whereas for Freudians it was all about sexual drives, for Klein it was all about the breast. Klein believed psycho sexual development rested on the relationship the baby had with its mother and the breast.  It was not about intrapsychic conflicts as Freud would argue but the relationships between young child and the objects in its environment.  Therefore, mother and father is an object as breast is an object, not libidinal drives, as,for Klein, it was the drives of aggression.

Essential core human drives are aggressive and destructive in nature. Klein worked mainly with young children and with mothers and with young babies.  She took lots of meticulous notes.  She had a strong interest in the possible early causes of psychosis. For Klein the origins of early months in life was the priority, not like Freud, who emphasised the first 7 years.

According to Klein there is no sense of self, no ego, as babies.  Many will argue with this. Others believe babies do have a sense of self.  But for Klein the baby is utterly dependent on the primary carer for its sense of self. Psychologically, the mother is the baby’s ego.  The implication is that if you have had a great and caring mother then great, but you are doomed if you have had a bad mother.  The earlier the wounding the greater the damage and the greater psychosis and early trauma can be the roots of schizophrenia. ( bi polar depression could be seen as later stages of development).

How do these ideas get played out in therapy? With young children there is no rational mind, as the feelings are immense and unmediated.  There is no language for these feelings. The work in therapy is to identify what the feelings are about, what in your younger life is being triggered.  Freud constancy principle, outcome of lots of conflict. For Klein it is not internal conflicts but the outcome of environmental factors.

Objects can be part objects, as full objects are too big for a young child.
Good and bad breasts,(mother could be out at shops but child just experiences the absence of mother),  light and dark, Internal experiences (hunger)

Between 0-3 months the paranoid schizoid position takes place. Baby is not distinguishing between itself and other.  As we grow up, we get a sense of other.  Enormous swings in mood, if an adult was doing it you might think that the behaviour is weird. For a baby it is normal. It is only later that a self is formed.

Objects relations therapy will look at the relationships between all your objects. If you don’t resolve the early problems then they are carried forward. Who are you when you are out in the world, outer and inner relationships.

Child gets message that its not okay to be angry.

Idea of phantasy big part of objection relations theory (unconscious).  Unconscious going on all the time.  Instinctual drives going on before thought. Phantasies about hunger, hence the focus on breast.

Major themes: Envy (someone else has what I want), greed (I want it
all), jealousy (its not fair, they have got what I want), destructiveness, gratitude,

Phantasies are very live, very immediate (but not in a conscious way) angry
biting the breast.  An attack, such a  strong feeling of frustration then the baby is seeking to destroy. Phantasy could be fear and anxiety of showing anger and we worry about the consequences  so we then try to please and make it better.

In therapy: Parents, reality check to accept that things may not have  been perfect. If my parents are not okay then it is because I am not lovable.  Okay to be angry.

Two stages:
Paranoid schizoid (0-3 months) Child trying to make sense of the world.
Depressive (3-6 months)

For Klein we are shuttling between two positions. Bits that can’t be tolerated get split off.

1) Could be dissociated when drunk
2)  Or projected onto others

Schizoid manoeuvre to split off. Paranoid bit is that it will come back and bite me. (Someone is doing the anger for us, they will realise that and will get angry with us). Or punishment for biting the breast.  Dared to be bad, disowning and fear of comeback

Depressive position gets arrived at, provided that the child adequately  deals with the paranoid schizoid position.  Good and bad object can be good and bad.  Object can be whole.  Struggle not  to be nice all the time.  Accept that this range of feelings can exist in whole object.

The work in therapy is to accept that parents tried their best, and  that has no reflection on me. Still a bit depressing, but better than blaming others (or parents) for our lot.

Co-dependent circles: rescuers all want to be rescued. Objects can be careers, food, alcohol, can be objects. Klein was not using nice language, but was describing something  real.  Pessimistic view: like Freud. Klein has had a great influence but her views were inherently pathological.  (no soul qualities). Focus  on dysfunction and psychiatry.

We can have reparative experiences as we get older. Getting to know the
parents of a friend who were good parents. (Winnicott and Bowlby develop this)

The real work in therapy is making conscious what is in the relationship, just beneath the surface,  being aware of transference and counter transference, just be aware of it,  regardless of how creative and clever we can be with techniques.

From Classical to Contemporary Psychoanalysis: A Critique and Integration (Book Review)

More soon….