A Good Enough Existence: An Existential Offering Of Winnicott and The Self
Written by Natalie Fraser
Coursework for The Existential Academy
Psychoanalytic Roots and Theories
Donald Woods Winnicott (1896-1971) was one of the most prominent figures of psychoanalysis during his time in the generation following Freud, and his work continues to have a resounding impact on psychological understandings today (Abram, 2008; Sayers, 2004). He explored a wide range of physiological and psychological areas of human developments, and is best known for his pioneering theories of the development of self through others (Winnicott and Rodman, 1987).
During the 1940s, Controversial Discussions within the psychoanalytic community occurred, leading to a divide between followers of Klein and Freud (Abram, 2008). While he was strongly influenced by his colleagues at the time and had great respect for their creative minds (Sayers, 2004), Winnicott remained true to himself and refused to side with either group resulting in the development of 'The Middle Group' (Abram, 2008). This divide within the psychoanalytic scene led to Winnicott focusing on his own formulations, and influenced his development of theories concerning primary psychic creativity and the concept of self (Bollas, 1987). Winnicott is renowned for his loyalty to being himself and it is from this philosophical stance that his formulations of 'true and false self' developed (Abram, 2008; Winnicott and Rodman, 1987).
Winnicott's concept of 'self' was essentially a subjective phenomenon of 'feeling real' (Winnicott, 1965). He distinguishes between the innate 'true self' and the protective 'false self' which he proposed develop in relation to maternal care through three successive yet overlapping stages of dependence; 'absolute dependence', 'relative dependence' and 'towards independence'. Winnicott proposed that humans are born with a 'core self' or 'inherited potential' and that only through maternal care does this inherited potential become an infant. While he noted that different conditions such as the uniqueness of the child and favourable or unfavourable environments of care would affect how the infant came into being, these conditions would not impact the inherent potential (Winnicott, 1960).
When exploring what happens to the inherited potential enabling the infant to develop, Winnicott draws attention to the paramount influence of the mother-infant relationship. He believed that initially a child has no distinction between their psychological and physiological being, and that their only knowledge is the knowledge of their 'core self'. This 'core self' is initially a state of omnipotence as their needs are illunsionarily perceived to be met through their own control, despite actually being met according to the mother's awareness and empathy. Winnicott referred to this stage as 'holding', referring to the completely merged condition of infant and mother in a state of 'absolute dependence' (Winnicott, 1960).
While the maternal instincts provide seemingly 'magical' responses to the infant's needs at first, naturally the mother will not always be able to provide everything perfectly (Winnicott, 1986). This 'failure' to meet exact needs is fundamental to the child's ability to separate, as if all their needs were met too well it would not be necessary to do so. To describe this he uses the term 'good enough mother' (Winnicott, 1953). The infant gradually begins to develop an inner psychic reality by developing memories of re-experiencing care, growing awareness that care is not coming from themselves but rather from an external source. As the awareness increases, the infant no longer expects exact understanding and develops the ability to compromise. Instead of requiring every need to be met exactly to fulfil their omnipotence, they adaptively develop skills such as waiting and signalling their needs (Winnicott, 1960). This is a healthy development of a 'false self', a compromising social manner that hides and protects the demands of the true self from the risk of being submerged in another (Sayers, 2004). Through adaptation the false self wards off impingements such as not immediately having the true self's needs met, thus the infant learns to fulfil their own omnipotence when the maternal care fails to do so (Winnicott, 1986).
Winnicott differentiates between 'healthy' false self development and a variety of unhealthy false self developments. A healthy false self evolves from 'good enough' maternal care, when the mother's awareness and empathy is enough to instinctively respond to the infant, primarily responding to all needs then gradually realizing the infant's ability to signal and separate from their complete merging as it gradually learns to provide for itself (Winnicott, 1963). At the other extreme, the 'pathological split-off false self' develops when the true self is entirely hidden and has no relation to reality. This can occur when the good enough care is not provided, such as in cases where the mother is erratic and fails to provide continuous care, or exploits the infant's ability to think. In this situation the infant is forced to adapt and 'mother itself', acquiring a developmental pattern which lacks the fundamental ability of adaptation to fulfil its basic needs (Winnicott, 1954).
As the child begins the process of separation, the' holding' stage becomes the 'living with' stage. This is the stage of 'relative dependence', the gradually progressive development into 'unit status'. During this stage the infant is becoming an individual and developing the complex intelligence to create a meaningful understanding of 'me' and 'not me', awareness that the mother is a separate entity to themselves and the comprehension of object relations. This complex intellectual development enables the infant to move from subjectively understanding relationships to objectively understanding them, becoming aware of having an 'inside' and an 'outside', and ultimately becoming a separate individual developing into childhood and the 'towards independence' stage (Winnicott, 1960).
It was his pioneering concept of mother-infant 'oneness' and human self development as a result of the intersubjective conjoinment of inner and outer reality which most contrasted his work with fellow psychoanalytic colleagues, such as the 'one dimensional' formulations of Anna Freud and her outer focus on the ego, and with the inner focus of Klein and Riviere (Sayers, 2004). He saw his own work as growing from modifications of existing psychoanalytic methods and ideas, and set himself apart from this style by his refusal to conform his ideas to 'ordinary psycho-analytic theory' (Winnicott and Rodman, 1987). He regarded psychoanalysis not as a set dogma but as a means of learning (Tizard, 1981).
Despite being heavily rooted in psychoanalysis, his work was also strongly influenced by poets and philosophers (Tizard, 1981). While he may have borrowed phrases and concepts, his unique and original work magnified and expanded them through creative uses and associations (David and Wallbridge, 1990). His loyalty to maintaining his own style was further demonstrated in his use of spontaneous, conversational terminology and his refusal to use technical psychoanalytic language (Ogden, 2001). While he later expressed his acknowledgement that the unsystematic presentation of his formulations made his work a challenging read, and resulted in much of the complexity of his thoughts never fully being understood, his writing maintained his irrepressible sense of freedom (Modell, 1985).
Important contributions to existential understandings may be hidden in the work of thinkers who have not had the label of 'existentialist' imposed upon them (Spinelli, 2017). Despite his highly esteemed psychoanalytic work, Winnicott was described by his colleagues as a philosopher, who's creative contributions throughout his work significantly impacted the way in which people understand the concept of being (Tizard, 1981).
Winnicott was the first in the psychoanalytic field to address the question 'what makes life worth living?' (Cadwell, 2018), a question continually grappled with by philosophers throughout time. Evident throughout his writing is his attempt to understand the functioning of the true self and the individual's unique experience of reality in relation to others (Winnicott and Rodman, 1987). Heidegger (1927) too proposes in his concept of being or 'Dasein' whose foremost characteristic is being-in-the-world, that there is no being in isolation, no existence without the world, and therefore one cannot help but connect with and care for the external world. Like Winnicott, Heidegger suggests that the essential task of being is to allow essence to manifest, to become who one really is, and by doing so learn to live as the ontological rather than the ontic through means of reflexive thinking and being present (Van Durzen, 1997).
A similar philosophical offering can be noticed in Winnicott's notion of continual development through self-awareness. He proposed that the developmental processes which begin in infancy are never fully established, with individuation continuing throughout life (Winnicott 1965). His formulations concerning awareness of external objects as a means of understanding the world may also relate to the work of Sartre (1972) who suggests that remembered reflected awareness is what contributes to reality-making. Spinelli (2017) too proposes the emergence of individuals through the inescapable interplay between individual and environment and challenges the either/or stance of relatedness/separateness, suggesting instead a both/and stance of the individual/collective experience. Winnicott's emphasis on the social dimension and his theory of 'towards independence' shares Nietzche's belief that humans are inextricably woven together and unable to fully separate (Nietzche, 1986).
For Winnicott, there was no ultimate target 'self' to achieve but rather a continual process of growing and adaptation throughout life (Ogden, 2001). This concept of life being an unfinished task with the responsibility of the individual to make sense of their world through sensory experience and constant renovation relates to the philosophy of Merleau-Ponty (Merleau-Ponty, 1964). Underlying Sartre's work is the notion of the human capability to creatively be true to many selves, rather than a reductive singular self (Sartre, 1948), and through his original contributions and loyalty to his adaptive true self, Winnicott courageously embodied this complex human freedom.
Perhaps the most fundamental difference between Winnicott's therapeutic approach and existential therapy was his emphasis on the use of regression. However, unlike classical psychoanalysis, Winnicott prioritised the patient 'coming to be' over conflict resolution (Winnicott, 1945). From the existentially orientated standpoint that an individual emerges out of a 'not being' (eg. Sartre, 1948), Winnicott formulated that there was a fundamental state of being to which all individuals were able to 'return to' in order to 'start again' and used regression in attempt to assist this (Winnicott, 1998). While the therapeutic method of regression as a means of change may contrast with existential interventions, Winnicott's belief that humans possess the capability to change strongly relate to existential foundations which emphasise the responsibility and choice for reshaping oneself as a constituency of human existence (Frankl, 1969). Both Winnicott and Frankl emphasised the characteristic of creativity, and acknowledge the process of adaption of oneself to a changing environment as of fundamental importance to existence. While Winnicott attempted change through regression, Nelson (2016) highlights that knowledge of 'things' and 'processes' is not a thing-in-itself (Kant, 1929) but is a mental construction of what we intuitively attribute to give them an existence. He proposes that therapy should focus on awareness of what we attribute to experience that creates a client's worldview, which can be transformed by deeper understanding and engagement with it (Nelson, 2016).
Influenced by his medical background, Winnicott insisted on taking a full history (Cadwell, 2018) which contrasts with the present focused method of existential phenomenological exploration (Van Durzen, 1978). However, he drew attention to the challenging necessity for analysts to accept and facilitate the patient's need not to be recognised at all times, suggesting only the false self communicates with others in a continual process of protecting the hidden true self (Winnicott, 1963). This notion is highly relatable to the work of Kierkegaad, who's focus on the separation of an individual from the societal is considered his greatest contribution to philosophy (Spinelli, 2017). As Winnicott referred to the concealed 'inherent potential', Kierkegaad too spoke of an internalised separate self who's truth is private and upholds their uniqueness and authenticity.
The analytic relationship was at the forefront of his therapeutic work and like Jaspers (1971) who considered communication to be the most essential task between humans, Winnicott emphasised the need to "meet patients in their own territory" for analytic work to be done (Cadwell, 2018). As similarly found in the work of Wittgenstein who suggested that humans are limited by the words available and that others may only understand us as much as they have understood previously (Wittgenstein, 1961), Winnicott drew attention to the difficulties concerning language being the tools of communication used by patients to express their reality and by therapists to understand them (Cadwell, 2018). Winnicott highlighted the power of silence in the therapeutic relationship, which he saw as an achievement and complex form of communication (Winnicott, 1963). Wittgenstein too suggested that the most important things in life cannot be communicated through words (Wittgenstein, 1961).
A Timeless Legacy
As the human condition has not changed, and interpersonal and intrapersonal issues continue to be grappled with as they have been since the oldest stories of time (Sadigh, 2017), work that evokes such creative and instinctively provocative reactions such as that of Winnicott (Ogden, 2001) continues to provide relevant contributions to the field decades after its creation.
Despite his psychoanalytic roots, his work is embedded with philosophical thoughts (Tizzard, 1983) that can be strongly relatable to existentialism. His focus on continuous and creative self-development, and his unfaltering courage to remain loyal to himself, offer timeless inspirational messages to anyone fortunate to be introduced to his work.
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