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Features

The article opposite was commissioned by a medical practice in London's Harley Street as part of its Famous Psychological Thinkers series.

D.W. Winnicott (1896-1971)

Whereas much of Freud’s work was devoted to illuminating the triangular Oedipus Complex, Donald Winnicott placed the mother-infant couple at the heart of his analytical explorations. A paediatrician, child psychiatrist and psychoanalyst, Winnicott’s theoretical and clinical concept changed the way we think about children and the adults they become.

Winnicott addressed mothers directly through an enduring series of radio broadcasts and in books with commonsense titles such as Talking to Parents and Babies and their Mothers. Winnicott’s distinctive voice and often poetic writing style introduced the general public to the rudiments of British object relations theory: the “ordinary devoted mother”, “good-enough mothering” and “primary maternal preoccupation” were ideas that a non-specialised audience could both readily understand and easily identify with.

Winnicott viewed the mother-infant dynamic as the model for the therapeutic relationship. The analyst – like the mother – strives to provide continuity of care and endeavours to create a “holding environment” in which the patient feels safe enough to explore his or her internal world and external reality.

Winnicott also placed great emphasis on the therapist’s capacity to contain conflicting emotions rather than desperately seeking a panacea: "The principle is that it is the patient and only the patient who has the answers". The analyst’s interpretations are important but collaboration, creativity, play and experimentation are equally fundamental to the therapeutic process. Indeed, a central tenet of Winnicott’s philosophy was that making mistakes can be as valuable as getting things right!

Unlike many of his peers, Winnicott insisted on the positive aspects of human nature: even ruthlessness, delinquency and antisocial behaviour may contain signs of hope. A child’s aggression, for example, may be understood as a natural part of his or her development and a means of testing the environment.

One of Winnicott’s lasting contributions to the history of psychoanalysis is the notion of “transitional phenomena”. A transitional object – a treasured toy, for instance, or even the child’s own thumb – sustains the infant during its mother’s absence and helps him or her on the road to independence. A “transitional space”, when applied to the consulting room, becomes an intermediate area where the patient can think creatively en route to developing a sense of personal meaning.