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.

About Noel Bell

Psychotherapist in London. Check out my blog posts and more at
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One Response to Winnicott, unthinkable anxieties & primary maternal pre-occupation

  1. The F word says:

    Johnnie to his mates

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