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Donald W. Winnicott was born in 1896 as the third child of Elizabeth (née Woods) and Frederick Winnicott in Plymouth, England. His father, a wealthy textile merchant, was the mayor of Plymouth for many years and was raised to the peerage in 1924. Initially Winnicott attended primary school in Plymouth, until as a 13-year-old he was sent to Leys, a boarding school in Cambridge. Having already developed an enthusiasm for Darwinism during his schooling, he upon his graduation decided, against his father’s initial resistance, to enroll at Jesus College in Cambridge in biology, zoology, psychology and anatomy as preparatory courses for the study of medicine. During the First World War, Winnicott was as a medical student exempted from military service, but in 1917 he volunteered in the Royal Navy, serving as a ship’s doctor on board a British destroyer. In 1923 he began specialist training as a pediatrician at the Paddington Green Children’s Hospital, where he continued to work until his retirement. Simultaneously, he began a ten-year analysis with James Strachey; later he underwent a second analysis with Joan Riviere. In 1934 Winnicott was admitted to the British Psycho-Analytical Society as an associate member and authorized to practice as a psychoanalyst for adults. One year later he received accreditation for the psychoanalysis of children. In 1940 he became a training analyst at the Institute of Psycho-Analysis, and during the terms 1956-1959 and 1965-1968 he served as president of the British Psycho-Analytical Society. During the controversy between Melanie Klein and Anna Freud, Winnicott maintained his neutrality on account of “his deep-seated aversion against ideology and partisanship” (Auchter 2002, 20). He affiliated himself with the so-called “Independent Group” and attempted to mediate between the two hostile camps.
During the Second World War, Winnicott worked as a consultant psychiatrist for an evacuation program for youths who had fallen into delinquency due to the deprivations they had experienced. Between 1939 and 1962 he appeared on ca. 50 radio broadcasts, which brought him to the attention of a widespread public. Winnicott, who had been afflicted by a severe heart ailment since the late 1940s, died of heart failure on 25 January 1971.
On account of his “militant inability to accept dogmas” (Khan 1973, 7) Winnicott was considered to be the British Psycho-Analytical Society’s enfant terrible, whose work at times was met with skeptical mistrust, but who also found great respect, particularly after his death. The majority of his publications were developed out of his talks and lectures, which were presented in the British tradition of using simple everyday language.
Winnicott’s thinking accords fundamental significance to the primary relationship between infant and mother and to environmental influences on the infant’s emotional development. He assumed that the infant’s inborn abilities can only unfold with the help of a supporting environment, and thus he rejected the concept of individuation, interpreting even the earliest developmental phase as a structure distinguishing individual and environment. According to Winnicott’s theory, the infant and mother are fully merged during this phase. While the infant in this phase of primary narcissism experiences all objects as subjective objects and is fully dependent on the mother, the mother “holds” the ego of her child. Gradually the infant becomes capable of developing an ego core and finally an early ego, a body ego. Winnicott maintained that the individual’s personal life comes into being at the point in time when its ability to fantasize emerges.
The central function for healthy development in this phase, during which the infant is fully dependent on its mother, is the mother’s primary motherly care, the mother’s so-called holding function. Winnicott’s understanding was that the “good-enough mother” initially holds the baby’s ego, but that later, when the child has already achieved a certain degree of independence from her, she is able to distance herself from her motherhood. In cases where motherly holding is inadequate, a foundation is set for later pathological development, in which the individual loses his/her vitality and spontaneity, developing a “false self” to protect the “true self”. Winnicott interpreted the “false self” as a splitting of the ego, whereby the individual is able to adapt to his/her environment while simultaneously attempting to protect his/her “true self” from further traumatization. However, the individual loses his/her vitality and spontaneity in the process, becoming increasingly impaired in his/her contact to the environment.
Thus Winnicott considered psychical illness to be a product of the infant’s defense against the failure of its environment. In his theoretical writings he developed a psychoanalytic classification of psychical illnesses based on his conceptualization of development in early childhood (cf. Tönnesmann 2002, 56 ff.). In his first category of psychical illnesses he includes autism and psychoses, which can result from genetic disposition but which primarily develop through the failure of the holding function in earliest childhood, when the infant is still fully dependent on its environment. The second category is reserved for depressive disorders, which are caused by the failure of the environment during the so-called “state of concern,” when the infant has already achieved a relatively high degree of autonomy and has experienced separation from the object. The third category contains psychoneurotic disorders “in which the intrapsychical conflict tensions of drive impulses manifest themselves in triangular relationships” and the “defense against castration anxiety (...) constitutes the disorder” (ibid. 2002, 57).
An important function in Winnicott’s theory is given to play, which is interpreted not as the sublimation of drive impulses, but as an expression of health. For him play represents a space of development and open possibilities, in which the ego can come into contact with external objects and the individual’s transitional spaces can overlap with the environment. Correspondingly, he saw psychoanalytic therapy as a “highly differentiated form of play in the service of the patient’s communication with himself/herself and with others” (Auchter 2002, 22) and espoused the idea of the “playful therapist”.
Winnicott believed that the human being inherently possesses “a natural tendency toward health and developmental maturation,” but that this can only unfold in supportive surroundings (Winnicott 1958, 101, cit. in Auchter 2003, 26). The psychoanalyst must foster this self-regulating tendency toward healing, accompanying the patient as a helper in the patient’s developmental process and enabling him through “good-enough holding” to “rediscover his history in his own way at his own pace using his own words” (ibid. 29).
_Text: Christiane Rothländer
Translation: Christopher Barber _
Eine Zusammenstellung der Werke von D.W. Winnicott ist abgedruckt bei: Khan (1977), S. 380-382.
(1957), The Child, the Family and The Outside World, London.
dt.: (1989), Kind, Familie und Umwelt, München/Basel.
(1958), Through Paedriatrics to Psycho-Analysis. Collected Papers, London.
dt.: (1976), Von der Kinderheilkunde zur Psychoanalyse, gekürzte dte. Ausg., München.
(1965), The Maturational Processes and the Facilitating Environment, New York.
dt.: (1974), Reifungsprozesse und fördernde Umwelt, München.
(1965), The Family and Individual Development, London.
dt.: (1984), Familie und individuelle Entwicklung, Frankfurt a.M.
(1971), Playing and Reality, London.
dt.: (1991), Vom Spiel zur Kreativität, Stuttgart.
(1971), Therapeutic consultations in child psychiatry, London.
dt.: (1973), Die therapeutische Arbeit mit Kindern, München.
(1977), The Piggle. An Account of the Psychoanalytic Treatment of a Little Girl, London.
dt.: (1980), Piggle, Stuttgart.
(1984), Deprivation and Delinquency, London.
dt.: (1988), Aggression. Versagen der Umwelt und antisoziale Tendenz, Stuttgart.
(1986), Holding and Interpretation. Fragment of an Analysis, London.
dt.: (1982), Bruchstücke einer Psychoanalyse, Stuttgart.
(1988), Human Nature. Free Association, London.
dt.: (1994), Die menschliche Natur, Stuttgart.
(1988), Babies and their Mothers, London.
dt.: (1990), Das Baby und seine Mütter, Stuttgart.
(1987), The Spontaneous Gesture. Selected letters of D.W. Winnicott, ed. by Robert F. Rodman, Cambridge/London.
dt.: (1995), Die spontane Geste. Ausgewählte Briefe von D.W. Winnicott, Stuttgart.
Auchter, Thomas (2002), Winnicott oder: Die Sehnsucht, wirklich lebendig zu sein. In: Luzifer-Amor 30 (Schwerpunkheft Winnicott), S. 7-45.
Clancier, Anne/Kalmanovitch, Jeannine (1984), Winnicott and Paradox, London/New York, 1987.
Davis, Madeleine/Wallbridge, David (1981), Eine Einführung in das Werk von D.W. Winnicott, Stuttgart, 1983.
Goldman, Dodi (1993), In Search of the Real. The Origins and Originality of D.W. Winnicott, Northvale/New Jersey/London.
Khan, Masud M. (1973), D. W. Winnicott sein Leben und Werk. Eine Einführung. In: Winnicott, D.W., Die therapeutische Arbeit mit Kindern, München, S. VII-XLVIII.
Khan, Masud M. (1977), Das Werk von D. W. Winnicott. In: Eicke, Dieter (Hrsg.), Die Psychologie des 20. Jahrhunderts, Bd. III. Freud und die Folgen (II), Zürich, S. 348-382.
Neubaur, Caroline (1987), Spiel und Realität in der Psychoanalyse Donald W. Winnicotts, Frankfurt a.M.
Tönnesmann, Margret (2002), Die Arbeiten von Donald W. Winnicott. Beiträge zur Theorie und Praxis der Psychoanalyse. In: Luzifer-Amor 30 (Schwerpunkheft Winnicott), S. 46-61.
Zusammengestellt von Christiane Rothländer
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