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Donald Winnicott


Disciplines > Psychoanalysis > Theorists > Winnicott

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Donald Winnicott (1896-1971) was a London paediatrician who studied psychoanalysis with Melanie Klein. Although accepting Klein, he viewed the key aspect of healthy development as rooted in relationships and micro-interactions with other people, thus taking particular interest in Object Relations Theory. He is well-known partly because he used everyday language, and also from his BBC broadcasts.

The space between

Rather than consider the outer and inner worlds, Winnicott was more interested in the 'transition space' between these domains. As a virtual world, it is ideal for play and creativity.

Ego development

He sees the ego as arising out of primitive threats to existence and developing a 'continuity of being', as afforded by the good-enough mother.

"The first ego organization comes from the experience of threats of annihilation which do not lead to annihilation and from which, repeatedly, there is recovery."  (Winnicott, 1956)

"With the care that it receives from its mother each infant is able to have a personal existence, and so begins to build up what might be called a continuity of being. On the basis of this continuity of being the inherited potential gradually develops into an individual infant. If maternal care is not good enough then the infant does not really come into existence, since there is no continuity of being; instead the personality becomes built on the basis of reactions to environmental impingement." (Winnicott, 1960)


Aggression in the child is seen as a natural part of development as they test out the limits of their personality. They kick and scream in rage. People who have not extended so in childhood may be repressed.

Aggression also tests their environment and helps them to relate to it.

"(1) Subject relates to object. (2) Object is in process of being found instead of being placed by the subject in the world. (3) Subject destroys object.  (4) Object survives destruction. (5) Subject can use object."  (Winnicott, 1969)

When the object is the mother, this is a very trying time for her. She acts as a 'container' for the child's aggression and, if maintaining calm, helps the child to get over the aggression.


For Winnicott, the therapist's task thus becomes to provide a holding environment for the client so they have the opportunity to meet neglected ego needs and allow their true self to emerge. One of the most important attributes of the therapist is simple patience.

"If only we can wait, the patient arrives at understanding creatively and with immense joy...The principle is that it is the patient and only the patient who has the answers." (Winnicott, 1969)

Winnicott continued Klein's principle of studying play as a way of understanding the child.


Winnicott was a pediatrician and, as such was more of a doctor than an out-and-out psychotherapist. He studied with Melanie Klein and further developed Object Relations Theory.

In summary, some of Winnicott's key ideas are as follows:

  • The child will develop a healthy false self, depending on the quality of early care from the good-enough mother. Otherwise it will develop an unhealthy false self.
  • Initially, the carer's role is to support the illusion of a fused, undifferentiated unity.
  • The carer then gradually and carefully allows disillusionment where the child realizes its (and it's carer's) individuality.
  • This separation happens through play and use of a transition object.

Winnicott and Lacan

Winnicott differs from Lacan in his use of transition objects to define the self, although Lacan also uses an external Other in the formation of the ego. He also uses a more nurturing approach in psychoanalysis. He takes the 'mirror' as the loving gaze of the carer (mother or otherwise), reflecting the carer's perceptions of the baby rather than a narcissistic illusion. The ego is thus separated slowly, not sharply as with Lacan.

"In individual emotional development the precursor of the mirror is the mother's face....What does the baby see when he or she looks at the mother's face? I am suggesting that, ordinarily, what the baby sees is himself or herself."  (Winnicott, 1967)

He does agree with the principle of early connection with the mother in a neonatal phase as a ‘seamless oneness’. Winnicott urges mothers to support the child's need for connection with the mother in the this phase.

Winnicott and Klein

Klein saw psychic states operating at the level of unconscious phantasy and hence disconnected from the outside world. Winnicott took the view that you cannot consider the development of the child without taking into account the external environment, in particular in the varying interactions with parent figures.

He considered the detail of how the infant transitions from undifferentiated unity to independence and realization of the mother as a separate person. This is similar to Klein's depressive position.

See also

Winnicott, D. (1953). Transitional objects and transitional phenomena, International Journal of Psychoanalysis, 34:89-97

Winnicott, D.W. (1955-6) Clinical varieties of transference. International Journal of Psycho-Analysis, 37, 386

Winnicott, D. (1956) Primary Maternal Preoccupation, in Through Paediatricsto Psychoanalysis. London: Hogarth

Winnicott, D. (1960). The theory of the parent-child relationship, International Journal of Psychoanalysis, 41:585-595

Winnicott, D. W. (1967). Mirror-role of the mother and family in child development. In P. Lomas (Ed.), The Predicament of the Family: A Psycho-Analytical Symposium (pp. 26-33). London: Hogarth

Winnicott, D.W. (1969). The use of an object, International Journal of Psychoanalysis, 50:711-716


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