Donald (Woods) Winnicott (1896-1971) was a British psychoanalyst (for children and adults), and one of the most influential authors of the British Independent Group. He contributed greatly to the psychoanalytic theory as well as the techniques related to the early emotional development. All his contributions came from his vast clinical experience. In his career of over 40 years, starting as a paediatrician, he had over 60.000 consultations (of babies and mothers, as well as families) and over 100 individual psychotherapies. His lectures were famous among students, colleagues, but also among professionals of various fields, in Britain and many other countries where he spread his ideas and concepts and psychoanalytical thought. His 50 episodes on child development made for BBC were very popular, and had included talks with parents. He wrote extensively, nevertheless only a part of it was published during his lifetime. Finally, in 2016, all his writings were published as collected works by D. W. Winnicott.

Winnicott was president of the British Psychoanalytical Society twice, he was Director of Child and Adolescent Department of the British Psychoanalytic Institute for over 20 years, President of the Paediatrician Section of Royal Society of Medicine, as well President of the Society for Child Psychology and Psychiatry.

According to Winnicott, the central experience in psychological development is the feeling of ‘being alive’ – if a person feels as real, alive, creative, independent centre of his/her own personal experience. The main reference framework of his teaching are processes that take place in the field of relations between a child and the ones who take care of it. Hence the environment (the specific environmental contributions gathered around the concept of good enough mothering is crucial factor in achieving the ability ‘of a person to live creatively and feel the life is worth living.’ What a mother should do Winnicott defines as holding, entailing not only the gratification of bodily needs, but also of specific emotional and social needs of a baby (the manner in which she holds the baby, how she speaks to her/him, smiles, etc.). The most important thing is that she does it with empathy, and not mechanically.

The creation of the subject within this field – from being merged with the mother to striving towards independence (for Winnicott, a total independence is only a goal) – takes form through the following processes:

– Primary maternal preoccupation and mirroring role of the mother (Stage of absolute dependence);

– Transitional object and transitional phenomena (Stage of relative dependence);

– The use of the object (Winnicott’s concept of the importance of aggression in child development);

– The capacity for concern and the capacity to be alone (Stage towards independence).

Winnicott’s concept of False Self is particularly important. In good enough circumstances the central or True Self, nurtured in a non-disturbing environment, represents the inherited potential of a child to experience the continuity of existence and in his/her own way and speed obtain a personal psychological reality as well as a personal bodily scheme. Otherwise, a child is forced to abandon his/her personal needs and fit into the expectations of the mother (environment). This way, a False Self is being created and takes over the nurturing role which the environment did not manage to fulfil. The True Self hence becomes shut off, hidden from the others, and as a result bringing up the feeling of deadness and emptiness. More precisely, there is a continuity from psychopathology such as psychotic states, borderline states, etc. to a protecting role the False Self gives and which has an important role in adjustment, and socialization in health.

Winnicott’s contribution is also important in the process of understanding early anxiety in case of failed holding, resulting in unthinkable anxieties, and which he divided in four main categories: being in pieces – being disintegrated; falling – being dropped; lacking the relation between the psyche and the body; being disoriented. In his article “Hate in Countertransference” (1947) Winnicott stresses out the importance of authentic feelings an analyst has towards the patient. In this paper, he focuses on the psychotic patients with strong antisocial tendencies that can provoke a strong hatred in the analyst. “Analyst must not deny the hatred awoke in him”, he has to be aware of it and bear it calmly, not reacting to it. The interpretation of those patients, according to Winnicott, can be given only after the patients are more integrated.     

Beside this, Winnicott also made other specific contributions in psychoanalytical techniques of working with adults with severe psychopathology, as well as contributions in the techniques of working with children.

This theoretical seminar will discuss all important concepts by Winnicott, including the ones we skipped in this introduction due to text length limitations.