I want to pass on a few clips from an article by psychotherapist James Barnes on the work and ideas of Donald Winnicott (1896-1971), a central figure in mid-20th-century psychoanalysis, whose theory was:
...radically at odds with the Freudian model and indeed the models employed by modern psychiatry and cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT)...he saw the area in between self and other as the proper domain of mental life and the place where it develops. He largely circumvented the subject-object dualism inherent in the Freudian model of mind (which both the Ego-psychologists and the Kleinians subscribed to) and espoused, or at least regularly insinuated, a fundamentally unitary conception of self and other...Freud and the schools that followed him saw any apparent continuity of self and other – an experience common to the infant, ‘psychotics’ and ‘regressed patients’ alike – as a narcissistic delusion that had to be confronted. By taking the continuity of self and other seriously, Winnicott flipped this picture on its head. He thought of it, in fact, as primary.
Winnicott believed that separate minds give way to experiential units – that subjects with minds emerge out of the domain of interpersonal relations: the ‘social matrix of psyche’... Thus, far from being separate, closed-off entities that somehow manage to figure out each other externally, we are, according to Winnicott, radically open beings in immediate contact with each other.
Winnicott expressed this idea enigmatically when he said: ‘There is no such thing as a baby … if you set out to describe a baby, you will find you are describing a baby and someone.’ His perspective is most relevant for understanding a baby’s experience with her parents, but it’s at the core of all experience, even though we don’t usually recognise it as such. Experience of the world and others is the primary given, and minds – rather than traversing an existing separation – are in a certain sense responsible for creating it. Effectively, this is an inversion of Freud’s dualistic model.
Winnicott’s divergence from subject-object dualism is perhaps most clearly illustrated by his firm belief that we never extricate ourselves from this transitional realm and its subject-object mix-up – nor would we want to. For Freud, and for reductive psychiatry and CBT alike, there is a fundamental assumption that objective states of affairs in an independent world are the basic truth of experience. Indeed, the models rise and fall with the veracity of this picture.
However, Winnicott had a very different vision. He wrote of culture – its artifacts and its activities – as extensions of the transitional phenomena of childhood, themselves rooted in the original mix-up with the parent. He thought that the very worlds we inhabit and take for granted are always partly of our own making. For Winnicott, it is only because the worlds we experience are coextensive with ourselves that they feel alive, alluring and psychically experienceable in the first instance, rather than like cold, mathematical structures, as scientific materialism would have us believe. In this way, Winnicott’s psychological paradox of subject and object becomes a philosophical paradox of idealism and materialism...These fundamental views now lie at the heart of what’s known in modern parlance as relational and intersubjective depth psychotherapy.
Barnes proceeds to argue that the one-person psychologies of the Freudian and cognitive behavioral therapy models have caused social damage, and that we would do well to go:
...back to Winnicott - to his vision of the psyche as intimately interpersonal and social in nature; to his centralisation of interpersonal trauma and deficit at the root of our suffering; and to his profound insights into the area in between, which come into focus when we do so.