Winnicott’s Dream

A Critique of Winnicott’s Thought as a Form of Mystical Narcissism

Abstract: British psychoanalyst Donald W. Winnicott (1896-1971) developed an original theory involving controversial ideas such as the destruction of the patient and the merger of the subjective and objective worlds into a whole. He argued that C.G. Jung suffered from a severe pathology, which affected his theoretical outlook. This article argues to the contrary: Winnicott’s own theory displays a narcissistic kind of structure. His dream appears to be an unconscious reaction against an unsupportable conscious attitude. Winnicott is much concerned with how to defend against patients and their invasive pathology. It functions as a system of defence for the psychologically weak therapist, an attitude that is harmful to patients. The article contributes to the understanding of narcissism.

Keywords: narcissism, negative mother complex, potential space, relational field, suicide-cult, purity, unit personality.

The dream

In a letter to a colleague on 29 December 1963 Winnicott accounts for a dream where he is immersed in the world and is part of all people (cf. Winnicott, 1989, pp.228-30). But there are no object-relations going on anymore, only a massive devastation of everything. Next he is himself the destructive agent, an omnipotent power of destruction of the whole world. When beginning to wake up, W. relates that “…I first knew that I had a very severe headache. I could see my head split right through, with a black gap between the right and left halves. I found the words ‘splitting headache’ coming and waking me up, and I caught on to the appropriateness of the description…” (p.229). Contextual to the latter part of the dream is a returning conscious fantasy that he was unable to figure out. The fantasy said that he would be better if somebody cleaved his head open from front to back and removed some defect part of his brain.

In the following W. starts expounding on Carl Jung’s psychic problems and makes the unconventional claim that he had dreamt this on behalf of Jung, suggesting that the dream was commenting on Jung’s psychic split, allegedly deriving from a childhood schizophrenia. W. also said that he had the dream for some of his patients and, lastly, for himself.

Before this episode W. had written a review of Jung’s autobiography (Winnicott 1964; 1989, pp.482-92) where he claims that Jung had suffered a psychotic breakdown in his childhood. Due to this Jung had acquired a ‘false self’ and, allegedly, it is this split psychology that underlies his theoretical views. W. comes to the conclusion that it was Jung’s psychotic illness that pushed him on to his exceptional achievement.

However, it is nowhere apparent that Jung had suffered such a severe psychotic breakdown during childhood. The allegation that he suffered from a pathological kind of double personality lacks substance, too. It seems fair to assume that Winnicott’s dream actually refers to himself and his own psychic split. Also, it’s likely that the part of his brain that needed to be removed is a metaphor for many of his own ideas: as it were, a carcinogenic cluster of erroneous thinking.


Winnicott’s theory intended to account for the whole of human culture with notions of transitional objects/phenomena and transitional (potential) space (see Winnicott, 1999). The thinking is based upon the fact that children can be said to exist in a vital space, occupied by objects that carry meaning and magical power. In such a world, fully autonomous individuals have not yet appeared. Instead, all beings interblend like the features of a landscape on a moonlit night. Such an animistic space may give us some insight into how the world looks from a child’s perspective. W. heavily overextends his theory.

W. holds to the view that the child and its mother form a unit, in the earliest phase (cf. 1999, p.107). As a consequence, if the mother is neurotic, the child is immediately affected. The child, in a way, drinks in its mother’s problems with the mother’s milk. On extending this view, a child can take over its mother’s neurotic symptoms and have her dreams.

This is the underlying reason why W. thinks he dreams on Jung’s and also his patients’ behalf. The potential space is no longer confined to the area “in between” patient and analyst (and mother and child). It is expanded to envelop a collective of people and, eventually, hypostatized into an anima mundi. Having acquired the formidable capacity to tune in to this collective potential space, it becomes possible for W. to experience other people’s dreams. W. is immersed in such a dreamlike, collectivistic, world that is now laid waste. The eroding of subject and object, their immersion in a sea of relationality, is effectually the same as a destruction of the world, due to the extinction of the ego. It’s like a return to the chaotic condition prior to Creation.

But, more importantly, we may trace this image of destruction to Winnicott’s own thinking. W. expressly grants the destructive urge a positive value and sees destruction as a means of establishing an independent existence of both parties in the subject-object merger (cf. 1969; 1999, ch.6). As he puts it, “…it is the destruction of the object that places the object outside the area of the subject’s omnipotent control” (1999, p.90). On this view, an object that survives the destruction has acquired an independent value and can be ‘used’, instead of merely related to, as is the case in the primary subject-object merger.

W. defines object-relating as a state of fusion. This symbiotic condition is broken by way of destruction of the object, whether it survives or not. The object-relating then moves on to a more advanced cultural phase: “…the transitional object does not ‘go inside’ [but] the transitional phenomena have become diffused, have become spread out [over] the whole cultural field” (1953; 1999, p.5). This process is continuous as “the task of reality-acceptance is never completed” (1999, p.13). Ultimately, the individual reaches a stage when only the most advanced transitional object is left. He exists in a subject-object merger with the greatest teddy bear of all, namely the world as such. As laid out in the dream, this world must now be destroyed. W. had migrated all the way from mother’s breast, via teddy and all transitional objects in cultural expression, to the final stage of the world as a whole. Thus he could dream for other people, as he was in a state of merger with them. The infantile merger with the mother had been expanded to a merger with the world as a whole. The regression to a godlike infantility is fulfilled. Finally, as the world is destroyed, omnipotent object-relating changes into grandiose object-use. A wholly godlike grandiosity is established.

Normally, interpreting third-party dreams is a precarious undertaking, but in this case it’s not far-fetched to think that the dream is Winnicott’s unconscious revolt against his own conscious standpoint. What must be removed from his head is a carcinogenic idée fixe, an unsound thoughtway metaphorically expressed as a carcinoma or defect brain tissue. It’s an attempt at healing during which his head is crudely split open to remove a grossly defective thoughtway.

Narcissistic mysticism

The symbiotic and destructive cycle, and its expansion into society, became central to W. He asserts that before a certain date, say a thousand years ago, men did only exceptionally attain unit status (cf. 1999, p.70). They soon lost, at the end of childhood, their sense of being individuals. Previously, men always existed in an object-relational identity with the transitional objects of community. They never went past the symbiotic stage into object-usage, and then on to a more developed object-relation, etc. The little child tears teddy’s head off and, accordingly, destroys the object-relation. This, allegedly, gives him unit status. But earlier in history people lacked the capacity to “decapitate” the transitional objects characteristic of maturity. The individual remained in a symbiotic subject-object merger. In the modern day, however, the child’s destructive ability may be kept alive by viewing the cultural world of the adult as a form of playground, not essentially different from that of kindergarten. Winnicott’s wife Clare attests to the central importance of the aspect of cyclic destruction and of adult life as playing activity (cf. 1989, p.3f).

The fantasy of omnipotence along with the aggressive destructive urge is reminiscent of the psychology of the narcissistic character disorder (NPD). It could be argued that W. portrays the dynamic of a narcissistic relationship. A narcissistic man, for instance, might victimize his spouse and, as an interlude, treat her as a princess (see Forward & Torres, 1986). The latter phase pertains to the recurrent symbiotic condition. Symbiosis is merely another way of removing the Other as an antagonist to ego domination. The motif of control and exploitation is interchanged with subject-object merger. The relationship always needs to be renewed by way of a new destruction, or as Clare Winnicott says, “…the destroying of the object in unconscious fantasy is like a cleansing process, which facilitates again and again the discovery of the object anew. It is a process of purification and renewal” (Winnicott, 1989, p.3f). The reason why we have to continually destroy the other party in fantasy is because he/she must be repossessed as an external object of usage. The destruction serves the purpose of recovering his/her status as external object. Otherwise a projective situation will prevail, which means that the other person is not recognized for his/her true characteristics. This process is evident in the analyst’s “hatred of the patient” (1958, p.147). The analytic merger must be followed by destruction, at the end of the analytic session.

Brought to its extreme, this fantasy generates the peculiar inverted form of individuation that was described above. Pre-natal or pre-animistic wholeness is restored by way of worldly omnipotence followed by destruction. Such ideas have an ominous power that must not be underestimated. They are characteristic of the apocalyptic suicide sects that have surfaced during the latest decades: Jim Jones and the Peoples’ Temple, David Koresh and the Branch Davidians, Marshall Herff Applewhite and the Heaven’s Gate, etc. Reverend Jim Jones’s thinking is properly described as a narcissistic form of mysticism. He gradually expanded his ego territory until he finally revealed to his adepts that he was God. There followed the infamous mass suicide in Guyana, 1978, where at least 910 people including at least 270 children were killed. Already in the early years of the cult a suicide ritual was established. A drink was dealt out that was said to contain poison (see Kilduff, 1978). As the proselytes didn’t die the leader relieved them from their anguish by admitting that it was not true. It was a device to test their loyalty. Only at the fatal date the drink contained real poison. This hair-raising ritual is consistent with the dynamic of a repetitive destruction.

A customary theme is the attainment of world-transcendence. Following the holocaust, life is continued in an otherworldly sphere. In Winnicott’s thinking the destructive act implies transcending the object, moving out of the symbiotic domain. Ultimately, in narcissistic mysticism, it means transcending the world.


W. said that he observed this process with little infants. The baby exists in a merger with mother when suckling mother’s breast. This is followed by attempts to destroy the breast by biting. According to W. this is a first attempt to establish the quality of externality. Again, the aggressive impulse is understood as positive (cf. Winnicott, 1969; 1999, ch.6). Is it possible that W. projected the destructive will on the infant? When a baby bites it’s often because the breast is empty or he has had enough to eat and is bored. It may also be due to a stressful environment. Biting is most often simply a protest.

Leaving aside that Winnicott’s premises, drawn from infancy, are somewhat infirm, we must now ask ourselves to what degree his concepts refer to commonplace psychodynamics. Is ‘destruction’ just a figure of speech? Is ‘hating’ the patient merely a metaphorical expression for an ordinary dismissal? When he speaks about ‘using’ other people, does he really mean ‘exploiting’ them? W. denies that using means exploiting (1999, p.94). He says that we use each other just as we use our homes, or use a therapist. Exploiting people would imply using other people to their own disadvantage. However, if the therapist doesn’t receive his payment it could certainly be called exploitation. It seems like the notion of using is not so far from exploitation. The term using is equal to exploiting in the neutral sense. It’s saddening that there is no mention of a third form of rapport, a relation between adults that is neither symbiotic nor exploitative in the neutral sense.

W. says there is no anger in the destruction of the object (cf. 1999, p.93). On the other hand, he also says that there is an aggressive impulse behind it and he employs the rather strong word ‘hate’:

The analyst’s hate is ordinarily latent and is easily kept so. In analysis of psychotics the analyst is under greater strain to keep his hate latent, and he can only do this by being thoroughly aware of it. I want to add that in certain stages of certain analyses the analyst’s hate is actually sought by the patient, and what is then needed is hate that is objective. If the patient seeks objective or justified hate he must be able to reach it, else he cannot feel he can reach objective love.

It is perhaps relevant here to cite the case of the child of the broken home, or the child without parents. Such a child spends his time unconsciously looking for his parents. It is notoriously inadequate to take such a child into one’s home and to love him. What happens is that after a while a child so adopted gains hope, and then he starts to test out the environment he has found, and to seek proof of his guardians’ ability to hate objectively. It seems that he can believe in being loved only after being hated. (1958, p.199)

When they are ripe for it, certain psychotics and traumatized children must be expressly hated, not only hated and destroyed in fantasy. The point is that these cases must learn to hate and destroy in order to be able to create the quality of externality. Only then, other people will become external objects of usage, a condition that W. connects with objective love.

Sentimentality is useless for parents, as it contains a denial of hate, and sentimentality in a mother is no good at all from the infant’s point of view.

It seems to me doubtful whether a human child as he develops is capable of tolerating the full extent of his own hate in a sentimental environment. He needs hate to hate.

If this is true, a psychotic patient in analysis cannot be expected to tolerate his hate of the analyst unless the analyst can hate him. (1958, p.202)

The adopted child must not be loved (treated sentimentally) because he/she would then become symbiotic with mother and family, due to his strong longing for love and tenderness. It then arises a strong urge in the child to create externality. But as hate is intolerable he lacks the tool to accomplish this. What follows is a continual trying of the parents’ patience in order to provoke hatred and, only then, hatred will become an acceptable phenomenon. The rationale behind this is that the child is impelled to establish a narcissistic dynamic of hatred and symbiotic merger, directed outwards. By this it evades the regressive merger with the mother. Of course, the first thing that will happen is that he becomes a bully at school where he chooses a victim to continually destroy.

What drives narcissism is a negative mother complex (see Jacoby, 1985). An individual that cannot, for whatever reasons, accomplish a proper emancipation (“resolve the Oedipus complex”) might employ a next best solution. The narcissistic solution implies a continual unconscious struggle against the mother. The bipolar pattern of destruction and merger keeps him from regression to infantility. It is an inferior, pathological solution; still, it is a solution. If the parents are lacking in loving devotion of the needful child, this could very well be the outcome. Instead of developing psychic symptoms that would render him incapable of going on in life, the child develops the relatively stabile narcissistic pattern. Narcissists often develop a considerable ability in their trade (cf. Kernberg, 1975, p.229).

W. is quite sincere. It’s not simply that he makes a controversial choice of words. He even wants to substitute Freud’s sexual libido with his impulse of destruction:

In adult and mature sexual intercourse, it is perhaps true that it is not the purely erotic satisfactions that need a specific object. It is the aggressive or destructive element in the fused impulse that fixes the object and determines the need that is felt for the partner’s actual presence, satisfaction, and survival. (Winnicott, 1958, p.218)

Sexuality is a means of destroying the other party and overcoming the subject-object merger. The partner’s actual presence is realized. Again, the partner should be thankful that he/she is subjected to aggression because that’s how his/her independent existence is manifested. Of course, in reality, only the subject himself experiences the merger (and the termination of it). But, as W. postulates the existence of a space of symbiotic merger, a potential space, it is assumed that the other party is enmeshed in this experience, too.

A sadistic element in sexuality is brought out here. It is certainly true that sexuality has this destructive capacity. This might shed some light on the narcissistic obsession with sexuality, as the cases of Jim Jones and David Koresh bear witness to.

According to Brett Kahr (2000) a considerable number of Winnicott’s patients committed suicide when undergoing analysis. We don’t know whether these patients were psychotics that were subjected to Winnicott’s express hatred or whether they were neurotics who only needed to be destroyed covertly. We only know that the destructive fantasy sometimes came true. Naturally, there is no way of proving that it had anything to do with Winnicott’s attitude. Nevertheless, his uncalled-for destruction of Jung (cf. Winnicott, 1964; 1989, pp.482-92) is evidence that he expressly applied his theory. W. found much inspiration in Jung’s books and, presumably, he had to be destroyed in order to terminate the subject-object merger. Anna Freud reported that W. “…wrote such a hostile and denigrating review of one of my books for an official journal here that it was refused. And afterwards he said that he was sorry, he did not know why he had done it, he really liked the book. So that is how it is” (Kahr, 1996, p.112, Loc. Cit.). The considerable intellectual and moral calibre of Anna Freud, and the fact that W. liked the book, could, perchance, explain why she needed to be destroyed.

Ego-Self merger

The notion of ego-Self merger (see Schwartz-Salant, 1982) implies that the ego is not fully liberated from archaic or infantile identity. The individual and collective psyche are, to some degree, fused together (see Jung, 1972, para. 240ff). A likely explanation for the bipolar dynamic is that it constitutes a defence against inflation, that is, at both ends there is imminent danger to the ego system. Kernberg says that the defensive operations of omnipotence and devaluation are means of protection against threatening needs and involvement with others (cf. Kernberg, 1975, pp.101-102). It goes together with a chronic feeling of emptiness due to a severe lack in the sense of personal identity (cf. ch.7). There are also narcissistic patients whose pathological narcissism constitutes an important defence against a primitive paranoid tendency (cf. p.219).

The polarized organization of personality follows from the fusion of personal and collective. Jung says that “[if] we make the mistake of including the collective psyche in the inventory of personal psychic functions, a dissolution of the personality into its paired opposites inevitably follows. Besides the pair of opposites already discussed, megalomania and the sense of inferiority, which are so painfully evident in neurosis, there are many others…” (Jung, 1972, para.237).

It seems as if narcissism is a condition where the collective and personal psychic spheres are not thoroughly separated. It is a chronic neurosis elevated to lifestyle. It can remain static and even seemingly unneurotic thanks to a sadistic dynamic or a pattern of grandiosity-idealization versus inferiority. If the defensive pattern is not upheld, a serious affliction is likely to occur. Jung maintains that when the ego gets assimilated to the Self, a mystical, dreamlike state ensues. The subject feels he is immersed in a space-time continuum that is characteristic of the unconscious as such. Secondly, the Self may become assimilated to the ego. This also results in inflation, as the world of collective consciousness is overvalued (cf. Jung, 1978, pars.45-47). If the primordial images are projected, Jung relates, the subject vacillates between deification and hateful contempt. On the other hand, if the images are introjected, he gets involved in self-deification or in a moral self-laceration (cf. 1972, para.110). It’s imperative, then, to differentiate the ego from the collective psyche.

Jung says that “…the collective and the personal psyche may be fused together, with, as I have intimated, highly unfortunate results. Through his identification with the collective psyche he will infallibly try to force the demands of his unconscious upon others…” (1972, para.240). Perhaps, even, the patient will be able to convince others that they need to be destroyed so that they can attain world-transcendence.

The notion of ‘projective identification’ (see Kernberg, 1975) is often used in this circumstance. It implies that the subject is, to a pathological degree, enchained to the receiver of the projection. By example, the subject does not simply pass by the person that just activated his projection, but instead starts stalking him. He is bound to him, so to speak, and must compulsively continue the bedevilment. Typically, the narcissist would be quite friendly, even charismatic, at first. However, after a while, he would continue the bedevilment, typically attributing mental disorder to his victim. Many narcissistic men, after the wedding is consummated and the woman is dependent on the man, economically, emotionally and residentially, show their true intent: to transfer their own split-off psyche on the victim.

The differentiated Self

Peculiar to Jungian psychology is the view that the healthy Self obtains a high level of autonomy. As such, the Self is not concretely encountered in the external world but is established as an inner autonomous factor, as a feeling of wholeness that transcends the ego. When wholeness is inside, as a strong sense of self, symbiotic identification with the collective loses its alluring power. The opposite pitfall of narcissistic, grandiose, ‘unit status’ is avoided, too. The healthy individual never experiences that he is fully divided against the collective. As this wholeness inside remains autonomous, i.e. transcends the ego, the ego can never obtain supreme ascendancy.

A good illustration of the healthy configuration is the following dream, recounted by a smallholder’s wife who lived a strenuous life (Hillerdal, 1983, p.74). In the dream, she was on her way to work in the field when she felt that Jesus walked by her side in ankle-length garment. She was not able to turn her head and look at Him, but Jesus worked with her all day in the field and she felt happy and at peace. She recounts that this dream had helped her many times during all days of hard toil under the hot sun.

The dream establishes a proper self-feeling. The Self is expressed as something that does not belong to the ego. Nor does it belong to the outer world and is not projected on other people. She cannot look at Him because the Self transcends ego consciousness. It’s beyond a total comprehension. Yet, the Self is always there and partakes in her toil. Here is an example where the Self motivates the ego and gives it energy and love of live. There is no interaction between the two. They don’t talk and they don’t look at each other. She just feels His presence.

Another example is of a woman who was struck with depression at the assassination of John F. Kennedy (Hillerdal, 1973, p.16). She talked with different religious and political organizations, but afterwards she still felt despairing. For the first time in her life she attended church. During service she suddenly felt the presence of Jesus. He stood beside her and radiated power and consolation. She experienced his words, not as sounds, but directly inside her: “Don’t despair. You’re not alone. I live.”

The ego is no longer bound to the Self. The projection on Kennedy is withdrawn and the ego is emancipated. Due to this she learns to know about the Self for the first time. It is as if the Self stands beside her. It is not herself, yet it is her own Self. She cannot see Him or hear Him audibly. He transcends her conscious faculty. She simply feels His presence. There are many experiences of this kind recounted: a rather unpretentious experience of Jesus as the silent bystander or silent co-worker.

In his autobiography Jung relates his early experience of his No.1 and No.2 existences. Jung, in those days, renounced any identification with No.2, whom he experienced as an archaic superior intelligence. At the same time he took the decision not to deny No.2. He would always remember him. He says:

This dream was a great illumination for me. Now I knew that No.1 was the bearer of the light, and that No.2 followed him like a shadow. My task was to shield the light and not look back at the vita peracta; this was evidently a forbidden realm of light of a different sort. (Jung, 1965, p.88)

This is a similar situation as in the above experiences of Jesus. The ego is differentiated from the Self, yet the Self remains an invisible follower that cannot be looked at. There is only a ‘sensing’ of the Self (cf. Jung, 1972, para.405).

Nonetheless, this autobiographical episode is the reason why W. diagnosed Jung, along with his theory, as pathological, arguing that Jung’s No.1 is an example of an acquired ‘false self’. Commenting on Jung’s autobiography, he says:

There are plenty of troubles of other kinds for the unit personality, though for the unit personality the word self has a clear meaning that does not need explaining.

It is truly difficult for those with healthy unit personalities to achieve empathy with those whose divided selves give them constant trouble. (Winnicott, 1964, p.455; 1989, pp.482-92)

We are now ripe for making the conclusion that it is, in fact, the other way round. The ‘unit personality’ that W. refers to is an abnormal ego, a pathological merger of ego and Self, since there exists no “No.2”. The abnormal ego harbours opposites that really should be located in the Self (expressed in religious terms as ‘Christ lovingly carries our suffering’). By forcing the internal conflict upon others, and punishing the very people he has ‘merged’ with, the narcissist ‘survives’ as he has revitalized his ‘unit status’. The negative mother complex is ever threatening him and he fears a regressive merger with the mother. By instead merging with others and then destroying them, he creates the well-known pattern of vicarious suffering. He is temporarily released from inner tension, but the cycle must be repeated.

Jung’s “divided self”, on the other hand, represents a sound configuration of ego and Self — at least it’s better. Jung sometimes compares ego and Self with earth and sun. The earth can harbour life only because it is located at a respectable distance from the sun. The Jungian view of ego and Self is a healthy and non-narcissistic model of the psyche. By comparison, Kohut adopts the ‘bipolar self’ (idealized self and grandiose-exhibitionistic self) as a natural and largely positive phenomenon (see Kohut, 1977). The application of a model of the psyche that is, as such, more or less narcissistic, implies that the least severe form of narcissism is seen as sound and normal.

The unit personality

The notion of ‘unit personality’, employed by W. as an ideal, has actually been much discussed. Richard Sennett (1992) says that the obsession with finding a unified self-image is pathological. Adolescents, especially, are often very focused on finding collective rules with which they build their identity (cf. p.125). He discusses young psychiatrists and says:

Recently two American researchers, Daniel Levenson and Myron Sharaf, did a study of a peculiar phenomenon among these young doctors. This was the tendency shown by many beginning psychiatrists to think of themselves as little gods, sitting in judgement on their patients and slightly contemptuous of them. The attitude, which Levenson and Sharaf called the psychiatrists’ omnipotence desire, is of course not universal, but it is frequently to be found among newly practicing therapists.

In the process of their research Levenson and Sharaf concluded that this little-god complex occurred partially out of a great fear these new practitioners had that they might be hurt by becoming involved with the problems of their patients, involved in a painful way so deeply that their own sense of themselves would dissolve. [These] young doctors have exerted a peculiar kind of strength — a power to cut themselves off from the world around them, to make themselves distant, and perhaps lonely, by defining themselves in a rigid way. This fixed self-definition gives them a strong weapon against the outer world. They prevent a pliant traffic between themselves and men around them and so acquire a certain immunity to the pain of conflicting and tangled events that might otherwise confuse and perhaps even overwhelm them. (Sennett, 1992, pp.5-6)

A recent study (McGabe et al., 2002) shows that doctors indicate reluctance to engage with psychotic patients’ symptoms as a topic of conversation. They hesitated and avoided answering the patients’ questions. The doctors’ use of laughter “…indicated embarrassment when faced with such delicate questions from patients about the causes of their distress”.

These defensive patterns function as a defence of the relatively weak ego system. The notion of ‘ego strength’ implies a relative capacity to endure conflict and pain in consciousness, that is, there is a readiness to confront circumstances where one is not in total control. Such a person has “the integrity to be confused”. The pain can be endured because there is no risk of dissolution and regression. Sennett explains that persons lacking in ego strength instead absorb themselves in the oneness of the self.

For by turning one’s energies to an ideal of oneness, the enemies of purity, the disjointed, confusing experiences of interaction in the everyday world, can be dismissed as of lesser importance, and the young person can, like Malraux’s character Hong, imagine himself strong because he refuses to let himself be challenged.

[Some] adolescents do have the strength to hold themselves back, and let a diversity of painful, confused, and contradictory new experiences enter their lives, before they take the active steps that will confirm them in an identity. But most young people are denied the strength to endure ambiguity of this kind… (Sennett, 1992, p.23, p.37)

It’s interesting to note that psychologists have arrived at an understanding of ‘ego strength’ that contradicts the popular image of a strong, self-assured, person that is experienced in the ways of the world and always knows what to do.

The ‘unit personality’ may survive into adulthood. It may grow into a pattern where ‘otherness’ isn’t tolerated but must be hated and destroyed and ‘unit status’ always reconquered. This is, like Jung says, connected with an overvaluation of consciousness. The urge to find ways to fit in is so strong that people program themselves according to the expectations of the outer world. The demands of the outer world may even be such that there is no room for introversion or slight unassuredness. Paradoxically, a young person that is thoroughly exposed to the world and trains himself in all the mannerisms and the collective way of thinking, is likely to become psychosocially inferior, because he is a collective being and has not managed to develop a true personal identity. Due to overvaluation of consciousness there is a great risk that the Self becomes assimilated to the ego. A strong ego, on the other hand, is differentiated from the collective.

The way W. theoretically solves the problem of individuation is to amalgamate the inner and outer into one world: the transitional space of play. For children and grown-ups alike, the only way of discovering the self (the unit personality) is by creative play in an amalgamated sphere of inner and outer (cf. 1999, p.54).

And on the basis of playing is built the whole of man’s experiential existence. No longer are we either introvert or extrovert. We experience life in the area of transitional phenomena, in the exciting interweave of subjectivity and objective observation, and in an area that is intermediate between the inner reality of the individual and the shared reality of the world that is external to individuals. (p.64)

Goethe wisely insisted that man must accept living in two worlds, the inner and the outer. But W. is not willing to accept that man must live in two worlds. Instead, the merger of ego and Self, the unit personality, becomes an ideal. When the collective unconscious (using Jung’s vocabulary) is not acknowledged in its own right, it must needs creep in the backdoor in the form of a vital space that contaminates the outer world. This causes objects and people to become animated, turning them into transitional objects of playful merger and destruction. The animation of the world is really a prolongation of the child’s world, something that W. wanted to perpetuate (see above). Such a longing often originates from an initial overestimation of collective consciousness, something that will be paid for because the unconscious will finally find its way back in negative form. As Jung says, the subject comes to feel he is immersed in a space-time continuum that is characteristic of the unconscious as such.

The idea of a spiritual communion really belongs to the world of the inner Self. Such a mystical field of a longed-for interconnectedness; man to man and man to God, must not be allowed to contaminate the entire outer world of the ego. This must needs lead to a merger of ego and Self. When childhood is left behind the splitting of the world must be accepted. This means that the individual will always find resort in an inner world when he cannot fully cope with the outer. Sennett says that “…losing the feeling of being omnipotent is the birth of feeling personally strong in another way. [Although] an adult feels no longer wholly the manipulator of the world around him he also feels that that world cannot in turn wholly manipulate him” (Sennett, 1992, pp.116-17). So he has found an inner space that is a place of refuge. This is a stable condition where neither omnipotence nor unit status needs to be cyclically reiterated.


Winnicott is today on the reading lists of many university courses. He notoriously crops up in the psychological journals. Historically, the Freudian tradition has been hampered by its devotion to rationalistic and reductive thinking, and not much room has been left to man’s spiritual side. This explains Winnicott’s longstanding popularity. He presents us with a pseudo-spiritual thoughtway, as a substitute for Jung’s notion of the collective unconscious. Psychology, it is true, has to cope with the yearning of the spirit. The individual wants to find his place in the overall picture and there is a healthy longing after a spiritual communion. But this longing mustn’t be allowed to robe in scientific terminology. Potential space is a mere heuristic notion and it should not be allowed to swell outside the consulting room or nursery.

Winnicott’s teaching is a defensive system designed for the narcissistic psychotherapist. It is not beneficial to the suffering patient. Even little homeless children must be defended against, says W. How do young doctors react to Winnicott’s ideas of hatred and destruction? Evidently, it’s not uncommon to find narcissistic streaks among, especially, young doctors. In W. some of them will find support for a destructive attitude towards the patient. Patients will get hurt and the immature doctor might think that his attitude actually makes a good example. For the sake of the psychic health of both patients and therapists it’s high time that Winnicott’s greatly overblown dimension is strongly reduced. His own dream points at this necessity.


© Mats Winther, 2003.

(The first version of this article is also published on “The Jung Page”, here.)


Can Winnicott be fitted into an overarching psychoanalytic theory? There are ominous aspects of Winnicott’s psychology involving the “merger with” and the “destruction of” the patient. Winnicott’s notions fly in the face of our traditional sense of morality and they radically deviate from traditional psychoanalysis. How can we come to grips with the fact that his flagrantly immoral and highly unorthodox theories keep popping up? I hold that Winnicott’s theory is pertinent to a certain kind of psychic economy that is backward in relation to modern man. Mankind is stratified on different levels of mental culture or psychic economy, representing different stages in our historical evolution. The psyche is moulded by an inborn factor of psychic economy, and not only by individual experiences and personality characteristics. Thus, we must have recourse to an exclusive model for each kind of psychic economy. It would help to solve the dilemma of whether or not W. is an integral part of psychoanalysis.

The notions of ‘projection’ and ‘transference’ take on a completely different meaning at the cultural level of aboriginal people. The psychoanalytic theory is ineffectual for people living in an animistic universe. There is no ‘projection’ since people at this level aren’t capable of projection. Whereas in a modern Westerner there is always a little doubt about the veracity of a projection, at the animistic level it is a wholly unconscious phenomenon. The experience of the object comes always from the outside. By example, if the individual is startled when seeing a tree stub in the dark, it means that something has hit him like an arrow from the outside. Whereas a Westerner is prone to immediately withdraw the projection, the animist is convinced that he has experienced a living spirit in the form of a tree stub. He will continue to regard the tree stub or the location with reverence or fear. He is not capable of withdrawing the projection, since the projective function is not part of the animistic form of psychic economy.

How can this aboriginal man possibly be analyzed in terms of transference and counter-transference? The whole theoretical edifice is unfunctional in the animistic context. His psyche is governed by a different psychic economy that is wholly apt in his natural environment, but becomes dysfunctional in a Western society, where he is likely to be diagnosed with a DSM code. However, he should really be understood according to a model of the animistic psyche. We tend to view him as a primitive who is subject to delusions, but his worldview is really grounded in a psychic economy peculiar to his own cultural level. Animism is an wholly healthy and persuasive philosophy of life in its own right.

In the same vein, Winnicott’s theoretical edifice portrays a psychic economy that deviates both from the animistic and the modern projective economy. Arguably, like animism, it represents a stage in the psychic evolution of man. W. describes psychic life as a continual merger with the object to acquire ‘omnipotence’, and a subsequent destruction of the same, to acquire ‘unit status’. This modus operandi is characteristic of NPD (DSM-IV 301.81), as described by Kernberg, et al. If Winnicott’s theory indeed describes the pathological psyche, it means that we are dealing with a psychic economy that deviates from the standard economy of psychoanalysis. The latter is relevant to a patient who is susceptible to “interpretation”; who reacts with a transference and is capable of withdrawing projections in due order. On the other hand, Masud Khan found Winnicott’s theory very persuasive since it rhymed with his own psychic economy. However, outside of his native cultural context, it grew out of proportion. He made himself guilty of many transgressions resulting in his expulsion from The British Psycho-Analytical Society and the International Psycho-Analytical Association (cf. Kahr, 2003).

Winnicott’s terms are relevant in criminal psychology. A perpetrator destroys the ‘object of merger’ in an act of criminal transgression, such as rape. Thus, he succeeds in acquiring the highly wished for ‘unit status’. In pagan civilization, destruction in this form was institutionalized as human sacrifice. Typically, it was the most beautiful youths of nobility, or the king himself, who were sacrificed. A handsome person or great warrior was elevated and worshipped as a god, adorned with beautiful clothes and regalia. At a certain date, his chest was pried open and the heart ripped out, as in the Tezcatlipoca sacrifice of Aztec civilization. To us modern people, this enactment represents the epitome of severe mental pathology. Yet in pagan civilization, it was the epitome of godliness and regarded as the finest act of culture.

W. epitomizes mental health as the ability to engage in subject-object merger, thereafter to tear the “object’s” heart out in an act of destruction. It should be possible to corroborate this mental functioning in those patients whose psychic economy is more or less pagan in kind. Yet it is not possible to observe this mental functioning in the general Westerner who can make projections, almost at will, and withdraw them in a whiff. It is relevant that W. takes evidence from historical society. In earlier times, he says, men did only exceptionally attain unit status (cf. Winnicott, 1999, p.70). They never went past the symbiotic stage into object-usage, and then on to a more developed object-relation. To convert the object of merger to an object of “usage” one must follow the example of the child and tear off the teddy’s head. Characteristic for an healthy adulthood is the perpetual cycle of merger and destruction of transitional objects. W. says that patients must adopt the way of cyclic destructivity in order to get back on their feet.

Psychoanalysis cannot build on a singular psychic economy as relevant to all humankind. Comparatively, theologists have established that there are three completely different psychic economies in the Godhead, that is, God is three persons. Theologists found this necessary, as they are mutually exclusive. Psychoanalysts ought follow this recipe, rather than constructing a magpie’s nest of several psychic economies that function very differently. They cannot be accommodated under the same roof because they contradict each other. What W. sees as mental health, another author sees as perfectly pathological. If Winnicott’s theory allows the analysand to find an outlet of his/her pagan psychic economy, in terms of transitional objects in a transitional field, that is, if it is a method that leads to acculturation, then it is a workable theory. On the other hand, it will lead to very destructive consequences if applied on a patient with a different psychic economy. It is imperative to view mankind as stratified on different levels of mental culture, pertaining to the different epochs of history.

© Mats Winther, 2013.


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