Two podcasts featuring Winnicott offer listeners very different ways of thinking about human engagement with ideas, each other, the outside world and ourselves. Each asks Winnicottian questions about how an individual identity is constructed in relation to human and non-human objects and about how human thought and creativity emerges.
In a Real Smart Media podcast from the Irish Forum for Psychoanalytic Psychotherapy released in 2016, psychoanalyst Berna O’Brien interviews her colleague Winnicottian scholar Margaret Boyle Spelman. Having written three books on Winnicott, one might think it perfectly reasonable to call Spelman a Winnicottian, as I have here. However, as she, herself, points out, many of Winnicott’s followers refuse the appellation “Winnicottian” on the grounds that Winnicott would have objected to it. Indeed, according to Spelman calling someone Winnicottian is NOT Winnicottian precisely because of Winnicott’s deep and abiding respect for being oneself (and not being Winnicottian, or Freudian, or anything else).
But what could Winnicott mean about being one’s true self when his notion of the construction of identity occurs in transitional space and is dependent upon relationships with others?
This podcast is a recording of an forty-five minute interview followed by thirty minutes of Q&A. Like its form, the content is formal; Spelman and O’Brien are psychoanalysts talking with other psychoanalysts, so some knowledge of psychoanalytic theory and history is presumed. That said, Spelman speaks clearly, mostly without jargon, and she translates Winnicott’s seemingly simple but actually complex ideas into language that can be understood by a broad audience.
Over the course of the interview, Spelman explains that she was first attracted to Winnicott’s ideas because they made so much sense to her as a child psychologist and as a mother. She notes that Winnicott’s understanding of the mother/infant relationship and of the inescapable fact of human dependence and therefore of the vital importance of the infant’s early environment make sense of so many childhood problems. These concepts also distinguish Winnicott from earlier psychoanalysts Freud, whose focus is on the instincts, and Klein, whose focus is on fantasy. Winnicott’s attention to the nursing couple place him in the tradition of Sandor Ferenczi, a contemporary of Freud’s whose approach attends to the relationship between analyst and patient and who is therefore often credited with being the first relational analyst.
It is this relational trend in Winnicott that Spelman stresses when she discusses his ideas about thought, the evolution of thinking, and the role of influence in thinking. Her book, The Evolution of Winnicott’s Thinking is “a study of the growth of thought over three generations,” where she traces Winnicott’s ideas through his writing, those of his analysands (or analytic children) and those of his analysands’ analysands (or analytic grandchildren). She compares Winnicott’s ideas about the nature of thinking to those of Arthur Lovejoy, saying that both “think of thinking and of creative process in pre-oedipal terms.” She is saying, in other words, that the space in which new ideas are emerging is a space without boundaries (hence pre-oedipal). Comparing Winnicott’s ideas about emerging thought to his ideas about transitional phenomena, she says
at this stage you can’t necessarily say whose thinking is what and you can’t necessarily say what has been found outside and what has been created or you can’t say what comes from the inside and what comes from the outside. To say those things at this stage of emergent, new, novel thinking is to disrupt the thinking process, which has primacy for both Winnicott and Lovejoy.
Thus while Winnicott struggles to discern what ideas belong to whom and locates the emergence of creative thought in the spaces between what is inside (self) and what is outside (object), he also insists on the “true self,” that which belongs authentically and genuinely to the individual. She goes on to explain that Winnicott’s ideas about potential space have to do with the ability to live authentically and creatively. She sees potential space as “distinguishing the person who is surviving from the one who lives creatively.”
In a much more whimsical podcast, Dean Olsher of The Really Big Questions asks why people get so attached to objects. He notes that while we are forgiving of children when they become attached to a particular object, we often wonder about such behavior in adults.
The podcast profiles Emily Walsh, who discovered Winnicott when she was a social work student. A collector herself, Walsh wondered if others also collected special objects, objects that were not practical but that they nonetheless kept with them at all times. She began to ask, and she found that most people did. Winnicott’s transitional object explained the phenomenon that Walsh was observing, but, as Walsh notes, while Winnicott presumed that children would naturally outgrow their transitional objects and turn to more creative pursuits to find meaning, Walsh’s research revealed that many adults either retained such objects from their childhood or invested new objects with similar transitional meaning.
Walsh notes that people’s objects seem to fall into three categories: cool or aesthically pleasing objects, charms that have the power to soothe and protect, and mementos. Frequently, people say they cannot give up these objects, either because they represent a link to a person (just as Winnicott’s transitional object links an infant to his/her mother) or because the object, itself, would be devastated!
The podcast takes an interesting turn when the sound engineer, Bart Rankin, comes out of the booth to tell Walsh the story of his own transitional object, a stuffed giraffe. He explains that his wife gave him Mr. Giraffe when they first got together, and he has been carrying Mr. Giraffe everywhere with him for many years.
In another segment of this podcast, in an unbelievable twist, a second sound engineer, Cara Foster reveals that she still has her baby blanket. Explaining that it is pretty much in tatters, she confesses that she slept with it well into her adulthood. Says Foster,
It was always around, until I moved in with my future husband and started sharing a bed and it just kept ending up on the floor…I wasn’t cuddling the blanket anymore for comfort; I had somebody else, and it was replaced. But I never pitched it.
While Mr. Giraffe seems to be a link between Rankin and his wife, Foster’s blanket is her original transitional object, once a link to her mother, perhaps still a link to her mother. She kept it, perhaps needed it, until it was replaced by her husband.
The stories in this podcast suggest that we never do grow out of our need for the soothing that special objects provide in what would perhaps otherwise be a terrifyingly lonely world. The transitional objects we keep are perhaps the antidote to such loneliness and reveal our very fundamental need to stay connected to others.