Pioneers in Object Relations Clinical Thinking:
Donald Woods Winnicott (1896 –1971)

On April 28th, we celebrate birthday of most loved contributor to the Object Relations clinical theory, Donald Winnicott. Enjoy these quotes and share with others:

When I look I am seen, so I exist. 
I can now afford to look and see. 
I now look creatively and what I apperceive I also perceive. 
In fact I take care not to see what is not there to be seen 
(unless I am tired).

Donald Woods Winnicott, Winnicott 1971b, p.114

Psychotherapy takes place in the overlap of two areas of playing, that of the patient and that of the therapist. Psychotherapy has to do with two people playing together. The corollary of this is that where playing is not possible then the work done by the therapist is directed towards bringing the patient from a state of not being able to play into a state of being able to play.

Donald Woods Winnicott

The place where cultural experience is located is in the potential space between the individual and the environment (originally the object). The same can be said of playing. Cultural experience begins with creative living first manifested as play.

Donald Woods Winnicott

…every failed analysis is a failure not of the patient but of the analyst.

Donald Woods Winnicott

It is sometimes assumed that in health the individual is always integrated, as well as living in his own body, and able to feel that the world is real. There is, however, much sanity that has a symptomatic quality, being charged with fear or denial of madness, fear or denial of the innate capacity of every human being to become unintegrated, depersonalized, and to feel that the world is unreal.

Donald Woods Winnicott

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. In other words the mother is looking at the baby and what she looks like is related to what she sees there. All this is too easily taken for granted. I am asking that this which is naturally done well by mothers who are caring for their babies shall not be taken for granted. I can make my point by going straight over to the case of the baby whose mother reflects her own mood or, worse still, the rigidity of her own defences. In such a case what does the baby see?

Donald Woods Winnicott


It was astonishing to witness the way in which he immediately saw in it a mother and baby sea-lion. Subsequent events proved that it was justifiable to understand from this drawing that the boy had a powerful maternal identification; also that the mother-baby relationship was of especial importance to him. Moreover this picture has beauty, not indeed on account of the squiggle, but on account of his use of it.

Donald Woods Winnicott

… In order to make this last idea clear I must examine the state of affairs at this early state of a human life.

Let us start with the two-body relationship (Rickman, 1951), and from this go earlier to the object relationship that is still of the nature of a two-body relationship, but the object is a part object.

What precedes this? We sometimes loosely assume that before the two-body object relationship there is a one-body relationship, but this is wrong, and obviously wrong if we look closely. The capacity for a one-body relationship follows that of a two-body relationship, through the introjection of the object. (Implied is an external world to which the relationship is of a negative kind.)

What then precedes the first object relationship? For my own part I have had a long struggle with this problem. It started when I found myself saying in this Society (about ten years ago) and I said it rather excitedly and with heat: ‘There is no such thing as a baby.’ I was alarmed to hear myself utter these words and tried to justify myself by pointing out that if you show me a baby you certainly show me also someone caring for the baby, or at least a pram with someone’s eyes and ears glued to it. One sees a ‘nursing couple’.

In a quieter way today I would say that before object relationships the state of affairs is this: that the unit is not the individual, the unit is an environment-individual set-up. The centre of gravity of the being does not start off in the individual. It is in the total set-up. By good-enough child care, technique, holding, and general management the shell becomes gradually taken over and the kernel (which has looked all the time like a human baby to us) can begin to be an individual. The beginning is potentially terrible because of the anxieties I have mentioned and because of the paranoid state that follows closely on the first integration, and also on the first instinctual moments, bringing to the baby, as they do, a quite new meaning to object relationships. The good-enough infant care technique neutralizes the external persecutions, and prevents the feelings of disintegration and loss of contact between psyche and soma.
In other words, without a good-enough technique of infant care the new human being has no chance whatever. With a good-enough technique the centre of gravity of being in the environment-individual set-up can afford to lodge in the centre, in the kernel rather than in the shell. The human being now developing an entity from the centre can become localized in the baby’s body and so can begin to create an external world at the same time as acquiring a limiting membrane and an inside. According to this theory there was no external world at the beginning although we as observers could see an infant in an environment. How deceptive this can be is shown by the fact that often we think we see an infant when we learn through analysis at a later date that what we ought to have seen was an environment developing falsely into a human being, hiding within itself a potential individual….

Donald Woods Winnicott, Collected papers: Through paediatrics to psychoanalysis

Winnicott by Adam Phillips (1989)

‘Introducing a radically innovatory paper to the British Psychoanalytical Society in 1945, Donald Winnicott said: “I shall not first give an historical survey and show the development of my ideas from the theories of others, because my mind does not work that way. What happens is that I gather this and that, here and there, settle down to clinical experience, form my own theories, and then, last of all, interest myself to see where i stole what. Perhaps this is as good a method as any.”

In the first sentence he refuses to comply with the way psychoanalytic papers are conventionally organized. He assume influences are at work – “I gather this and that, here and there” – and he takes it for granted that in forming his own theories he will discover an indebtedness. He does not, it should be noted, refer to borrowing (on which subject psychoanalysis has been silent) but to stealing. In his unique theory of delinquency, which he calls the anti-social tendency, Winnicott suggests, as we will see, that the child steals in symbolic form only what once belonged to him by right. The child is unwittingly trying to make up for a deprivation he experienced in the original commonwealth of his relationship with the mother, and he is alerting the environment to this face. For Winnicott, the anti-social act, like a regression in psychoanalytic treatment, is a return to the point at which the environment failed the child. He returns to find where what he hasn’t got has come from, to find the gaps in himself. Winnicott’s method of writing papers, so recognizably close to ordinary experience, enacts this process.’

Squiggles, clowns and Catherine Wheels: violation of the self and its vicissitudes – article by Jan Abram:


The article develops a reflection on Winnicott’s concept of isolated self, to which are attributed characters of being permanently unknown and incommunicable. This topic is further discussed with the help of another concept of the same author, that of scision into the true and the false self, and of some texts by Marion Milner where Winnicott’s ideas of isolation and incommunicability are questioned. In the sequence, the therapeutic significance of the “object which survives” is examined. To that end, a clinical example is presented and analyzed.