tom bh
#Digital Nomad

BCPC Essay on Klein and Winnicott

Preface: Bear in mind that I needed to write an unchallenging essay, one that tows the party line. After getting very poor feedback on my last essay, my tutor had to tell me that I wasn’t meeting the course criteria. So, I would have loved to write what I really thought about Klein and Winnicott, but I need to play the game. But basically my true feelings are that the whole idea of psychoanalysis, especially in the way that these two theorists present it, is that it’s a misguided attempt to join the club of science. Psychopathology does not have a scientific basis, so psychoanalysis’ attempt to use the scientific method is more about gaining academic reputation than responding to the suffering of humans.

Discuss Klein’s and Winnicott’s models of early infantile development and relate their ideas to your own psychobiography.

Both Melanie Klein and Donald Winnicott followed in the wake of Sigmund Freud. Klein came to prominence in the 1920s, then Winnicott a decade or so later, and was in fact trained as an analyst by Klein. By isolating these two theorists we are in one sense following the historical development of Freud’s lineage; Freud influenced Klein, who in turn inspired Winnicott. Unfortunately, this is not an entirely faithful simplification, as between all three of these figures we find the roots of the famous three schools schism that occurred around the time of the Second World War. The three camps being; the Freudians, the Kleinians and the Independent Group (with whom Winnicott identified), each of which have come to be notably established in their own rights. However, for the sake of narrative convenience I will, given the aforementioned proviso, loosely frame the discussion around the history of the second and third generations of responses to the undisputed figurative father of psychoanalysis.

One of the criteria for this essay is to explore the psychobiographical impact of the theorists’ lives upon their ideas. Considering this and the fact that the very topic of infantile development gives such prominence to linear, historical stages, I cannot help but take up the striking parallel between the fact that, whereas Freud represents the birth of psychoanalysis, Klein and Winnicott metaphorically represent its infant years. Could there be any resonance in this narrative echo? I will not attempt to explicitly answer this, but simply name it here to allow its potentially fruitful perspective to accompany the following discussions.

First let us dwell briefly on the legacy of Freud, as his work profoundly shapes the ideas of both Klein and Winnicott. It’s difficult to over emphasise the impact Freud brought to the orthodoxy and orthopraxy of how the West responds to psychopathology. Before him, prevailing thought gravitated around medical intervention, the idea of a talking cure simply did not enjoy any meaningful institutional currency. With Freud comes a formulated means to organise, understand and potentially improve our felt inner experience without the use of drugs or physiological procedures. His key concepts were based upon, what he termed, the psychosexual stages of development and how a tripartite psyche made of the id, ego and superego negotiated those stages (Freud 2011). Psychopathology could be understood as any failure to fully develop through a stage. The unconscious which can, to some extent, be mediated through the free associations and transferences of the therapist-client relationship provides the primary means of analysing a person’s status with regards to their fundamental stages of development. These theories and practices markedly differentiated Freud from his peers and predecessors in a way that few, if any, of his academic descendants have repeated.

Klein would have first come across Freud’s work through her psychoanalytic training with Sándor Ferenczi during the 1910s. Her early thought and practice made no significant deviations from Freud, other than in vocabulary and emphasis. Her work was almost exclusively involving children, which although was not new at the time, she came to be a pioneer in the field. Much of Klein’s theory should be considered in light of the huge amount of clinical experience she had with children and infants. For example she applied Freud’s free association through a corresponding method she termed the Play Technique (Klein 1955:37), which involved providing a selection of toys which the child could freely use in whatever way they inclined and from which interpretations about the player’s inner world could be made.

Building on Freud, Klein advocated the six psychosexual stages of childhood development; oral, anal, phallic, latency and genital. However, she came to introduce some subtle differences, most notably in terms of their temporality. Firstly, she believed that the ‘Oedipus complex comes into operation earlier than is usually supposed’ (Klein 1928:69), but more notably she introduced the idea that the stages of infantile development are less unidirectional progressions and more ‘positions’ which, as Juliet Mitchell suggests, is an atemporal physical metaphor, ‘where present and past are one and time is spatial, not historical’ (Mitchell 1986:28). In fact as Klein’s theory matured it was her conception of The Depressive Position, alongside its sibling, The Paranoid-Schizoid Position, that, as some believe (Ibid) most distinguishes her from Freud.

Let us unpack The Depressive Position by first laying out the Paranoid-Schizoid Position. For Klein much of the early life of a person is dictated by the persecutory anxiety of the death drive, which, in contrast to Freud, she came to believe had greater influence than the libido. Even the youngest infants fear annihilation, they may not know it consciously, but they unconsciously phantasise it; the ‘ph’ being her way of distinguishing it from conscious ‘fantasy’, such as in daydreaming. These persecutory feelings become intensified even by the normal discomforts of everyday life such as hunger, soiled clothes, illness and so on, there need not be any dramatic trauma. This, ‘frustration and discomfort arouse in the infant the feeling that he is being attacked by hostile forces’ (Klein 1952:202). Whereas, ‘comfort and care given after birth, particularly the first feeding experiences, are felt to come from good forces’ (Ibid). This is the stage, around three to four months old, at which ‘splitting processes are at their height’ (Ibid). The concept of splitting is unique to Kleinian thought and is related to other core ideas such as objects and, introjection and projection. In order for the infant to cope with the difficulty of the hostile forces, they introject the idealisation of the good forces into ‘good objects’, the ‘good breast’ being her most cited example. This idealisation serves the ego in one respect, by providing its primitive, still-forming structure with some measure of security and stability. However, it comes at the cost of denial because the infant simultaneously must introject the bad forces into ‘bad objects’; namely the ‘bad breast’, to continue the previous example. Here we have the essential aspects that sketch out The Paranoid-Schizoid Position (Ibid).

However, ‘[i]t is characteristic of the infant’s emotional life that there are rapid fluctuations between love and hate; between external and internal situations; between perception of reality and the phantasies relating to it’ (Ibid:203). Therefore the ego’s growing capacity for integration and synthesis leads to more and more situations in which there can begin the dawning realisation that the good and bad objects belong to the same object. This is the point at which, around the second quarter of the first year, another form of anxiety can arise, that of depressive anxiety. If the good and bad breast belong to the same person, namely the mother, then the aggressive desires towards the bad breast also become a threat to the good breast; ‘destructive impulses are directed at a loved person’ (Ibid). It is this troubling knowledge and the corresponding defence mechanisms against the hardship of such knowledge that make up the The Depressive Position. Though this position may appear depreciatively phrased it does in fact signify a maturation of the infant through its ability to more realistically integrate its experience. To summarise, Klein’s theory of infantile development still essentially honours Freud, namely the pscyhosexual stages and their influnce on the development of the id, ego and superego. In addition we find the introduction of novel concepts such as objects, splitting and positions, where The Depressive Position most distinguishes her from Freud.

Is there anything of Klein’s life story that helps give context to the shape of her theories? It is hard to say. Anecdotal sources suggest that she may have been an unplanned child and that her relationship with her parents was not particularly affectionate (Wikipedia 17/3/2011). She experienced the untimely loss of two of her siblings and also later of her son. Perhaps most telling of all is that she fell out with her daughter to such an extent that her daughter did not attend her funeral. One would hope that a pioneering therapist in the field of child development would be able to demonstrate the fruits of her insights on those closest to home. Perhaps Klein’s relationship with academia was a result of the phantastical idealisation of the power of theory? If her ideas gained institutional currency they would receive the ultimate seal of being ‘good’, justifying the relegation of the difficulties of family life into being ‘bad’.

Applying Klein’s theory to my own childhood I’m firstly drawn to the terminology of ‘positions’ over ‘stages’. I certainly have no recollection of my life during the first year, but I do see how the Depressive and Paranoid-Schizoid positions could be applied at different times. For instance, my parents separated when I was four years old and for much of my youth, up to late adolescence, I idealised my father. It’s interesting, because he really was not someone worthy of idealisation, yet from Klein’s perspective, projecting onto him all the goodness I valued, allowed me to negotiate the starker reality of a home life with a single parent. So I split my reality up until the time, many years later when I realised my parents were both equally made up of good and bad qualities.

I have also found that splitting is common in the early parts of therapeutic relationships, both as therapist and client. It seems necessary in the beginning to actively articulate to the client how much you support them and value their potential. Whereas the reality only arrives later that in fact, you may actually have a more complex relationship to them, one that needs to be carefully negotiated through the grief of passing through this honeymoon period.

Winnicott regarded Klein’s study of earliest infancy as ‘something of the soil in which I had become planted’ (cited in Caldwell and Joyce 2011:2). There is indeed an unmistakable overlap with Klein’s work, Winnicott gives huge attention to the mother-child relationship and incorporates much of Klein’s ideas around the inner reality of the infant and its object relations. The most notable divergence of consequence concerns Winnicott’s emphasis on the absolute dependence of the infant on the mother in the very earliest stages of life (Caldwell and Joyce 2011:7). He once famously stated that ‘there is no such thing as an infant’ (Winnicott 1960:168), by which he meant that the mother and infant form an indistinguishable whole, a unit in its own right (Ibid:154). It is not that Klein denies the role of the mothering figure, rather that Winnicott gives greater importance to the environment of the infant. And we can see this in the key concepts such as ‘good-enough mothering’ and ‘holding’ that go to form the basis of his contribution to the theory of infantile development.

Let us continue with Winnicott’s thoughts on dependence as a way to sketch out his major themes. Dependence can be classified into three parts; absolute dependence, relative dependence and towards independence. Essentially the task of healthy development is to pass from a state of undifferentiated wholeness through to the emergence of a sense of separate self. Even though initially the infant has no sense of independence they nevertheless experience feelings of pain and pleasure. When they are hungry a nipple, to use Winnicott’s term, magically appears without any sense of agency arising. He calls this process ‘illusion’, not in the pejorative delusionary sense, but as a necessary mechanism of development (Ibid 1945:64). Naturally as life continues, the infant will experience times when there is a disjunct between needs arising and needs not being met. It is at this point that the presence of, to introduce some more Winnicottian terms, a ‘good-enough mother’, able to provide a ‘holding’ environment for the infant to ‘go on being’ is required (Ibid 1960:162).

It is certainly true that in part, ‘good-enough mothering’ refers to a pragmatic recognition that there is no need to be perfect, but crucially Winnicott also uses this phrase to contend that perfect mothering can in fact be detrimental (Ibid:164). His reasoning being that the micro failures of a mother to say, not caress her child quickly enough, are actually essential to the development of the infant’s sense of separateness. If every need of the infant is met in exactly the right way at exactly the right time then the they will never move beyond the feeling of being completely merged. This careful balance between provision and normal neglect forms the basis of healthy ‘holding’. Holding can mean literal physical holding, but it also refers to the maintenance of the infant’s environment, such as a sense of consistency and trust (Ibid:162).

Moving into the third classification, towards independence, we can touch upon one of Winnicott’s best known concepts, transitional objects. Part of the infant’s process of negotiating independence is separating their inner and outer reality. A transitional phenomenon might be thumb-sucking or clutching a corner of a blanket and might become vitally important as a defence against anxiety, especially depressive anxiety, such as the separation before sleep (Winnicott 1971:105). The transitional object is liminal and even paradoxical, as it is neither an internal object, in the Kleinian sense, nor is it an external physical object, yet it can relate to both. These unique qualities are what enables it to support the transition from relative dependence to towards independence.

To summarise, Winnicott sees infantile development mainly as a process from complete oneness with the mothering figure towards a sense of an outside world and an inner separateness. In a healthy infant this can be achieved through good-enough mothering, holding and transitional objects.

Looking at Winnicott’s upbringing we see a relatively well adjusted childhood, though he admits his relationship with his parents certainly wasn’t ideal (Caldwell & Joyce 2011:2). Interestingly though, we could say his upbringing was good enough. The general feel of his theories have a slightly more optimistic tone to them than Klein’s, perhaps that is because he did not suffer the losses and hardships that she did. Picking up my suggestion in the introduction that there may be an echo between the infantile stages of the psychoanalytic movement and the infantile theories we are exploring here, I can not help but be drawn to looking at Klein’s prevailing attitude as Paranoid-Schizoid and Winnicott’s as the Depressive. Perhaps it is an oversimplification, but is the preponderance of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ in Klein being answered by Winnicott with ‘good-enough’? Did psychoanalysis need its own unambiguously good and bad internal objects before it was mature enough to integrate the nuanced reality of a middle ground that is simply ‘good enough’?

Relating Winnicott’s theories to my own psychobiography I can see that I was provided with good-enough mothering. My early infancy occurred in a holding environment and there were certainly times when my needs would not have been met immediately and perfectly, for instance when my brother was born. His birth is in fact my first clear memory, I was two years and two days old and I vividly recall wanting my mother, but she was, as I now know, in the throes of labour, so my father took my hand and walked me down the stairs. Relating this to Winnicott’s theory of ego development and psychoanalytic orthodoxy regarding memory formation, is it possible that that memory is so clear because it was the very moment were a disillusion (the companion to Winnicott’s aforementioned ‘illusion’) of the merged internal object of my mother gave way to a more integrated ego?

I have also always wondered what to make of the fact that even as an infant, I always called my parents by their first names, Delia and Gavin, not ‘mum’ and ‘dad’. On one hand this could be seen as a healthy reinforcement of the unmerged state, but on the other might it perhaps suggest too soon a separation, so that I did not fully negotiate the all-important stage of absolute dependence?

I am struck by some obvious echoes of holding and good-enough mothering in my experience of the therapeutic relationship. When something goes wrong, or at least appears to, in the course of therapy, it might at first feel distressing, but it has also proved to offer valuable opportunity for strengthening and reaffirmation of the relationship. Is this the correlate of healthy micro failure in good-enough support? With one of my clients we often return to the safety of a relatively superficial subject that we share a mutual interest in. It is not our only topic but I wonder whether there is a sense in which it offers something of a transitional object for us, a stepping stone from the security of our merging in agreement to our potential separation in unfamiliar territories.

So we have covered the central concepts of Klein and Winnicott’s theories of infantile development. We have seen how they are indebted to the work of Freud in terms of tripartite classification of the psyche and the necessity of passing through stages of development in order to develop a healthy sense of self. Klein really brought the concept of internal objects to the fore and offered a compelling argument for the existence of atemporal positions. We saw how Winnicott built on Klein, developing object relations and introduced his own unique contribution to the subject in terms of the transitional object. Significantly I also discussed his divergence from Klein with regard to the importance of the absolute dependence of the infant on the mothering figure, ‘that there is no such thing as an infant’.


Caldwell, L. & Joyce, A. (Eds) (2011) ‘Reading Winnicott’ Routledge: London
Freud, S. (2011) ‘Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality’ Martino Fine Books: USA (first published 1905)
Klein, M. (1928) ‘Early Stages Of The Oedipus Complex’ in Mitchell, J. (Ed) The Selected Melanie Klein New York: The Free Press.
Klein, M. (1952) ‘The Origins of Transference’ in Mitchell, J. (Ed) The Selected Melanie Klein New York: The Free Press.
Klein, M. (1955) ‘The Psychoanalytic Play Technique: Its History And Significance’ in Mitchell, J. (Ed) The Selected Melanie Klein New York: The Free Press.
Mitchell, J. (1986) ‘The Selected Melanie Klein’ New York: The Free Press.
Winnicott, D. (1945) ‘Primitive Emotional Development’ in Caldwell, L & Joyce, A (Eds) (2011) ‘Reading Winnicott’ Routledge: London
Winnicott, D. (1960) ‘The Theory of the Parent-Infant Relationship’ in Caldwell, L & Joyce, A (Eds) (2011) ‘Reading Winnicott’ Routledge: London
Winnicott, D. (1971) ‘Transitional Objects and Transitional Phenomena’ in Caldwell, L & Joyce, A (Eds) (2011) ‘Reading Winnicott’ Routledge: London