Winnicott & Creativity

Emotions, Indifference, by Erte
Emotions, Indifference, by Erte

The psychoanalyst D.W. Winnicott was one of the pioneers of the ‘object relations’ school. Broadly object relations (an enormously diverse area, underlying modern approaches like family systems theory and transactional analysis) situates the primary parental bond as the source of the individual’s ability to contain threatening feelings, and understand themselves as a subjective participant in an ‘objective’ consensual reality. I’m not entirely convinced by object relations accounts of child development – which rely heavily on untestable assumptions about the infant experience. However, I do find Winnicott’s approach to play and creativity exciting.

Winnicott argues for the essentiality of ‘creative apperception’ to life, and the corresponding deathliness of ‘compliance’. For Winnicott, creativity is a universal faculty of life (not merely the domain of artistic creation) – a faculty which can be diminished (hidden) or damaged by illness or repression. To be creative is to retain the capacity to suffer – and it is those who are unable to sacrifice their own creativity who suffer most under tyranny. In common with Freud and Foucault, Winnicott claims that modernity made possible the individual – alienated from pure identification with community and nature, and hence capable of reflection and creativity. Creativity is embodied in ‘healthy looking’ and ‘deliberate doing’ – active engagement rather than passive participation in life. Thus Winnicott normalises and universalises ‘the creative impulse’, placing it at the heart of healthy life.

“Compliance carries with it a sense of futility for the individual and is associated with the idea that nothing matters and that life is not worth living”

Winnicott, Playing & Reality

[Note – the first time I wrote out that quote, I substituted the word ‘mothering’ for ‘nothing’, psychoanalytically inclined readers can go ahead and half a field day with that one]

Winnicott goes on to discuss the schizoid, to whom ‘reality remains to some extent a subjective phenomenon’. This is a state not sharply delineated from health – nor from schizophrenia, one in which a ‘fay’ individual is unable to fully connect with consensual reality. These individuals feel dissociated, detached from both the ‘real’ world, and the ‘dream’ symbolic universe.

Its worth noting here that labeling is a huge issue in mental health, and that personality disorders are syndromal – that is to say classified based only on underlying symptoms, rather than any understanding of ‘disease process’. It’s probably more meaningful to this of personality disorders as states / conditions, or even positions, rather than fundamental to the structure of self – since in many cases they can alter greatly over time, and are amenable to treatment.

Dead end, Ślepa uliczka
Dead end, Ślepa uliczka

According to Winnicott, to understand early breakdowns in the capacity for creativity (in Bionian terms –K learning) – we need to examine both the individual and their early environment (primarily their parenting). Hence Winnicott offers a space for the social in (traditionally individualist) psychoanalysis. The ‘graduated failure’ of the ‘good enough mother’ makes it possible for infants to tolerate the trauma of losing the illusion of their own omnipotence. Thus, a reliable infant environment is key to the development of trust that allows the creation of internal objects that match reality (‘subjective objects’) – and it’s absence can create the kind of schizoid dissociation, or incapacity for a real creative engagement with the world, we’ve been discussing.

Winnicott argues that searches for ‘self’ in creative work are doomed to failure (Winnicott, 1971, pp73), since the discovery of self requires ‘non-purposive’ activity. In practice this exhibited in his therapy sessions in a tolerance for ambling digression, without imposed interpretation (primarily given in response to client request).  He allowed sessions to overrun by hours, and his treatment room was full of toys and art supplies! Clients would physically wander round the treatment room, fall asleep or draw a picture. This can seem problematic to a modern reader – especially since Winnicott stretched sessions to fit client’s needs on request, and added sessions to compensate for missed sessions: violations of boundaries that seem inviolable today. Winnicott often let his clients without interpretation – allowing them their own creative space to act (prefiguring Patrick Casement’s emphasis on negative capability, and paralleling Carl Roger’s person centred approach) and crises to emerge and be communicated by impact. As with Irving Yalom and even Freud, we see an informality and humanity that has been (perhaps inevitably) lost as psychotherapy has professionalised and become more concerned with protecting clients from exploitation.

I’ll write more on the construct of ‘the schizoid personality’ in a future post.

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