Donald Winnicott, the famous British pediatrician and psychoanalyst, is best known for his concepts of “good enough mother”, “transitional objects” and was an avid advocate for mothers. He introduced ideas such as “Ordinary mother and her ordinary love for her child.” He boldly challenges the long held concepts of infant’s aggression viewed in classical drive theory models and the original Klein object relation that focuses on the infant’s fantasy. He looks at aggression from a rather unique point of view of something vital to help transition from “object relation to object use.” (Winnicott, 1969)
The idea of a transitional space (Winnicott 1969) between the mother and child where play and creativity comes in play, is the containing space for the above mentioned aggression. It helps the baby to relate to the mother in his own time and manner. For example, a baby may bite his or her mother while feeding or even playing with her. For Winnicott, the biting is not simply an act of aggression related to the fantasy but is rather necessary. The baby is testing the limits of the mother’s tolerance.
A child yelling at their parent/mother that they hate them, is another example of a child’s anger and rage towards the parent/mother in the context of whatever evoked that anger. It will take a good enough mother to understand that the child is angry and probably also hates her at that time for whatever has happened, but she also will be able reinforce her love in that moment.
Mothers who are able to let their children express their feeling without scolding, retaliating or shaming them, help them transition beautifully into Winnicott’s state of “object use.” These mothers promote a true self that is nourished by acceptance and deep love. This simply means that the children learn to trust that their mother fully accept them and their personality. There is no need hide the true self in order to win and keep her love.
Children who grow up with mothers or caregivers who can’t provide this holding environment, turn into adults who don’t have any idea of their true self. Mothers who have not experienced the holding environment themselves, remain trapped in the inadequate transitional space with their own mothers; and are not be able to provide that safety to their own children.
The concept of the holding environment translates in therapy, when the therapist provides the transitional space and allows the patient to be their true selves. When the therapist can push his/her agenda aside and tune into the patient as a good enough mother may tune into her child, the patient learns that they can be their true self without any harm to the relationship, (in this case the therapist and the mother in transference). This may seem easy but is the most intense part of the relationship with the therapist.
Individuals who didn’t have access to appropriate holding environment as children, continue to struggle with conflict between their true and false selves. Growing up, they never had the experience of love as true and pure as the Velveteen Rabbit. The magic fairy of the nursery never came when tears rolled down.
Reliving the proverbial nursery, in the therapist’s chair is an important part of healing. There is no magic dust but only the reality of what happens in the therapeutic alliance and transitional space to mend a broken heart. Once that happens, one becomes brave enough to love their true self. A good enough therapist will help pave the way to the forest, just as the fairy did for the Velveteen Rabbit.
Because after all, as the Skin Horse said to the rabbit, “It doesn’t happen all at once, You Become. It takes a long time. Once you are real, you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.” Margery Williams. The Velveteen Rabbit