The article reviewed here is ‘Transitional Objects and Transitional Phenomena’ by Donald Winnicott originally read before the British Psycho-Analytical Society in 1951 and then published in 1953. This is one of Winnicott’s most important works, introducing the concept of transitional objects and the good enough mother. The paper is a description of and elaboration of Winnicott’s understanding of this concept. There is some difficulty in extracting all of the salient points as Winnicott communicates the concepts by reiterating them in different ways throughout the article. My impression was that these are complicated concepts and that Winnicott’s tries to give the reader glimpses of his understanding.
Winnicott uses the term transitional object to denote an internal object which is intermediate between the inner idealised world and the external world. He starts by saying that an infant will place their fingers or hand into their mouth and that they will later play with objects or become attached to toys. He suggests the use of the transitional object as being an important intermediary in these periods of development. Further he writes that
‘By this definition an infant’s babbling or the way an older child goes over a repertoire of songs and tunes while preparing for sleep come within the intermediate area as transitional phenomena‘
Winnicott then compares thumb sucking with the use of external objects such as blankets drawing parallels between the two. He assigns seven properties to the relationship that the infant has with the transitional object. For instance
‘It must never change, unless changed by the infant’
He then gives a case study and remarks that the boy in the case study was able to correctly recall the transitional object at a much later age to the surprise of the mother. He then makes clear on the basis of ‘psycho-analytic theory’ that
‘The transitional object stands for the breast, or the object of the first relationship‘
before comparing it with Klein’s internal object
‘The transitional object is not an internal object (which is a mental concept) – it is a possession‘
He introduces us to the concept of the good-enough mother thus
‘…the good enough ‘mother’ (not necessarily the infant’s won mother) is one who makes active adaptation to the infant’s needs, an active adaptation that gradually lessens according to the infant’s growing ability to account for failure of adaptation and to tolerate the results of frustration‘
He then covers the mother’s adaptation to the needs of the infant together with the gradual ‘weaning’ of the infant from the mother. He also tells us that
‘It is assumed here that the task of reality-acceptance is never completed, that no human being is free from the strain of relating inner and outer relaity and that relief from this strain is provided by an intermediate area of experience which is not challenged (arts….’‘
He also gives some interesting interpretations within the summary
‘Addiction can be stated in terms of regression to the early stage at which the transitional phenomena are unchallenged…Pseudologica fantastica and thieving can be described in terms of an individual’s unconscious urge to bridge a gap in continuity of experience in respect of a transitional object‘
This is one of Winnicott’s most important works introducing concepts which have become widely accepted and offering insights into various aspects of development. As with other papers written by Winicott there is no quantitative validation of the concepts involved. Instead, Winnicott draws on his own experience such that the content of his writing is likely to hold validity for the experiences of his readers in their own observations. This perhaps is why Winnicott’s writing has become accepted, because readers judge whether it fits with their own experience or else offers them valid tools for use in their own practice. Nevertheless such theories can only benefit from experimental validation. Winnicott also communicates the concepts well and has done so using a variety of methods to help the reader ‘connect’ with these concepts.
Donald Winnicott. Transitional Objects and Transitional Phenomena.  Int J Psycho-Anal. Vol XXXIV. In D.W.Winnicott. Through Paediatrics to Psycho-Analysis. With an introduction by M.Masud R.Khan. Chapter XVIII. pp229-242. The International Psycho-Analytical Library. Edited by M.Masud.R.Khan. The Hogarth Press and The Institute of Psycho-analysis. 1978.
I have developed my own evolutionary hypothesis based on my observations of a mother-baby squirrel monkey dyad interpreted in light of a reading of Winnicott’s papers including that of the Transitional Objects. This is summarised in the video below.
You can listen to this post on Odiogo by clicking on this link (there may be a small delay between publishing of the blog article and the availability of the podcast).
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