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Donald Winnicott’s Theories on Personality Development Essay

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This section is an introduction into the life of Donald Winnicott. This involves the circumstances under which he was born, his receiving of an education, and how he eventually ended up in medical school. There is also an exploration of his role in the pediatric studies, and the professional with whom he interacted with in his daily work.


This is an evaluation of the achievements of Donald Winnicott in his work as a psycho-analytical expert, and how his findings have enabled the advancement of the psychiatry filed, as well as a better understanding of the personality development.

Winnicott’s theories

This is an exploratory study of such theories the theory of objectivity, the theory of aggression, true and false self, and transition space theory, among others.

Winnicott’s contribution to the area of personality development: an investigation into the role that Winnicott’s theories have played in enabling a better understanding of personalities, as well as to aid counselors and therapists to better understand their patients.

The life history of Donald Winnicott

Born Donald Woods Winnicott in April 7 1896, Winnicott was the only son, and a last child of his merchant father, who had also served as a Plymouth mayor. Coming from a middle class family in Plymouth, England Winnicott first started training as a medical doctor, where he specialized as a pediatrician (Hazell, 1996). During this time, the First World War was in progress Winnicott served as a medical probationer. Upon completing his studies, he was posted at a children’s hospital in Paddington Green, London in 1923. (Winnicott, 1960).

The same year, he wed and also initiated a personality analysis with James Strachey, who happened to have been Freud’s English translator. Four years later, he joined psycho-analytical society of England, eventually qualifying in 1935, as a child analyst (Winnicott, 1969). Through the years, Winnicott made numerous analyses related to child psychology, with the help of such child analysts as Melanie Klein and Joan Riviere. Winnicott shared with the Melanie Klein the belief that psychic health was indeed of paramount importance during the first year of the life of a child (Winnicott 1969). However, this same view was in sharp contrast to that shared by Freud’s daughter, Anna had moved to London in 1938, following the persecution of the Nazis in Austria. She was also a qualified child psychology.

Owing to these two factions of child psychologists, the psycho-analytical society of Britain was at this time faced with an imminent collapse. However, they were later to reach a compromise when the Second World War came to an end in 1945. This was made possible by way of the establishment of a middle group. It is this third group that Winnicott later identified with (Winnicott, 1996).

Winnicott, through his numerous interactions with the children, reflected on the pivotal role that mothers play in the lives of their children. It then dawned on Winnicott that therapy and management was crucial, if at all he was to correctly interpret the findings of his numerous studies. In 1952, Winnicott wed Clare Britton, and this was his second marriage. She was a social worker for psychiatrists. It is also worth noting here that Winnicott has immensely collaborated in the years of war with his would-be bride. With the war having ended, Winnicott was made in charge of at the psychoanalysis institute’s department of children. He was to hold this job for the next 25 years (Winnicott, 1960).

In addition to the new role, Winnicott also served as the president of the psycho-analytical society of Britain for a whole two terms. Further, he served as a board member to both the WHO and UNESCO study groups. In addition, Winnicott gave enormous lectures on his profession, besides the numerous publications that he was able to write. Winnicott was also into private practice. All in all, Winnicott only left his post at the children’s hospital in Paddington Green in the 1960s. Health wise, Winnicott suffered a series of heart attacks, and the last one took its toll in 1971. Winnicott was eventually cremated in London (Hazell, 1996).

Winnicott’s accomplishments and theories

Donald Winnicott has helped publish a series of books, in addition to the more than 200 papers that he has also written and published. In these, Winnicott was able to integrate what he observed from children he studied; those with psychoanalytic disorders. In the process, Winnicott was also able to develop and formulate concepts that were later to find use in the areas of infant treatment, the study of society, psychoanalysis and the treatment of the family (Winnicott, 1993).

Specializing in pediatrics, Winnicott was able to attend to over 60,000 infants, as well as offering consultation services to parents, and other children. Winnicott was very attentive to context and details as well, and his experience was that even the slightest deflection in behavior, does indeed have a profound effect to the interactive system as a whole. Leopoldo Fugencio (2006) has attempted to illustrate how Winnicott offered to reject the basic concepts of Sigmund Freud in as far as the field of meta-psychology is concerned. These concepts include that of the instinct, libido and apparatus of the psychical (Holmes, 1993).

To achieve this, Winnicott differs with Freud, who has described meta-psychology as a branch of psychoanalysis that if almost purely speculative. To this end, Winnicott has succeeded in replacing the main concepts relating to the theory of meta-psychology (Winnicott, 1969). In addition, his theory bears no correlation to phenomenon, thus ruling out the place of speculation in the area. As such, these findings have tended to favor Winnicott as a campaigner of theories that are based on facts. While working with the evacuated children in Oxfordshire, Donald Winnicott received assistance from his wife Clare (Winnicott, 1993).

Despite the attempt by the government and Winnicott, almost 8,000 children got killed in Britain alone (Holman, 1993). The urban evacuated children mainly came from the working class and in more cases, they would feel unwelcome in the homes of the wealthy middle class families, and into which they were expected to find refuge. Consequently, a majority of the children were usually afflicted by psychological problems.

This was exacerbated by the fact that some of their parents had gotten killed too. In light of this, group homes were establish in the whole country to take care of these children, who were suffering from a prolonged separation with their parents (Holmes, 1993). In total, more than six million children were evacuated from various cities in England, as well as from the countryside, in what is commonly referred to as the war years. This was a difficult moments for families all over, as the fathers were in the war while the mothers worked in a bid to provide for their families.

In the process, it was the children who suffered the most, as they were in not receiving the deserved psychological needs and safety from their parents. The fact that these were the years of the war did not make matters any easier, and anxiety was a common thing to these children (Winnicott, 1996). Clare Winnicott also played a major role by influencing her husband to engage into the profession of social work. In light of this, Winnicott was later on to give numerous lectures for free on the field of psychoanalysis. In addition, he also delivered many speeches in conferences meant for social workers, as well as the regular publishing of these workers, journals (Winnicott, 1960).

With the war having ended, Winnicott almost ceased treating children who were suffering from psycho-analytical disorder. Instead, he embarked on a consultative endeavor to attend to the children’s parents, as well as their caregivers (Kahr, 1996). As a trained psychoanalyst, Winnicott helped to develop the Psycho-Analytic institute of Britain’s middle group. This was later to enable him curve out a niche for himself, thereby distinguishing himself from both Anna Freud and Klein. Anna was more focused on the ego, while Klein concentrated on fantasies of the unconscious.

By identifying himself with a middle group, Winnicott was able to focus on the separation of an individual’s dependence and their wellbeing as well. In the process, Winnicott unearthed the hazards that involved when a failure does occur in an individual’s environment (Winnicott, 1960). According to Winnicott, the idea of deriving theories enabled him to illuminate the world of a patient. In one of his many studies that involved an exploration of antisocial character, Winnicott, by focusing on a patient’s symptoms as communication, found out that such acts as say, stealing, reflects a sign of hope by indicating that a patient was unconsciously aware of the love they had from their parents, and were now determined to get it all back (Winnicott, 1969).

To Winnicott, psycho-analysis can be viewed at as an interactive form of play. At the same time, he believed that an individual ought to have a permanent isolation. It is through his endeavor that he was able to open the possibilities of being able to address the early failure in a child’s development. As such, Winnicott was also able to uncover the importance of therapy in the treatment psychoanalytical patients. His work has therefore made it possible today to teat some of the most psychosocially disturbed patients today (Holmes, 1993).

Winnicott’s theories

According to Winnicott, there is a transition space between the inner and outer world of a child. His main focus however, was on the space between the two worlds, or what he called the transition space. This space, Winnicott discovered, is very important, as it helps a child to play and also turn creative. According to Winnicott, the transition period is one that occurs when a child is undergoing a transforming, from a subjective omnipotent point of view, to that of an objective reality (Winnicott, 1960).

The subjective omnipotent stage was theorized by Winnicott as a symbiotic relationship between the child and its mother. Here, the child sees itself as a center of existence. In addition, it gets all its attention from the mother, as evidenced by a crying child.

As such, the responses of the mother to the wishes of the child is seen by Winnicott as an attempt by the mother to fulfill these. On the other hand, the stage of an objective reality in the life of a child occurs at such a point as when the mother of a child begins to unconsciously recede from the life of a child (Winnicott, 1969). From this point on, it dawns on the child that they are not as important as they thought, and that in fact, they are more reliant on the mother that it had occurred to them. Eventually, a transition does occur, in the life of a child, leading to development.

Another theory that Winnicott explored is that of the development of an ego. To him, ego comes as a result of threats that abounds in an individuals life, and that are out to frustrate the development and existence of a being. This, according to Winnicott, is afforded to the child through what he calls the good-enough mother (Winnicott, 1960). The lack of good enough maternal care has the potential of leading to the non-existence of a child. As such, this acts as a handicap o the idea of the continuity of living. Such an individual then, reacts to the impingements that are usually offered by the environment (Winnicott, 1960).

Winnicott’s theory of child aggression holds that aggression is a natural to the development of a child. In fact, aggression is like a test to the development of a child. That is why the kicking and screaming of a child ought to be seen as normal. Otherwise, the lack of aggression during childhood may as well lead to repressed personalities in a child.

The theory of aggression is also related to Winnicott’s theory of objects, in that a child will normally relate to the objects that surrounds them. The child will then play with such objects, and at times will normally destroy them. Such play and exploration lead to the development of a child. Sometimes, a child will also view the mother as the objects, and in such cases, she might as well be viewed at as a venting point for the aggression of the child. When a mother is able to maintain calm, then the child will be able to overcome their aggression as well (Winnicott, 1993).

Winnicott also views the practice of a patient attending therapy, as a holding environment, and in which a patient is able to make up for their neglected needs in as far as their egos are concerned. Thus, therapy normally enables the true identity of an individual to emerge, thereby drawing a clear line between false self and true self. However, Winnicott asserts that for this to happen, there must be a lot of patience from the therapist. Such patience is what will eventually lead to the patient finding the answers to true joy and understanding (Winnicott, 1969).

With respect to themselves objects relations theory, Winnicott has provided that the quality of the care that a child receives from the mother is what will eventually determine whether or not a child develops into a healthy false self, or otherwise For this to happen, there must be the presence of a good-enough mother. In the initial stages, the mother or anybody else who takes care of the child has to support the fused illusion held by the child. Over time however, the carer has to allow for disillusionment, at such a time as when the child is in a position to come into terms with its personality. For such a separation to occur, then play comes into effect, and is usually supported by the use of transition objects (Winnicott, 1960).

According to Winnicott, the psychological beginning of an infant usually occurs in an undisturbed and isolated state. As such, the children, though they make spontaneous movement, nevertheless are able to discover this environment without as much as having to lose their sense of individuality (Holmes, 1993). In a case whereby the environment tends to be faulty to the adaptability of a child, then such a child may react to such an environment, and hence the issue of impingement.

As such, there is a loss of self, and the remedy can only be realized as and when there is a withdrawal, thereby leading to the return of the child to isolation. Winnicott also noted that a disabled person could as well be likened to such a situation. In this case, just like in the case of an infant, the family members of the disabled person can opt to adapt to the needs of the person, or otherwise fail to (Winnicott, 1960).

Winnicott also came up with the concept of a true and false self. When an infant benefits from a positive adaptation of their needs, then a true self will result. On the other hand, a false self comes about when there has been an impingement on the environment, thus forcing an infant to comply with it (Winnicott, 1960).

The relation of Donald Winnicott’s theories to personality developmental

The concept of identifying a true or false self has a wide application in the area of rehabilitation. In this context, the rehabilitation center offers a patient a presence of good-enough setting. This acts as a holding environment, and in which the patient receives adaptations that have been so suited to meet his/her needs. In order to achieve the desired conducive holding environment, the patient is normally offered empathy and warmth (Kahr, 1996).

Through the analysis of the aggression theory, therapists are also able to help patients handle issues of rage and anger. Through his numerous studies of mentally disturbed children and their mothers, Winnicott was able to realize that sometimes, mothers hate their children. By extension, some of today’s therapists have been known to hate their patients as well, and this has the potential of rendering serious blows to the rehabilitation efforts (Winnicott, 1969). As Winnicott noted (Winnicott 1993), objective love results after first the experiencing of a hating of the same object. Through this observation, counselors and therapists are also realizing that is important to learn and practice objective hating. This it has been proven is the avenue to the understanding of the feelings of a client (Winnicott, 1953).


Ultimately, it can be seen that Donald Winnicott, through his numerous working with mentally disturbed children, was able to come up with theories such as the aggression theory, the theory of objectivity, and the true and false self theory (Winnicott, 1969). In addition, he was also able to pass on his knowledge of psychoanalytical issues to social workers, besides helping them publish their work. The theories of Donald Winnicott have found valuable application in the study of personalities today, and are thus being widely practiced by counselors and therapists (Winnicott, 1993). Although Winnicott was sometimes controversial, in his approaches to the field of psychoanalysis, his work is revered by many, and he has left a mark in as far as the understanding of personality development is concerned.


Hazell, J. (1996) H. J. S. Guntrip: A Psychoanalytical Biography. London: Free Association Books.

Holmes, J. (1993) John Bowlby and Attachment Theory. London: Routledge.

Kahr, B. (1996). D.W. Winnicott: A Biographical Portrait. London: Karnac Books. of Psychoanalysis, 34, 89-97.

Winnicott, D. (1953). Transitional objects and transitional phenomena, International Journal.

Winnicott, D. (1960). The theory of the parent-child relationship. International journal of Psychoanalysis. 41:585-595.

Winnicott, D.W. (1969).The use of an object. International journal of psychoanalysis, 50: 711-716.

Winnicott, D.W. (1993) Talking to Parents. Workingham & Cambridge, Mass: Addison-Wesley.

Winnicott, D.W. (1996) Thinking about children. London: Karnac Books, Perseus Press.

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