Winnicott: Potential in the Transitional


Donald Winnicott: An Archive of Talks on the BBC. Broadcast on BBC Radio 4, June 2013

Article from Art Therapy Online by Beth Hoyes, Helen Omand, and Debra Anna Salim entitled: A Collective Response to the Collected Works of DW Winnicott

A Collective Response to Winnicott

Extract below from the chapter, “Psychoanalytic, Analytic and Object Relations Approaches” by Cathy MalchiodiObject relations

Donald Winnicott (1896-1971)


Donald Woods Winnicott was a 20th century pediatrician and psychoanalyst who studied child development.


Donald Woods Winnicott was born on April 7, 1896 in Plymouth, England. His father was a prosperous merchant, and his mother suffered from depression during Winnicott’s youth. Winnicott was the youngest child, and his recollections of his childhood are filled with memories of trying to lift the darkness in his home. This early experience with mental health problems led Winnicott toward helping other people troubled with psychological problems.

Winnicott began studying medicine at Jesus College in Cambridge in 1914, and he joined the Royal Navy in 1917. He completed his medical degree at the University of London’s St. Bartholomew’s Hospital Medical College. In 1923, Winnicott began working as a pediatrician at the Paddington Green Children’s Hospital, where he remained until 1962.

Winnicott developed an interest in psychoanalysis and he studied under Melanie Klein, a highly influential psychoanalyst who refuted many of Freud’s theories on child development. Winnicott became a child analyst in 1935 and a full member of the British Psychoanalytic Society in 1936. Over time, Winnicott distanced himself from Klein’s work, and he developed his own theories on child development.


Winnicott developed several theories and concepts that helped shape the way in which psychoanalysis is practiced today. Winnicott and his wife used the term “holding” to refer to the supportive environment that a therapist creates for a client. The concept can be likened to the nurturing and caring behavior a mother engages in with her child that results in a sense of trust and safety. Winnicott believed that this “holding environment” was critical to the therapeutic environment and could be created through the therapist’s direct engagement with a client. Winnicott also believed that antisocial behaviors developed from a person’s having been deprived of a holding environment in childhood and from feelings of insecurity.

Winnicott also developed the concept of the transitional object. Transitional objects include items like security blankets, special dolls or toys, and other sentimental items. A transitional object can help a child feel safe and secure, for example, while gaining independence. Transitional objects typically spring up during childhood as children begin the process of individuation, or differentiation of self from others, but they can also help older children, and even adults, who are facing a transition of some kind.


Transitional Objects and Transitional Phenomena by Donald Winnicott in Playing and Reality
Abramovic, M. (2015) Transitory Objects. [Crystals] Sao Paolo, Brazil: SESC Pompeia.
“During the mid-to late 1990’s I worked on and produced a number of different transitory objects. I wrote at the time that I wanted my work to function as a constant mirror for the users of my objects—so they wouldn’t see me in the work, but rather themselves…The instructions…[asked] participants…to empty their mind”. (Abramovic, 2017, p. 241).
Abramovic, M. (2017) Walking Through Walls: A Memoir. London: Penguin Books.

Transitional Objects and Phenomena
“an infant’s capacity to create, think up, devise, originate and produce an object”
(Winnicott, 1971, p. 2).
“I have claimed that when we witness an infant’s employment of a transitional object, the first not-me possession, we are witnessing both the child’s first use of a symbol and the first experience of play…The use of an object symbol symbolises the union of two now separate things, baby and mother, at the point in time and space of the initiation of their state of separateness” (Winnicott, 1971, p. 130).
1. The infant assumes the rights over the objects.
2. The object is affectionately cuddled as well as excitedly loved and mutilated.
3. It must never change, unless changed by the infant.
4. It must service instinctual loving and also hating.
5. It must be seen to the infant to give warmth, or to move, or to have texture, or to do something that seems to show it has vitality or reality of its own.
6. It comes from without…neither does it come from within.
7. The transitional object…is not forgotten and it is not mourned. It loses meaning, and this is because the transitional phenomena have become diffused, have become spread out over the whole intermediate territory between inner psychic reality and the external world..that is to say over the whole cultural field. (Winnicott, 1971, p. 5)
Winnicott, D. (1971) Playing and Reality. London: Tavistock
Abramovic, M. (2015) Transitory Objects. [Crystals] Sao Paolo, Brazil: SESC Pompeia.

“The Location of Cultural Experience” by Donald Winnicott in Playing and Reality

Winnicott, D. (1971) Playing and Reality. London: Tavistock.

“I have claimed that when we witness an infant’s employment of a transitional object, the first non-me possession, we are witnessing both the child’s first use of a symbol and the first experience of play” (p. 130).

“The place where cultural experience is located is in the potential space between the individual and the environment (originally the object). The same can be said of playing. Cultural experience begins with creative living first manifested in play.” (p.135)

“The potential space is at the interplay between there being nothing but me and there being objects and phenomena outside omnipotent control”. (p. 135)

The potential space happens only in relation to a feeling of confidence on the part of the baby, that is, confidence related to the dependability of the mother-figure or environmental elements, confidence being the evidence of dependability that is being introjected.” (p. 135)

“The potential space between baby and mother, between child and family, between individual and society or the world, depends on experience which leads to trust. It can be looked upon as sacred to the individual in that it is here that the individual experiences creative living.” (p. 139)

The Squiggle Foundation

The Transitional Object

“Perhaps Winnicott’s best known idea is his explanation 
of the child’s habit of becoming very attached to a 
favourite blanket or toy. Interaction with this material 
object tends to lessen anxiety and also help the child 
adapt to change. Many parents will testify that what is 
a smelly bit of old blanket to them may become 
something very important to the child. Changing this 
object in any way may cause the child anxiety and 

Winnicott emphasises that it is not the child’s 
highly-valued article that is (in itself) ‘transitional’, but 
rather that the transitional object represents an 
achievement in development which marks the beginning 
of the infant’s perception of the mother as someone 
outside and separate from him or herself.

The arrival of the transitional object in the child’s 
emotional life is highly significant, because it is a sign 
of ‘personal growth’ and ‘creative living’. In this way, a 
particular blanket, for example, comes to be regarded 
by the child as both an ordinary blanket and as 
something special and almost magical.

Good-enough care of the child involves an adult’s 
understanding and appreciation of this idea.”

Why Britain’s greatest psychoanalyst, Donald Winnicott, loved doodles?

Child-parent relationship therapy: A dialogue with Winnicott’s theory’s_theory

A Critical Examination of Bion’s Concept of Containment and Winnicott’s concept of Holding, and their Psychotherapeutic Implications 

Bion and Winnicott