7 April 1896|
Plymouth, Devon, England
|Died||28 January 1971
|Occupation||paediatrician, psychiatrist, sociologist and psychoanalyst|
|Known for||Stages of development, holding environment, subjective omnipotence, objective reality, transitional experience, good-enough mother, true self and false self|
Donald Woods Winnicott (7 April 1896 – 28 January 1971) was an English paediatrician and psychoanalyst who was especially influential in the field of object relations theory. He was a leading member of the British Independent Group of the British Psychoanalytic Society, and a close associate of Marion Milner. He is best known for his ideas on the true self and false self, and the transitional object. He wrote several books, including Playing and Reality, and over 200 papers.
Early life and education
Winnicott was born in Plymouth, Devon to Sir John Frederick Winnicott, a merchant who was knighted in 1924 after serving twice as mayor of Plymouth, and his wife, Elizabeth Martha (Woods) Winnicott.
The family was prosperous and ostensibly happy, but behind the veneer, Winnicott saw himself as oppressed by his mother, who tended toward depression, as well as by his two sisters and his nanny. He would eventually speak of 'his own early childhood experience of trying to make "my living" by keeping his mother alive'. His father's influence was that of an enterprising freethinker who encouraged his son's creativity. Winnicott described himself as a disturbed adolescent, reacting against his own self-restraining "goodness" acquired from trying to assuage the dark moods of his mother. These seeds of self-awareness became the basis of his interest in working with troubled young people.
He first thought of studying medicine while at The Leys School, a boarding school in Cambridge, when he fractured his clavicle and recorded in his diary that he wished he could treat himself. He began pre-clinical studies at Jesus College, Cambridge in 1914 but, with the onset of World War I, his studies were interrupted when he was made a medical trainee at the temporary hospital in Cambridge. In 1917, he joined the Royal Navy as a medical officer on the destroyer HMS Lucifer.
Later that year, he began studies in clinical medicine at St Bartholomew's Hospital Medical College in London. During this time, he learned from his mentor the art of listening carefully when taking medical histories from patients, a skill that he would later identify as foundational to his practice as a psychoanalyst.
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He completed his medical studies in 1920, and in 1923, the same year as his first marriage (to Alice Taylor), he obtained a post as physician at the Paddington Green Children's Hospital in London, where he was to work as a pediatrician and child psychoanalyst for 40 years. In 1923 he began a ten-year psychoanalysis with James Strachey, and in 1927 he began training as an analytic candidate. His second analysis, beginning in 1936, was with Joan Riviere.
Winnicott rose to prominence just as the followers of Anna Freud were battling those of Melanie Klein for the right to be called Sigmund Freud's true intellectual heirs. Out of the Controversial discussions during World War II, a compromise was established with three more-or-less amicable groups of the psychoanalytic movement: the Freudians, the Kleinians, and the "Middle Group" of the British Psychoanalytical Society (later called the "Independent Group"), to which Winnicott belonged, along with Ronald Fairbairn, Michael Balint, Masud Khan, John Bowlby, Marion Milner, and Margaret Little. Winnicott was trained by Melanie Klein but became increasingly independent in his thinking over the course of his career, ultimately contributing original ideas which emphasized the importance of play in psychological development.
During the Second World War, Winnicott served as consultant psychiatrist to the evacuee programme. During the war he met and worked with Clare Britton, a psychiatric social worker who became his colleague in treating children displaced from their homes by wartime evacuation. He divorced his first wife in 1951 and, in the same year, married Britton. After the war he also saw patients in his private practice. Among contemporaries influenced by Winnicott was R.D. Laing, who wrote to Winnicott in 1958 acknowledging his help.
Except for one book published in 1931 (Clinical Notes on Disorders of Childhood), all of Winnicott's books were published after 1944, including The Ordinary Devoted Mother and Her Baby (1949), The Child and the Family (1957), Playing and Reality (1971), and Holding and Interpretation: Fragment of an Analysis (1986).
Winnicott died in 1971 following the last of a series of heart attacks and was cremated in London. Clare Winnicott oversaw the posthumous publication of several of his works.
The concept of holding
'Donald Winnicott came to psychoanalysis from paediatrics, and...through his analysis with James Strachey', and his work with children and their mothers fed into the experience on which he built his most influential concepts, such as the "holding environment" so crucial to psychotherapy, and the "transitional object," known to every parent as the "security blanket."
'Winnicott's three volumes of collected papers (1958, 1965, 1971), replete with clinical experience and paradox, are an inexhaustible source of ideas for psychoanalysis'. His theoretical writings emphasized empathy, imagination, and, in the words of philosopher Martha Nussbaum, who has been a proponent of his work, "the highly particular transactions that constitute love between two imperfect people." A prime example of this is his concept of the "good-enough mother" - the 'ordinary devoted mother...an example of the way in which the foundations of health are laid down by the ordinary mother in her ordinary loving care of her own baby'.
Part of that loving care was the mother's attentive holding of her child; and 'as Winnicott (1965) suggested, the therapist recreates a "holding environment", that resembles that of the mother and infant'. Winnicott described minutely 'the business of picking a baby up...gathering her together', and the way that the 'mother's technique of holding, of bathing, of feeding, everything she did for the baby, added up to the child's first idea of the mother'. Winnicott considered that the 'child's ability to feel the body is the place where the psyche lives could not have been developed without a consistent technique of handling', and he extrapolated 'the idea of "holding" and of meeting dependence' from the mother to the family as a whole, and to the wider world surrounding it. He saw as a prerequisite for healthy development 'the continuation of reliable holding in terms of the ever-widening circle of family and school and social life'.
Out of his work developed the subsequent belief that 'one of the most deeply therapeutic factors in an analysis is the extent to which a sensitive analyst parallels...the earliest relationship between a responsive mother and her infant' - a symbolic parallel. 'Of this Winnicott wrote: "A correct and well-timed interpretation in an analytic treatment gives a sense of being held physically that is more real...than if a real holding or nursing had taken place. Understanding goes deeper'.
Connected to the concept of holding is 'pre-delinquent behaviour, which Winnicott calls "the anti-social tendency". He says of this: [It] is not a diagnosis. It...may be found in a normal individual, or in one that is neurotic or psychotic'. Instead, Winnicott saw it as a cry for help, as a search for holding not previously found within the family itself. 'Antisocial activity for Winnicott is an expression of the delinquent child's sense of loss, a rupture of an earlier integration the child carried within him'. In response, the 'child whose home fails to give a feeling of security looks outside his home for the four walls...looking to society instead of to his own family or school to provide the stability he needs'.
The sense of being
One of the elements Winnicott considered could be lost in childhood was what he called the sense of being. 'For Winnicott, the sense of being is primary, the sense of doing an outgrowth of it...Premature development of the ego-function means doing too much, being too little': a false sense of self. The 'capacity to "be", to feel alive...the baby's lifeline, what Winnicott calls its "going on being"' was essential if a person was not to be 'caught up in a false self and a compulsive cycle of "doing" to conceal the absence of "being"'. One antidote to the potential loss of being was the child's capacity for play.
Playing and reality
A central theme running through Winnicott's work was the idea of play. Departing radically from orthodox psychoanalytic thought at the time, which held that analysis helped patients mainly by making them more aware of and insightful about their unconscious beliefs and wishes, Winnicott thought that playing was the key to emotional and psychological well-being. By "playing," he meant not only the ways that children of all ages play, but also the way adults "play" through making art, or engaging in sports, hobbies, humor, meaningful conversation, et cetera. At any age, he saw play as crucial to the development of authentic selfhood, because when people play they feel real, spontaneous and alive, and keenly interested in what they're doing. He thought that insight in psychoanalysis was helpful when it came to the patient as a playful experience of creative, genuine discovery. Winnicott saw a danger in psychoanalysis as it was being practiced in his time: Patients could feel pressured to comply with their analyst's authoritative interpretations, whether or not the patient experienced them as useful or enlivening or true to their own experience, and in this way analysis could end up merely reinforcing a patient's false self disorder. Winnicott believed that it was only in playing that people are entirely their true selves, so it followed that for psychoanalysis to be effective, it needed to serve as a mode of playing.
One example of how Winnicott used play in his work was the "squiggle game" in his child consultations (Winnicott 1958: ch. 9). He would draw a shape and invite the child to make something of it; or, conversely, the child would draw a shape for Winnicott to do something with'. Later analysts would develop the idea in the sense of using 'these incomplete "shapes" in our work with patients...a half-way step to interpretation - for the patient to do something with - rather than the analyst monopolizing insight in a session'.
Another, more famous instance was the "spatula" game, where Winnicott would place a "spatula" (tongue depressor)—an object always available in a pediatrician's office—within a child's reach for him to play with. 'You may be sure that if he is just an ordinary baby he will notice the attractive object...and he will reach for it'. Thereafter 'he will suddenly be overcome by reserve...[then] in the course of a little while he will discover what he wants to do with it'. From this Winnicott derived his idea of how 'the infant needs "a period of hesitation" in which to rediscover' - again a concept transferred to analytic work: ' the analyst needs to tolerate what Winnicott speaks of as "the period of hesitation"...allowing the patient to use the analyst as someone who is there to be found...[not] to be shoved down patients' throats'.
Many of Winnicott's writings show his efforts to understand what helps people to be able to play, and on the other hand what blocks some people from playing. He came to consider that 'Playing takes place in what he called the "potential space" between the baby and the mother-figure....[T]he initiation of playing is associated with the life experience of the baby who has come to trust the mother figure'. In other words, babies can be playful when they're cared for by people who respond to them warmly and playfully, like a mother who smiles and says, "Peek-a-boo!" when she sees her baby playfully peeking out from behind his hands. If the mother never responded playfully, sooner or later the baby would stop trying to elicit play from her. "Potential space" was Winnicott's term for a sense of an inviting and safe interpersonal field in which one can be spontaneously playful while at the same time connected to others. Similarly, in analysis: 'Creative play does not necessarily mean always playing alone; and this is the nature of an analysis when all is going well'.
Playing can also be seen in the use of a "transitional object," Winnicott's term for an object, such as a teddy bear, that has a quality for a small child of being both real and made-up at the same time. Winnicott pointed out that no one demands that a toddler explain whether his Binky is a "real bear" or a creation of the child's own imagination, and went on to argue that it's very important that the child is allowed to experience the Binky as being in an undefined, "transitional" status between the child's imagination and the real world outside the child. For Winnicott, one of the most important and precarious stages of development was in the first three years of life, when an infant grows into a child with an increasingly separate sense of self in relation to a larger world of other people. In health, the child learns to bring her spontaneous, real self into play with others; in a false self disorder, the child has found it unsafe or impossible to do so, and instead she feels that when she's with other people she must hide her own self, and pretend to be whatever others want or need her to be. A "transitional object" is an early and important bridge between self and other, and helps a child develop the capacity to be genuine in relationships, and creative. : 'In health there is an evolution from the transitional phenomenon, and the use of objects, to the whole play capacity of the child'.
Such 'playing with a "transitional object"...a transitional object to help him cope with separation' was for Winnicott a vital aspect of healthy development into independence. The alternative which he saw was the imitative leap forward to 'a rather ludicrous impersonation. Such incorporation of one person by another can account for that spurious maturity that we often meet with....There is the child, for instance, who, unconsciously fearing and fleeing from sex play, jumps right over to a spurious sexual maturity'. The result, for Winnicott, could be the creation of what he called 'the False Self....Other people's expectations can become of overriding importance, overlaying or contradicting the original sense of self, the one connected to the very roots of our being.
Thus to Winnicott, 'for maturity it is necessary the individuals shall not mature early...passed through all the immature stages, all the stages of maturity at the younger ages'. Where that had failed to happen, in the false self, the task of the therapist was to 'enable the patient to become able to play, after which psychotherapy may begin...it is in playing that the patient is being creative'.
Playing for Winnicott ultimately extended all the way up from earliest childhood to 'the abstractions of politics and economics and philosophy and culture...this third area, that of cultural experience which is a derivative of play'.
True self and false self
Winnicott wrote that "a word like self...knows more than we do.". He meant that, while philosophical and psychoanalytic ideas about the self could be very complex and arcane, with a great deal of specialized jargon, there was a pragmatic usefulness to the ordinary word "self" with its range of traditional meanings. For example, where other psychoanalysts used the Freudian terminology of ego and id to describe different functions of a person's psychology, Winnicott at times used "self" to refer to both. For Winincott, the self is a very important part of mental and emotional well-being which plays a vital role in creativity. He thought that people were born without a clearly developed self and had to "search" for an authentic sense of self as they grew. "For Winnicott, the sense of feeling real, feeling in touch with others and with one's own body and its processes was essential for living a life." 
“Only the true self can be creative and only the true self can feel real.” For Winnicott, the True Self is a sense of being alive and real in one's mind and body, having feelings that are spontaneous and unforced. This experience of aliveness is what allows people to be genuinely close to others, and to be creative.
Winnicott thought that the "True Self" begins to develop in infancy, in the relationship between the baby and her primary caretaker (Winnicott typically refers to this person as "the mother"). One of the ways the mother helps the baby develop an authentic self is by responding in a welcoming and reassuring way to the baby's spontaneous feelings, expressions, and initiatives. In this way the baby develops a confidence that nothing bad happens when she expresses what she feels, so her feelings don't seem dangerous or problematic to her, and she doesn't have to put undue attention into controlling or avoiding them. She also gains a sense that she is real, that she exists and her feelings and actions have meaning.
Winnicott thought that one of the developmental hurdles for an infant to get past is the risk of being traumatized by having to be too aware too soon of how small and helpless she really is. A baby who is too aware of real-world dangers will be too anxious to learn optimally. A good-enough parent is well enough attuned and responsive to protect the baby with an illusion of omnipotence, or being all-powerful. For example, a well-cared-for baby usually doesn't feel hungry for very long before being fed. Winnicott thought the parents' quick response of feeding the baby gives the baby a sense that whenever she's hungry, food appears as if by magic, as if the baby herself makes food appear just by being hungry. To feel this powerful, Winnicott thought, allowed a baby to feel confident, calm and curious, and able to learn without having to invest a lot of energy into defenses.
In Winnicott's writing, the "False Self" is a defense, a kind of mask of behavior that complies with others' expectations. Winnicott thought that In health, a False Self was what allowed one to present a "polite and mannered attitude"  in public.
But he saw more serious emotional problems in patients who seemed unable to feel spontaneous, alive or real to themselves anywhere, in any part of their lives, yet managed to put on a successful "show of being real." Such patients suffered inwardly from a sense of being empty, dead or "phoney." 
Winnicott thought that this more extreme kind of False Self began to develop in infancy, as a defense against an environment that felt unsafe or overwhelming because of a lack of reasonably attuned caregiving. He thought that parents did not need to be perfectly attuned, but just "ordinarily devoted" or "good enough" to protect the baby from often experiencing overwhelming extremes of discomfort and distress, emotional or physical. But babies who lack this kind of external protection, Winnicott thought, had to do their best with their own crude defenses.
One of the main defenses Winnicott thought a baby could resort to was what he called "compliance," or behavior motivated by a desire to please others rather than spontaneously express one's own feelings and ideas. For example, if a baby's caregiver was severely depressed, the baby would anxiously sense a lack of responsiveness, would not be able to enjoy an illusion of omnipotence, and might instead focus his energies and attentions on finding ways to get a positive response from the distracted and unhappy caregiver by being a "good baby." The "False Self is a defense of constantly seeking to anticipate others' demands and complying with them, as a way of protecting the "True Self" from a world that is felt to be unsafe.
Winnicott thought that the "False Self" developed through a process of introjection, or internalizing one's experience of others. Instead of basing his personality on his own unforced feelings, thoughts, and initiatives, the person with a "False Self" disorder would essentially be imitating and internalizing other people's behavior—a mode in which he could outwardly come to seem "just like" his mother, father, brother, nurse, or whoever had dominated his world, but inwardly he would feel bored, empty, dead, or "phoney." Winnicott saw this as an unconscious process: not only others but also the person himself would mistake his False Self for his real personality. But even with the appearance of success, and of social gains, he would feel unreal and lack the sense of really being alive or happy.
The division of the True and False self is roughly comparable to Sigmund Freud's notion of self, which is divided into a central part powered by instincts (the id) and an outward-turned part that relates to the world (the ego). According to Winnicott, in every person there is a True and False Self, and this organization can be placed on a continuum between the healthy and the pathological. The True Self, which in health gives the person a sense of being alive, real, and creative, will always be in part or in whole hidden; the False Self is a compliant adaptation to the environment, but in health it does not dominate the person's internal life or block him from feeling spontaneous feelings, even if he chooses not to express them. The healthy False Self feels that it is still being true to the True Self. It can be compliant to expectations but without feeling that it has betrayed its True Self."
'As theoretician, he [Winnicott] is often elusive, but partly because his writings up to 1960 often had the subsidiary aim of trying to get Melanie Klein to modify her views'. From a Kleinian viewpoint, 'Donald Winnicott, who was always extremely respectful of Melanie Klein's work, could not stomach the notion of envy', just as he had led the Independent's 'common repudiation...[of] the loathsome notion of death instinct'. To the hardliner, such retreat from the harsh realities she had uncovered represented 'nothing but resistance against accepting the reality of her conclusions concerning infantile life'.
Winnicott was certainly insistent that 'I know that babies and children scream and bite and kick and pull their mothers' hair'; and at one point provided '18 reasons why a mother hates her children, among which is "He is ruthless, treats her as scum, an unpaid servant, a slave"'. Nevertheless, what has been called 'his identification with an ideal mother' could perhaps lead to a derivative idealisation of family life: indeed, arguably, with 'the theoretical icon of the mother and child Winnicott sometimes uses psychoanalysis to redescribe a traditional theology...psychoanalysis was incorporated into a Christian empiricist tradition'. Related to this may be the way 'Winnicott's work has been described as a flight from the erotic'. While Winnicott's stated aim was to give 'young mothers...support in their reliance on their natural tendencies', in practice idealisation of what he insisted was only the good enough mother might perhaps become another perfectionist yardstick for parents to be found wanting by.
A further criticism, linked to what may be seen as his Wordsworthian Romanticism, his cult of childhood, of continuity of growth and play, was the danger that 'Winnicottians become rigorously spontaneous' - perpetually applauding the way 'There was no compliant playing here!'.
From another standpoint, however, the problem was that Winnicott was too close to Klein. To the ego-psychologists, 'The English object-relations people (D. W. Winnicott...and others), who predate and foreshadow the Kohut and the Kernberg groups, are equally wrong-minded...and are tinged, to varying degrees, with the "Kleinian heresy"'. Similarly for Lacan, despite his personal respect for Winnicott, the latter was implicated in the 'contradiction between the pre-Oedipal intrigue, to which, in the opinion of certain of our modern analysts, the analytic relation can be reduced, and the fact that Freud was satisfied with having situated it in the position of the Oedipus complex...lead[ing] to a propedeutics of general infantilization.
Winnicott's 'own childhood experience of trying to make "my living" by keeping his [depressed] mother alive' may have fed into his later concept of the False Self, and of how 'a threat of breakdown of the family structure... in some cases leads to a premature emotional growth and to a precocious independence and sense of responsibility... but this is not health, even if it has healthy features'. When he claimed 'I was sane, and through analysis and self-analysis I achieved some measure of insanity', it may have been to the experiential roots of much of his own theorising that, for better or worse, he was referring.
At the end of the day, Winnicott is one of the few twentieth-century analysts who, in stature, breadth (and minuteness) of observations, and theoretical fertility can perhaps legitimately be compared to Sigmund Freud: 'some genius analysts, such as Freud and Winnicott...learned naturally how to learn from their patients. I believe that the majority of ..therapists are more ordinary, sincere hard workers - not necessarily brilliant' - "good enough".
- D. W. Winnicott, Clinical Notes on Disorders of Childhood (London: Heinemann, 1931)
- D. W. Winnicott, Getting To Know Your Baby (London: Heinemann, 1945)
- D. W. Winnicott, The Child and the Family (London: Tavistock, 1957)
- D. W. Winnicott, The Child and the Outside World (London: Tavistock, 1957)
- D. W. Winnicott, Collected Papers: Through Paediatrics to Psychoanalysis (London: Tavistock, 1958)
- D. W. Winnicott, The Child the Family and the Outside World (London: Pelican Books, 1964)
- D. W. Winnicott, The Family and Individual Development (London: Tavistock, 1965)
- D. W. Winnicott, Maturational Processes and the Facilitating Environment: Studies in the Theory of Emotional Development (London: Hogarth Press, 1965)
- D. W. Winnicott, Playing and Reality (London: Tavistock, 1971)
- D. W. Winnicott, Therapeutic Consultation in Child Psychiatry (London: Hogarth Press, 1971)
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- D. W. Winnicott, Deprivation and Delinquency (London: Tavistock, 1984
- Adam Phillips, Winnicott (Harvard University Press, 1988)
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- Sir John Frederick Winnicott, Encyclopaedia of Plymouth History, accessed April 29, 2009.
- Rosalind Minsky, Psychoanalysis and Gender (1996) p. 134
- Roazen, Paul (2001). The Historiography of Psychoanalysis. Transaction. ISBN 0-7658-0019-5.
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- John Hunter Padel, in Richard L Gregory ed, The Oxford Companion to The Mind (Oxford 1987) p. 273
- Padel, Mind p. 273
- D. W. Winnicott, The Child, the Family, and the Outside World (Middlesex 1973) p. 17 and p. 44
- Dawn Freshwater and Chris Robertson, Emotions and needs (Buckingham 2002) p. 26
- Winnicott, Child p. 86-7 and p. 194
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- D. W. Winnicott, Winnicott on the Child (Cambridge MA 2002) p. 238
- Patrick Casement, Further Learning from the Patient (London 1997) p. 108
- Casement, Further p. 96-7
- Casement Further p 115
- Lisa Appignanesi, Mad, Bad and Sad (London 2008) p. 325
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- Josephine Klein, Our Need for Others (London 1994) p. 230 and p. 243
- Rosalind Minsky, Psychoanalysis and Gender: An introductory reader (London 1996) p. 114 and p. 122
- Casement, Further p. 12
- Casement, p. 12
- Casement, Patrick. "Learning from Life." Lecture presented in Seattle, WA June 4, 2011.
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- Winnicott, Child p. 75-6
- Casement, p.112, p. 95, and p. 184
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- Winnicott, Child p. 171
- Skinner/Cleese, Families p. 145 and p. 149
- Winnicott, Child, p. 201 and p. 219
- Winnicott, in Klein, Need p. 241
- D. W. Winnicott, Winnicott on the Child (Cambridge MA, 2002) p. 213 and p. 207
- Winnicott, in Patrick Casement, On Learning from the Patient (London 1995) p. 36
- D. W. Winnicott, Playing and Reality (Penguin 1971) p. 163 and p. 120
- D. W. Winnicott, "Counter-transference." British Journal of Medical Psychology, vol. 33 no 1, pp. 17-21
- D. W. Winnicott, Playing and Reality. London: Routledge, 1971, pp. 72-73.
- Simon Grolnick, The Work and Play of Donald Winnicott. London: Aronson, 1990, pp. 31-32.
- Winnicott, D. W. (1960). "Ego Distortion in Terms of True and False Self," in The Maturational Process and the Facilitating Environment: Studies in the Theory of Emotional Development. New York: International UP Inc., 1965, pp. 140-152.
- D. W. Winnicott, Playing and Reality. London: Routledge, 1971.
- D. W. Winnicott, "Ego distortion in terms of true and false self," in The Maturational Process and the Facilitating Environment: Studies in the Theory of Emotional Development. New York: International UP Inc., 1965, pp. 140-152.
- D. W. Winnicott, "Ego distortion in terms of true and false self," in The Maturational Process and the Facilitating Environment: Studies in the Theory of Emotional Development. New York: International UP Inc., 1965, p. 146.
- Simon Grolnick, The Work & Play of Winnicott. New Jersey: Aronson, 1990, p. 44.
- Richard Appignanesi ed., Introducing Melanie Klein (Cambridge 2006) p. 157-8
- Jones to Freud, in Adam Phillips, On Flirtation (London 1994) p. 120
- Winnicott, Child p. 232
- Freshwater/Robertson, Emotions p. 33
- Peter Lomas, The Limits of Interpretation (Penguin 1987) p. 88
- Phillips, Flirtation p. 64 and p. 61
- Minsky, Gender p. 131
- Winnicott, Child p. 11
- Phillips, Flirtations p. 162
- Casement, Further p. 163
- Janet Malcolm, Psychoanalysis: The Impossible Profession (London 1988) p. 5 and p. 135
- Lacan, Ecrits p. 120 and p. 142
- Minsky, Gender p. 134
- Winnicott, The Family and Individual Development (1965), p. 91
- Winnicott, quoted in Adam Phillips, Going Sane (London 2005) p. 95
- Patrick Casement, On Learning from the Patient (London 1995) p. x