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D. W. Winnicott on playing

D. W. Winnicott

Here are some old disjointed notes on a classic book by the psychoanalyst D. W. Winnicott. I happen to be skeptical of psychoanalysis, since it lacks a rigorous scientific foundation and consists largely of "stories" (to quote Chomsky) that may be more or less plausible, but at its best it can be very thought-provoking.

Reading Winnicott’s Playing and Reality. Skimmed it long ago but I wasn’t mature enough to appreciate it.

Three parts of a person’s life: inner reality, external life, and experiencing (which is between the two). “[The latter is] an area that is not challenged…a resting-place for the individual engaged in the perpetual human task of keeping inner and outer reality separate yet interrelated.” “The substance of illusion, that which is allowed to the infant, and which in adult life is inherent in art and religion, and yet becomes the hallmark of madness when an adult…forces others to acknowledge a sharing of illusion that is not their own [i.e., to accept “the objectivity of his subjective phenomena”].” Natural root of grouping among humans: coming together on the basis of the similarity of our illusory experiences, which are “the intermediate area between the subjective and that which is objectively perceived.” This intermediate area is originally manifested as “an intermediate state between a baby’s inability and his growing ability to recognize and accept reality.” A transitional state, characterized by, for example, thumb-sucking, cloth-sucking (the corner of a blanket), babbling. Transitional phenomena. Sometimes the infant needs a particular object, like the corner of a particular blanket or a word or a tune, when going to sleep, as a defense against anxiety. Transitional object. Gradually, as the baby gets older, teddies and dolls and hard toys become the transitional object(s). Finally, after years, the object ceases to have 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 as perceived by two persons in common,’ that is to say, over the whole cultural field. At this point my subject widens out into that of play, and of artistic creativity and appreciation, and of religious feeling, and of dreaming, and also of fetishism, lying and stealing, the origin and loss of affectionate feeling, drug addiction, the talisman of obsessional rituals, etc.” Fascinating, thought-provoking.

Transitional object is symbolic of some part-object, such as the breast. But its not being the breast is as important as its symbolic value because it shows that the baby “is already distinguishing between fantasy and fact, between inner objects and external objects, between primary creativity and perception.”

More accurately, the transitional object stands for an external object (like the breast) by standing for an internal object (see Melanie Klein), which is a mental concept or representation of the external object.

In the beginning the infant has the illusion that his mother’s breast is part of him: when he’s hungry the breast appears, as if created by him at just the right moment (when he desires it). The mother eventually has to dis-illusion her baby, and then wean him. “The transitional phenomena represent the early stages of the use of illusion, without which there is no meaning for the human being in the idea of a relationship with an object that is perceived by others as external to that being.” (My italics.) This ties into what I’ve said before about other people being instantiations of the abstract other in oneself. There’s an element of illusion here.

“The task of reality-acceptance is never completed, no human being is free from the strain of relating inner and outer reality, and relief from this strain is provided by an intermediate area of experience. This intermediate area is in direct continuity with the play area of the small child who is ‘lost’ in play.”

Winnicott says parenthetically that, in an adult, the pathological “true- and false-self organization” (see R. D. Laing) signifies an inability to accept the “paradox” of illusion, of mediating between inner and outer. Acute observation. Illusion, part inner and part outer, is healthy, indeed necessary.

When I’m reading a good book I experience periodic surges of intense excitement, several seconds long. A feeling of extreme freedom, satisfaction with the world, love of myself. Can be caused by other things too, for instance by looking forward to an evening with friends or by reflecting that I have liquor in my freezer that I can drink whenever I want (though I never drink it alone). The consciousness of being free, of being able to do what I want. Making the world mine. In other words: close connection to “illusion”—“experiencing,” living in a space between the inner and the outer worlds. That’s the task of the human being, to create this half-imaginary world for himself.

Said more succinctly: becoming aware of my playing fills me with joy. When I’m playing is when I’m most happy, and when the world is most mine. (This is true of everyone.)

For Winnicott, psychotherapy = playing, the overlapping of two areas of playing (patient and therapist). If playing isn’t possible, the therapist’s job is to bring the patient into a state of being able to play.

“Play is exciting…[because of] the precariousness of the interplay of personal psychic reality and the experience of control of actual objects. This is the precariousness of magic itself, magic that arises in intimacy, in a relationship that is being found [by the baby] to be reliable [viz., the relationship between baby and mother].” In other words, “the precariousness of play belongs to the fact that it is always on the theoretical line between the subjective and that which is objectively perceived.”

It seems to me that the near-withdrawal state of children at play (being “lost in play”) is akin to the concentration of older children or adults.

Development from transitional phenomena to playing, from playing to shared playing, from shared playing to cultural experiences.


“In playing, and perhaps only in playing, is the child or adult free to be creative. This consideration arises in my mind as a development of the concept of transitional phenomena and it takes into account the difficult part of the theory of the transitional object, which is that a paradox is involved which needs to be accepted, tolerated, and not resolved.” “It is only in being creative that the individual discovers the self [and uses the whole personality]. (Bound up with this is the fact that only in playing is communication possible; except direct communication, which belongs to psychopathology or to an extreme of immaturity.)” Wonderfully suggestive.


Music: for me, soothing. Consoling. Reduction in anxiety. Interpersonal, yes. My perpetual desire: overcome anxiety. Not conscious, mostly unconscious. Anxiety, tension. The defining characteristic of modernity. Flowing is the ideal. Flowing. No defenses, no obstructions, no self-consciousness. Musical flowing, self-flowing, self-flowering. Playing, playing-in-oneself, playing between oneself and the other. (Winnicott: neither external nor internal; in-between.) [...]

My old question of why self-confidence or charisma is attractive to everyone. What is it, in fact? What is this quality of self-confidence/charisma? If I can answer that then the question of why it’s attractive will answer itself. Maybe the answer is: “flowingness.” No obstructions, no obstructive self-consciousness. No anxious division between self and other. Play. Charisma is playful. Free. Attractive because playing is the human ideal, it is happiness. Creating. (Self-confirming, to quote R. D. Laing.) Charisma is creative, self-expressing, self-certain, playful, artistic. Winnicott: connection between transitional phenomena and playing. So, connection between transitional phenomena and charisma or (creative) self-confidence. Creating a middle space between self and other, as with transitional objects. Of the same type as sharing interests—a middle space, exciting, something to connect over, to “come together over”—charisma produces the impression of having something in common, or rather has an interpersonal effect qualitatively similar to the exciting, ‘playful,’ ‘self/other-division’-dissolving impression of having something in common. This is the source of its power.

I’ve noted before that being “recognized” or “noticed” by a charismatic person can be very self-confirmatory. But this is true also of playing intently, or of conversing about shared interests, or of creating an artwork you’re proud of. These phenomena are all similar. If the interpersonal effect of a charismatic person is uniquely powerful, it’s because such a person is, after all, an other, a concrete other, whose recognition therefore directly confirms you—while in the case of the artwork you’re merely being implicitly recognized, i.e. the other recognizing you is abstract, not concrete. It therefore may, possibly, be less (directly) satisfying than having a conversation with some charismatic person in which he laughs with you, likes you, etc.

Real self-confirmation has nothing to do with correspondence (between, e.g., self and its objectification); it is simply overflowing. It is an existential condition, not an ‘epistemological’ condition. Overflowing into the world, submerging the other in your self and your self in the other, so that the concept of “objectification” does not apply. Cf. the paradox of the transitional object. Neither outside nor inside the self. No inner–outer or self–other dualism. That’s self-confirmation, that’s happiness, that’s what we desire and strive for in virtually everything we do.

In highly cerebral art, on the other hand, such as atonal music, there is no overflowing. There is careful measurement, analytical separation, a poverty of creativeness in the true sense, the sense of “spontaneity.” Evidently the capacity to intuit “overflowingness” is within everyone, an unconscious capacity, judging by the universality of people’s reactions to particular artworks, particular charismatic (“demonic,” to quote Goethe) people, particular activities. An elemental capacity of enormous human importance—as important as the capacity actually to overflow, in play and so on. Closely related to spontaneity.

Destructive kinds of tension versus productive kinds of tension. Blocking versus stimulating.

“…the resting-state out of which a creative reaching-out can take place. Free association [in psychotherapy] that reveals a coherent theme is already affected by anxiety, and the cohesion of ideas is a defense organization.” Brilliant, far-reaching observation. The cohesion of ideas is a defense organization.

Trust. The necessity of trust. There’s a lack of trust in modern society, hence anxiety—a play-vitiating anxiety. With alcohol, people reduce the anxiety and increase the trust, thus making possible a sort of play. [...]

Solitary playing vs. shared playing (the game). They seem quite different. The painter vs. the two people flirting. The solitary child with his doll vs. the group of children playing cops and robbers. Surely the second kind adds a whole new element of tension, of interpersonal tension and pleasing anxiety. Can one really be considered an extension of the other? Games have rules—but, in a way, all play does, doesn’t it? Art has rules. But games have rules in a different sense than art does or dollhouse-playing does.

Joking is playful. Wit is playful. And it evinces a kind of “flowing” (from the unconscious). The tension that characterizes it is not inhibiting; it permits flowingness. All play does. It has spontaneity, comes from the unconscious. I should drop the term “overflowing”; it’s misleading, it connotes a threatening of the play-element (viz., a kind of tension).

But is there any so-called tension in transitional phenomena? If not, how can the latter be continuous with playing, as Winnicott argues? Transitional objects are purely comforting, right? But playing, as W. admits, is “inherently exciting and precarious.” Or maybe there’s an element of this with transitional phenomena too. I suspect that’s true, judging by what I’ve read.

“Creative impulses are the stuff of playing. And on the basis of playing is built the whole of man’s experiential existence. No longer are we either introvert or extrovert. We experience life in the area of transitional phenomena, in the exciting interweave of subjectivity and objective observation, and in an area that is intermediate between the inner reality of the individual and the shared reality of the world that is external to individuals.” My journal, my transitional object.

Playing is not synonymous with “doing anything that’s enjoyable,” though it’s tempting to think it is. But how much do these questions of definition even matter? More than you’d think. We’re trying to get clear on psychological capacities, on the differences between types of activity, on the origin and meaning of certain activities. It isn’t a mere matter of stipulating the definition of “play.”


Winnicott.— Male and female elements in all men and women. Can be dissociated (pathological). Male: instinct, drive, impulse, object-relating that presupposes separateness. Id satisfactions in the baby “that include anger relative to frustration. Drive satisfaction enhances the separation of the object from the baby, and leads to objectification of the object… Object-relating backed by instinct drive belongs to the male element in the personality uncontaminated by the female element.” Oral erotism, oral sadism, anal stages, etc., arise out of the male element. The female is simply being. Insofar as the infant is the breast, identifies with it, the female element is at work. “The male element does while the female element (in males and females) is.” The pure female aspect has nothing to do with drive or instinct. It is the basis, though, for self-discovery, a sense of existing. (It seems like it has to do with receptivity, while the male has to do with assertiveness. But in a particular man, the female element may predominate, while the male element may predominate in a particular woman.)

Winnicott distinguishes between frustration, which belongs to satisfaction-seeking, and maiming, which belongs to the experience of being. The notion of “maiming” takes into account the frequent viciousness of women’s lashing-out. Their violent attacks rarely come from frustration, from the frustration of not having certain urges satisfied, but from a deficiency in their sense of being. (To say it again: particular women, for example nymphomaniacs, may crave the satisfaction of impulses, but this craving originates in the uncommon strength of their male element.) None of this is falsifiable, but it has some plausibility.

The reason, then, why “creative” people are said to be both female and male is that they have both a heightened capacity for receptivity and the ability/desire to assert. Both are necessary for, e.g., artistic creation.

Heinz Kohut’s Tragic Man vs. Guilty Man. The latter in the terrain of instinct or drive, the former in the terrain of…being? Former “feminine,” latter “masculine”?


Sexual foreplay is aptly named. It constitutes play, surely. But intercourse is not play. It’s deadly serious, albeit enjoyable. And yet it seems natural to call oral sex a kind of play. Teasing, titillating, tongue-flicking and licking—that’s playful. I’d even say that intercourse can be playful, depending on how it’s done. The spirit of play can be absent or present. It can be absent in one moment and present the next. In and out of play. We live our lives in and out of play from moment to moment. Is it only “family resemblance,” then, given the immense variety of activities that constitute play? How does one define playing? The spirit of play is not the spirit of seriousness, but play can be serious and serious activities can be playful. Johan Huizinga's book Homo Ludens is essential to any discussion of play, but ultimately I think it's impossible to give a wholly adequate definition of this elusive concept “play.” Wittgenstein was surely right about that.

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