Donald Winnicott was a prolific psychoanalyst and paediatrician. He’s been brought back to life in the graphic novels of Alison Bechdel, in “Are you My Mother?” She brings him to life in her imaginative drawings and musings in order to think about her own relationship with her parents and her experience of therapy.
I’m sure Donald would have approved. For him, psychotherapy was not supposed to supposed to be severe and austere. No. He would have been appalled by that. He believed that to truly be alive was to play. In playing we are truly being ourselves, truly living in the world; we expressing our deepest creative selves. Winnicott argued that too often we have to confirm to social norms. In his own case, he had to hide his true self, because, as a child, he had to somehow enliven his depressed mother. As a result, he believed, his “true self” went into hiding, and he ended up inhabiting a “false self.” This split often happens when a child has to hide some aspect of their authentic being due to a breakdown or difficulties in their family. However, Winnicott believed that through therapy, the patient and analyst could rekindle this “true self.”
Winnicott enjoyed being with his patients, and would sometime spend hours not saying very much, in comfortable silence. Like a mother and child, he would allow his patients to regress to an earlier time in their lives and minds. He would provide a “holding environment”, a “facilitating environment”, just like a mother would tend to their child. He would also encourage them to be creative and follow their imaginations. For him, playing revealed the deeper layers of the self. When he worked with children he often used games to work with their innate playfulness. In the Squiggle game he would ask them to draw a random line, and then he would respond by adding to it, and then they would squiggle some more. Then they would sit around and play, speculating at what the image represented. In another game, he would encourage the child to play with a spatula, again, using this as an opportunity to learn about their inner worlds.
For many people August is a break from the social norms of working life, where we may feel compelled, at least sometimes, to inhabit a “false self.” The holiday season allows a falling away of the concerns around productivity and work, and entry into “deep play”. 700 page books on obscure themes, sandcastles, siestas, and so on. All of these are forms of play for the mind. Winnicott used to make his own Christmas cards and was often found doodling.
Even so, he was no slouch and managed to publish several books and 200 academic papers, alongside a busy clinical practice. But for him, this would be of no value, unless he was free to play. In fact, he had a very serious heart attack in New York, overwhelmed by a hostile reception for a paper he presented and unhappy marriage. He eventually decided that he was living from his “false self” and divorced his first wife. He went on to have a very happy second marriage, where he felt he was truly himself. But even in a happy relationship, he believed that a person needed to be “incommunicado” sometimes, just alone, being, playing. In such spontaneous moments a person was really alive.