Subjectivity, Narcissism and Self Psychology – Freud and Beyond Part 5

Pru’s subjectivity and Winnicott

Welcome to Part 5 in this series of psychoanalytic blogs based on the book Freud and Beyond by Stephen A. Mitchell and Margaret J. Black. If you’ve read every post so far, what the hell is wrong with you? You need to get out more! Only joking – you’re a legend. And I really appreciate it. Whether you’ve read them all, a few or this is your first, thanks for taking part in the Being and Niceness project. This blog contains various ideas from a few different thinkers – and one of those I’d like to begin with is DW Winnicott, the English psychoanalyst. In particular, his notion of the ‘good-enough mother’. I have long thought that one couldn’t hope to find a better mother than my wife Pru. She has always put our son Sammy’s needs before her own since the day he was born (and long before!)

It’s interesting, because when we first met, she wasn’t even certain that she wanted kids. And yet, she’s so attentive, patient, selfless, kind and understanding with Sammy that, frankly, it puts my own parenting capabilities to shame. Pru is no doubt a wonderful mum – mainly because she’s a typical version of Winnicott’s good-enough mother. Her devotion and commitment to Sammy and his needs has seen her cede big parts of herself. It’s not a criticism – I just mean that she’s been so determined to give him everything he needs to thrive that she’s often sacrificed her own needs, wants and desires.

She has been willing to give up large parts of her sense of self and quash her own subjectivity in order to put Sammy first – always. Now, I love the boy with all my heart, but I still go out fairly regularly, get pissed occasionally and, sometimes, let my hair down. Me and Pru had always been up for a good time – but since Sammy came along, she hasn’t been drunk, smoked a single cigarette or even stayed a night away from him. This might not sound a lot, but to me her level of devotion is quite remarkable. I am in awe of it. For Winnicott, in infancy, feeding isn’t the key to developing a healthy psyche – love is. No autonomous child develops without it.

Mitchell and Black explain how, from Winnicott’s perspective, a mother becomes more and more concerned with their baby’s needs as it prepares to be born. The body of the mother is taken over by the infant – and Winnicott saw this as symbolically emblematic of the earliest months of life. As the mum-to-be readies herself for the new arrival, her own subjectivity begins to fade to into the background. Her own personal interests take a back seat – this is exactly what I’ve seen happen with Pru. The wishes and needs of the infant become the mother’s main priority – her body goes through a great deal of pain and discomfort for the child. This element of the sacrifice is, of course, non-negotiable – the mother is essentially locked in a scenario where she has no choice but to adhere to the demands placed upon her.

But the key to Winnicott’s ‘good-enough mother’ is that she offers herself as a vehicle for the baby, and its wants and expressions. As I’ve said in previous posts, I don’t believe it’s any psychoanalyst’s intentions to label anyone a “bad mother” in these instances – it’s just terminology to express how particular mothers aid healthy psychological development in their offspring. The way this relationship develops therefore gives the infant a “subjective omnipotence” – until they know better, they are this all-powerful centre of all being. It creates a moment of illusion – whereby the baby seems to have every wish at their command; be it warmth, food, love.

The mother creates something Winnicott calls a “holding environment” – sometimes she’s there, sometimes she’s not. The mother cannot continue to be there for the child all the time – and meet their every need. Eventually, she misses a beat here or there – and the child begins to realise they are not omnipotent. The mother simply cannot deliver the whole world to them all of the time. The infant now feels dependant for the first time and realises the world is not comprised of just one subjectivity, but many. To satisfy one’s desires, one must negotiate with other people in the world, who have their own agendas.

My son Sammy is two now – and so he is beginning to realise that he can’t have everything his own way (well, sort of!) But there is no doubt that my wife Pru has given her all to provide the best platform for his future psychological development. I now feel like it’s time for her to take a little bit of life back for herself. She needs to restore a part of her own subjectivity. I’m not saying she needs to go out and smoke 20 Marlboros while downing a bottle of tequila – just that she should allow herself a little more me-time every now and again, put her own needs first occasionally and spend a bit more time (on her own) with friends having a laugh and remembering that she’s a person who matters, too.

Sammy’s doggy – the transitional object

As part of this subjective omnipotence the child experiences, Winnicott explains how they create a desired object – such as the controlling breast. Inevitably, objective reality comes into play, and as part of the child’s transitional experience they are compelled to rediscover the desired object somewhere in the world. The object is ambiguous and paradoxical, Mitchell and Black tell us – it’s somewhere “in-between”. I find this all very interesting, because my son Sammy has his own transitional object – a cuddly toy dog; or, more specifically, a white Jellycat dog with brown ears. His name is Doggy – naturally. And Sammy has one at home, one at nursery and one at his grandparents’.

We were told to use a comforter by our sleep training consultant (Anna Knight – whose advice changed our lives for the better) and Sammy has slept with Doggy every night ever since. The staff at Sammy’s nursery also insisted we give them a Doggy with my wife Pru’s scent on it in the early days – and now, thanks to Freuds and Beyond, I can see why! Doggy is the transitional object representation of Sammy’s mother which gives him comfort. Winnicott suggests that the good-enough parent must accept the specialness of the teddy bear, Doggy or whatever becomes the transitional object.

The transitional object allows the child to maintain its fantasied tie to the mother as her gradual separation continues throughout infancy. Winnicott believed this was all about the way the child positions its ‘self’ in relation to others. The teddy bear, Doggy or whatever it may be represents the halfway point between subjective omnipotence and the mother on her own in the objective world. Sammy’s Doggy simply makes the transition easier – it helps the child on the great journey towards realising itself as a separate object. If you’re thinking of having kids, here’s my advice – buy a few Doggys in advance. Some of them can be a right pain in the arse to get hold of!

Peter, Winnicott and the uneven self

I’d like to briefly touch upon a case study in Freud and Beyond at this point which made me rather sad. It illuminates the uneven self experience of a patient of Winnicott’s named Peter, who was a mechanic. Now, Peter was amazing at fixing stuff, but clueless when it came to more creative and emotional pursuits. Mitchell and Black explain how this was due to the fact he constantly had to act as a mediator/fixer for his depressed, argumentative parents. That is really shit. No child should have to endure that kind of scenario growing up.

Peter basically had no real childhood. “Don’t get your hopes up” – this was the lame mindset drummed into his psyche as a child. But kids need encouragement as well as realism. Mitchell and Black tell us that Peter was searching for something missing in his life – his parents hadn’t taken care of him supportively and were always at each other’s throats – so he’d became a ‘mediator’ at a young age. Thus, he became a purely logical being – using his smarts to stabilise the troublesome environment he found himself in. Winnicott realised that his development was uneven – he could fix just about anything, yet wasn’t capable of abstract thought. When it came to things he couldn’t use his brain to fix, it caused him severe anxiety.

This all makes me aware just how important it is to ensure my son Sammy has the right platform to develop a well-rounded sense of self – one that is embedded in both the creative world and the objective one. Let your kids be kids – they need to enjoy their childhood. They shouldn’t be acting as mediators for warring parents – they need to grow up in a safe space; they need to develop at the right pace and be protected from the rigours of adulthood until they’re ready to make the necessary next steps in their own process of Individuation. Let’s never get ahead of ourselves.

Winnicott’s sense of self and Sammy

While we’re on the subject of one’s sense of self, I thought I’d quickly touch upon something I find quite fascinating – Sammy has never said his own name! As I write this, he’s set to reach the age of two in two months’ time, yet he still point-blank refuses to say his name! Pru thinks it might be because ‘Sammy’ is difficult for kids that age to verbalise, but I’ve heard his nursery pals say it. And we’ve been trying to get him to do it for a good year now. He often looks sheepish, and sometimes appears to be close to attempting it, but he still won’t do it. What’s more, he’ll basically attempt to repeat anything you say to him these days and can say the names of almost all his nursery mates and family members (to varying degrees of success).

As a psychoanalysis enthusiast, there is a big part of me that wonders whether or not he is still coming to terms with himself in the objective world. Maybe he just isn’t ready to give up that sense of omnipotence yet – to finally accept and realise that he is ‘Sammy’ the separate object – and that he has an entirely independent subjective experience. It must be a daunting prospect – to finally accept that you are your own self. No wonder he’s taking his time! I believe that as parents, we need to help make a child’s passage into personal subjectivity as smooth and safe and protected as possible. I would imagine this helps a more rounded, ‘whole’ sense of self to emerge.

Winnicott tells us that too much subjective omnipotence is essentially an autistic mode of being. Whereas a sense of too much objective reality leads to a person lacking passion and originality. I guess I’ll just continue to let Sammy develop at his own pace – he’s now saying me and mine, and I doubt it’ll be too long before he’s finally ready to accept himself as Sammy. And if you ask him who Sammy is, he’ll point to his chest. Have you had any experiences similar to this, dear reader? At what point did your child finally verbalise their own name? Please let me know in the comments section below.

Kohut, Eduardo and Sammy the little prince

What’s that you say? You want to move on to some ideas based on the work of Austrian psychoanalyst Heinz Kohut? Well, you’re in luck – because that’s exactly what I’m going to do. There’s an interesting case study in Freud and Beyond that focuses on Kohut’s patient Eduardo, a gay man whose father was absent in childhood, and who thus formed a rather unhealthy relationship with his mother. He was unable to relinquish Oedipal fantasies and this affected his ability to forge meaningful relationships in adulthood, as well as the way he saw himself. He wasn’t psychotic and was functional socially, yet he was so caught up in his own sense of grandeur and perfection that he was emotionally impenetrable.

Eduardo developed a narcissistic character pathology – in part due to her intense involvement in his life; he was spoiled by excessive attention. Kohut noted that the father was absent during the crucial Oedipal phase and this encouraged Eduardo’s misguided sense of grandiosity. The maternal overindulgence he experienced left him with an unrealistic fantasy – he was sole possessor of his mother. Eduardo – this “great improvement over his father” – was his mother’s ‘little prince’. Mitchell and Black reveal how Freud saw ‘normality’ as an ability to love and work. Kohut went a stage further and suggested it was important one was able to feel joyful and proud of these capacities – one must have an “inner vitality”.

“Are relationships with others worthwhile if pursued at the expense of loving oneself?,” write Mitchell and Black in reference to Kohut’s ideology. He believed that good feelings about oneself contributed to the vitality and richness of our encounters with others. And Kohut wanted to know how the patient felt – he didn’t see Eduardo as a spoiled little boy at all, but as a puppet under his mother’s control. Eduardo experienced recurring feelings that he had no self – he became almost inhuman. His mother didn’t actually time to get to know who he really was and used him for her own needs. He didn’t get too much attention – it was rather the attention he got that was key. His connection to his mother relied on looking good – this was his persona.

Somewhere along the line that magical feeling we all have as kids – where we’re omnipotent superheroes capable of anything – was derailed in place of pathological narcissism. But Kohut insists that the vitality, exuberance, expansiveness and personal creativity which stems from the wellsprings of childhood should be preserved in healthy adulthood. All of this just reinforces the notion that I have an important role to play, along with Pru and others, in giving our son Sammy a balanced upbringing. We need to make sure that Sammy goes through the Oedipal phase in a balanced and safe manner – to avoid delusions of grandeur and self-absorption.

If he sees himself too much as mummy’s little prince, it will affect how he forges meaningful relationships with others in adult life. He can’t just have his mother symbolically – he needs to move on past his incest wish in order to become more receptive to and appreciative of what others can give him to enrich his life. This, I hope, will help him to become a more rounded person later in life – and give him the best possible chance to make lasting and meaningful connections with others.

Kohut, Taoism and children who know

To continue the Kohutian theme, I’d like to refer back to something I just mentioned about children, superheroes and vitality. Mitchell and Black suggest that Kohut’s psychologically healthy child needs to have their sense of wonder protected – the child in his superman cape needs to have his exuberance enjoyed. We need to actually indulge those grandiose fantasies – as those early narcissistic states contain the “kernels of healthy narcissism”. It is the exposure to reality that then shapes us. We all eventually come to terms with the fact we can’t walk through walls – or that dad can’t actually lift up a JCB with his bare hands. The child survives these various frustrations and disappointments – and in the process internalises functional features of the self-object.

I’m going to do my best to ensure Sammy retains his sense of infantile robustness and wonder – and try to maintain the vitality of childhood for him. The terror of one’s existential acceptance of a life without meaning lurks in the background, of course. But, for now, let’s just encourage him to wear that Iron Man costume and enjoy those feelings of indestructible omnipotence. This all makes me think about Taoism and the significant role the childish spirit plays in that philosophy. As Benjamin Hoff so beautifully illustrates the idea in The Tao of Pooh, the independent, clear-minded, all-seeing child is viewed as the highest stage of development – children who know.

We are encouraged to return to the beginning – become a child again. To be enlightened is to be filled with light and happiness like children. The mind empties of countless somethings of small learning (knowledge we don’t actually need) and is filled with wisdom of Great Nothing/Wu Wei (the way of the universe). Maybe we all need to listen to the wisdom of Kohut – and try to rediscover the joy of childhood. I don’t mean we need to start attempting to walk through walls or lift up JCBs. It’s perhaps just as simple as doing more things that bring you joy, encourage your exuberance or help you reignite that inner vitality. Be it music, dance, art, sport, or just bouncing on a fucking trampoline – have some fun. Be a kid again. You’ll enjoy it.

Kohut and the narcissistic kernels of strength

I’d like to end this post by expanding on another theme I just mentioned – mainly because I really like the idea. It’s the notion that a healthy narcissism in childhood can help to solidify our inner strength into adulthood. As mentioned, Mitchell and Black illuminate the way Kohut saw our early narcissistic states as loaded with the “kernels of healthy narcissism”. The omnipotent superhero child who can apparently do almost anything gradually comes to terms with the true nature of reality – and all the difficulties, frustrations and crushing truths that brings. But this is all just a part of building one’s character – the child that learns to soothe itself is going through a “transmuting internalisation”, according to Mitchell and Black; they’re building an internal structure. Eventually, a resilient self emerges – one that retains those kernels of excitement and the vitality of those original, immature narcissistic states.

I am reminded of something I came across in my Carl Jung series based on Murray Stein’s book Map of the Soul. Stein demonstrated the notion that it’s actually beneficial for kids to suffer psychic strife in order to grow and develop – and the same goes for frustrations and disappointments in a Kohutian context. As a father, it is my duty to protect my son. But I must be wary of overprotecting him. Exposure to the various ups and downs of life is what building those internal kernels of strength is all about. We need to allow our children to be exposed to reality in a supportive environment, while allowing them to rise to the occasion of their own bumps in the road – the disillusionments of everyday life (and how we grow from experiencing them) are what eventually define us.

That’s not to say that one needs to endure a life of heartache, suffering and disappointment to become a well-rounded being. It’s more the stoic Nietzschean premise of amor fati that I’m referring to here – try to enjoy, appreciate and embrace life for ALL it is; the ups and the downs, the joy and the suffering, the love and the hate. Every piece of it is necessary, and every piece of it is a part of your story – if you can find it in your being to “love fate”, those kernels of strength of will be almost unbreakable. It’s all about experiencing the past differently – a new kind of redemption. Learn from your mistakes and use them to shape a better future for yourself. If there’s something about your life that you really don’t like, remember that you have those inner kernels of strength and do something to change it. Deep down – we’re all superheroes.