Peter Jay Stein, MD, MA
THE WINNICOTT-KOHUT CONNECTION
Donald Winnicott (1896 - 1971) and Heinz Kohut (1913 - 1981)
Freud and Beyond
A History of Modern Psychoanalytic Thought
(Black, Mitchell, 1995, pp. 124-134, & 149-169)
One may wonder why Kohut had made no references to Winnicott, who had formulated concepts regarding emotional development and treatment prior to, and similar to Kohut's, in describing the developing infant as a subjective being, depending heavily on the intersubjective relationship with mother, in the infant's struggle to generate a "real self". Winnicott describes a 'second chance' that psychotherapy offers, within the secure, analytic environment, that parallels the "good-enough" mother (p. 125), in order for the individual to resume his/her personal and unique developmental path, facilitated by the experiential milieu of the analyst (mother), who functions within a fertile "holding environment" (p. 126).
The authors describe Winnicott's vision, that the development of the self, the emergence of "personhood", is vitally linked to "...the environment that the mother provide(s)...[whereby]...the good-enough mother intuits the child's desire...and shapes the world around the child so as to fulfill that desire..." (pp. 125-126). Presaging Kohut's "selfobject functions", the authors say further that "...The state of primary maternal preoccupation...enables the mother to suspend her own subjectivity to become the medium for the development of the subjectivity of the infant..." (p. 126).
Fast forward, to Mitchell and Black's salient, richly expressed summary of the contributions of Heinz Kohut (pp. 149-169):
Kohut describes the disruption of healthy emotional development due to a failure in the development of healthy narcissism. Healthy narcissism, for Kohut, means that self-esteem and grandiosity are well-regulated, there is a concurrent maintenance of an inner solidarity and vitality, there exist capacities for sustained efforts towards one's goals (without being crushed by defeat), and one feels the pride and pleasure of success. The healthy person sustains capacities for vitality, exhuberance, personal creativity, and expansiveness, features which, often characteristic of a young child, are lost with the passage of time, as one adapts to the world's demands (p.158).
Kohut sought to discover how infantile vitality and robust self-regard can be preserved in healthy adulthood. He describes 3 general types of human experiences, generated in infancy and childhood, whereby the mother serves 3 predominant, vital, often insufficiently available, "selfobject" functions, experienced by the child as part of himself, which are "...early narcissistic states of mind [that] must be allowed slow transformation on their own..." (p. 159). 1) Through a mirroring recognition and admiration of the child's wishful imaginings; 2) through accepting herself as an idealized figure with whom the child identifies and idealizes; and 3) through eliciting, and validating a sense of sameness, or likeness to the analyst, ("twinship" or "alter ego"), the needed selfobject functions are internalized, and provide the foundation for a reliable "psychic structure", whereby one can confidently engage in the capacities described in the preceding paragraph.
Parallel to these developmental concepts, Kohut found that, in the treatment of his adult patients, where the "selfobject transferences" become manifest, the patient does not need a witholding attitude, an interpretation, or a confrontation, but "...an extended immersion in these transferential states to gradually develop a more reliable sense of vitality or well-being...[in order to develop] a much more cohesive, resilient, robust sense of self..." (p. 161).
"...the patient is attempting to re-animate a disrupted developmental process...[when] the patient can experience [the analyst] in the needed developmental role...[it allows for the resumption of the] stalled developmental process...rather than interpretation, analytic interventions are aimed more at articulating how the patient is needing to regard the analyst's function in the transference, openly accepting this need and empathizing when the patient experiences the analyst's [inevitable and natural and expectable] shortcomings (p. 162).