Psychotherapy has to do with two people playing together. The corrollary of this is that where playing is not possible then the work done by the therapist is directed towards bringing the patient from a state of not being able to play into a state of being able to play.
– D.W. Winnicott, Playing and Reality (1971), p. 51
In my prior post on Winnicott I described how the child’s “transitional object” — a teddy bear or blanket, say — serving first as a symbolic representation of the mother, expands to become an intermediate space between subjective and objective realities, a space where the child can play. Winnicott associates playing both with dreaming and with the ability to create. Free association by the patient constitutes a kind of verbal playing. So too with the therapist: it’s less important, says Winnicott, for the therapist’s interpretations to be accurate and for the patient to accepts them as Truth, than it is for the therapist to play with the patient’s verbalizations and for the patient in turn to be able to play with the interpretations — to entertain them, to explore and elaborate on them, to use them as a springboard for the patient’s own interpretations.
Winnicott contrasts play with fantasy. Play emerges from the unconscious, providing raw material for conscious engagement in the real world with new ideas, experiences and interpersonal relationships. Fantasy, on the other hand, is shaped by consciousness and constructs an alternative wished-for reality that forecloses active engagement in the here-and-now. For Winnicott, the ability to play is associated with the establishment of an intermediate territory between the subjective and objective worlds, a space where the self can encounter objects and other people without entirely dominating or being dominated by them. This play-space opens up around the self during childhood as the consequence of a non-traumatic separation from the mother. The child learns that, when the mother departs temporarily or withholds satisfaction of the child’s demands, that the mother hasn’t completely abandoned him. Likewise, when in anger and frustration the child “kills” the mother — i.e., detaches the mother from himself — the child is pleased to find that the mother survives her own death by becoming a separate person. Only then can the child regard the space between himself and the (m)other as a non-threatening area to explore. The objects and people he finds in that space become things he can play with. Without this non-traumatic separation from the mother, the intermediate space surrounding the self is experienced as a zone of threat and alienatation, cutting the person off from enjoyment and satisfaction. Satisfaction cannot be found in this zone; it can only be fantasized inside the person’s wholly subjective, imaginary realm that remains under the full control of the self. The rest of the world retreats to a position entirely exterior to the self, a place with which the self has no direct contact and which remains forever impervious to the self’s active engagement.
Winnicott presents a less traumatic picture of maternal separation than do Freud and Lacan, for whom the father’s implicit threat of castration provides the motivation to accede to this undesired separation. Like Lacan, Winnicott regards the Symbolic order as something that “kills” the primevally Real symbiotic connection with the mother. But for Winnicott the child who successfully enters the intermediate territory between self and (m)other where the Symbolic holds sway can have his cake and eat it too — the mother survives her symbolic death and is resurrected as a companion, someone for the child to find in the world, to use, to play with.
In the state of confidence that grows up when a mother can do this difficult thing well (not if she is unable to do it), the baby begins to enjoy experiences based on a ‘marriage’ of the omnipotence of intrapsychic processes with the baby’s control of the actual. Confidence in the mother makes an intermediate playground here, where the idea of magic originates, since the baby does to some extent experience omnipotence… Play is immensely exciting. It is exciting not primarily because the instincts are involved, be it understood! The thing about playing is always 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 to be reliable… When a patient cannot play the therapist must attend to this major symptom before interpreting fragments of behaviour. (pp. 63-64)
For Winnicott, then, psychotherapy is primarily a process of creating or restoring the patient’s ability to play. The means directly serves the end, because therapy is itself a form of play, and play is itself therapeutic.
The essential feature of my communication is this, that playing is an experience, always a creative experience, and it is an experience in the space-time continuum, a basic form of living. (p. 67)
Through identification with the mother, the child comes to an acceptance of himself as being. Through play, the child discovers himself as doing — a creator, a freely active agent in the environment.
What Winnicott never directly addresses in this book, however, is the situation in which the playing self encounters resistance from even the most supportive of environments. Certain kinds of playing are not allowed in the childhood environment: they are proscribed by rules. Other kinds of playing don’t yield the results the child may have intended: the crayon drawing of myself doesn’t look like it should, the cat won’t wear the party hat. Is it resistance that turns play into work? Or does a self-confident creator regard resistance as part of the game?
In the contemporary workplace, creative jobs provide workers with a loosely-structured, semi-protected “play space” and materials to play with. But this isn’t a free-play environment, and the players aren’t occupying the subjective state of non-purposive floating attention that is most conducive to creative play. That’s because the object of the game has already been assigned, and since the rules are never explicitly stated the worker must always be alert to signs that he’s being either not creative enough or too creative.
For some of the more creative workers the ambiguity of the creative workplace becomes neuroticizing or schizogenic: play becomes formulaic and repetitive, creativity is replaced by fantasy, the intermediate zone between subject and the cold objective world shrinks to nonexistence, the transitional object returns as a fetish or a mystified threat of castration…