The Space Between

Children's play was not only the child's more or less disguised representation of a craving for the object, but the child's finding and becoming a self.

The transitional space in which the child plays, or the adult talks, is, in Winnicott's view, 'an intermediate area of experiencing to which inner reality and external life both contribute', and it exists as 'a resting-place for the individual engaged in the perpetual task of keeping inner and outer reality separate yet inter-related'.

Transitional space breaks down when either inner or outer reality begins to dominate the scene, just as a conversation stops if one of the participants takes over.

At the very beginning, when the infant begins to be able to acknowledge that his monologue is, in fact, a dialogue, he needs this 'intermediate state between [his] inability and growing ability to recognize and accept reality', what Winnicott now refers to in the terms of his own developmental theory as 'the substance of illusion, that which is allowed to the infant, and which in adult life is inherent in art and religion'.

This is a long way from Freud's view of culture as the sublimation of instinctual life, or the wishful compensation for the frustrations imposed by reality.  

In the Freudian scheme, culture signifies instinctual renunciation; for Winnicott it was the only medium for self-realization.

What Winnicott rather misleadingly calls 'shared reality' is constituted by the sharing of illusions. Shared reality is the area of overlap between those individual preoccupations that Winnicott calls illusions, not because they are false but because they combine the desired with the actual in tolerable ways.

'If we wish,' he writes, 'we may collect together and form a group on the basis of the similarity of our illusory experiences. This is the natural root of grouping among human beings.'

[Adam Phillips]
Winnicott, p.119

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