D W Winnicott and play

Jacqueline and I are sitting in a flat in Brixton to interview my old friend Kate, a child psychotherapist. Kate previously worked in theatre and then moved over into psychotherapy. She explains that for her, therapy is a creative and healing act; and fundamentally it is a way to try to live more fully. Ditto art. D. W. Winnicott crops up early in the conversation. I remember the name vaguely from university.

“Psychotherapy takes place in the overlap of two areas of playing, that of the patient and that of the therapist. Psychotherapy has to do with two people playing together.” D. W. Winnicott

“It is in the space between inner and outer world, which is also the space between people–the transitional space–that intimate relationships and creativity occur.” D. W. Winnicott

Playing happens in spaces between our inner worlds and external reality. Neither exclusively in our imagination, nor quite in the external world, a place where our imagination can shape reality without compliance. Anxiety might have a presence but “there is a degree of anxiety that is unbearable and this destroys playing”.

In true play, we are not compliant and what we are doing doesn’t necessarily ‘make sense’ – then a creative reaching-out can take place”. Winnicott sees this creative reaching out as a quest for self.

Kate talks about meaning-making – that we attempt to make sense of things or to tell our story or a story about the world because otherwise, we would exist in a state of terror, of disintegration – we would feel as if we were falling forever. Without a story, our story, we are lost. But stories have ambiguity, gaps, they evolve.

For Winnicott/Kate, play rather than intellectual explanations of what is being expressed by the unconscious, is enough.

The therapist/audience make links as they watch, they co-create stories.

The three of us muse about art that has satisfied our intellect and our deeper, muckier, less articulate selves; the deep self responds to the unsayable/poetic/bodily. Art that oscillates between offering us meaning – or at least footholds onto which we grip before it plunges us into rich abstraction. That offers us enough but not too much sense – enough that we can dream around what we see and hear, not so little that we become alienated, anxious or disconnected and not so much that there is no room for us to climb into the gaps and play.

Just enough confusion, like a good flirtation, to keep us interested.





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