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Breakdown

BREAKDOWN

The term breakdown draws on Donald Winnicott's posthumous article "The Fear of Breakdown," published in 1974. Winnicott was referring to mental breakdown associated with a serious failure of the facilitating environment at such an early stage that the self is not yet capable of dealing with it, experiencing it, integrate it, giving it meaning, or retain a recognizable memory of it.

Winnicott describes the temporal paradox that results when the disaster occurs too early in the child's development to be properly experienced. The fear of breakdown is the product of the persistence of this unassimilated experience, which is perceived as a continuing permanent threat even though the disaster has actually already happened.

The interpretation according to which the feared cataclysm has already occurred gives meaning to its re-actualization during the transference in response to the minor failures of the holding environment. The breakdown emphasizes the essential fact that the loss of the object occurred before the object and self were differentiated. Here Winnicott distinguishes his own position from that of Melanie Klein: self and object exist and function during infancy. Yet, for Winnicott, the issue is not an object loss that can be metabolized through introjection (mourning) or incorporation (melancholy), but rather the subject's experience of annihilation, and mental agony.

In this way, at the end of his life, Winnicott completed his conceptualization of the pathogenic infantile deprivation in the environment before the self had had a chance to organize itself: a massive deficiency resulting in the organization of a psychosis and breaks in continuity leading to "psychotic depression." When the self is sufficiently organized, this same situation can lead to antisocial tendencies. Winnicott's "primitive agony" can be compared to the "black hole" of autism described by Frances Tustin.

In these cases, therefore, the recollection of infantile trauma is not to be found in memory traces of the event but in the subject's anguished sense of fragility.

Denys Ribas

See also: Autistic capsule/nucleus; Bulimia; Deprivation; Primitive agony; Splitting.

Bibliography

Winnicott, Donald W. (1974). Fear of breakdown. International Review of Psychoanalysis, 1, 103-107.

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breakdown

break·down / ˈbrākˌdoun/ • n. 1. a failure of a relationship or of communication: the breakdown of their marriage. ∎  a collapse of a system of authority due to widespread transgression of the rules: a breakdown in military discipline. ∎  a sudden collapse in someone's mental health. ∎  a mechanical failure. ∎  [in sing.] the chemical or physical decomposition of something: the breakdown of ammonia to nitrites. 2. an explanatory analysis, esp. of statistics: a detailed cost breakdown. 3. a lively, energetic American country dance.

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"breakdown." The Oxford Pocket Dictionary of Current English. . Encyclopedia.com. 20 Jul. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

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breakdown

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