Skip to main content

Primitive Agony


In psychosis, the original "unthinkable state of affairs that underlies the defense organization" (Winnicott, 1974).

In Winnicott's developmental schema, the innate "maturational tendency" (of the baby to become integrated as a whole ongoing being) is effective insofar as there exists "a facilitating environment" (which both is and is not provided by an emotionally attuned mother) adapting and developing alongside the developing infant. The infant can then integrate, and eventually object-relate, proceeding from "absolute dependence" to "relative independence." Winnicott describes "the fear of breakdown" as the fear of re-experiencing the conditions previously feared during failure of the environment, which are described as various degrees and types of "primitive agony," associated with different defense systems, "disintegration" for example being a defense against unthinkable dread of a return to an "unintegrated state." These unthinkable fears will be reached in analysis in the transference, and it is during analysis that the feared but not yet experienced (because the subject was not yet integrated enough to experience it) disaster can be known and understood.

Winnicott approached this formulation earlier (Winnicott, 1962) as "unthinkable anxiety," and on different occasions, and while describing his concept of development used this earlier term. His purpose in using this term was to emphasize that psychotic illness, even "infantile autism" (Winnicott, 1967), is always a defense organization, and to describe the conditions underlying the establishment of such organizations.

Jennifer Johns

See also: Good-enough mother; Negative therapeutic reaction.


Winnicott Donald. (1945). Primitive emotional development. In Collected papers, through paediatrics to psychoanalysis. (p. 145-156). London: Tavistock Publications, 1958.

. (1974). Fear of breakdown. International Review of Psycho-Analysis, 1, 103-107. Also in Psychoanalytic explorations. (p. 87-95). Winnicott, Clare, Shepherd, Ray, and Davis, Madeleine (Eds.). London: Karnac, 1989.

. (1962). Ego-integration in child development. In The maturational processes and the facilitating environment. (p. 56-63). London: Hogarth Press and the Institute of Psycho-Analysis, 1965.

. (1967). The aetiology of infantile schizophrenia, in terms of adaptive failure. In Thinking about children. (p. 218-223). Shepherd, Ray, Johns, Jennifer, and Taylor Robinson, Helen (Eds.). London: Karnac, 1995.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Primitive Agony." International Dictionary of Psychoanalysis. . 19 Feb. 2019 <>.

"Primitive Agony." International Dictionary of Psychoanalysis. . (February 19, 2019).

"Primitive Agony." International Dictionary of Psychoanalysis. . Retrieved February 19, 2019 from

Learn more about citation styles

Citation styles gives you the ability to cite reference entries and articles according to common styles from the Modern Language Association (MLA), The Chicago Manual of Style, and the American Psychological Association (APA).

Within the “Cite this article” tool, pick a style to see how all available information looks when formatted according to that style. Then, copy and paste the text into your bibliography or works cited list.

Because each style has its own formatting nuances that evolve over time and not all information is available for every reference entry or article, cannot guarantee each citation it generates. Therefore, it’s best to use citations as a starting point before checking the style against your school or publication’s requirements and the most-recent information available at these sites:

Modern Language Association

The Chicago Manual of Style

American Psychological Association

  • Most online reference entries and articles do not have page numbers. Therefore, that information is unavailable for most content. However, the date of retrieval is often important. Refer to each style’s convention regarding the best way to format page numbers and retrieval dates.
  • In addition to the MLA, Chicago, and APA styles, your school, university, publication, or institution may have its own requirements for citations. Therefore, be sure to refer to those guidelines when editing your bibliography or works cited list.