Transitional Object, Space

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Transitional objects (Donald Winnicott) originate in that phase of an infant's development when inner and outer reality begin to become apparent. They are at once "me" and "not-me," and are transitional in that they facilitate the transition from the omnipotence of the tiny baby for whom external objects have not yet separated out, to the capacity to relate to "objectively perceived" objects.

Transitional space (intermediate area, third area) is that space of experiencing, between the inner and outer worlds, and contributed to by both, in which primary creativity (illusion) exists and can develop ("Transitional Objects and Transitional Phenomena," Winnicott, 1951; further developed in Winnicott, 1971). From as early as 1945, Winnicott, from within his own concepts of object-relations, approached the infant's developing capacity to discover and adapt to reality. He described first the common patterns of infancy in which a very young baby first finds a thumb, or a fist, to suck, and may stroke his own face, gather a piece of material and suck or stroke it, or make babbling noises; Winnicott assumed accompanying fantasy and used the term transitional for these phenomena.

Later in infancy it may happen that both the activity and the object become necessary when the baby is going to sleep, or anxious. Babies may discover a particular object, perhaps a soft toy or a blanket, or a sound, or piece of behavior, that fulfils the purpose, and this, the transitional object, becomes important and is recognized to be so by the parents, who unconsciously know that it represents a continuity of experience that the baby needs. For this reason parents know that it is not to be changed, or even washed, but must accompany the infant, to be loved or attacked as the baby fancies. This "transitional object" becomes the first "not-me" possession, and while it is symbolic of a part-object, is important in that it is neither the baby nor that object. Winnicott listed the special qualities of the relationship with the object, which must survive; must, from the baby's point of view, come from neither without nor within; will become decathectedlose its significance, not forgotten, not mourned, but losing meaning, at that stage when a wider cultural field has come into being. In early infancy the "good-enough mother" provides a near-perfect environment, allowing the baby the illusion of unity and omnipotenceWinnicott stated that the infant "creates" the breast"primary creativity," which is known as a "subjective object." The disillusion necessary to permit awareness of outside reality must be dosed to the infant in such a way that the infant's creativity survives the passage to the recognition of objective reality.

Winnicott used the term transitional to describe the "intermediate" or "third area," "between the thumb and the teddy bear, between the oral erotism and the true object-relationship, between primary creative activity and projection of what has already been introduced, between primary unawareness of indebtedness and the acknowledgment of indebtedness ('Say ta')" (Winnicott, 1951). It is in this area, where fantasy and reality overlap, that creativity, including the basis for adult cultural life, and play originate (Winnicott, 1971). Winnicott compared this with the therapeutic situation, where the worlds of the patient and analyst overlap, echoing Freud's concept of the analytic playground.

Related subjects include:

  • Fetishistic objectsone possible fate of the transitional object, according to Winnicott.
  • Illusion of unity within a frameworkMilner.
  • Autistic objectTustin.
  • Self-objectKohut.
  • Transformational objectBollas.
  • Transitional stage/quasi-independenceFairbairn.

Possibly the most widely known of Winnicott's contributions, especially in the worlds of paediatrics and child care, the concepts of transitional phenomena and the thinking about illusion are firmly rooted in his object-related developmental viewpoint and underlie Winnicott's ideas about creativity, which according to him is a primary human element. The popular acceptance of the idea should not be allowed to disguise the importance of this line of Winnicott's thinking, which, despite the incorporation of his concept of paradox into his style of writing, eventually provides the foundation for his theories of play with its relationship to creative analytic work, and also his late, subtle, and important paper "The Use of an Object and Relating Through Identifications" (1971), in which he charts a further stage of change from that of "object-relating," when the object, while separate, is felt to be still under the omnipotent control of the infant, to that of "object-usage," when the object is allowed reality and autonomy.

Jennifer Johns

See also: Transitional object; Transitional phenomena.


Winnicott, Donald. (1953). Transitional objects and transitional phenomena. International Journal of Psycho-Analysis, 34,89-97;andin Collected papers, through paediatrics to psychoanalysis (p. 229-242). London: Tavistock, 1958. Additional material was added to the paper in his Playing and reality. (pp. 1-30) London: Tavistock, 1971.

. (1958). Primitive emotional development. In Collected papers, through paediatrics to psychoanalysis (pp. 145-156). London: Tavistock. (Original work published 1945)

. (1971). The use of an object and relating through identifications. In his Playing and reality (pp. 101-121). London: Tavistock.

Further Reading

Brody, Sylvia. (1980). Transitional objects: Idealization of a phenomenon. Psychoanalytic Quarterly, 49, 561-605.

Giovacchini, Peter L. (1984). The psychoanalytic paradox: The self as a transitional object. Psychoanalytic Review, 71, 81-104.

Greenacre, Phyllis. (1969). The fetish and the transitional object. Psychoanalytic Study of the Child, 24, 144-164.