Transitional Phenomena

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The original concept of transitional phenomena was used by Donald Winnicott to describe the intermediate area of human experience between inner reality and the outside world. The prototypical example is that of the transitional object, the first not-me possession of the baby. Thus a real, usually soft object is found by the baby and used as a defense against anxiety. The transitional object represents a real paradox in that it is not an internal object; it is a possession yet it is not an external object either. It grows out of the baby's relationship with the breast (which represents the whole technique of mothering) and his own body. For example, while sucking on his thumb he weaves not-me objects into his own autoerotic experience and personal pattern. Thus the transitional object allows for the illusion of infantile omnipotence at the same time as it forms a bridge to the outside world and the process of disillusion and the development of a shared reality. The ordinary care of the mother closely adapting to and meeting her infant's immediate needs fosters in the infant the illusion that what he desires he actually creates.

Transitional phenomena as a class of experiences also represent the use of illusion in allowing the creative co-existence of primary creativity and objective perception based on reality.

Winnicott presented his formulation of transitional phenomena to the British Psycho-Analytic Society in 1951, and this was published in 1952 in a paper, "Transitional Objects and Transitional Phenomena"subtitled "A study of the first not-me possession." The paper was republished in his collected works, Through Paediatrics to Psychoanalysis (1958), and is the key paper in his influential and popular book Playing and Reality (1971).

The notion of transitional phenomena is central to the framework of ideas which Winnicott uses to chart the course of the development of self, locating the self firmly and inextricably in the context of maternal care, the family and the wider world. Winnicott used his thousands of observations of infants and parents together to build up his idea of the baby's inner world of fantasy, illusion, and omnipotence. The mother, by intuitively anticipating and adapting to the baby's immediate physical needs, allows the infant to build up the illusion that he creates that which his mother provides. Between the age of four to eighteen months there may then emerge some thing or phenomenon (which may be a sound, mannerism, or the mother herself) which the baby uses to defend himself against anxiety, especially when falling asleep.

Winnicott says the transitional object has specific properties: the infant creates it himself, he can be both affectionate and aggressive to it; it must not change, unless changed by the infant; it must survive loving, hating, and aggression; it must seem to have vitality or reality of its own; it is neither a hallucination nor comes from within the baby; it is gradually decathected, but not lost and forms the basis of play, culture, and dreaming.

The patient's use of transitional phenomena can help in understanding psychopathological conditions such as fetishism, lying, stealing, and drug addiction. Winnicott (1971) describes a case of a boy with anxiety and obsessional symptoms where the boy's use of string is central to understanding both these inner and outer experiences. By providing the illusion of omnipotence and gradual disillusionment, parents set up a transitional space within which develop the child's creativity and capacity to play: "on the basis of play is built the whole of man's experiential existence" (1971). Play is a serious and necessary component of psychic life which forms part of adult life and culture. Playfulness and the use of transitional space and transitional phenomena form the foundation of much of Winnicott's psychoanalytic technique.

The transitional object is a concept that has entered the popular culture as the apparently ubiquitous security blanket or the teddy bear. There can be a misapprehension that such physical objects are necessary for healthy psychological development. Winnicott did not imply this but, like many of his concepts, transitional phenomena remain enigmatic and hard to define. This elusive sense seems to be just what he seeks to describe in the child's approach to the "relationship between what is objectively perceived and what is subjectively conceived of." This is indicative of Winnicott's imaginative and at times idiosyncratic metapsychology.

Paul Campbell and Ann Morgan

See also: Addiction; Child's play (the); Negative, work of; Object; Omnipotence, infantile; Primary object; Psychosomatic limit/boundary; Representation; Squiggle; Transitional object; Transitional object, space; Wish, hallucinatory satisfaction of a.


Hamilton, Victoria. (1982). Narcissus and OedipusThe children of psychoanalysis. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul Ltd.

Winnicott, Donald. (1975). Transitional objects and transitional phenomena. In: Through paediatrics to psycho-analysis (p. 229-242). London: Hogarth Press. (Original work published 1953)

. (1980). Playing and reality. Harmondsworth: Penguin. (Original work published 1971)