Fearing Breakdown

Why America Needs a Teddy Bear

FOTO:FORTEPAN / Juli

The psychoanalyst and theorist Donald Winnicott left behind a complicated and unfinished paper, “Fear of Breakdown,” that has puzzled practitioners and students since its initial publication in 1974. The central concept is that he believed some patients suffer “primitive agonies” rooted in the individual’s earliest experiences. Put simply, these are the innocent—or otherwise—lapses in parenting that can happen in the first weeks of infancy (e.g., a misunderstood cry or missed late-night feeding).

So far, pretty standard psychoanalysis.

But the key feature of Winnicott’s theory is that “this thing of the past has not happened yet because the patient was not there for it to happen to.” In other words, the failures of the “facilitating environment” (the relationship between mother and child) happen in a pre-self state—a prehistorical time in an individual’s life when he or she doesn’t “exist” in a philosophical sense. Consequently, these “agonies” become noise embedded in the early data that predate memory. For some, this noise might be hard to detect but still continues to gum up the works in later life.

To simplify it further, let’s say my mother (like many women) had a challenging labor and struggled in the first days to meet both my needs and hers. A few days into the first week, I’m hungry but my cries go unanswered because she’s exhausted. Winnicott’s concept, in short, is that I experience this “primitive agony” as an infant, but it still hasn’t happened to me. Years later, in therapy, I might casually mention having anxiety at mealtime because I worry I’ll never have enough to eat. Accordingly, I don’t like to share my food with others. An analyst with Winnicott in mind might wonder if this is just a defense against experiencing in the present tense the “primitive agony” of going unfed as a baby.

I feel compelled to pause here. On occasion, I float some of these theories by a cross-section of friends that includes parents and non-parents. The women with children are usually the first to roll their eyes. First off, anyone (particularly a man) trying to “psycho-splain” childhood development to an attentive and patient mother can come off as naïve, if not entirely insulting. To be clear, I have a lot of compassion for parents—particularly mothers. Historically, psychoanalysis has been hard on them.

But it’s important to note that Winnicott, a pediatrician by training, also advocated for the “good enough parent,” an empathetic and realistic view of caretakers who rely on their natural instincts to create a nurturing environment. He stood in stark opposition to Melanie Klein’s more rigid model of early childhood, a time marked by split psychotic states and battles between “good” and “bad” breasts. All things considered, Winnicott keeps his theories fairly light and digestible.

So my “mom” in the above example did everything she could for me; “environmental vagaries” simply got in the way. Which is to say, in Winnicott’s theories, there is always an opportunity for absolution.

But then there are parental environments that just don’t cut it. This mother (sorry, dads, Winnicott did emphasize that distinction) doesn’t spend adequate time with her baby. She willfully withholds food no matter how loud the cries get. She ignores the scent of dirty diapers out of a selfish sense of squeamish disgust. She refuses to respond to efforts on the part of the infant to connect, remaining preoccupied with herself or, worse, disinterested in her child altogether.

This facilitating environment fails on all levels.

Years later, this child might end up in therapy to address defense mechanisms that, in Winnicott’s conception, are symptoms of an underlying fear of breakdown. Exactly what that breakdown might look like, I’m still uncertain. (After all, he left the paper unfinished.) But I can imagine what it might be like to constantly relive a time when one was so helpless that existence, a precarious void of uncertainty and nothingness, felt like it was under constant attack.


Weeks into the new American regime, I worry about the primitive agonies imprinted on the early history of our new world order. In Winnicott’s view, we only need a “good enough” mother to unlock the inherent program of normal childhood development. Sadly, we’ve found ourselves born into a discordant home to negligent parents.

And when the president and his spokespeople invent new and terrifying “environmental threats” out of thin air (like terrorist attacks that never happened), I’m compelled to think about psychic breakdown. They are perverting our system of self-governance by undermining the democratic values that sustain it. And, most distressing, they question the very principle that guides these values: truth itself. The administration has upended the traditional information cycle, where Washington generates news and the media reports on it. In our new bizarro universe, the traditionally reliable sources of information instead generate “fake news” while the watchdog White House reports on it. Klein might say this regime is feeding us the good and bad breast at the same time.

Winnicott would call this a failure of the facilitating environment.

To be clear, this is not meant to be a literal diagnosis of the president or his administration. As I’ve previously written, I’m circumspect about violating the “Goldwater Rule.” This is the American Psychiatric Association’s informal ethical standard that effectively prohibits mental-health practitioners from diagnosing public figures who they have not examined in person. Many therapists are flouting this mandate. (But the psychiatrist who helped write the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders recently made an elegant argument against this trend.) Instead, I’m putting psychoanalytic theory to what I believe is its best use: as a metaphor for understanding human behavior.

(N.B.: Anyone with a casual interest in the practice might consider thinking about the key concepts of psychoanalysis as creative metaphors that help us approximate a shared language around what is, thus far, ultimately unknowable: the unconscious. If you’re interested in “practical” technique, I would skip the work of theorists like Klein or Jacques Lacan in lieu of writers like Winnicott or Hyman Spotnitz.)

So then to extend this metaphor: If the first weeks of this administration can be compared to what Winnicott believed were the first crucial weeks of childhood development, then I worry we’re in for some extensive psychic trauma later.

He had another idea called the “Primary Maternal Preoccupation,” an intuitive state in which the mother is ordinarily attentive to the needs of her child. She feeds him when he is hungry, returns his gaze when he wants contact, and reciprocates his aggression with love. His view is hopeful. In general, parents can screw up—a few times.

But if things don’t change? Then it’s on them.

And I’ve lost all hope that this new administration can meet our needs. The president appears to have a favorite child (in his base) but couldn’t be bothered to feed the rest of us. He has no problem reflecting his own irrational obsessions—like the “Great Wall of Mexico” or voter fraud—in direct opposition to our pleas for a more hopeful, inclusive, and nurturing environment. And rather than absorb the disconcerting hatred of the white nationalists within his coalition, he simply reflects it back by retweeting dog whistles or finding new and progressively more inventive ways to normalize them. Even more bizarre, he somehow turned a question about increasing incidents of anti-Semitism into an opportunity to celebrate his “historic” victory.

It all makes me want to reach for my teddy bear and cry for my real mom.

If Winnicott’s name sounds at all familiar, you might be aware of his concept of transitional objects. We’ve all seen a baby intuitively suck his thumb or sleep with a soft toy (or else have done this ourselves). In theory, these “objects” help babies transition from an entirely internal existence to one that begins to interact with an external reality. Winnicott calls it “a tendency on the part of the infant to weave other-than-me objects into the personal pattern.” The key is, the baby determines the object for herself—no matter how much you want to force that handmade giraffe on her.

Lately I’ve been wondering what transitional objects I might latch onto this year to cope with this harsh new environment. So far, I’ve clung to Twitter in an attempt to curate my own private experience of the administration’s surreal and confusing external reality. And I get a distinctly personal sense of comfort when I watch Chuck Todd on Meet the Press. Whereas in prior administrations this media merely nourished my hunger for information, they have now become sources of comfort and anchors to a safer internal reality.

All of which is to say: Keep an eye out for your own unique comfort object. Hold to it tight. And take solace in the fact that, in Winnicott’s world, the baby creates its own sense of self—not the parents.