Donald Winnicott had a theory which goes something like this. When a baby is born, it’s unable to distinguish its own self from its environment. It identifies its own existence inextricably with the existence of its primary caregiver, most often its mother. Over time, as the child develops a clearer and distinctive sense of self, it naturally grows in independence. As the child makes this transition, it typically latches onto an object (often something like a toy or a blanket) which provides an interim sense of relational presence, security and continuity, including when the caregiver is absent.
Winnicott referred to such objects as ‘transitional objects’, that is, objects that enable the child’s healthy psychological transition from merged identity to separate identity. According to this theory, the child invests its security in the object, identifies closely with it thereby it serves as a defence against anxiety. Because the child hasn’t yet developed a full and secure sense of self-identity, if the transitional object is removed, changed or appears to be threatened (e.g. if the caregiver takes the toy away to wash it) during this phase, the child can feel as if its own security is threatened.
Over time, however, most children learn to let go of the transitional object without feeling a sense of anxiety or loss. It’s as if the object has functioned as a kind of psychological bridge for the child during the transition process and, once crossed, the child no longer needs it. The question occurs of what happens for a child if the transitional experience is absent, inconsistent or disrupted. How does this influence the child’s sense of self and security in the world and in future relationships? Could the child-as-adult subconsciously grasp at other objects to enable the still unfulfilled transition?
It’s difficult, of course, to know with any degree of clarity and certainty how a baby actually experiences itself, its environment and its relationship to it. Theories such as Winnicott’s above serve as a working hypothesis. There are resonances with how adults respond to change, however, that I find fascinating and compelling. I’ve observed intriguing examples of this transitional principle manifest itself in practice. In one such case, an organisation I worked with as consultant was facing considerable change and its members were facing an uncertain future.
In the midst of these changes, one of the members decided to remove a wooden lectern from the podium from which the leader normally spoke. To his great surprise, this simple action almost provoked rebellion. It’s as if the lectern had been imbued with special symbolic significance, a transitional object that provided members with a sense of continuity with the past and thereby security in the present in the midst of considerable anxiety. Psychodynamically, the uncertainty of the current transition may have reverberated subconsciously with earlier transitions in childhood.
In a similar vein, William Bridges wrote a now famous book, Managing Transitions that explores how people in organisations deal with shifting between realities during times of organisational change. He speaks in particular of how to lead people though the interim phase, the ‘neutral zone’ where the past is left behind but the future is not yet reached. Rosabeth Moss Kanter writes on similar lines in her article, Managing the Human Side of Change on how to avoid inadvertently evoking psychodynamic defensive routines. Interestingly, Bridges draws on parallels from Exodus in the Bible.
The biblical narrative posits a radically theocentric worldview in which God takes his people on a journey, a ‘transition’, from places of relative security through wilderness and insecurity towards a promised future. The Israelites and later Christians are called upon to hold onto God, to trust him above all else. This demands profound and at times nail-biting, nerve-stretching faith in the midst of all kinds of confusing and challenging circumstances. It's a tough call to step from known into unknown, from safety into risk. In light of Winnicott’s theory, I find this spiritual metaphysic curious and intriguing.
It depicts life and human history as a macro transition process, mirrored like fractals in our earliest childhood and in different aspects of personal and social experience. We encounter, invest in and draw from ‘transitional objects’ on route, those critical relationships, experiences and resources that hold the potential to define, make sense of and fulfil our deepest identity and purpose. Some believe that faith in God is a projection of psychological need onto an imaginary being. Could it be possible, however, that God hardwired this pattern for transition into our psychological DNA?
Nick Wright is a coach and consultant, specialising in reflective practice.