Below I’ve written about two models, one from Esther Bick and the other from Donald Winnicott, for understanding early psychological development in the relation between the infant and the mother or primary caregiver. I have also attached a chart to summarize these models. Works referenced below are listed in the document. Enjoy! And please do let me know if I can be more clear about any of summaries given for these models. I have tried to be as brief as possible which means there is condensation of material. Hopefully this necessary condensation does not obscure the main points. I recommend reading the works referenced, as well, and using the summaries I have provided to begin organizing thinking about the material.

Esther Bick

The infant experiences parts of itself as disorganized and cannot by the power of these parts organize itself into an experience of a whole personality. Thus, the infant requires a passive experience of unity in order to introject this unity as a part of the personality. For Bick, this passive experience comes in the skin-to-skin contact with the mother during the feeding period.

This organizing element consists both in the attention the infant gives to the object during feeding period, the nipple, for example, or the breast as a whole, and the attention the mother gives to the infant, both in holding the infant against her body and in the use of her mind to think about the infant’s experience. Bick believes this organizing element serves a containing function. What is containing is that the variegated feelings of the infant are felt to, in the skin to skin contact, be concentrated both in the physical sensation of the skin and in how the mother responds to the infant’s feelings with her own feelings and with her own mind, giving the infant a sense of being over time.

For Bick, introjection of a containing function originally in the form of a concretized object (the skin), followed by an identification with it in the self (“the skin of the mind” that feels experience), creates the phantasy of internal space. Because the skin is used as a containing object it creates a phantasy of internal and external space.

Once this space is created in phantasy, and introjection and projection are used for the development of the personality and not to support an unintegrated state of helplessness, then splitting can also be used by the infant, for defensive purposes, to develop the mind and personality. Just as the skin separates inside from outside of the body, splitting used in service of psychological growth separates then from now, you and me, this and that, etc.

It is said in the object relations tradition that infants are born with an impulse to seek an object, that we are born “object-seeking.” I understood this, before, to mean that we are born with a desire for relationship. This still remains true, but in Bick’s formulation this object-seeking becomes more specific. The object that is sought is one with a containing function—that is to say, the infant seeks an object that can hold attention and also give attention, and thereby provides a containing function for its experience.

When not enough skin-to-skin contact is had with the mother, or the contact is pervaded by a dead or preoccupied or intrusive emotionality, then a “second skin” is formed as a defense. The second skin is the use of innate talents or musculature toward acquiring pseudo-independence, to act as a substitute for the containing function of the skin. Rather than emotional experience being contained in the body through a phantasy of the skin as a container, the body is used as a tool for getting rid of feelings through movement and autostimulation. Thus no phantasy of internal space is created and feelings are things to be evacuated because they are uncontained and felt to be a force for dis-integration of the self. This prevents psychological development.

Donald Winnicott

Winnicott helps us understand the nature of the containing object and the role the attention of the mother plays in the process of introjection. He also expounds on the nature of the “second skin” defense in his notion of the False Self.

For a normal development, Winnicott writes, “A baby is held, and handled satisfactorily, and with this taken for granted is presented with an object in such a way that the baby’s legitimate experience of omnipotence is not violated. The result can be that the baby is able to use the object, and to feel as if this object is a subjective object, and created by the baby” (p. 1).

Part of what it means to be held satisfactorily is to be mirrored by the mother. This mirroring means that the mother is able to reflect back to the baby the emotional aliveness the baby feels. Mirroring, then, is dependent on the mother’s capacity for tolerating emotional experience. ​​“In other words the mother is looking at the baby and what she looks like is related to what she sees there” (pgs. 1-2). Emphasis, I think, is on what she [the mother] sees there. If the mother “sees” an emotionally alive baby, then the baby sees this in the mother’s face. If the mother is in a depressive or anxious state, then the baby will see a depressive or paranoid baby, which is to say a paranoid or depressive baby that must, now, comply with the paranoid or depressive mother and rid itself of feelings of dependency and spontaneity.

When the baby sees an alive baby in the mother’s eyes, Winnicott outlines the internal logic of the baby’s experience in this way: “When I look I am seen, so I exist. I can now afford to look and see. I now look creatively and what I apperceive I also perceive” (p. 3). To be seen by the mother is to develop the capacity to see from one’s own point of view, and not from the point of view of the False Self that complies with the pressures and demands of the external environment.

But what if this mirroring does not occur? “If the mother’s face is unresponsive, then a mirror is a thing to be looked at but not to be looked into” (p. 2). When the baby doesn’t get back what they’re giving: “First, their own creative capacity begins to atrophy, and in some way or other they look around for other ways of getting something of themselves back from the environment….Second, the baby gets settled in to the idea that when he or she looks, what is seen is the mother’s face. The mother’s face is not then a mirror” (p. 2). That is to say, the baby’s omnipotent phantasy is broken by the intrusion of the mother’s own gesture which replaces the baby’s. The unintegrated parts of the baby’s self are split into the environment (in other people, in objects, in systems); yet, ironically, the baby perceives these parts of the self to be part of the object apprehended and not part of the self.

Winnicott on Psychotherapy

“Psychotherapy is not making clever and apt interpretations; by and large it is a long-term giving the patient back what the patient brings. It is a complex derivative of the face that reflects what is there to be seen. I like to think of my work this way, and to think that if I do this well enough the patient will find his or her own self, and will be able to exist and to feel real. Feeling real is more than existing; it is finding a way to exist as oneself, and to relate to objects as oneself, and to have a self into which to retreat for relaxation” (p. 5).


Download Two Models of Psychological Development