Freedom, Imagination and Psychotherapy

Mary Montaut

“There was the dreary Sunday of his childhood, when he sat with his hands before
 him, scared out of his senses by a horrible tract which commenced business with
 the poor child by asking him in its title, why he was going to Perdition? … There
 was the sleepy Sunday of his boyhood, when, like a military deserter, he was
 marched to chapel by a piquet of teachers three times a day, morally handcuffed to 
another boy;… There was the interminable Sunday of his nonage, when his mother,
 stern of face and unrelenting of heart, would sit all day behind a Bible … There was
 the resentful Sunday of a little later, when he sat glowering and glooming through
 the tardy length of the day, with a sullen sense of injury in his heart… There was
 a legion of Sundays, all days of unserviceable bitterness and mortification…
He leaned upon the sill of the long low window, and looking out upon the 
blackened forest of chimneys again, began to dream. For, it had been the uniform
 tendency of this man’s life – so much wanting in it to think about, so much that 
might have been better directed and happier to speculate upon – to make him a
 dreamer, after all.”

from Little Dorrit – Charles Dickens (1855)

In this brief passage from the beginning of Little Dorrit, it seems to me that
 Dickens has encapsulated in a quite remarkable way the psychology of the 
ineffectual dreamer; the fear instilled methodically in every social relation of 
Arthur Clennam’s life as a child has not quite killed off his imagination, but has 
reduced it to the role of powerless day-dreaming, which, while it may be some kind 
of comfort to him in his unhappy life, is also part of his way of colluding in his own
 ineffectiveness and uncreativeness. And Dickens also sees that this ineffectiveness 
is a clear result of the lack of play in Arthur’s childhood: “so much wanting in it”,
 he says, drawing the reader’s attention not only to this lack but also to the
 unfulfilled wishes and needs of the child. Arthur’s character in the novel reflects 
this – he is a highly moral and grown-up figure, deeply committed to putting right 
the injustice he suspects has been done by his parents and willing to disadvantage 
himself in the process. But inside he is gloomy and lifeless, lacking in all energy 
for recreation or even expression, and unable to attract other human beings to him 
in any way – with the exception of Little Dorrit herself, who was born in the 
debtors’ prison and hence knows the territory. But where Little Dorrit has been
 Physically born and raised in prison, Arthur is imprisoned within himself, and all
 that his imagination can do for him is to day-dream.

The unhappy imagination of Arthur Clennam will provide a good illustration of the
 cluster of vital therapeutic and yet mundane issues which are explored by D.W
 Winnicott in his collection of essays called Playing and Reality (1971). Many of
 the case-histories which Winnicott explores in this collection are those of people
 who are mainly unhappy; they don’t fail and especially they don’t fail others in their 
social relationships, but they are desperately miserable inside. Everything is 
treated as work:

“She slept for about ten minutes. When she woke she continued with her doubts 
about the validity of what she had actually done at home and even enjoyed. The 
important thing arising out of the sleep was that she felt it was a failure because she 
did not remember the dreams. It was as if she had gone to sleep in order to have a 
dream for the analysis…”

This passage comes from the essay called ‘Dreaming, Fantasying and Living’ in
 which Winnicott analyses the way in which day-dreaming (or ‘fantasying’) may 
”absorb energy, but not contribute to either (sleep) dreaming or living.” The client
 constantly uses this mechanism to distract herself away from what she really wants 
to do. The image of herself playing the card game, patience, is critical and occurs 
in a dream. In the session which Winnicott describes, this dream helps her to 
achieve a good deal of insight into what she is really doing:

“I have been playing patience for hours in my empty room and the room really is 
empty because while I am playing patience I do not exist.” Winnicott reframes this 

“I was able to say that patience was a form of fantasying, is a dead end and cannot 
be used…”

The gain he hopes she made from the session he puts like this:

“Suddenly she saw a possibility of health and found it breath-taking. She used the 
words: ‘I might be in charge of myself. To be in control, to use imagination with
 discretion… So I might become interested in me.” Winnicott comments on her
 state of mind as she left at the end of the session:

“Now, instead of being able to predict everything that will happen, she cannot any 
longer tell whether she will go home and do something she wants to do, or whether
 playing patience will possess her. It was clear that she had nostalgia for the
 certainty of the illness pattern and great anxiety about the uncertainty that goes 
with the freedom to choose.”

The question of how to nurture freedom in the context of psychotherapy is
 addressed time and again by Winnicott in the course of this book, and constantly 
related to the need for there to be a quality of playing in the therapy. In the next 
essay of the collection, called simply ‘Playing’, he states in italics:

”Psychotherapy takes place in the overlap of two areas of playing, that of the 
patient and that of the therapist. Psychotherapy has to do with two people playing
 together. The corollary of this is that where playing is not possible then the work 
done by the therapist is directed towards bring the patient from a state of not being 
able to play into a state of being able to play,

In the course of this essay, Winnicott explores in great subtlety and depth the
 importance of play in the development of a child’s psychology, but he really does
 not describe the nature  of the therapist’s ‘play’. Yet it seems to me that the statement which I have just quoted and which occurs at the beginning of the essay infers that
 the therapist’s play, which permits the ‘overlap’ and forms the space and time of the
 therapy, is of equal importance with that of the client. In fact the path which
 Winnicott takes in this essay follows the child’s ability to play in the ‘overlap’ of the
 mother’s care:

“Playing implies trust, and belongs to the potential space between (what was at
 first) baby and mother-figure, with the baby in a state of near-absolute dependence, 
and the mother-figure’s adaptive function taken for granted by the baby.” In 
another essay, he talks about this space as providing the child with an area where 
he can be ‘alone in the presence of the mother’. The question of the mother-figure
 in any sense ‘playing’ during such an interval is not raised. Nonetheless I feel that,
 since at the start of the essay, he specifically talks of the ‘overlap of two areas of 
playing’ – patient’s and therapist’s – the meaning of the idea of the therapist also
 playing should be investigated.

In fact, Winnicott sounds a number of severe warnings to the therapist about what
 would constitute illegitimate ‘play’; his particular target in this essay is the act of 
interpretation of the content of the play which the therapist may indulge in. He
 feels that the essence of the client’s play may be so delicate that inept interpretation 
by the therapist can induce completely untherapeutic results:

“Interpretation outside the ripeness of the material is in doctrination and produces

And he directly criticizes “the psychoanalyst (who) has been too busy using play 
content to look at the playing child.”

I think it is not unreasonable to detect in these strictures a criticism of the work of 
Melanie Klein. She is a most determined interpreter and insists throughout her 
writings on the power of the interpretations (obviously made with appropriate 
timing) to facilitate the child’s process and bring him closer to psychological 
health. Furthermore, her name is associated primarily with “Play Technique” and 
in fact she claims to have invented this method of child psychotherapy. In her 
essay, ‘The Psychoanalytic Play Technique’ (1955), she comments that she believes
 that her own early attempts to work in this way were not interpretative enough:

“I believe from my experience that if… I had interpreted the anxiety shown in his
 actions with the toys and the corresponding negative transference towards me, I 
should have been able to resolve his anxiety sufficiently for him to continue

It is very clear that Klein, like Winnicott, believes the work of the session is to be 
done through the play and that she must enable that play to continue. As quoted
 above, Winnicott states: “Where playing is not possible, then the work done by the
 therapist is directed towards bringing the patient from a state of not being able to
 play into a state of being able to play.”

However, it is also clear that she takes a very different approach to the function of that play. She insists that the psychotherapy “can only be established and 
maintained if the patient is able to feel that the consulting-room or the play-room, 
indeed the whole analysis, is something separate from his ordinary life.”

This is because her work is primarily that of interpreting the content of the child’s
 play, which she sees specifically as threatening to aspects of his ordinary life. Her 
interpretations, which “keep in step with fluctuations between love and hatred”, are
 seen as an integral part of the session. But I don’t think that this integrated process
 in the ‘space between’ the therapist and the client would really constitute an ‘overlap
 of two areas of playing’ as Winnicott requires. Like the inferred mother-figure of
 Winnicott’s formulation who really does not seem to be playing, Klein maintains a 
parental presence in the work:

“The analyst should not show disapproval of the child having broken a toy; he 
should not, however, encourage the child to express his aggressiveness, or suggest 
to him that the toy could be mended. In other words, he should enable the child to 
experience his emotions and phantasies as they come up. It was always part of my
 technique not to use educative or moral influence, but to keep to the psycho-
analytic procedure only, which, to put it in a nutshell, consists in understanding the 
patient’s mind and in conveying to him what goes on in it.

It seems to me that Klein and Winnicott are in agreement that the play of the client 
must not be directed or suggested by the therapist, even though they facilitate this
 play in such contrasting ways. Klein seems closely to follow the play of her client, 
interpreting the content whenever she feels it to be appropriate and helpful to him.
 Winnicott on the other hand constantly warns against interpreting the content as
 such and draws attention to the process of playing. Perhaps this is why he suggests
 that the therapist should also be able to ‘play’ in the session – so that the client’s play
 may take place in an environment where play is what is going on. There is a 
quality to this ‘overlapping’ sense of play which brings the therapist into an
 extraordinary relationship with the client. I think it might be fair to call Klein’s
 observant interpreting a form of mirroring, and her insistence that disapproval and
 approval are absent from the therapist’s attitude would bear this out; but Winnicott
 seems to me to be suggesting that there are depths in the therapist’s ability to be
 present with the client which are not to do with reflecting back the client’s own 
material or even emotion but with receiving it. At one point, he even comments
 that he thinks his sparse ‘interpretations’ often serve to show the client how limited
 he may be. In short, I sense that he in no way ever competes with the client for the
 space of the therapy. He rather becomes the ‘facilitating environment’ – and in that
 sense, I feel, where play is the therapeutic activity of the time, he must be play-ful.

Winnicott’s description of the importance of this activity for a young child has to
 do with developmental needs, in particular the need to overcome the fear of 
’magical control’ and the persecutory anxiety which goes along with it, which form
 the main thrust of Klein’s interpretations as well. He says: “Playing has a place and
 a time. It is not inside… nor is it outside, that is to say it is not part of the not-me which every individual has decided to recognize as truly external which is outside
 magical control. To control what is outside one has to things, not simply to think
 or to wish, and doing things takes time. Playing is doing.” But in this case, I am 
tempted to ask, what is the therapist doing? And how can it be playing? In the next
 essay, ‘Playing: the search for the self, there may be some hints of an answer.

First of all, from the beginning of this essay too, Winnicott sternly insists that the
 therapist must be able to ‘play’:
 “If the therapist cannot play, then he is not suitable for the work. If the patient
 cannot play then something needs to be done to enable the patient to become able
to play, after which psychotherapy may begin. The reason why playing is essential 
is that it is in playing that the patient is being creative.”
By inference, then, I suppose that the play of the therapist is also creative and a
 precondition of therapy. Yet Winnicott heavily insists that the therapist must know
 how to refrain from interpreting, from being clever, from knowing things or even 
seeing things… so what exactly can the therapist be ‘doing’ in playing? The answer 
to this question is not spelled out at all by Winnicott, but it is implied I think in
 what he next says about the power of playing. The creativity of the young child 
playing and of the client playing in the therapy space is seen by Winnicott as
 similar, that is, it is essentially the power of creating (or realizing) themselves. “It
 is only in being creative that the individual discovers the self.” Plainly this is not
t he kind of creativity which the therapist will find in the session, this is the
prerogative of the client. However, Winnicott goes on to say:

“Bound up with this is the fact that only in playing is communication possible;
 except direct communication which belongs to psychopathology or to an extreme
 of immaturity.”

I feel sure that he intended the ‘only’ to be extremely challenging; after all,
 communication of one sort or another is the commonest thing, and not in the usual
 sense necessarily therapeutic. So if he means some very particular thing, and 
specifically not pathological or infantile ‘yawps’ (to borrow a word from Whitman), 
it seems to me that he may mean communication which works without conforming
 either in form or function to any already existing one – one that is in short 
completely creative and completely received by the playing therapist as well. In
 this case, the ‘play’ of the therapist would be in receiving this completely new and 
unique communication as such.

I cannot be alone in thinking this is a very extraordinary kind of play. The essay 
contains quite a long account of one particular session where the client seems to
 drift about, long silences take place, and Winnicott seems often to be in doubt 

“She said: ‘People use God like an analyst – someone to be there while you’re

I said: ‘For whom you matter’ – and she said: ‘I couldn’t say that one, because I
 couldn’t be sure.’

I said: ‘Did it spoil things when I said this?’ (I feared I had mucked up a very good session.)”

He even comments in the essay: “I needed to be patient when engaged in this
 work.” And another detail of great interest is that at the end of the account, he tells 
us that the work of the session necessarily took a long time: “It will be observed 
that in a fifty-minute session no effective work could possibly have been done. We 
had had three hours to waste and to use.” In fact this has been a very special kind
 of session indeed, and yet it is predicated on the understanding of the common and 
everyday notion of ‘play’, as in ‘child’s play’.

In describing the insights of this session for himself as psychotherapist, Winnicott 
is clear that his creativity is also engaged, along with the client’s. He is able to take
 the time and space for her to move into a state of “non-purposive being”, a state 
of being quite disorganized and quite free to drift nonsensically about for ages.

“Perhaps it is to be accepted that there are patients who at times need the therapist 
to note the nonsense that belongs to the mental state of the individual at rest… The
 therapist who cannot take this communication becomes engaged in a futile attempt 
to find some organization in the nonsense, as a result of which the patient leaves
 the nonsense area because of hopelessness about communicating nonsense. An 
opportunity for rest has been missed because of the therapist’s need to find sense
 where nonsense is. The patient has been unable to rest because of a failure of the
 environmental provision…”

This quality of communication without content (not making sense) in a state of rest 
(not work) is the essential ‘play’ of the therapeutic work and it enables trust.

At the end of this essay, Winnicott draws conclusions which are all the more 
extraordinary as coming out of an exploration of the common childhood
 experience of play. He says:

“It is only here, in this unintegrated state of the personality, that that which we
 describe as creative can appear… This gives us our indication for therapeutic 
procedure – to afford opportunity for formless experience, and for creative 
impulses, motor and sensory, which are the stuff of playing. And on the basis of 
playing is built the whole of man’s existential existence.”


D.W. Winnicott, Playing and Reality (1971).

Melanie Klein, ‘Psychoanalytic Play Technique’ in The Selected Melaine Klein
 Ed. Juliet Mitchell (1986).