Thoughts on Destructiveness

Mary Montaut

Perhaps the most frightening and disturbing aspect of anger, even to therapists, is 
destructiveness. It seems to fall outside the idea of a healthy anger, that is, an anger 
which, when expressed, frees up the individual and allows access to feelings and
 energy which have been inhibited, and to establish more honest relationships with
 others. In working therapeutically with anger, great emphasis is placed upon the
 safety of the therapeutic environment: there may be big soft cushions to bash, and
 ground rules will be in place about violence, so there can be plenty of noise and
 heat – but no smashing things to bits, except in fantasy. In a sense, all these very  necessary arrangements which make the work with anger possible, also deny the
 reality of destructive feelings which actually do want to hurt, mess, break, or
 distress somebody else. Of course, this reality is not denied in words, nor in the
 models for psychotherapeutic working, but it is – necessarily – denied in fact. It is
 made very clear that these destructive aspects of our anger are fantasies – our 
sadistic fantasies. It seems to go without saying that we are not really like that! Or
 if we are, it was when we were very, very young and could yet not separate the
 reality of a self from mother.

In the light of this seeming denial within the practice of psychotherapy. I was
 especially interested to read the following description of a piece of work in

“For my first child analysis I chose a delinquent. This boy attended
 regularly for a year and the treatment stopped because of the disturbance that
 the boy caused in the clinic. I could say that the analysis was going well, 
and its cessation caused distress both to the boy and to myself in spite of the 
fact that on several occasions I got badly bitten on the buttocks …”[1]

I put this phrase in italics because it so struck me when I read it. There was 
something most extraordinary in Winnicott’s being bitten – not just once, which
 might slip past his guard, but ‘on several occasions’. It contrasted very sharp
ly with a passage in Melanie Klein about the importance of preventing actual damage to 
the therapist from taking place:

”I have usually been able to convey to the child that I would not tolerate 
physical attacks on myself. This attitude not only protects the psychoanalyst but is of importance for the analysis as well. For such assaults, if not 
kept within bounds, are apt to stir up excessive guilt and persecutory anxiety 
in the child and therefore add to the difficulties of the treatment. I have 
sometimes been asked by what method I prevented physical attacks, and I think the answer is that I was very careful not to inhibit the child’s aggressive 
phantasies; in fact, he was given the opportunity to act them out in other 
ways, including verbal attacks on myself. The more I was able to interpret in time the motives of the child’s aggressiveness, the more the situation
 could be kept under control. But with some psychotic children it has 
occasionally been difficult to protect myself against their aggressiveness.” [2]

Plainly Klein’s point about not stirring up excessive guilt and not exciting
 persecutory anxiety in the client is vital, and there is I believe no disagreement 
about this between herself and Winnicott, in the ordinary course of things.
 Winnicott describes over and over again in his work how important it is for first the
 mother and then the analyst to survive these aggressive attacks which are linked to 
the earliest of feeding experiences for the child.

Klein’s argument centres around the developmental need for the child (or client) to
 overcome the need to attack the loved object (eg the breast); she proposes the
 model which I feel is now generally accepted, of the angry, destructive (aggressive) 
feeding/feeling leading to fear of retaliation and feelings of guilt, the so-called
 ‘depressive position’, which then resolves into a more creative relationship with the 

“I have found that the child’s attitude towards a toy he has damaged is very
 revealing. He often puts aside such a toy, representing for instance a sibling 
or a parent, and ignores it for a time. This indicates dislike of the damaged 
object, due to the persecutory fear that the attacked person (represented by 
the toy) has become retaliatory and dangerous. The sense of persecution 
may be so strong that it covers up feelings of guilt and depression which are 
also aroused by the damage done. Or guilt and depression may be so strong 
that they lead to a reinforcing of persecutory feelings. However, one day the
 child may search in his drawer for the damaged toy. This suggests that by
 then we have been able to analyse some important defences, thus
 diminishing persecutory feelings and making it possible for the sense of guilt
 and the urge to make reparation to be experienced.”

Winnicott is well aware of this developmental structure:

“It was Mrs Klein who took up the destructiveness that there is in human
 nature and started to make sense of it in psychoanalytic terms… Ideas of
 destroying an object turn up, a sense of guilt appears, and constructive work
 results. But what is found is very much more complex…” [3]

It is interesting that he is much less concerned with the client’s ‘fear of retaliation’
 than Klein, and I might almost suggest that he sees the whole relationship with the 
client in a very different way. Klein is plainly excellent on boundaries, because she
 sees that they can enable the client/child to experience in fantasy or play the
 dangerous and ambivalent feelings which he is developmentally driven to 
overcome. Her rules reinforce that drive, almost in the way a moral code might be 
considered to reinforce particular social values. In a truly maternal way, it seems 
to me, she is concerned to bring the child up to be a well-adjusted adult. Going through a phantasy phase of destructiveness is part of it. In short, I think she 
probably disapproves of it, but can tolerate it on therapeutic grounds. Perhaps that
 is quite similar to the way many therapists feel about destructiveness.

But Winnicott seems to take a radically different view, one which means that he 
doesn’t regard it as critical when his bottom is bitten by the boy – the actual bites 
did not make him feel the analysis was going badly. He was himself ‘distressed’ 
when the analysis had to be terminated because of the huge amount of disruption
 which the delinquent child was able to create at the clinic, not all of which was 
directed at Winnicott himself. Winnicott connects ‘the antisocial tendency’ and its
 destructiveness which he is trying to work with in this child, to deprivation:

“A child becomes a deprived child when deprived of certain essential
 features of home life… The antisocial tendency is characterized by an
 element in it which compels the environment to be important.” [4]

Clearly this is a very different view of the child’s destructiveness from that taken
 by Klein; whereas she sees a person struggling to develop into relationship and 
away from violent infantile phantasy, Winnicott views the destructive delinquent as
 involved already in a ferocious struggle to wring what he needs from the (failing) environment. Winnicott can see ‘hope’ in the child’s fierce struggle that the
 environment will not always fail – and he therefore places actual value on the
 ‘nuisance’ of the symptoms, the thieving, the messing, the violent attacks.
 Essentially, he views it as the child’s right to get what he needs from the 
environment which has failed (deprived) him and to be a thoroughly antisocial
 nuisance in the process. Later on he adds:

”At the basis of the antisocial tendency is a good early experience that has 
been lost. Surely it is an essential feature that the infant has reached to a 
capacity to perceive that the cause of the disaster lies in an environmental
 failure. Correct knowledge that the cause of the depression or disintegration
 is an external one, and not an internal one, is responsible for the personality
 distortion and for the urge to seek for a cure by new environmental 

Whereas Klein’s analysis entails accepting the predominance of phantasy in the 
child’s developing relationship with the world, Winnicott’s view, which extends 
rather than contradicts Klein’s, also includes the possibility that the child may be
 reacting to environmental deprivation, and not just struggling with the
 contradictory forces of instinctive human nature inside himself. I suppose that this
 dichotomy could be reminiscent of the famous dichotomy in Freud’s view of his
 clients who claimed to have been seduced; that at first he believed them but then
- realizing what a can of worms he might be opening, say his detractors – revising his opinion and say
ing that these stories were fantasies which reflected the
 unconscious desires of the clients. It might be more thoughtful if, instead of considering this shift of view to be dichotomous, we could see it as a process of ‘over-determination’, in which both interpretations could be true and simultaneous, 
and not necessarily resoluble into one another. Winnicott’s choice of a delinquent 
boy to work with was disastrous in one sense, as he says himself – without secure
 environmental provision (which was not provided by the clinic), the analysis could
 not be carried on. But in another sense, unless he could work with such a child and 
even perhaps unless he was bitten by him, the point of the destructiveness, its 
’nuisance value’, could not be seen.

In a slightly later essay than ‘The Antisocial Tendency’, Winnicott returns to the
 question of destructiveness itself. Under a title which deliberately uses three words
 which are standard vocabulary in Klein – ‘Aggression, Guilt and Reparation’ – he
 begins by drawing attention to the structure which she hypothesized and which I
 quoted above. His work in this essay is to draw out the ‘much more complex’
 findings about the relationship between constructive and destructive forces in his
 clients. Originally this was a talk given to The Progressive League, and not to an 
audience of fellow analysts. Perhaps this different context enabled Winnicott to 
reach into his clinical experience in a slightly different way – less technical and
 more concerned with identifying aspects of aggression which are both very
 ordinary and everyday and also pathological. The cases he cites in this essay are
 not ‘delinquent’ but normal, voluntary clients. In each case he identifies a particular 
process which looks regressive: the client reaches to a ‘platform of generosity’ (for
 instance, one client hopes that the work Winnicott does with him ‘will be of value 
to the world’, while another acknowledges the good work of the therapist) and then 
switches into real, vital and honest destructiveness. He notes that this
 destructiveness is therefore specifically directed against a good object, in fact 
against the very person who was being appreciated a moment before. Winnicott 
goes on:

”Naturally the fact that the patient was becoming conscious of the
 destructiveness made possible the constructive activity… But it is the other 
way round that I want you to see it just now. The constructive and creative
 experiences were making it possible for the child to get to the experience of 
her destructiveness.”

For Winnicott that is an experience of authenticity, of the real self. This gives it 
paramount value, not remotely connected to approval. And to me, the symbol of
 that would perhaps be his ability to allow himself, in very exceptional
 circumstances, to be bitten. The real difficulty of working with this primary
 destructiveness, which is part of ‘primitive loving’, is highlighted. Winnicott points
 out how hard we find it to stand this destructiveness in ourselves, let alone in 
others, and so “the result is either depression or a search for relief by the discovery 
of destructiveness elsewhere, that is to say by the mechanism of projection.” It
 may be glib of me, but I couldn’t help thinking of the recent killings in Columbine
 High School in Denver, Colorado, where the pampered and loved children of rich
 middle-class parents found no ‘relief for their nasty, messy, horrible and real 
destructiveness which nobody (including themselves) could stand.


1. D.W. Winnicott, The Antisocial Tendency’ (1956) in Deprivation and
 Delinquency, ed Clare Winnicott et al, Tavistock/Routledge, 1984

2. Melanie Klein, The Psycho-analytic Play Technique’ 1955, in The SelectedMelanie Klein, ed Juliet Mitchell, Penguin 1986.

3. D.W. Winnicott, ‘Aggression, Guilt and Reparation’ (1960) op cit.

4. D.W. Winnicott, ‘The Antisocial Tendency’ op cit.