Academic journal article International Journal of Psychoanalysis

Between Private and Public: Towards a Conception of the Transitional Subject

Academic journal article International Journal of Psychoanalysis

Between Private and Public: Towards a Conception of the Transitional Subject

Article excerpt

Elaborating upon Winnicott's seminal contributions on the transitional object, the author proposes a conception of a transitional subject in which the patient comes into being simultaneously between private and public, subjective creation and material life, me and not-me. By anchoring subjective creation in the real world (including the body), the patient creates a basis for authentic psychesoma as well as for both personal and symbolic contributions to the world beyond omnipotence, including the world of other subjects. In this sense, intersubjective life is seen as predicated upon transitionality, with the patient seen as simultaneously coming into being as a distinctly personal subject and, in part, as a symbol. Clinical phenomenology is described and is interpreted with respect to the need within psychoanalysis itself for a third, and for a realm of meaning-creation that lies beyond privacy, omnipotence, and the dyad.

Keywords: agency, authenticity, democracy, intersubjectivity, material reality, phenomenology, private, public, scared, third, transitional subject, Winnicott


Consider the following clinical moments. My patient, a high school student running for election as a class officer, had placed signs up around the school, asking people for their vote. In session, he commented on the phenomenon, as he looked at these signs, of seeing himself in the third person. It felt, he said, like catching himself in a mirror from the corner of his eye and being startled by a new haircut. "It's me but also not me," he told me.

A man with whom I work entered treatment with a feeling of not having fulfilled his potential. Gradually, he was able to allow himself to recognize his specific talents, but he could only dimly perceive how he might implement these in the world. One day, he came into session visibly excited, reporting that he had discovered an interdisciplinary graduate program that reflected his own interests, ambition, and skills. He spoke with pride of "becoming this man who has been inside of me for a long time." For him, what had been missing was a venue in which he could contribute and be recognized, "in order to make it real ... to make me real."

Another patient, who had long assumed an accommodating stance with her friends and colleagues, described writing an opinion piece in a local newspaper. She talked of her newfound freedom to engage in controversy and of her pleasure in people's reactions to her - as someone with ideas with which to contend. A quiet caution barely concealed her exhilaration as she described herself as existing as "a real presence in the real world."

A woman I see came in one day, having dyed her graying hair, restoring its 'natural' blonde color. "This is the real me," she said, in a statement of confidence and liberation. Another female patient shared that she had decided she would no longer highlight her hair or wear padded bras. "I'm so tired of trying to make myself into something I'm not and always feeling somehow insecure in the process," she declared. "This is the real me, take me or leave me."

In these examples, each of which followed a great deal of work on helping the patient enter the relational world from a position of self-determination and desire, the patient describes a simultaneous discovery and creation of what she experiences as real or authentic in who she is. These acts represent a significant developmental juncture in which the patient abandons a private and exclusive ownership of 'self' by creating an outlet for her psychical life in material and shared reality. In compensation, she acquires an experience of her own distinctive, personal presence, and also emerges, simultaneously, as a symbol.

This essay represents a continuation of an earlier project (Gentile, 2007) which describes the patient's initial forays in generating meaning in the encounter between subjective creation and material reality. …

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