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(p. 379) On ‘Separation Anxiety’: By John Bowlby 

(p. 379) On ‘Separation Anxiety’: By John Bowlby
(p. 379) On ‘Separation Anxiety’: By John Bowlby

Donald W. Winnicott

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date: 14 December 2017

Bowlby read his paper ‘Separation Anxiety’ to the British Psychoanalytic Society over the course of three Scientific Meetings: 5 November, 19 November and 3 December 1958. Winnicott was in the chair for all three meetings and a discussant for the first and third.

5 November 1958

We now know what a Sabbatical year can do for an analyst. Dr Bowlby had a big task to justify this luxury, and I suggest that he has done so. He has been able to get away from his patients and to disentangle himself from their personalities, and he has therefore had freedom to read and to think and to reformulate his theories.

I do congratulate him on his review of the literature. When congratulating him, however, I hasten to add that I am sure no-one quoted will feel adequately or accurately represented. Some are present who will be able to comment on Bowlby’s representation of their views, and it will be important for us to make it clear if we feel that Bowlby has misrepresented Freud. I welcome being quoted as one of those who needs such a term as primary anxiety in description of ‘an automatic phenomenon characteristic of id-impulsiveness’, contrasted with ‘a rescue signal characteristic of ego foresight’ (appendix).

It is not possible, even in a long paper like this, to refer to authors and to do them justice, and although it will be relevant for speakers to attempt to correct mistakes I hope the discussion will also, and mainly, lead towards the material of Bowlby’s positive contribution.

The sequence protest, despair, denial, on which stress is laid, is acceptable to analysts, and it does not require theoretical reformulations. If we take into account the fantasy or the complex psychic reality personal to the small child, (p. 380) we know we can already understand a great deal about this sequence, especially when we use the concept of the death of the internal representation of the object, and then the denial of this deadness. I am not aware that we are in trouble theoretically when as a Society we discuss this sequence in children who are a year old or more. It would seem to me that this paper takes us in two directions.

One is towards primary anxiety and the other is towards the special vulnerability which Bowlby postulates, belonging to the age after 28 weeks. Probably it is the second of these two themes which must draw our fire. We have to decide whether the theoretical basis for our work with which we are familiar is sufficient, or whether we need, in order to explain all the facts, something new. Bowlby offers something new and simple in the form of clinging and following instincts, as he calls them, and he is able to relate these instincts with phenomena which are common to much of the animal world. There is no need for us to feel that what we have found in psycho-analysis is threatened if there is something new that must be taken into account. Bowlby lays especial stress on Freud’s new views on anxiety which he published in 1926 (Inhibitions, Symptoms and Anxiety). It will be important to know whether it is thought that Freud has been accurately represented here as at last concerned with separation anxiety, that is to say, anxiety which is more primary than depression and mourning.

Bowlby enumerates five types of theory about anxiety:

  1. (1) birth trauma

  2. (2) signal

  3. (3) depressive

  4. (4) persecutory

  5. (5) primary

and he adopts this, the fifth, in developing his theme.

Bowlby has put out very clearly the situations that he regards as appropriate to the development of primary anxiety, fright, and expectant anxiety. I find all this very useful. Where I feel unconvinced about the main argument is at the point where Bowlby seems to me to make a jump from consideration of primary anxiety to the postulate that reaction to separation when the child is older than 7 months and younger than about 2½ years involves anxiety of the type that has been called primary. Before this can be accepted, and it may of course be true, we have to be quite sure that our very complex and well-established psycho-analytic findings are inadequate. I remind myself that the fact that human babies cling and follow like animals does not necessarily mean that their reactions are as simple as those of animals. We may accept residual clinging and following phenomena as a fact, yet ourselves clinging to the more complex view of infants which takes into consideration their fantasy.

(p. 381) I would like to make a brief further comment, giving my personal view, in order to draw Dr Bowlby’s rejoinder. In my opinion the characteristic of early infancy which cannot be ignored is that the infant is not yet differentiated from external reality; from the infant’s point of view, (so to speak), such external reality as comes the infant’s way is part of the infant. In this way at the beginning part of the infant is operated environmentally. I think that it is at about the 7th month that the infant more generally perceives objects as external, and starts to lose the over-all subjective view of the world around. I think it is because of this change that separation acquires a new meaning during the last months of the first year. I find myself more in line with Spitz as quoted by Bowlby with his concept of a narcissistic trauma.

These matters have a practical importance. As a consequence of Bowlby’s emphasis on separation trauma one hears it stated publicly, even last week on the B.B.C., that what happens before 7 months is not important. For me, it is only after about the seventh month that the human infant is capable of being separated from an object; prior to that date what happens is more serious; part of the infant’s self becomes lost.

Finally I would like to say that I still believe after reading Bowlby’s very rich paper that it is the analysis of patients of all kinds and ages that will continue to be the basis of our research; nevertheless it is important to be challenged, and it may be that we must accept this contribution from ethology and perhaps come to welcome it, and weave the instincts of species preservation as important additional phenomena into our repeated reformulations of the theory which we employ when we discuss our work. (p. 382)