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(p. 469) Nothing at the Centre 

(p. 469) Nothing at the Centre
(p. 469) Nothing at the Centre

Donald W. Winnicott

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Subscriber: null; date: 18 September 2020

Originally published in C. Winnicott, R. Shepherd, & M. Davis (Eds.), Psycho-analytic explorations (pp. 49–52). Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1989.
Dated 19 June 1959.

The patient, a woman of thirty who is an actress, came to analysis in a rather friendly state. She talked about many things that were going on in her life. She has an attractive personality and there was much that she could say which indicated that people actively like her. I am able to tell that this is an example of this patient’s major defence.

The previous hour had been extremely unsatisfactory. The patient had not been able to find any particular thing to react to. She is between jobs but there is no new job pending and there is a gap of several weeks in which perhaps nothing will come her way. One could see that she was agitated, frightened of the state of affairs produced by there being nothing to which she could react. As she said, she might go home and find an invitation to dinner or a message from her agent, and she would be quite all right again, happy and lively and well orientated. In this previous hour she had reached a state of doldrums and was intensely irritated with me for seeming to be in favour of it. What she meant was that I was not adopting the attitude, which she adopts herself and which her parents and friends adopt, ‘for heaven’s sake get a job, do something, pull your socks up’, and so on.

This girl has worked very hard from the age of ten, when she started acting. She had a period at the beginning of the treatment in a mental hospital where she was allowed to be depressed and this was of immense value to her, but again she was not floundering because she was all the time dealing with a depression. She felt she knew where she was going. Now that she is nearly recovered she finds herself, however, in this very frightened state with lack of orientation.

(p. 470) In this patient’s analysis the really difficult thing was to get at eating and the fantasy of eating, i.e. the oral erotism and sadism that complicate other kinds of relationships to objects. The patient had been so irritated with me the hour before that when I coughed she could not stand it and in any case she knew that she was irritated with me for unknown reasons. She was able to report that she had had the idea of a baby somewhere in her mind, indicating that analysis was no good because it had not produced in her a pregnancy. This was only one aspect, however, of the whole frustration of the analysis which in fact has been steadily successful and productive.

On the occasion of this particular hour that I am referring to the patient was in her usual state of manic defence in which all goes well and everyone likes her, but both she and I knew that this was precarious and that just behind it all was something else.

The striking thing was what happened when I made a certain interpretation. It was she who pointed out that her happiness was due to the fact that some things had been happening to her but that she was the same underneath. I interpreted that if nothing was happening for her to react to then she came to the centre of herself where she knows that there is nothing. I said this nothingness at the centre is her tremendous hunger. The hole in the middle which is herself is a hunger for everything and belongs to the whole of her life and includes the emptiness before impregnation as well as sexual and oral desire. As soon as the trend of my interpretation became clear to her, and the interpretation was not altogether new, she fell dead asleep and stayed asleep for about twenty minutes. When she began to waken and to become impatient with having been to sleep and missed the hour, I began again on the interpretation, whereupon she went suddenly into a new sleep and stayed like it until the end of the hour. When she wakened she said: ‘I have been glued to the couch’. She tore herself off the couch in order to sit up and put on her shoes because in spite of having slept she knew when it was time to go and so she went. By the time she had reached the front door she had regained her usual attractive liveliness.

This patient often goes to sleep but then she is usually in an exhausted state from overworking physically and from staying up late in the way that belongs to the actress life. This time the sleep had a new quality to it, I thought, one which she described as being glued to the couch. I assumed that the sleep represented a particular kind of resistance to the interpretation. The essence of the interpretation was that there is a dissociated self which is nothing; it is nothing but a void; it is only emptiness and when this emptiness comes alive she is nothing but one huge hunger. This is the first time that she and I in the course of four years’ analysis have found together a satisfactory statement of her true self and at the same time of her appetite.

At the same time in my practice I have a patient, a man who is a doctor. He too has had to discover in himself a central nothingness. For a long (p. 471) time this has turned up in the analysis as a state of floundering which was very alarming to him. We have had to deal with it in various layers. In one layer when we gradually eliminated all the impingements so that he had nothing to react to he became a thing in space, unaware of time and unaware of position. In three successive hours this week the patient arrived at a different statement of this which is to him part of his search for a self that would feel real. With great difficulty he eliminates all the tremendous number of things in his life to which he reacts and which he copes with successfully. This includes his relationship to his family and to a wife who undoubtedly does present him with great difficulties because of her own ability to fit in exactly with the pattern of his mother. He had chosen her on this account, as he now knows only too well. In this particular patient it was vitally important that I must recognize that at the centre there is nothing. He has had to discard even his potency because it was reactive. He not only has no belief that there is anything there which could be called he; rather he knows that at the centre there is nothing and it is only this that he can tolerate. If I were to provide any hope that there is something there he would have to destroy me. It was interesting how this patient began to turn up in a positive way when he had sufficiently established himself as a nothing. What he reported at the end of these three hours in which this theme had been thoroughly worked through and in which he had been able to maintain a state of nothingness was expressed in the following way. He said he felt tightly wrapped round between the legs and he went on to describe the effect of this on his genitals and his capacity to pee. I had a very great deal of material available which enabled me to make the following interpretation. He was telling me in physical terms how his mother conveyed to him when he was a tiny infant that he was from her point of view a girl and not a boy. There is substance in this as he was the second boy and the attitude of the parents all the way along betrayed the fact that they would have liked to have had a girl for the second child. I was able to say that the mother did up his napkin in a way that would be appropriate for a girl baby, perhaps like a sanitary towel. The result of this was that he had no freedom to pee and when I pointed out to him that as a native child living in a hut in the wilds it would have been different he suddenly got the meaning of my interpretation and through this he arrived at the idea of a boy peeing freely. This is the first time that he can remember that his penis has felt to be his own. It looks as if this is the beginning of his potency which he has never had although in fact he has a family. Here in a different way as compared with the first case was a man having to reach to the central nothingness. In his case what emerged was not hunger but peeing. The two cases can perhaps be compared for the purposes of discussion. (p. 472)