Winnicott’s Splitting Headache: An Examination of Strains in Winnicott’s View of the Self

Jeffrey Rubin Morey
New York, New York, USA
New York Association for Analytical Psychology

We are in a period of fervor directed toward introducing Jung into the broader psychoanalytic perspective, into cognitive science and into other academic agendas. While these efforts are not new there is an emerging emphasis from multiple perspectives to move this work forward. Given the energy devoted to such projects, integrative efforts do seem to lie at the “edges of our experience” as Jungian clinicians and theoreticians. There is excitement and potential in seeking to decrease Jung’s marginalization. Yet, there are fundamental qualities in his ideas that I fear may be lost in the rush to broaden the scope. I would like to raise a flag of caution regarding theory integration in the context of a discussion of a dream of D. W. Winnicott. I will frame my concerns using ideas that are reflected in recently published material of Sonu Shamdusani (2003) and Wolfgang Giegerich (2001).

There is always the possibility when working with theory of reifying that theory. We may find ourselves turning a theory or some of its elements into things and then swapping the parts of one with another as if we are rebuilding an old Buick. While we have given Jung’s body of work a name, his concepts have the quality of a symbol. That is to say, his writings describe something essentially unknown. Jung himself describes theory this way when he says, “Since every scientific theory contains an hypothesis, and is therefore an anticipatory description of something still essentially unknown, it is a symbol.” (CW 6, §817) Behind his many volumes what remains important is the reality of the unknown that the symbol attempts to contain. The used car approach to theory integration is inadequate when we consider it in this light. In working toward theory integration, we must strive to maintain our connection with the fire of the living symbol. This is our intention when we engage a unique other in a clinical process. Can we also maintain this attitude when we engage theory? Unless, we do so, we treat theory as a thing or an object rather than as a symbol that relates us to a mystery.

Sonu Shamdusani (2003) has written extensively in his recent work on issues related to the conceptualization of psychological theories. He is reminding us of Jung’s great concern in this regard. He discusses at length the difficulty we face when we create psychological theory in that psychology is the subject of our theorizing as well as the vehicle through which we create our psychological theories. Thus, each theory is seen as a subjective confession of the author’s concerns and preoccupations. As he points out, Jung’s use of typology was partially directed toward getting beyond this problem by relating specific theories to the typology of their authors. Jung had hoped that he could create an Archimedean point from which to approach a comparison and ultimately an integration of these competing perspectives. Shamdusani’s book is timely not simply because it reminds us of the presence of the subjective element in theory making. It reminds us that this factor operates in theory integration, as well. The subjectivity of a theory’s author contributes to its overall structure, but in addition each theory has its own logical life.

A well-formulated theory is constructed as a whole. Removing certain elements of a theory from their context has a reductive effect. We are well advised to remember that each theory has a residue of assumptions underlying its creation. Wolfgang Giegerich explores this idea in his book, The Soul’s Logical Life (2001). He says, “According to Heidegger each great thinker has (or better ‘thinks’), at bottom, only one single thought, and his entire work (that may be laid down in many volumes and may even include shifts of position) is the working out and unfolding of this one thought. And this thought is, according to Heidegger, not ‘thought up’ by the thinker; it comes to him.” (p. 43) Throughout his book, Giegerich is eloquent in his defense of the coherence of Jung’s “Notion.” He goes on to say, “The one thought of Jung’s as an ‘empiricist’ or great thinker is the Notion of soul.” (Ibid) When we compare the work of a Jungian analysis to the development of a script or when we say that an archetype is like an internal working model, we are taking a particular position vis-à-vis the fundamental Notion of Jung’s thought. While I am not here critiquing these specific attempts toward integration, I am saying that we must be mindful of the full consequences of such efforts. Can the original Notion contain these modifications? If not, we must independently examine the connection these modifications have with the evanescent mystery laying beyond our theory.

It is within this context that I want to discuss Winnicott’s dream. He reported the dream and its interpretation in a letter to Michael Fordham. In his letter, he explicitly related the dream to his efforts in writing his review of Memories, Dreams, Reflections. He states, “I was also aware as the dream flowed over me before I quite became awake that I was dreaming a dream for Jung and for some of my patients, as well as for myself.” (p. 229) Thus, we can observe the activity of Winnicott’s emerging thought while he encounters Jung. On the surface, Winnicott’s ideas appear to be particularly amenable to a Jungian integration. Yet, his interpretation of the dream and following from this some of the conclusions he drew in his review point toward significant differences in their respective approaches.

Winnicott presented us with a summary of the dream. In his words, “I can describe the dream in terms of its metapsychology without losing anything …” (p. 228) He reports the dream as having three parts, but goes on to present an additional bit of dream information, which he does not interpret. To summarize, in the first part he says that a force of absolute destruction was loose in the world and as a part of the world; he was threatened with destruction. In the second part, he was the agency of absolute destruction and he threatened to destroy the world. In part three, he awakened in the dream and was aware of parts one and two. He states, “Here was I awake, in the dream, and knew I had dreamed of being destroyed and of being the destroying agent. There was no dissociation, so the three I’s were altogether in touch with each other.” (Ibid, p. 229) This dream formed the foundation of the interpretive platform he used in his book review. The dream’s intensity also indicates how deeply he was engaged by Jung’s book.

In his review, Winnicott emphasized Jung’s “repressed primitive aggression.” For Winnicott, Jung was unable to deal with his powerful aggressiveness and thus, never achieved “unit status.” This leads Winnicott to two startling conclusions. First, he gives Jung the diagnosis of childhood schizophrenia. While it is easy to agree that Jung’s childhood was disturbed, the diagnosis of childhood schizophrenia is untenable. Second, he says, “Whatever Freud was, he had a unit personality, with a place in him for his unconscious. Jung was different. It is not possible for a split personality to have an unconscious, because there is no place for it to be.” (1989, p. 488) This interpretation is at odds on many grounds with Jung’s view of the psyche and threatens to pathologize much of Jungian theory.

Those familiar with Winnicott’s ideas might see the germ for his concept of “the use of the object” in this part of the dream. By this, he refers to the ability of the growing infant/ego to ruthlessly use the “mother” risking the destruction of the very thing upon whom it is dependent. This idea is encapsulated in the first three aspects of the dream, the destroying agency; representing unbounded aggression and in turn the fear of being destroyed by one’s destructive impulses. Finally, these impulses are mediated by the relationship with the mother. The resultant internalizations make up the growing child’s psychology.

Within the logic of Winnicott’s Notion, the unconscious is located inside the individual and is produced by internalizations of the primary object relationship with the mother. “Winnicott’s unconscious” can be likened to a personal cave built up through internalizations acquired during one’s personal history. “Jung’s unconscious” relates to the collective nature of Plato’s cave and the whole of human history.

Winnicott states that from Jung’s split personality came his interest in the unconscious and “the collective unconscious was part of his attempt to deal with his lack of contact with what could now be called the unconscious-according-to Freud.” (Ibid) This reveals the primary difficulty Winnicott encounters in interpreting Jung from outside Jung’s point of view. His focus is on developmental vicissitudes and a reductive adherence to an idea of the self as built up from internalizations. Had he considered his own idea of “the spontaneous gesture,” he may have found the ground to approach Jung’s idea of a dynamic self on its own terms.

I intend to avoid a personalistic interpretation of Winnicott’s dream. Instead, I’d like to offer some amplification. This part of the dream reminds me of a couplet quoted by Jung in Mysterium Coniunctionis. It is derived from Angelus Silesius: “God is my center when I close him in, And my circumference when I melt in him.” (CW 14, §527) This couplet captures a different energy than the “destroy or be destroyed” energy of Winnicott’s dream. It complements the aggressive energy by bringing in the notion of surrender as an orient in relating to the paradox of the objective and the subjective in psychological life. However, what is seen as objective is not simply outer life or the mother. It personalizes the relationship with those mysterious and powerful forces of the psyche without reducing them. This is missing from Winnicott’s interpretations and from his theory.

Winnicott goes on to describe another part of the dream. While still asleep, he began to realize that he had a terrible headache. He says, “What I first knew was that I had a very severe headache I could see my head split right through, with a black gap between the right and left halves. I found the words ‘splitting headache’ coming and waking me up, and I caught on to the appropriateness of this description.” (Ibid, p. 229) He relates a longstanding headache fantasy of wanting someone to split his head open and remove a tumor from behind his nose. Here is an anomaly. He treats this as if it is not a part of the dream, making no further effort at interpretation. Yet, he uses the idea of a split throughout his book review. The dream pictures a split, which I would conjecture is a reaction to his engagement with the material from Jung’s book. Thus, the dream points toward the possibility of his thinking opening up to a new point of view.

In reflecting on this part of the dream, I associated to an alchemical image, Emblem 23 from Michael Maier’s Atalanta Fugiens. In it, an old Zeus-like figure is reclining in a pose of contemplation. He holds a flaming torch in his right hand. An artisan, standing with his back to a furnace has just taken an axe and split open his skull. From the gap in his head emerges an anima figure. In the background, we see the figures of Sol and Venus engaging in coitus. A golden shower rains down. In this image, the emerging feminine figure represents Athena, Wisdom or a new conception freed from the confines of the old. In Giegerich’s terms she refers to “the Notion.” In Winnicott’s dream the words “splitting headache” take the place of this figure of dynamic potential.

Winnicott’s emphasis on and misdiagnosis of Jung’s pathology and his exclusive focus on personal dynamics represent a failure of vision. By seeing the split in personal terms, he attributes it to Jung rather than to some basic rend in the fabric of psychoanalytic thought. I don’t believe that he was “dreaming the dream for Jung.” Rather, he could have dreamed it for psychoanalytic thought had he been able to follow through on the dream’s promise. Instead, he takes the text at its word and misses an opportunity to expand his own horizon along with that of psychoanalysis. He applied the dream’s potential insight not to himself, not to psychoanalytic theory, but to Jung the person. He could not conceptualize the deeper split that his dream was depicting.

Mogenson (2003) describes this problem as follows, “Repeatedly in the soul’s life, there is a moment in which a newly appearing value is wider or greater, at least potentially, than its facilitating environment…” (p. 43) This is the case with Winnicott’s dream. The theory he applied to understanding his dream cannot contain the fullness of the dream’s raw materials. His overly personalized interpretations are the not good enough mother struggling to meet the spontaneous gesture of his dream. Winnicott was unable to reflect on his dream from a deeper place than his theory allowed. What is missing in his dream interpretation relates to the bias in his book review and reflects the larger difficulty I am raising here regarding theory integration.

Mogenson discusses an important split that I believe can be related to the split in Winnicott’s dream. He is discussing a transition in humanity’s deep past from a time when we were contained within our instinctual heritage, with no consciousness of ourselves as separated from the environment. “As our primordial forbears evolved, certain action-potentials or ‘innate releasing mechanisms’ fell into a dormant state … no longer incited to action by the sign stimuli that wild nature had provided.” (Ibid, p. 161-162) His suggestion is that a rupture between our innate releasing mechanisms and their sign stimuli created an opening where art and culture arose. We can see a reflection of this idea in Emblem 23 where the split in the skull opens a space for the anima figure to arise.

Four years after writing his book review, Winnicott elaborated on his ideas about transitional phenomena in a paper entitled “The Location of Cultural Experience.” Especially in his last writings, he appeared to reach closer to those concerns that were central to Jung. Yet, he remained bound to an understanding of the problem of history as experienced by the growing child in relationship with its mothering environment. Jung’s concern with history had to do with zeitgeist, how the individual was situated in the current manifestation of culture’s history. With the spontaneous gesture and his effort to explore cultural experience, we can see Winnicott’s concerns reflected in Jung’s project. Yet fundamental differences remain embedded in their respective Notions.


  • Giegerich, W. (2001). The Soul’s Logical Life: Toward a Rigorous Notion of Psychology, Frankfurt am Main: Peter Lang.
  • Jung, C.G. (1970). Mysterium Coniunctionis. CW 14.
  • _____, (1971). Psychological Type, CW 6.
  • Maier, M. (1671) Atalanta Fugiens, Emblem 23, from McLean, A., (editor), www.levity. com/alchemy.
  • Mogenson, G. (2003). The Dove in the Consulting Room: Hysteria and the Anima in Bollas and Jung, London: Brunner-Routledge.
  • Shamdasani, S. (2003). Jung and the Making of Modern Psychology: The Dream of a Science. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Winnicott, D. W. (1971) ‘The Location of cultural experience’. Playing and Reality. London.: Tavistock.
  • ______(1978) Psychoanalytic Explorations, Winnicott, C., Shepherd, R. and Davis, M. (eds.), Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.