“I didn’t even know I was feeling cold”

cashmere_throwAn extract from an article by D.W. Winnicott has become lodged in my consciousness, and I believe for good reason. Like memories of a dream, Winnicott’s thoughts await events or a moment of inspiration to reveal why they are speaking to me (and perhaps others) now, and what they now have to say.

In this article, “The Use of an Object and Relating through Identifications,” Winnicott was speaking to fellow psychoanalysts and psychotherapists, but my sense is that the sentences may also speak to some of the rest of us, and not just to how we might think about past or present psychotherapies. The sentences are:

[I]t is only in recent years that I have become able to wait and wait for the natural evolution of the transference arising out of the patient’s growing trust in the psychoanalytic technique and setting, and to avoid breaking up this natural process by making interpretations. . . . It appalls me to think how much deep change I have prevented or delayed in patients . . . by my personal need to interpret. If only we can wait, the patient arrives at understanding creatively and with immense joy, and I now enjoy this joy more than I used to enjoy the sense of having been clever. I think I interpret mainly to let the patient know the limits of my understanding. The principle is that it is the patient and only the patient who has the answers.

Two paths open up as I work on this post. One involves the recognition that much of the interpreting we do is of our own actions. And thus I recall (for the umpteenth time) famous lines from T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets: “I said to my soul, be still, and wait without hope . . . Wait without thought, for you are not ready for thought”.

Another path is suggested by the fact that writers, too, offer readers interpretation. To what end?

But the “path” with which I began—when I first re-read Winnicott’s sentences some weeks ago—it had to do with a friend who was clearly all knotted up in conflicts, who was clearly drawn to getting knotted up in conflicts, even as she suffered from and complained about these conflicts. How might someone, how might I, speak to her?

I close with a touching story from the psychoanalyst and composer Emmanuel Ghent’s “Interaction in the Psychoanalytic Situation”:

I had an office on the ground floor of a Greenwich Village brownstone. As it faced out on a large garden and much open space, the office was quite susceptible to chilly drafts on windy winter days. One such day a woman patient was haltingly recounting, as was her wont, the details of some event that had recently occurred; I cannot now recall the content. She was sitting in a chair at right angles to me, about fifteen feet from the windows. Suddenly, but not abruptly, I got up, went over to where a Scottish throw was folded on the couch, picked it up, covered her lap and legs with it, and returned to my chair. As I sat down I noticed, to my surprise, that she was sobbing silently. It was the first time in our work, by then over two years in duration, that there was any indication of distress, pain, or even sadness. After some time, her first words were, “I didn’t even know I was feeling cold”, and then she wept profusely.

— Wm. Eaton

William Eaton is the Editor of Zeteo. A collection of his essays, Surviving the Twenty-First Century, will be published by Serving House Books. For more, see Surviving the website.


A few links & credits

D.W. Winnicott’s article is based on a paper read to the New York Psychoanalytic Society, 12 November 1968, and published in the International Journal of Psycho-Analysis, vol. 50 (1969).

The T.S. Eliot’s lines are from “East Coker,” in the Four Quartets. The last time I quoted these lines was in awkward (which does not mean bad) exploration, “On the Unexpected.”

The late Emmanuel Ghent’s essays seem accessible online only via various publishing companies that charge money (or that are free to some who have access to a university library). Some of these essays—e.g. on “Masochism, Submission, Surrender” and on “Paradox and Process”—are well worth further consideration. “Interaction in the Psychoanalytic Situation” appeared in Psychoanalytic Dialogues: The International Journal of Relational Perspectives, vol. 5, issue 3, 1995. I was introduced to Ghent, and indeed to the passage quoted above, through an essay on Ghent’s work by Adam Phillips: “On What We Need,” in Equals (Basic Books, 2002).

One comment

  1. Daniel D'Arezzo

    Poetry and interpretation are closely linked, so it is natural to include Eliot’s lines from “East Coker.” This idea of an unforced interpretation–one that comes from the analysand rather than from the analyst–which emerges over time, when the mind or soul is prepared for the revelation, is especially applicable to certain kinds of poetry. There are poems that strongly resist a “rational” interpretation–that is, some sort of prose paraphrase and a connecting of dots, like the kind of interpretation one might give to a 16th-century allegory. I think that Eliot’s “Four Quartets” is that kind of poem. It will have for many readers no meaning whatever, and for others it will have a personal meaning that is deeply felt but cannot be argued or explained. What I discovered, as a graduate student, is that “Four Quartets” is unteachable. I’m not saying that it shouldn’t be taught or that students of poetry shouldn’t read it and talk about it. But it is more the sort of poem that opens doors and windows that may be understood only through one’s personal experience. I am annoyed when I’m told that poems mean whatever the reader wants them to mean, as if they had no subject matter. The Iliad is about the wrath of Achilles, not about your mother’s attempts to control you. On the other hand, if you’ve had a controlling mother, you may see Thetis in an interesting light. “Four Quartets,” on the third or fourth hand, is really all about you: what you as a spiritual being have found on your journey. And it’s up to you to say what it means, if anything. As someone who has tried to teach poetry, I appreciate D. W. Winnicott’s humble self-criticism. It is useful to know when to shut up.


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