Winnicott Goes Viral at Div. 39

Presentation notes for a talk given at Div. 39 Spring Meeting at SF, April 2015.

All rights reserved to the author.

I have omitted case material from this web version. For case material presented at the talk, please email me at


Good afternoon and thanks for joining us here. My name is Orit Weksler, I am a psychotherapist practicing in Berkeley. I facilitate groups for teens and work individually with adults, teens and kids. My colleague Gary Whitmer is a psychoanalyst and has been working in Berkeley for many years. I wanted to acknowledge my friend Eric Essman for suggesting the very cool title for this talk.

I will be screening a selection of Youtube videos, many of which have gone viral- meaning: they have been watched millions of times. Most of these videos feature a short interaction between family members. Those videos do not belong to me and I didn’t ask for permission to show them, they can be found publicly on Youtube.

Many of you, I’m sure, have seen “Charlie Bit My Finger” which was the very first video to go viral when Youtube was just starting in 2007, The potential of this medium, as a way to reach millions, start revolutions and celebrate cats was just starting to be realized and the Harry and Charlie video was one of it’s announcers.

I started paying attention to those videos several years ago, I was wondering: what makes these particular videos go viral? Why do we want to watch them again and again? why are we so eager to show them to our friends? (this video, btw, came out before social networks, so it’s going viral is more of a thing then the ones that come and go now, it stayed in the air for a longer time). Around the same time Gary and I were meeting weekly, thinking together about a certain type of phenomena in patient we were seeing; those patients were seeking therapy for different reasons and the symptoms they presented were different.They all had trouble in their early relationships, they seemed to either rely only on themselves, spending lots of energy on refusing input from others, or they would rely on other people’s mind and knowledge in order to understand and to know their own thoughts and feelings.  

One of my patients, who I will call Derek, [case material omitted from web version]

We will be focusing on the mental interaction between the characters in the short videos. While questions about the use and abuse of technology in our day and age are fascinating, and relevant to the interactions occurring, we will not be focusing on those today.

Charlie Bit My Finger

Let’s watch the interaction between Harry and Charlie. Harry is 3 years old. His brother Charlie is 13 months old. Dad is holding the camera in front of the chair where Harry is sitting, holding Charlie on his lap. Harry notices that Charlie can bite. Intrigued, he places his finger inside Charlie’s mouth. What happens next has all the components of a true drama: a conflict, a climax, a happy resolution. I would like you to keep in mind Winnicott’s idea of: “The Full Experience” and how being in a “holding environment” allows the brothers to each have their own experience and to know it in a full way.

YouTube Video

So much is happening here. As a British TV anchor interviewing the family several months after the video going viral, said: “All human life is there: joy, trust, happiness, doubt, pain, fear, grief and joy again. Its a human journey, isn’t it? in 30 seconds.”

We love Harry and Charlie’s 56 second interaction because all these feelings are expressed and communicated so clearly- this is what human experience is all about. 

What allows Harry, at age 3 and his brother, not yet a toddler, to be able to experience, know and communicate this full range of emotions in less than one minute?

Dad operates the camera throughout the drama. By not intervening, dad demonstrates the capacity to pause, suggesting the opportunity for finding meaning in the experience, perhaps multiple meanings. 

Let's think about some possible meanings for Harry, the older brother. Dad's pause allows Harry to tolerate the pain and use it as an idea. 

Harry's experience is now known as, what Fonagy may call "a mental state", not a thing in the world. We feel like we know our own experience without evidence from others. But in fact, we don't know our experience directly. There is a perfect rhythm that can not be predicted but in retrospect can be choreographed quite beautifully- as Harry’s screams become louder,  Charlie slowly reaches his own hand and takes Harry’s finger out of his own mouth. Dad's ability to be present without interfering allows Harry to take the time to examine his bitten finger. “Charlie bit me and it hurt and it’s still hurting Charlie”, he says, articulating his knowledge of his own state.

Let's think about Charlie's experience. Following Winnicott, we can describe this biting as a "spontaneous gesture or a personal idea". Winnicott thought of this as the "true Self in action". Charlie's gesture has a response in the world. The response makes something in Charlie, which was previously unknown, into a known phenomena in the world, as it is being responded to and known by others.

Derek tells me [case material omitted from web version]

So how does whatever is spontaneous and personal become known to the mind in a way that can be accessed and used in creative communication?

This can only happen in the context a "good enough" relationship which requires kindness, curiosity and a capacity to handle the unknown. When thinking of a parent/baby dyad, or a therapist/patient, another requirement would be the ability to hold a kind of "superposition"- being able to be both playful and protective at the same time. In the context of such a relationship, meaning is created. Winnicott calls this relationship "potential space": using each other to create and sustain an ongoing sense of who we are and an ongoing internal sense of meaning.

How is this done?

Come and play with me," proposed the little prince. "I am so unhappy."

"I cannot play with you," the fox said. "I am not tamed."

"Ah! Please excuse me," said the little prince.

But, after some thought, he added:

"What does that mean--'tame'?"....

"It is an act too often neglected," said the fox. It means to establish ties."

"'To establish ties'?"

"Just that," said the fox. "To me, you are still nothing more than a little boy who is just like a hundred thousand other little boys. And I have no need of you. And you, on your part, have no need of me. To you, I am nothing more than a fox like a hundred thousand other foxes. But if you tame me, then we shall need each other. To me, you will be unique in all the world. To you, I shall be unique in all the world . . ."


 Meaning does not become known to a person simply by having an experience. Meaning can't be given to an experience by an observer.

It is within the context of a relationship that we find and create meaning. This relationship, as the fox wisely advises us, needs to be one in which there is presence and attention. 

"My life is very monotonous," the fox said. "I hunt chickens; men hunt me. All the chickens are just alike, and all the men are just alike. ….But if you tame me, it will be as if the sun came to shine on my life. I shall know the sound of a step that will be different from all the others. Other steps send me hurrying back underneath the ground.

Before being tame the fox experiences the world as monotonous and timeless. The only meaningful things are those which elicit a "fight/flight" reaction. His experience is similar to the inner world of patients I have described before: while functioning in the world, those patients don't feels like they own their experience. So decisions become more of a question of what is right or wrong to do rather than what feels good or what I believe is true. 

The problem seems subtle, as it does not manifest itself in one specific set of symptoms nor does it predict a level of functioning. However, this problem affects emotional regulation, the capacity to learn and the capacity to tolerate difference. The un-tame fox's monotonous life of  hunting and being hunted, when translated into human terms, paints an emotionally barren landscape. 

Your (footsteps) will call me, like music, out of my burrow. And then look: you see the grain-fields down yonder? I do not eat bread. Wheat is of no use to me. The wheat fields have nothing to say to me. And that is sad. But you have hair that is the color of gold. Think how wonderful that will be when you have tamed me! The grain, which is also golden, will bring me back the thought of you. And I shall love to listen to the wind in the wheat . . ."

The fox gazed at the little prince, for a long time.

"Please--tame me!" he said.

The fox explains the essence of a relationship where meaning is elaborated and “Transitional Phenomena” are created- the fox, when tame, will find new meaning in a previously meaningless field of wheat. The meaning can only be created and found, within the context of his relationship with the little prince.

I would like to share some ideas I had from watching these videos concerning what seems to be happening in the encounter itself. What I learnt is informing me when I invite into my office people who, like the fox are asking to be tamed and don't have a sense yet of what this means.

To sustain Potential Space we need Rhythm + Knowledge + Pause


The sense of rhythm is innate. Every baby is born with an experience of it’s mother’s heartbeat, the pace of her steps and breathing. In that sense we are born tame. But that tameness is merely a potential: it is the basis for relationships and meaning making. In the next videos I would like us to focus on the rhythm and it’s function. There is a lot going on in these videos, but for now- let’s try to look at rhythm: the back and forth, the sensation in the body, leading and following, imitation. It is an aspect of Winnicott's "play".

In the first video we will see Khalil who is two years old rapping to a beat. His dad is paying attention to the sounds Khalil is making, to the rhythm of his movements. Dad elaborates on those, leaving room for Khalil to develop sounds into words.

Khalil 2 -

Rhythm is profoundly important in creating a potential space or holding environment- patients who lack an inner sense of rhythm in relationships will often talk at you, or they may be silent. 

Derek is one of those patients who you sit with forever, then you look at the clock and you're sure the clock had stopped. He has this way of talking for a while then saying:  “The……..” keeping me waiting, unable to think my own thoughts, busy keeping some thread of connection while he falls into silence for 20 seconds or more. In those moments I used to feel panicked because I would realize I could not remember his name. I started wondering: why was I dissociating so badly with him? Think of Harry and Charlie- that whole interaction was 30 seconds long, it is so long... I think Derek's prolonging of his a way to keep himself from falling into dissociation, or as I will later learn, a way to keep himself from the trauma of waiting for a mother who was absent for too long. What Winnicott would call x+y+z). 

A patient may be able to use language very well to describe experiences, memories or feelings. Without an inner experience of rhythm in the context of a kind, curious relationship, his articulated ideas may not become meaningful to him.  These patients often express a feeling of emptiness, of waiting. They are often concerned with planning, looking forward to something but have a hard time “being in the moment”- being in rhythm.

In this next video there are three adults in the room and one maybe 5 month old baby. The two women  present baby Laila with a small baby shoe. She explores it with her mouth but is then startled by her father yelling in her ear: “Take that out of your mouth!” followed by the two women laughing and her dad apologizing and attempting to console her. In this relationship there is no curiosity as to Laila’s own experience. As much as we may find it hard to empathize with the adults here, I would like to ask us to try- we know nothing of their own experience and of other moments in their lives. 

Laila and the shoe -

In this video there is no back and forth rhythm between Laila and any of the adults around her. Dad startling her is not a response to her "spontaneous gesture" in contrast to the gestures we saw by Charlie and Khalil. 

One of the women in the video says: "what's daddy doing to you": this is exactly the difference between what we see here and the interaction between Khalil and his dad or between Harry and Charlie. Dad is "doing something to" Laila, there is no shared experience.  Winnicott would call dad's yellings "impingements" in the sense that Laila needs to put all of her attention into physically dealing with the sensory stimulation rather than being able to pay attention to what is going on inside her.

 For Laila to be able to learn how to pay attention to her own experience, she would need the safety of a rhythm which she doesn't have. For Laila, biting means something very different than it means for Charlie. Without the context of another person who is conscious of her experience her biting can't be known to her.


We often think of Winnicott’s idea of “mirroring” when we think of early relationships. I would like to tweak this idea a bit- We know that Mimicking (or “imitating”) is an innate capacity: babies are born with it . For a relationship to be one that can be elaborated- a “potential space”where “transitional phenomena” can happen, a parent needs to not only mirror in the sense of imitating the baby, but also elaborate on whatever the baby is doing. the parent needs to do this in a way that is tolerable for the baby. Not too much to overwhelm, scare or confuse him, enough to keep him engaged and help him learn and grow. 

Baby Emerson is about 5 months old. When his mother blows her nose he becomes terrified. He may be scared of the noise or may feel that his mother has disappeared forever. He is relieved and joyful to see his mother’s face again. Notice how mom continues to blow her nose: kindly explaining what is happening. She uses a sing song voice to talk to him in a rhythm that is known and predictable.

Emerson - Mommy's Nose is Scary! ‎(Original)‎_640x480.mp4

Mom knows that her own experience is different and more elaborated than emerson's. She has the capacity to both imagine what Emerson's experience is and to compare/contrast it with her own experience. She then has the capacity to understand what emerson needs to know- what could be useful for him. 

As a therapist, it is important to remember that these patients sometimes ask us questions because they need to know something about the world or about relationships. 

[Case material omitted from web version]

Mirroring back the question may leave them in an inner experience of dread and loneliness, as we will see in the next video.

5 year old Sadie realizes something  about reality, time and mortality. This is a difficult, yet important moment in a child’s life.  Mom is indeed mirroring her words but is blind to Sadie's emotional needs in this moment. In an interview at a morning show, mom, who was filming said: "I saw the little drama queen coming out and I thought, oh, this is funny..I could see that it was turning into something that might be kinda cute."

YouTube Video

Mom loves Sadie. However, in her wish to capture the moment, mom is neglecting her position as a playmate and a protector. Sadie can not "use her" in the way that Winnicott talks about the use of an object.

As an audience we can feel a discomfort in the pit of our stomach. There is no back and forth- no rhythm between Sadie and her mother, only a repetition, like an echo in an empty vessel. When Sadie says: "Oh my gosh he's so cute!" I feel that she is falling into pieces, but she isn't reaching towards mom and mom is not reaching towards her. There is no rhythm between them, no response to Sadie's personal gesture, and also mom is not using her own knowledge of the world as a way to make this a more tolerable moment for Sadie. 

The clinical phenomena I am thinking about are interactions when patients were either left to their own devices when confronted with difficult feelings, like Sadie, or flooded with too much information about the hardships of the world. 

Sometimes when Derek presents one of his "models", I provide an idea of my own. Derek becomes disorganized, even scared. When i ask him about it, he says that he then needs to "adjust his model" so it would incorporate my ideas, otherwise there is a danger of our communication being disrupted, a danger he can not seem to be able to tolerate. This "fear of breakdown": caused by either not enough "holding knowledge" or too much knowledge is a component of what we classify as trauma. 

In the next clip, another mother/child dyad is dealing with questions of life and death in a very different way.  Luiz Antonio lives in Brazil, his mother is giving him octopus for lunch. He asks whether the octopus head is still in the sea.This gets him thinking about the killing of animals in general. 

Mom knows a lot about this but she makes a choice to share only some of these truths with her son. She introduces him to reality in a tolerable way.  She can think about how she is thinking and what she knows and at the same time she is aware of Luiz's experience and his capacity to know. 

Notice the rhythm- both of Luiz’s words as he is thinking out loud, and the gentle  back and forth between the pair. 

YouTube Video

Luiz Antonio's mom is able to hold in mind her own knowledge while providing her son with a rhythm and the right amount of information. Her tears at the end of this video (and our teary eyes as well) capture the emotional tension of this internal drama. Luiz's comment: "does this mean I'm doing something beautiful?" speaks to his ability to know that he has an impact on his mother who has her own experience. Just like Harry, he already knows that his thoughts are "thoughts" and not "things"- not just the way the world is. 

I would like to comment on Bion's idea of "metabolizing" in this context. The mother's job here is not only to take in the child's anxiety- as would be called for in Sadie's case, but also to be mindful of not flooding the child with her own knowledge of the world. 

 Perhaps it would be useful to think of anxiety not as residing in the child- projected into the mother, metabolized by her then fed back in a tolerable way as a bird feeding a chick. Rather as created within the context of the rhythmic relationship, more like a soap bubble: big enough to be impressive, small enough to be contained. 

The Pause

    Did you notice what Luiz Antonio’s mom did when he said: no, no one eats chickens, they’re animals! 

she said: oh… there was a moment there when things could have gone a different route- mom could have said: yeah, they are animals, but we eat them nonetheless! or maybe: never mind, eat your rice, we’re late for swim class! but she didn’t, she paused, providing rhythm but no input of her own in that moment. 

Rhythm requires a time between beats. In this context a time when anxiety is contained enough but present enough for something new to emerge. 

This is when Luiz Antonio can start thinking his thoughts- within this context, inside this pause. 

When Derek says the....there is no room for a pause. A pause would indicate a rhythm that is alive between us, the ability to trust that when one is silent it is different from them being gone. 

Derek can't trust that. He can only trust himself so he prolongs his that  the whole conversation depends on him alone. Just as Laila's whole attention is devoted to her dad: there is no rhythmic pause in which a new creation can emerge. 

Look at the pause here between dad's dance and baby's dance, it's clearly and cutely marked by a pointing finger: 

Dad and baby dancing.mp4

Period of Hesitation

Winnicott, in his paper “ The Observation of Infants in a Set Situation” describes a game which he calls “the spatula game”. He places a spoon on the table between himself and the baby who is sitting on his mother’s lap. Most babies, he says, look at him, look at mom, look at the spoon. there is “a period of hesitation” as he calls it, before the baby reaches for the spoon and starts to play with it. Winnicott, being in constant discussion with Melanie Klein, thinks of this act as a way in which the baby is trying to assess whether he will be punished by the doctor or the mother. For baby Laila- the one with the shoe, this may be true. However, within the context of a kind, curiously engaged relationship, this pause is a necessary element  in which creativity and newness can emerge.

When Luiz Antonio's mom says ummhmm, or when we sometimes, in our offices, sit in silence- not waiting, not "checking out" but pausing within the rhythm of the session, then there is room for creativity. 

Lately Derek and I have been able to pause. [Case material omitted from web version]

A pause can be a moment within the rhythm of a conversation or it can stretch out, as it does during childhood onto vast hours of playing alone in the presence of another, which later can be elaborated to reading, creating being oneself in the world.


What must I do, to tame you?" asked the little prince.

"You must be very patient," replied the fox. "First you will sit down at a little distance from me--like that--in the grass. I shall look at you out of the corner of my eye, and you will say nothing….But you will sit a little closer to me, every day . . ."

The next day the little prince came back.

"It would have been better to come back at the same hour," said the fox. "If, for example, you come at four o'clock in the afternoon, then at three o'clock I shall begin to be happy. I shall feel happier and happier as the hour advances. At four o'clock, I shall already be worrying and jumping about. I shall show you how happy I am! But if you come at just any time, I shall never know at what hour my heart is to be ready to greet you…

The little prince is playing with the fox while simultaneously keeping track of the game, or as we would say in therapy: keeping the frame.

Laila’s parents (with the shoe) are not doing that- they’re just playing for their own entertainment. Sadie’s mother, filming her daughter's heartbreaking first encounter with concepts of time and death, is not keeping the frame either- she is listening to the adorable content of her daughters thoughts, missing out, in that moment, on her emotional needs. 

To keep a Holding environment or the container/contained soap bubble, a parent needs to be in a kind of superposition. The parent is playing, really playing, with an open, curious, careless freedom to the interaction. At the same time he needs to carefully keep track of the rhythm, bringing in his own content to elaborate the interaction and containing anxiety in pauses when new things can emerge. The good news is that the baby is a partner to this from a very early age, he too takes on these roles. We do this for each other all the time.

I think this is our main task in psychotherapy especially with patients who did not have enough of these experiences in their primary relationships. 

Having enough of a rhythm with Derek allowed for a pause contained enough for him to be able to share this knowledge about his childhood.  The new shared knowledge provides our relationship with an opportunity to enter into a superposition that was not available to us before: we can now both look at his current thoughts and interactions in light of his previous experiences. This new knowledge helps me have more empathy for Derek, when i imagine him prolonging his the.... to keep his mother from leaving her understanding state of mind. I can now appreciate why my own opinions have often felt to him like intolerable impingements indicating a dissociated state of mind. Paying attention to the rhythm, to the way my own ideas (or interpretations) are received and to the quality of our pauses, has allowed Derek to reach a way of interacting  that is based on his personal gestures rather than prescribed models.

So the little prince tamed the fox. And when the hour of his departure drew near--

"Ah," said the fox, "I shall cry."

"It is your own fault," said the little prince. "I never wished you any sort of harm; but you wanted me to tame you . . ."

"Yes, that is so," said the fox.

"But now you are going to cry!" said the little prince.

"Yes, that is so," said the fox.

"Then it has done you no good at all!"

"It has done me good," said the fox, "because of the color of the wheat fields."

"We are always responsible for those we tame..."