The Origins of Primitive or Unthinkable Anxieties in Winnicott’s Theory of Early Development in reference to Freudian and Kleinian viewpoints


‘Primitive’ or ‘Unthinkable Anxieties’ is a threat to the human being’s psyche. It is experienced as a menace of an imminent destruction or as a feeling of disintegration. This experience is a type of fantasy or feeling of helplessness towards inner or outer danger, against which the person cannot take any protective action. In other words, ‘Disintegration Anxiety’ refers to a feeling of extreme fear that the personality is falling into pieces or disintegrating into parts that are not connected together any more. The feeling of overwhelmed helplessness is in fact, a feeling of losing one’s mind, a fear of being destroyed, abandoned, exploding and disappearing. This suggests a serious form of depersonalization that has been described in psychosis, schizophrenia, personality disorders and some other forms of psychological disorders (Hurvich, Annihilation Anxieties).

‘Primitive Anxieties’ is mentioned widely under various names in psychoanalytical literature. Winnicott’s ‘unthinkable Anxieties’ has much in common with Klein’s ‘Primitive Anxieties’, Kohut’s ‘Disintegration Anxieties’, Bion’s ‘Nameless Dread’, Jones’ ‘Aphanisis’ and Stern’s ‘Bio-trauma’. For Freud, anxiety happens as a result of traumatic situation in which a person is encountered with unbearable trauma that he is not able to suffer. In other words, a failure of self regulation is related to a traumatic experience which results in ‘Annihilation Anxiety’ (Hurvich, Annihilation Anxieties).

In this essay, an overview of Winnicott’s account on early development will be provided to illustrate the state of ‘Unthinkable Anxieties’ in it. Furthermore, a detailed reference to the Freud’s viewpoint over ‘Anxieties’ and Klein’s conceptualisation of ‘Primitive Anxieties’ will be discussed to demonstrate the departures and congruencies of Freud’s and Klein’s psychoanalytical perspectives with Winnicott’s theory of ‘Unthinkable Anxieties’.

Winnicott’s Theory of Primary Emotional Development

Before explaining Winnicott’s notion of ‘Unthinkable Anxieties’, we need to grasp an overall view of the early development process.

For Winnicott, the following processes begin at a very early stage of human being mental development:

(۱) integration, (2) personalization, and (3) following these, the appreciation of time and space and other properties of reality- in short, realization” (Winnicott, 1945, p149).

He argued that ‘Ego Integration’ is integration in time and space; ‘Ego Personalization’ is baby’s recognition of his own body and starting to make a link between his own body and its function. Here, skin is presumed as a distinguishing membrane; and finally, ‘Realisation’ of the surrounding environment in which the baby comes to terms with external objects (Winnicott, 1945).

Referring to the ‘Integration’ stage, Winnicott postulates that personality is ‘Unintegrated’ at first and two main factors are necessary to help an infant’s way towards ‘Integration’. Firstly, the mother’s techniques of primary cares such as, breast feeding, keeping the baby warm and safe or giving him a name. Secondly, instinctual experiences which try to integrate the baby’s personality from within. At this stage of ‘Unintegration’, the infant does not recognise whether he is living in his own body or his mother’s face. He imagines himself as different bits or separated parts. This imagination is not disturbing or threatening to his being at this early stage. As time passes, the infant is supposed to integrate his fragmented parts and becomes integrated (Winnicott, 1945, p149). For Winnicott, ‘Unintegration’ is quite different from ‘Disintegration’. ‘Disintegration’ is frightening and causes a feeling of insecurity and anxiety, ‘Unintegration’ is supposed to be a premise of further ‘Integration’. Winnicott explains that a failure in primary integration gives a rise to ‘Disintegration’ which will cause ‘Unthinkable Anxieties’ in the infant. Sever form of ‘Disintegration’ is found in psychosis or other psychological disorders. In his point of view, a psychotic patient’s self (ego) is supposed to be not localized or integrated in his own body. They feel themselves fragmented as they were in early childhood. In other words, Winnicott assumes a kind of delay or failure in primary integration alongside failure of other types of defences which have eventually resulted in disintegration of personality in such patients (Winnicott, 1945).

Winnicott refers to ‘Personalization’ as the second stage of primary emotional development, by emphasising on the role of the mother or care giver who creates a satisfactory situation in which a child with well-built personality is brought up. Two years later in 1947, Winnicott claims that the total dependence of the baby is quite essential for such relationship. The care which a baby receives from his mother for his body, gives him a sensation of his own body. Consequently, the body is integrated with its personal psyche. That is what Winnicott calls ‘Personalization’ (Winnicott, 1945, 1947).

The ‘Realization’ in Winnicott’s view is the infant’s orientation of time and space. In this matter, baby’s mother has got the pivotal role in facilitating baby’s way to reality adaption.

“The mother being mature and physically able has to be the one with tolerance and understanding, so that it is she who produces a situation that many with luck results in the first tie the infant makes with an external object, an object that is external to the self from the infant’s point of view.”

(Winnicott, 1945, p.152)

In 1962, he states that the three stages of ‘Ego Development’ are matched with three forms of baby care:

‘Integration’ with ‘Holding’

‘Personalisation’ with ‘Handling’

‘Realisation of Objects’ with ‘Object Presenting’ (Winnicott, 1962, p59)

He concludes that the developmental stages are probable to take place normally if ‘Holding’, ‘Handling’ and ‘Object Presenting’ are well presented by the care giver (Winnicott, 1962).

Winnicott’s notion of Unthinkable Anxieties

In Winnicott’s theory of early development, annihilation anxieties or ‘Unthinkable Anxieties’ is universal at very early stage of childhood, when a human baby is not taken as a whole person. At this time of helplessness, Winnicott emphasises on the mother’s role in the baby’s weak or strong ego formation. He supposes a ‘Good-enough Mother’ as a mother who meets the infant’s needs perfectly in order to give support to baby’s ego development. At this stage, the baby is not considered as a matured person but rather, an immature being who can be kept away from so-called ‘Unthinkable Anxieties’ by a good enough mother. What is assumed as a ‘Good-enough Mother’ in Winnicott’s point of view is a devoted mother whose task is putting herself in baby’s place to perceive baby’s needs and tries her best to satisfy them. In other words, a ‘Good-enough Mother’ is the one who can bring up her child with an integrated personality. As a result, the baby does not perceive his own being as fragmented pieces. (Winnicott, 1962, p57, p59) Winnicott describes the good-enough mother’s role as a protection against ‘Unthinkable Anxieties’ perceived as a threat to the infant’s primary ego. The good enough mother is the one who can recognise the process of the ego integration in her child. At the stage of complete dependence, she allows the baby to feel temporally ‘Omnipotent’. As the child grows up, the integration process develops out of the baby’s temporal loneliness which helps him to separate ‘Me’ from ‘Not Me’ (Winnicott, 1962, p57). If the mother does not support her child’s ego in his way of integration and maturity, the so-called ‘Unthinkable Anxieties’ threatens this immature self of the baby; the unintegrated self. The very sever forms of psychosis may occur due to the failure in this early stage of development (Winnicott, 1949).

Winnicott spells out ‘Unthinkable Anxieties’ in four aspects:

Going to pieces

Falling forever

Having no relation to the body

Having no orientation” (Winnicott, 1962, p58)

The concept of ‘Primitive’ or ‘Unthinkable Anxieties’ is quite relevant to psychosis, personality disorders such as narcissistic and borderline, anxiety disorders and phobias in Winnicott’s view (Winnicott, 1962). Furthermore, he refers to other consequences of an infant’s distorted ego as followings:

A. Infantile Schizophrenia or Autism

Latent Schizophrenia

False Self-Defence

Schizoid Personality

(Winnicott, 1962, p58-59)

Winnicott considers the relationship between the mother and the child in infant-mother coupling alongside genetic factors as the origins of above defects. An infant whose mother has not been engaged to her task as a care giver efficiently at the time that baby has not separated ‘Not me’ from ‘Me’, is supposed to be at more risk of above disorders (Winnicott, 1962).

“These degrees and kinds of personality defects can be related in investigations of individual cases, to various kinds and degrees of failure of holding, handling and object-presenting at the earliest stage. This is not to deny the existence of hereditary factors, but rather to supplement them in important respect.”

(Winnicott, 1962, p.59)

Freud conceptualisation of ‘Anxiety Theories’

Freud allocated very comprehensive efforts to define the problem of anxiety and its origins during his collaboration with Fliess between 1887 and 1902 (Anonymous, Sigmund Freud). Eventually, he developed his first theories of anxiety which indicates that the repressed or unsatisfied sexual instincts result in anxiety in individual. In other words, the repressed instincts get bodily formed manifestations or ‘Symptoms’, in Freud’s language. In his opinion, the mental apparatus tends to reduce the quantity of excitement to remain constant. Therefore, a human’s mind discharges the overloaded excitement and any interference with the discharge of excessive excitement results in ‘Anxiety Neurosis’. In other words, what is considered as anxiety in his first theory is the transformed shape of accumulated excitement which has not been discharge (Freud, 1895, p81). To come up with his second theory of anxiety, Freud refers to ‘Little Hans’s’ phobia. Little Hans had this idea of being bitten by a horse. Freud determined Little Hans’s phobia as an attempt to solve his ambivalent feelings towards his father (Freud, 1909). Later on, Freud concludes that in this case, Little Hans anger towards his father was repressed and transformed into fear of being bitten. He calls Little Hans phobia ‘Hysteric Anxiety’ (Freud, 1909, p115). He believes that in both cases of Little Hans and Wolf Man the motivation of the aggressiveness was initially the fear of castration (Freud, 1926). In Freud’s theory ‘Castration Anxiety’ is closely associated with the Oedipus complex which appears during the phallic stage. The ‘Castration Anxiety’ is considered to be similar in both genders. The boy does not take the female genitals as such and assumes it to be castrated. In Freud’s 1926 view, castration is supposed to be a sort of loss which is developed further as a series of loss; Such as the loss of the mother’s breasts, the loss of the contents of the intestines, and etc (Freud, 1926, p108). However, For Melanie Klein castration anxiety is conceptualised as a fear of revenge of the child’s same sex parent. In boys this induces an anxiety about being castrated by his father while in girls it is different and is perceived as threatening damage from maternal objects towards her stomach. From this standpoint, the only thing that can protect the infant from castration anxiety is a kind of narcissistic fantasy. The infant fantasies that he does not have access to the oedipal parent due to the biological immaturity (Klein, 1948). Furthermore, in Freud’s second theory of anxiety, he explains that the newborn gradually comes to understand that the mother can put an end to this state of affairs. As a result, loss of the mother is perceived as a threatening danger, and this experience generates anxiety. When the baby begins to perceive his mother, it is impossible for him to distinguish temporary absence of her from the permanent disappearing; thus from the moment the baby cannot see his mother, he reacts in a way as if it is not supposed to see her again. In Freud’s view, object-loss has been considered as the main factor which provokes mental distress. In fact, the anxiety is recognised as a response to a threatening situation. This primary form of object-loss is assumed to become the precursor of anxieties in adulthood (Freud, 1926).

In Freud’s view, the role of the infant’s mother as the baby’s protector from anxiety is congruent with Winnicott’s conceptualisation of the good-enough mother. In anxiety theories of both Freud and Winnicott, a failure during early development has influenced on the baby’s ego formation. In some points Freud’s view differs from Winnicott’s ideas on anxieties. Whereas, ‘Anxieties’ stands for Freud as a repressed trauma, for Winnicott it originates from the infant’s inability to integrate from within the psyche. In Freud’s accounts on anxieties, much more emphases have been invested on the baby’s mental apparatus rather than the mother-infant relationship. On the contrary, Winnicott’s most efforts are linked to the mother-infant coupling. Furthermore, Winnicott’s theory on ‘Unthinkable Anxieties’ is applicable to the psychological disorders such as; psychosis, schizophrenia, personality disorders, phobias and etc, while Freud’s ideas can be applied to fewer neurotic disorders such as, phobias and some sorts of anxiety disorders. By drawing a comparison between Freud and Winnicott perspectives on ‘Unthinkable’ or ‘Primitive Anxieties’, Kleinian concepts over the issue will be elaborated in the following paragraphs.

The state of ‘Primitive Anxieties’ in the ‘Paranoid-Schizoid Position’ in Klein’s Developmental Theory

Leaning heavily on Freud’s idea of 1926, Klein developed elaborately her own theory, especially after 1940, with a gradual working out of the concept of the ‘Depressive Position’. Klein terms ‘The Paranoid-Schizoid Position’ in 1946 in which ‘Primitive Anxieties’ as a fear of disintegration or breaking up into small pieces is at issue. She proposes this position prior of ‘Depressive Position’ which occurs at the most primitive stage of mental development. She explains that the most primitive and basic anxiety of this position is a feeling of annihilation from within the personality and in order to survive, the individual projects the fear to the external objects as a defensive measure. As the whole object is not conceived by the infant yet, the ‘Paranoid-Schizoid Position’ is characterised by splitting of an object into good and bad parts. In this position, for the baby the external objects are included in the phantasies of the mother’s good and bad breast. As can be seen, the external objects have been dichotomised due to the infant’s inability to formulate an object as a unit (Klein, 1946).

In Klein’s theory of ‘Primitive Anxieties’, object loss has a central role. Thus, anxiety acquires a depressive character (Klein, 1946). This is in congruence with Freud’s conceptualisation of castration anxiety in which the baby’s anxiety originates from a loss; the loss of the intestines’ contents (Freud, 1926). After proposing the ‘Paranoid-Schizoid Position’ (Klein, 1946), Melanie Klein conceptualises a ‘Theory of Anxiety and Guilt’. (Klein, 1948) This theory leaned heavily on Freud’s concept of the death drive (Thanatos). In this point of view, anxiety is aroused by threatening of the death drive. Klein brings annihilation and fragmentation to the anxiety concept in association with primitive terrors triggered by the inner working of the death drive. Fragmentation anxiety is explained as a primary form of the castration anxiety. In other words, this sort of anxiety influences the development of the castration anxiety. Klein believes that death drive creates the primitive fear in the baby’s psyche and consequently the vulnerable ego of the paranoid schizoid position, projects the destructive impulses to the external world. In this sense, Klein’s points to the mother’s breast as an object which has not been considered by the baby as a whole object. In fact, the breast has got two aspects for the child: The bad part-object produces persecutory anxiety and consequently a primary super-ego made by the introjections of the persecutory breast, and the good part-object which is formed by the libidinal drive assisting the baby in his way towards integration (Klein, 1948). In addition, the primary defences which are considered by Klein to be particularly schizoid in character and nature are used by the primitive ego against the anxiety of being annihilated from within the psyche. She points to these defence mechanisms as: ‘Splitting’, ‘Denial’, ‘Projection’, ‘Introjection’ and ‘Idealisation’ (Klein, 1946, p9). These schizoid defences regulate the psychic structure of the baby in order to maintain and survive. In fact, the above mechanisms are used to separate positive from negative aspects of the self. In ‘Splitting’, the baby who has not recognised the boundaries between himself and others, he perceives the objects in his environment by splitting them into good and bad objects. ‘Projection’ is a defensive way to expel good and bad aspects of the self on to the other persons or objects. The destructive feelings are thus projected to the external world because they cannot be accepted inside the baby. In Klein’s psychoanalytic account, ‘Idealisation’ is formed when the positive aspects of the self are invested into external objects or persons in order to be kept away from a harm produced by the infant. In other words, the infant tries to save them from his own aggression by attributing the positive aspects to the others (Klein, 1946).

Referring to Winnicott’s assertion of primary ‘Unintegration’, Klein describes this process as follows:

“…early ego largely lacks cohesion” therefore “a tendency towards integration alternates with a tendency towards disintegration” (Klein, 1946, p.4)

Klein argues that the archaic and primitive defences which have been explained above help the fragile ego of the newborn in its way towards integration in order to remain cohesive. In this sense, the infant is protected from the annihilation anxiety (Klein, 1946).

We can see from this point of view, these rudimentary defence mechanisms are at work as an attempt to avoid intra-psychic annihilation anxieties of the infant and moreover, later in adulthood. In some cases of psychopathological disorders, the self has not been integrated and the basic anxiety threatens the very survival of the individual’s mind. For instance, in racism and national violence, the persecutory aspects of the self are projected to the others; this is what Klein termed ‘Projective Identification’ (Klein, 1946, p9). Consequently, the victims of such violence are attacked because they have been assumed as persecutory and source of anxieties and therefore are condemned to be exterminated. Another example of psychopathological disorders which can be explained by Kleinian concepts is the paranoid personality disorder in which there is a sense of threat, fear or persecution delusion perceived by the patient who attributes such feeling to the external world. The persecution delusion in such disorder is similar to the newborn assumption of the mother’s breast as the bad part-object which he assumes it as a threat to his survival. In severe forms of paranoia, the paranoid schizophrenia, disintegrated ego cannot use the defence mechanism and therefore the anxiety of being annihilated by the persecutory object or person, which are hallucinated by the psychotic patient, threatens their being and gives them a sense of disintegration.


The problem of anxiety has been constantly presented for a variety of psychoanalytical theorists in different times. As it is elaborated above, ‘Primitive Anxieties’ is linked to the neurosis and psychic disorders in adulthood which Freud, Klein and Winnicott elucidated in their notions of anxieties. Winnicott’s ‘Unthinkable Anxieties’ has been used widely to define the origins of some psychopathological disorders such as psychosis, borderline and narcissistic personality disorders, anxiety disorders and phobias.

As a human infant is the most helpless newborn, comparing to other species of animals’ newborns, this state of weakness and vulnerability can be assumed as a traumatic and threatening situation. Though the initial care giver or the mother plays an important part in this early stage, other environmental factors are not taken into account in the theories explained in above discussion. These factors are considered to be the baby’s father, siblings, early educational training, children playing techniques, early indicative events in the baby’s life such as another newborn’s birth in the family and even, the external objects in the infant’s surrounding space. The interrelationship between parents can be another factor that has not been developed as an influential parameter on formation of both ‘Primitive Anxieties’ and ‘Defence Mechanism’ of the primary ego. Another limitation in Winnicott’s theory of ‘Unthinkable Anxieties’ can be considered as the inability of such concept in explaining the origins of other forms of anxieties which appear in adulthood. These forms of anxieties can be seen among the recent clients of psychiatric or psychological clinics; for instance the patients with post-traumatic stress disorders or PTSD, persistent nightmares, sleep disorders, eating disorders and so on. The origins of such problems cannot be defined by Winnicott’s theory of ‘Unthinkable Anxieties’ and further elaborations are necessary to illustrate the foundations of these kinds of anxiety disorders.


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