Molnos, A. (1998): A psychotherapist's harvest


Donald W. Winnicott (1896-1971) formulated and developed the idea of the "good-enough" mother. It stands in contrast with the "perfect" mother who satisfies all the needs of the infant on the spot, thus preventing him from developing. Instead, the good-enough mother tries to provide what the infant needs, but she instinctively leaves a time lag between the demands and their satisfaction and progressively increases it. Faced with expressions of infantile rage, she waits a while, then she contains the rage gently but firmly. Her fundamentally warm, loving attitude remains in place whatever the infant does, and even when she herself experiences irritation, annoyance, or anger. She never retaliates, never takes revenge on her child. Her basic attitude overrides any mistake she makes and is bound to make. She is a master in handling negative reactions in a constructive, healing fashion. The good-enough mother's behaviour can be described with another Winnicottian concept, namely "graduated failure of adaptation". Her failure to satisfy the infant need's immediately induces the latter to compensate for the temporary deprivation by mental activity and by understanding. Thus, the infant learns to tolerate for increasingly longer periods both his ego needs and instinctual tensions. (Winnicott, 1977, p. 246).

The idea of the good-enough mother is important for the psychotherapist at least in two respects. First, it constitutes a basic model for the therapist's healthy attitude towards the patient. Second, but not less important, when trying to understand the patient and his troubles in the assessment interview or later on, she also attempts to build up a mental picture of the mother who took care of him from the beginning. The therapist tries to find out how far and in which direction did sthe patient's mother deviate from the ideal of a good-enough mother.