Uncertainty and control

In an early letter written by Donald Winnicott to his sister Violet in 1919 when he was a medical student, he wrote about his interest in understanding the mind and the new treatment of psychoanalysis. Suggesting he might be accused by his sister of blasphemy, Winnicott writes that in his view ‘Christ was a leading psychotherapist’. He explains that most religious rituals and extreme acts are equivalent to mental disorders, but Christ was able to heal and bring people to a true and deep understanding of religion rather than superficially following unquestioningly what others told them to do. In psychotherapy, ‘many fanatics or extremists can be brought (if treated early) to a real understanding of religion with its use in setting a high ethical standard’. This would then allow them to stop causing a nuisance and religious contagion, and free them to develop along their own individual lines.

Twenty years later and now an analyst, Winnicott returns in a letter to a colleague Dr Kate Friedlander to the need for some people to hold to very definite opinions and refuse any discussion on them. This can happen in religion and during times of crisis such as war and pandemics where survival is threatened.

‘Why is uncertainty alarming? This in turn leads to the idea of control. The greater the uncertainty the greater the need for control, and one method of control is by ideas and statement of words; even evil, when it is predicted is better than the prospect of uncontrolled possibilities.’

Winnicott sees that some must control in this way, whilst others are under much less of a compulsion. The people who must have their opinions heard in religious or political circles are trying to control magically what is happening. This is because the situation represents a part of the person’s own inner world (or unconscious fantasy) for which they cannot bear full responsibility. ‘This is half way between depression and elation, between carrying the sins of the whole world, and denying responsibility for anything.’

The people who refuse any discussion of their opinions and views have in their fear and uncertainty ‘made the last possible consultation, they had consulted God. Beyond that is the threat of depression or madness…’

If we are less anxious we can entertain other opinions and think through different options, but when anxiety is great then the idea of magical thinking increases, it is as if we have become gods making absolute decisions.