Philipa Perry Talks Teddy for The Independent Newspaper

Originally posted here

Thank you to Jenni Dutton for suggesting a highly relevant article as a source of information for the Museum. In her piece, psychotherapist Philipa Perry talks about ‘transitional objects’ in the context of managing transitions and our ability to navigate between inner and outer worlds. I hope the theme of objects as emotional containers can become one of the Museum’s concerns as it is a mainstay of my own artistic practice. I particularly like the phrase Philipa uses for the transitional object as – “a symbol for the internal life”. Can object artists use this kind of psychotherapeutic framework to better understand their practice? Do we have a strong need to have our inner world seen and also be reflected back to us through the objects we use?

The following are excerpts are taken from Philipa Perry’s original article (Teddy bears for adults: Why a third of students take a teddy bear with them to university) which was written for the Independent Newspaper and appeared on Tuesday 30th September. The picture which accompanies Philipa’s words has been selected by Sonia Boué.

06 gebruder-bing-teddy-bear-1905
Gebruder Bing teddy bear at the Museum of Childhood in London


“At the beginning, a child’s relationship with a teddy may be largely physical – a first step from sucking their own thumb or fist may be to chewing a teddy’s ear – but there is more to it than this.” Winnicott states: “It is clear that something is important here other than oral excitement and satisfaction.”

The first “not me” object that a baby encounters is the primary carer with the breast or the bottle, and so the second “not me” object often takes on many of the qualities of the first. For example, the ability to cuddle, care for, nurture, feed and generally soothe, so it is not surprising that a lasting bond with this second object, often the teddy bear, is formed. Patterns set in infancy often continue into childhood and beyond so that the teddy bear is still needed, especially at times of stress or loneliness.

So, apart from being a warm cuddle, what else is a teddy bear good for? Winnicott’s phrase “transitional object” has passed into everyday use when it comes to talking about teddies or soggy bits of highly prized blanket. But a transitional object isn’t merely a replacement for the relationship with a carer when they are not ever-present. There is more to it than that. The transitional object is a symbol for the internal life of its owner.

The transitional object is part of this inner world, and yet it isn’t just a mental concept because it exists in the external world, too. Teddy, if not flesh and blood, is certainly fake-fur and stuffing. One of teddy’s jobs is to give an external reality that matches the child’s inner life and the child’s capacity to create.

An inner life is not easy to articulate with words, and however private we may be, we have a need to have this inner world seen. All of us need human mirrors, people who reflect back to us, in the way they are when they are with us, a picture of ourselves that chimes with our own experience of our identity and essence. We need people who have known us a long time to do this, and when we go to university, there may be no one there who knows us, no one who can mirror back to us the person whom we believe we are. So a teddy, who has been with us from the off, can act as a stand-in for a human mirror for a while.

When we watch a child lost in play, we are seeing the child make sense of the collision between their inner world and the outer reality.

Winnicott states that the task of accepting external reality is never completed and that no human is free from the tension of relating their inner and outer realities. It’s probably unrealistic to assume that we can grow up completely.”