The Book of Human Emotions: From Ambiguphobia to Umpty - 154 Words from Around the World for How We Feel - Tiffany Watt Smith 2016


The suburbs are littered with tiny monuments to heartache. A dropped teddy bear propped up against a lamppost. A smiling plastic frog languishing in the gutter. The devastation of losing a favorite toy is well known to parents, who recognize the deep significance a one-eyed bunny or well-chewed blankie can have in a child’s emotional world.

The idea that children are deeply connected to their toys is in part due to the work of the pediatrician and psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott. In the early 1950s he became interested in the fact that parents often give babies something soft to cuddle to help them sleep alone. Winnicott suggested that these objects were more than a reliable presence, or substitute for the parent. It must also have warmth, texture and movement, he explained, allowing the child to imbue it with a life of its own. As if they are an extension of its own mind, the child uses such “transitional objects” to act out its own desires and fears—perhaps the most famous example is Linus’s comfort blanket in Charles Schulz’s Peanuts cartoon strip, which occasionally rears up and chases off its owner’s enemies. Winnicott spoke of these objects as a “bridge” or a “third world” that lay between the baby’s mind and the real world. Once the baby has learned to understand and tolerate the distinction between himself and other people, the object’s usefulness fades.

Yet, our need for transitional objects never disappears entirely. It’s there at crisis points of GRIEF or TERROR—one reason ambulances and police cars are equipped with soft toys or “trauma teddies” is so that victims of car crashes (usually children but sometimes adults) might have something to cuddle for reassurance. In such moments, the comfort one receives from a stuffed toy may be hard for a living, breathing human to match.

What makes you feel safe in a reckless world? Perhaps it’s ice cream, or a duvet. A favorite film. Cuddling the dog. The things or rituals we use to soothe ourselves in times of distress or worry provide a temporary retreat, helping us feel held, or filled, or safe. From the Latin confortare (to strengthen), seeking comfort is no weakness. We acknowledge that something is missing and that we must retreat in order to go forward. In this sense, seeking comfort is a vulnerable act, and so very brave indeed.

Before the outbreak of the Second World War, many psychologists had thought that babies bonded with whoever fed them (a theory called “cupboard love”). In the wake of the traumatic separations of families during that conflict, questions of security and reassurance came to the fore (see: ANXIETY). As well as Winnicott’s work, these questions gave rise to John Bowlby’s influential research on attachment, and a new emphasis on physical contact, mainly due to the work of Harry Harlow, a primatologist at the University of Wisconsin. He had noticed that when infant rhesus monkeys were separated from their mothers at birth they became unresponsive and despondent, and lost weight even though they were being fed by the researchers. Crucially, he noticed that they clung to their cloth diapers when afraid, and this led Harlow to devise an experiment to test the effects of tactile sensation—what he called “contact comfort.”

He fashioned two wire structures, or “mothers,” and placed them in the cage with the baby monkeys. One of the structures was left with the wire frame exposed, but with a bottle attached to it for feeding. The other was covered in a soft terry cloth, but had no bottle. The infant monkeys went to the “wire mother” for feeding. But when they were frightened, for instance by a moving toy unleashed into their cage, they scrambled up the “cloth mother” for comfort and stayed there. The photographs of the experiment are heartbreaking to see today, but Harlow’s work is a cornerstone of modern infant care. He showed that the bond between parents and children is based on more than food; that warmth, softness and “contact comfort” are also necessary for survival. One of its most well-known applications is the emphasis on “skin-to-skin” contact between newborns and their parents (also known as “kangaroo care”), which has been proven not only to soothe and calm infants, but to strengthen their immune systems too: even the tiniest babies in ICUs are thought to be more likely to thrive when given “skin-to-skin” contact.

Winnicott’s and Harlow’s ideas both testify to the enduring importance of comfort in our emotional lives. As adults, it can be hard to admit to vulnerability and need (see: AMAE). Sometimes we might feel brave enough to seek reassurance from other humans, and ask to be held or stroked or sung to. At other times we find solace furtively and in the dark, perhaps turning to “transitional objects” once again. According to Winnicott, in our adult lives paintings and films, prayers and rituals, but also addictions and compulsions, all perform the same function as a teddy bear, holding us temporarily—and giving us something to hold too. For a moment, they may allow the unforgiving outside world to temporarily yield to and mirror our painful inner emotional landscapes. They allow us to say, “Yes, that’s exactly how I feel.”

And there is little more consoling than that.