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Emanuel, R. (1984). Primary Disappointment. J. Child Psychother., 10(1):71-87.

(1984). Journal of Child Psychotherapy, 10(1):71-87

Primary Disappointment

Ricky Emanuel


The infant suffers what might be called a “primary disappointment”, when there is a failure of the parental object to meet his innate expectations. This includes the infant's expectations of a containing object that can “think” about him, in the sense described by Bion (Bion 1962). The method of dealing with the frustration arising from a primary disappointment in the absence of an object can determine the path of the future development of the infant's capacity to think.

In her “Commemorative Essay on W.R. Bion's theory of thinking”, Edna O'Shaugnessy (O'Shaugnessy 1981) asks the question, ‘What does Bion mean by ‘thinking’?” She goes on thus, “He does not mean some abstract mental process. His concern is with thinking as a human link — the endeavour to understand, comprehend the reality of, get insight into the nature of oneself or another. Thinking is an emotional experience of trying to know oneself or someone else. Bion designates this fundamental type of thinkingthinking in the sense of trying to know, by the symbol K.

Thinking in this sense (via the process of projective identification and reintrojection) relies upon the capacity to bear the frustration of not knowing and the painful emotions of tolerating the absence of an object long enough to take in the painful realization that something is missing. The establishment or not of the capacity to think in the infant depends upon the mother's capacity for reverie, that is her capacity to contain and try to understand or think about the infant's primitive communications — to develop a K link with him.

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