Containment refers to the energetic space between you and your psychotherapist. It's the atmosphere the therapist creates that conveys a sense of safety, allowing you to more comfortably move through your emotions.
What is emotional containment?
Although the concept of containment is considered a technical term in psychotherapy theory, you experience it in your interactions with a good friend or a close relationship with your partner.
"Emotional containment" in good friendships
One way to illustrate the concept is to reflect on the way you interact with others.
Imagine the last time you found yourself emotionally distraught about an incident….
Now imagine sitting with a close friend and notice how she's emotionally present for you. Perhaps she's gently leaning forward into the space between you, with a look of warm compassion. You sense that you have all the freedom and safety you need in order to feel what you want to feel.
As you feel safe and supported, the space around you is energetically "contained".
Now imagine talking with a less empathic friend.
She says that she wants to hear what's on your mind, but she looks distracted and makes little eye contact. She may interject a conclusion before she's heard the whole story. She might even interrupt the moment with her own problem.
You'll surely be less comfortable in saying what you need to say. You may even find yourself glossing over feelings and impressions that in your heart you know are important.
The space between you is not contained, for there is no energetic boundary. You won't disclose deeply held feelings because you feel exposed and vulnerable.
You conclude with a sense of knowingness that this is not the right person to be telling your story to.
Emotional containment explained
When two people meet, two nervous systems shake hands. That means the nervous system of others affects you - including and especially so - your therapist.
When you say you're trying to "hold it together" you're in a sense trying to "contain" that pent up energy.
If you're in session with your therapist his or her nervous system is actually making it easier for you to contain that energy for the simple reason that we're all interconnected that way. (This dynamic of course depends on your therapist having a healthier nervous system than yours 😉
A good therapist, 'contains the space' by being emotionally attuned, by maintaining clear boundaries, and by creating the sense that "you have all the time you need".
Therapists who are self-regulated are better at creating an atmosphere of connection. They are sensitive to it and can create that warm, safe feeling when the client needs it. That's because they have a strong sense of themselves through their own body.
Emotional containment and boundaries
The ability to "hold onto yourself, to feel yourself inside of you" is necessary to maintaining good boundaries. You may find for instance that it's a struggle all week just "holding it together" and by the weekend, you need to regroup.
This is when you're more easily at risk for your boundaries being crossed. The feeling of "you" is not contained.
With a good therapist - one who's nervous system is regulating well - you can learn to develop your own capacity for containment and hence, have better boundaries. (You can learn more about this concept by being on my list. Begin with my 7 Ways of Getting Unstuck in Therapy Movie.)
Boundaries in Relationships (you will be taken off site)
Thank you for this site!
Hi there, I just stumbled onto this website and LOVE it. I am an LPC in Texas. I explain containment to my patients like this:
The mother bird chews up food and regurgitates it for her young in a more manageable form so they can digest and chew it. So do we, as therapists, absorb our clients feelings, sit with them, and give them back their feelings in a more manageable, stable way.
We take on all their anxiety, sadness and pain and still remain contained and safe (while also remaining empathetic). It creates a safe environment that they don't fear and models healthy self regulation.
Thanks for your blog! I enjoyed it!
Hey, Doug...thanks for the great analogy!
Does containment include the "vibes" of a therapy session?
Hi Shrinklady - I am trying to get a handle on something my T explained to me, but I am having trouble getting my mind around the concept. Does containment also refer to the vibes, or the atmosphere of the therapy session? He refers to the eb and flow of the energy. The transferring of energy, or maybe the unspoken or unconscious message that sometimes transfers between client and T. I am not sure that I am explaining it correctly.
Sometimes I will ask him a particularly challenging question and he sits quietly (he says he is checking his body-very right brain stuff I guess) before he responds. He says he feels the dynamics of a situation. He has been involved in body therapy - so maybe this stuff refers to that work.
This probably isn't containment because after rereading your stuff again, it seems that containment is created by the therapist. Maybe he has a perceptual sense that I just don't have. Am I making any sense to you? Do you have any ideas about this?
Helen (NJ, USA)
Containment means 'safety'
I was reading the comment about the term containment, how it sounds "stifling". I see it completely differently. When I think of it, I think of my feelings being sort of all over the place, and someone helping me to put them back to the size that they actually are. When we're upset over something, our feelings are huge, as we're able to discuss it with someone who cares, the feelings are deflated to their real size. I love the term. It feels safe to me.
Thanks catgirl, it's good to hear a positive spin on the term containment. You've certainly described the heart of it. It's true. Bringing feelings into the light of day, so to speak, helps us keep perspective in our lives.
Whatever the term used, I think most of us would agree, feeling safe in the warm essence of a caring other is what's really healing. And in my books, that goes for any relationship for that matter.
I see you on the Counseling Cafe a lot. Thanks for participating in the community.
Containment sounds 'stifling'
Containment sounds so stifling even though it's a positive energy one would feel in a theraputic environment..... yet the word seems off... oh well.. such is life, it doesn't always make sense. 🙂
However, the comments from the kids on this site are hilarious....
Issadora (San Diego, USA)
Thanks Issadora, I couldn't agree more. I feel the same way for the terms "termination" and "object relations". I think these terms reflect the field's attempt to establish scientific credibility.
I'm tempted to think it might also reveal how far away we are from our humanness and how this attitude pervades the academic literature.
Thanks for posting,