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.
"The experience of being contained makes us feel safe."
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. 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.
A good therapist, however, 'contains the space' by being emotionally attuned, by maintaining clear boundaries, and by creating the sense that "you have all the time you need".
My Personal Musings
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.
From the Mind Body Gift Shop:
She defines containment as the ability to "hold onto yourself, to feel yourself inside of you." We may be fine through the week she says, but the weekend comes, and we feel lost. There's no containment.
Sadly, when we lose that sense of containment, we no longer feel open or connected to others.
Having good boundaries helps. She explains we feel our boundaries "in our gut". And, it's through good boundaries that we can feel more "contained" then when we are without these structures.
Finding the balance is key to feeling emotionally--and physically healthy.
To learn more about Julie's approach to containment and the skills you can learn to deepen your sense of a boundaried self, click through into the Mind Body Gift Shop.
Reviewed by: Dr. Carole Gaato
Boundaries in Relationships (you will be taken off site)
Therapy Lingo Article?
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!
Helen (NJ, USA)
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?
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.
Issadora (San Diego, USA)
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....
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,