Monday, October 25, 2021

Containment [Word 9: The First 100 Words]


Word 9 – Containment

Container – a space with a capacity to hold and be filled.

Containment – the action of keeping something harmful under control or within limits; an aspect of resilience; the capacity to manage internally troubling thoughts, feelings, and behaviors in response to stress.

Containment – the energetic space between a client and counselor; the atmosphere of the therapeutic relationship that conveys a sense of safety, allowing the client to safely move comfortably through emotions.


Just looking at the listing of definitions for /containment/ illustrates the depth of meaning this word holds in psychology and everyday life.

When Sharon gave me the word /containment/, I went with the first definition, making a quick trip to a local Container Store, a place filled with creative ways to hold or store any type of item.  I roamed the large store one Saturday afternoon going up and down rows of plastic tubs of all sizes and colors, noting glass jars, trying to decide what fit the word “container” best. I ended up choosing a jar with a metal lid.

When I arrived home, I filled the jar with hearts that I had cut from paper using my exacto knife a few months ago. Each heart had a circle carved out of the middle, a picture of how my heart felt.  I envisioned those who grew up in nurturing homes had full hearts without a hole.

I took the hearts and loosely stitched across the circle inside the heart, leaving space for further growth and attachment. I figured since I was indeed making progress along the path of wellness, I could make the heart resemble a more complete picture. I put all of these hearts in the jar to contain the healing that had happened. 

On a whim, I decided to Google, “psychological meaning of the word containment,” not expecting anything to appear. Instantly, many articles surfaced and my definition of the word expanded in new and amazing ways.

Containment in a therapy setting refers to the energetic space between the counselor and client and is a powerful influence affecting growth and wellness, as well as reception of all that occurs in life or in the counseling session.

Many times in counseling situations, strong emotions can emerge as life events are explored.  “Scraping the bottom of the pot” so to speak, a term Sharon often used with me, gets to the core  history and meaning of many personal topics. These emotions can be difficult to manage or contain. 

During sessions, strong feelings of anger, being adrift, abandonment, rejection and other difficult emotions often surfaced. The energy of these emotions filled my body, like someone was pouring a hot carafe of each emotion into a hole at the top of my head. 

Often, with the weight of emotion from our sessions, walking out the door of Sharon’s office was physically difficult. However, I knew if I could reach my car, one of my favorite places of containment, I could sit within the security of the vehicle and feel enveloped or contained until I could take enough deep breaths to restore my grounding and balance, and anchoring in the present. 

Once I delved into the idea of containment, I noticed places around me offering a visual of what containment looked like. For example, one afternoon I was walking the Monon trail, going across a bridge over a small creek leading into the White River. I noticed how the banks of the creek were containers for the water, giving boundaries to the flow, and letting the water carve a path eventually leading to the river. Pausing when I crossed the bridge over the creek and looking at the banks, I enjoyed the visual sense of containment.

Soon, I began to see my hands as a place of containment. My hands are like the banks of a river on either side of me to give containment, right and left, present, holding, especially when the lid slips off the pot and my emotions overflow. Like the banks of the creek hold the water in its boundaries, my hands help hold back the flood of emotion that may come in the counseling session.


An online article in Somatic Therapy, “The Power of Containment” by Gwen McHale (August 4, 2016) explains further: “Those dealing with intense emotions need enough containment to provide banks to the river of our expression so we can stay in relationship to our experience and ourselves, and not get washed away in the suffering. Our ability to find containment for ourselves is learned in the very early days of life.  Containment is offered by a parent as the young child needs another person to hold them, to be present to them, and to provide a safe space within which they can feel their feelings and know themselves. When needs for holding and containment are not met in these early days, there can be breaches in containment. Some of the resulting characteristics include, being easily overwhelmed, underlying fear or anxiety, feeling unable to cope, difficulty forming relationships, insecure attachment styles, and lack of a clear sense of self.”

Unfortunately, I demonstrated all of these impairments! I have to work hard on a continual basis to provide myself helpful containment when I get overwhelmed. 

A few of my practices of containment include sitting in my car, an enclosed space where I can be alone and take a lot of deep breaths. I also have a small basket in my office where I can put flowers, leaves, letters I receive, a new pencil, or any item that has meaning for me. This visual container with treasured items helps me feel a sense of being contained. Often, I take a pencil and draw a row of straight lines within the confines of a sheet of paper. Other times, I draw four connected lines to create a square. I picture myself in the middle, full of emotion. Having the square around myself offers a visual representation of containment and brings peace in the moment. 

The need for containment doesn’t always come from an emotionally deprived background. All people deal with emotions. Some emotions are strong and can get out of control. Learning how to manage them is essential for living a peaceful and productive life. Consider a few “containers” you can call upon quickly when you feel the need for containment. Making a list will help your awareness. 

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