In this series, I dig a little deeper into the meaning of psychology-related terms. This week’s term is containment.
Containment was first proposed by British psychoanalyst Wilfred Bion to describe a pattern of communicating mental experiences. Another researcher later suggested that Bion’s theory was influenced by his own traumatic experience fighting in World War I.
Early life containment
Containment is theorized to begin between a child and its mother. The containment that the mother provides for the child’s inner experiences promotes healthy development of the child.
Early-life containment happens in this way:
The normally-empathic mother with intact ego functions is able to gather in and decipher (introject) aspects of the infant’s experience beyond its current cognitive and emotional capabilities. The mother returns to the infant tolerable aspects of her experience of the infant’s (projected) experience.Billow, 2000
Essentially, it’s the mental equivalent of mom picking up the potato that a young child isn’t able to do anything with, then taking it into mommy’s kitchen, and finally emerging with a bowl of mashed potatoes. This allows the child to eat the potatoes, but they also start to learn how dirt-covered raw potatoes can be transformed into mashed potatoes in the first place.
While it’s desirable to provide some level of containment for one’s own thoughts and feelings, Bion believed that this could sometimes lead to getting trapped in thought loops. His solution to this was:
…the assistance of the other, the possibility to temporarily lean on someone else’s ‘rêverie’ and containment capacities, a possibility which was a necessity at the offset of the individual’s existence, and which analysis can resume once more to allow the individual to introject a more ‘solid and durable’ system of response to the ‘emotional complications of life’.Godbout, 2004
Containment in therapy
In therapy, containment can happen in more than one way. The psychoanalytic therapist must be able to contain their own reactions to what the client is putting out there, also known as countertransference, in order not to project those reactions out towards the client. Countertransference is viewed as therapeutically useful in psychoanalysis; however, it should stay contained within the therapist rather than spilling out onto the client.
An important form of containment that the therapist provides is along the lines of what happens with mother and child. The therapist is able to receive and hold the client’s raw, distressing inner experiences, make some therapeutic mashed potatoes, and then serve it back to the client in a way that can foster safe growth and understanding.
A paper by Billow describes the process of the therapist containing distressing mental experiences as being more important than dealing with the actual content that the client is putting out there in the early stages of the therapeutic relationship. Essentially, it’s less important whether the client is passing over a potato or a yam, and more important that the therapist can do the mashing and serve it back in a form that can be worked with.
I have mixed feelings about psychoanalytic theory. Some ideas are on point, while others are rather out there. To me, the idea of containment sounds intuitively very reasonable in the context of the therapeutic relationship, regardless of how well it may or may not apply in early life. I’ve never done psychoanalytic or psychodynamic therapy, and I don’t thick we would get along, but in general, I’ve never had the kind of therapeutic relationship where there was an element of containment.
Is this something that you’ve experienced, in therapy or otherwise?
- Billow, R. M. (2000). Relational levels of the “container-contained” in group therapy. Group, 24(4), 243-259.
- Godbout, C. (2004). Reflections on Bion’s ‘elements of psychoanalysis’ experience, thought and growth. The International Journal of Psychoanalysis, 85(5), 1123-1136.
- LaFarge, L. (2000). Interpretation and containment. International journal of psycho-analysis, 81(1), 67-84.
- Szykierski, D. (2010). The traumatic roots of containment: The evolution of Bion’s metapsychology. The Psychoanalytic Quarterly, 79(4), 935-968.
The Psychology Corner page includes an index of the terms that have been covered in the What Is… (Insights into Psychology) series, as well as a collection of scientifically validated psychological tests.