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Containment is the capacity to stay present to and hold our experiences/emotions in such a way that they do not overwhelm or scare us. Without containment we feel out of control, emotions or thoughts threaten to bring us out of our depths. It can be terrifying. We need enough containment to provide banks to the river of our expressions so we can stay in relationship to our experience and not get washed away in the suffering.

Containment requires groundedness, a regulated nervous system and good boundaries. It requires a feeling of being safe enough. Our ability to contain for ourselves is learnt in the very early days of life. A forming embryo, a baby or young child needs another person to contain them, to hold them, to be present to them, seeing them and hearing them, to provide the safe space within which they can feel their feelings and thereby know themselves.

Often our needs for holding and containment are not met in these very early days and also later in life there can be breaches in containment. If our basic need for safe holding was not met well enough/often enough then we may be left with some of the following feelings:

  1. easily overwhelmed

  2. underlying fear or anxiety

  3. feeling unable to cope

  4. feeling no one else can cope and I have to be self-reliant

  5. a sense of not being solid or real

  6. disembodiment

  7. difficulty trusting another emotionally

  8. difficulty forming relationships

  9. insecure attachment styles

  10. poor boundaries

  11. lack of grounding

  12. lack of a clear sense of self

  13. dissociation

  14. feeling unimportant/lacking self-worth

The experiences of lack of holding, of aloneness, of being unmet or unseen become hard wired in our brains and nervous systems, they lay down the foundations of our young, still forming, bodies and minds...and we are moulded around these experiences.

This to my mind is a tragedy. A far too often occurring tragedy.

However there is good news. Scientists in last two decades have shown that the brain is 'plastic' meaning it can change at any age. Old neural connections can be re-direcrted and we can experience things in new ways. In other words healing is possible. We can learn to provide the holding and containment for ourselves that we did not experience as little ones and it is never too late to start feeling safe in the world.

The experience of containment to an adult can bring differing reactions depending on our earlier experiences. It can seem that containment and expression are in opposition. Some people rally against all containment seeing it as a repression or silencing or that it impinges their freedom. Some may feel any level of containment to be too rigid or trapping. At the same time they may yearn for containment. Some experience containment as nurturing, warm, safe and supportive of expression.

The most immediate containers we have are our bodies. Our bodies provide a sense of containment, home, a place to be. Where there has been a lot of trauma it may feel like home is not a safe place, that my body is not a safe place to inhabit. However as adults we have the ability to find safety within the body by working slowly and gently to come home again providing for ourselves in ways that meets the needs of the hurt little one within. We may need a therapist for a while to be with us and hold the safe container as we develop our own inner container and our capacity to be present to ourselves.

In Japan there is an art form known as Kintsugi, where broken containers are repaired with gold or other precious metals. Rather than concealing the breakage it is aggrandised and it's history and wounding highlighted. The vessel is thought to be more beautiful for the breakage and repair.

When we have experienced breakages and cracks in our containment there can be shame and a desire to hide. I hope we can learn from Kintsugi that we can honour and love the wounds as we repair them. Like the pottery our wounded self is unique, strong and beautiful.

Gwen McHale is a Somatic Therapist based in Co Clare


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