What does the word containment mean? How does it apply to me as a therapist or group leader? Or parent or spouse? What are the tools that I have available to provide containment for myself, my clients, and my family members?
Think of milk: it is essential to a baby’s development. Without milk, the baby’s bones would break and the growing child could not walk or participate in many of life’s opportunities. Without a proper container, the milk would just spill all over and the wonderful nutrients would be wasted. This is the same for our human energy. Energy is a powerful force which, when uncontained, spills all over everyone in the vicinity and can contaminate our personal interactions. Similarly, water is a very powerful force and when contained by a dam, provides electricity for the world to use productively, yet when uncontained can become a destructive tsunami or flood.
Applying to Therapist or Group Facilitator
So, how does this apply to me as a therapist or group facilitator or parent? First, we have ground rules, especially for our individual clients and when teaching or leading groups. Ground rules provide the parameters to keep group members safe so that they feel confident to do deep personal work. In Wellness programs, we provide consistent ground rules such as confidentiality, only one person speaking at a time, no sexual advances and no use of drugs and alcohol during or just before therapy sessions. Sometimes when we as leaders provide or present the ground rules for safety, individual members may react. We will come back to this further on. Some of these same ground rules could also provide safety in families and schools for children.
Then there are the more subtle forms of containment which I am calling energy management. Just like the powerful energy of the water in a rushing river, emotions, if not contained properly, can cause flooding, destruction and even death. When that emotional energy is properly contained, it provides enormous healing power for all concerned, even the therapist. In Heart-Centered Therapies we offer the Clearing Process which like the river dam, enables strong emotions to become usable for personal growth and transformation and thereby prevents destruction of relationships. This process provides safety so that the reactive individual does not flood another group member or the entire group with their uncontained emotional reaction.
We all as human beings, have what we call “emotional triggers.” These are situations or other people that we have a strong reaction to. One example is when someone threatens to leave or does leave the group without proper closure (containment). This leaving may “trigger” in others a reaction of feeling abandoned or rejected. “What did we or I do wrong?” We, as humans, fill in the blanks when we are not provided with the facts. Usually we fill in the blanks according to our past experiences. So, if as children, one of our parents died, or physically or emotionally abandoned the family, we interpreted this leaving as if I, the child, were bad or had disappointed the parent. We then became filled with guilt, self-blame and feelings of unworthiness to really be loved. And some group members will automatically fill in the blanks when triggered with their storehouse of guilt, self-blame and unworthiness.
An important part of energy management (containment) is knowing that we have been triggered, and what the reaction is. We teach our students and therapists to always check in our bodies, first and foremost, to determine what has triggered us. We check first in our chest for pounding or increased heart rate and breathing, then in our gut for pain and tightness, then perhaps in our jaw for tightness. These are a few of the common body signals that tell us we have had a reaction. Our bodies can tell us, also, what the reaction is: we include a short regression or visitation into our childhood to see where this reaction/projection came from, where the deep unresolved feelings began, and to own their own reactions instead of projecting their emotional reactions onto others. This owning of individual reactions is the container which leads the client to their own healing, the milk carton which allows the rich nutrients to become useful to our own personal growth.
In therapy terms, this is often called transference, especially in one-on-one therapy between client and therapist. In our Heart-Centered Therapy model, we place equal importance to our countertransference. When we as the therapist experience a reaction to one of our clients, we need to contain, through recognition and resolution, our own emotions and reactions so that we can be as clear as possible. Then and only then can we become a clear and open channel through which our own intuitive energy can be used for healing.
One important part of creating safety is commitment. Keeping commitments is part of creating integrity and teaching our students and clients how to recognize when their fear thoughts cause them to want to run or miss scheduled meetings. Because so many people have been raised in families with divorce or some other ways of being abandoned, commitment is an important safety agreement for everyone. When our process becomes challenging, we often turn into that small child that wants to run away from home or hide under the bed or in the closet.
Our adult needs to come in and provide the container for the fearful child to stay present and receive the consistent support that comes from honoring our own commitments, from facing our patterns of avoidance and ambivalence that fool us into thinking that our fear voice is our clear voice.