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What's a Container?

How do you feel about how you feel?


It’s pretty common for us to want to feel “better” when negative emotions come up. But it’s not just negative emotions that can present difficulties: unfamiliar positive emotions can also be hard.


That’s one of the reasons therapy is so useful. Every session is an opportunity to feel our emotions within the bounds of a safe container.


What’s a container, you ask?


I was first introduced to the term when I started learning about trauma and the body, and it's one of those shared terms across many contemporary somatic modalities. In my line of work, I've heard the term used a couple different ways.


One, in reference to our emotional capacity. We can consider how much space our emotional container has for the good, the ick, the comfortable, the unfamiliar, and more.


But I've also heard it used this way: A container is a space - physical, emotional, relational, or otherwise - where we can explore discomfort, uncertainty, desire, and more -- with boundaries. Let's work with this definition for a moment.


What does a container do IRL? It keeps things inside the container in, and things outside of the container out.


Boundaries are key. When we can notice and name where we aren’t going to go we have a lot more clarity around where we can explore.


Who knew mason jars could be so wise?


In sessions, part of the container practice is helping clients explore their somatic-emotional experience in a way that feels safe, or at least safe enough.


Outside of the container are expectations. Expectations that we have to do something with the information we gather. Other people’s expectations of what we should do.


Inside of the container is, among other things, choice. I believe that while we can learn to trust in our capacity to feel emotions or do difficult things, we can still exercise choice around the when, where, why, and how we choose to go deeper.


The key here is developing insight so that we can be intentional in our choices, rather than reflexively falling into the flood or avoiding an emotion at all costs.


Going deeper, or exploring our feelings more deeply, is where that first definition of a container referencing our emotional capacity comes in handy.


Inside of the container we can explore, do I need to change my emotion? Or do I just need to feel it safely? And if so, what would help me feel it more safely? Does the answer lie in another person, educational information, or is it already inside of me?


In other words, rather than shrinking my feeling, can my container grow around it?


This is why therapy is so helpful, I think. While in our day-to-day lives we might find ourselves feeling overwhelmed and un-contained, within the intentional space that psychotherapy creates we can experiment and practice growing our container.


Contrary to literal physical containers, these containers are not lifeless and static. These containers can grow. With containment, we can see that it’s not necessarily the feeling or the situation that needs to change, but that we can expand around it. We can feel more capable.


(Of course, this is within the context of many of us having cultural traditions around wellbeing that have been erased. I’ll be writing a bit more about this at the beginning of next month. I think we have to be curious about compulsively prescribing psychotherapy where there are other realms of wellbeing unmet.)


We can create containers outside of therapy, as well. Relationships are containers to practice new values that weren’t recognized in our families of origin. Communities can be containers to practice liberation-oriented ways of supporting each other. Businesses can be containers for new ways of sharing personal value and expertise. We can even create containers independently with the use of rituals, spiritual practices, and reflection, for instance.


We might know our containers are growing when we feel like we can pause before reflexively responding to a stressor. Or when we feel the impulse to reach for something or someone rather than isolate or dissociate.


We should take note of these victories, big or small. Just like we might encourage a toddler to walk even though they keep falling over, growth can happen slowly. As we settle into that slowness, we might even find that change sometimes happens all of the sudden! But when it doesn’t, we can adjust our container and keep exploring.


Photo by Rakicevic Nenad from Pexels

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