When it comes to lions, tigers, bears, and feelings, many people rest easier when they are contained.
Part of a therapist’s job involves helping clients experience and manage their difficult, uncomfortable, or scary emotions. It isn’t easy to talk about a traumatic event, or any topic that raises intense feelings. Clients want reassurance that they won’t become overwhelmed. The therapist can help by speaking slowly and calmly, holding the client in her gaze, perhaps leaning forward a bit, and giving the client time and space to speak or not. Providing that holding space is known as “containing.”
The idea of containing stems from the writings of British psychoanalyst Wilfred Bion, who described a process that plays out between a caregiver (often a mother) and an infant or very young child. When a baby has an uncomfortable internal experience—such as hunger, pain, or a wet diaper, the baby tries, in the words of Margot Waddell in her book Inside Lives, “[w]ith all the resources that his little frame can muster … to expel the pain. Through his mouth, his lungs, his musculature, his eyes, he tries to project (get rid of) the terrible sensations in an effort to relieve himself of them.”
A mother who is closely enough attuned to her child’s needs, and who herself is not encumbered by, for example, depression or anxiety, will be able to respond in such a way that the infant is comforted. It is the “correspondence between the need felt and the response given” that enables the baby to attach meaning to the experience. A baby who feels hungry, cries, and is fed, experiences the successful matching, so to speak, of an internal need and an external response. This experience helps the child make sense of the world, and helps the child feel “contained,” or held—much as a baby is literally held in a parent’s arms.
It is not only infants who seek to get rid of bad feelings by “projecting” them outward. Adults, too, when faced with unbearable stress or anxiety, often seek to expel the bad feeling. Recently someone described to me one such moment of untenable discomfort that arose while she was working from home in her apartment. Her landlord had neglected to repair a plumbing problem, and her employer-issued laptop was taunting her with repeated error messages. In the midst of these frustrations, she was taken by surprise by a mouse in her livingroom.
Discovering a critter where you don’t expect (or want) one can be disturbing even if the animal poses no real physical threat, especially if the discovery follows a cascade of other stressors.
When a person faces heightened anxiety, it is not unusual to react from that place of being overwhelmed, that place where one’s feelings are not contained, and to want to project the discomfort outward. The projection can take the form of an attack on an innocent bystander. For a tiny mouse, intending no harm and interested only in finding something to eat and a safe, dry place to raise her young, this can mean meeting her end smashed with a wooden plank, or mired and panicked in a glue trap.
If nothing else has, the coronavirus should show us that as humans encroach further and further into animals’ territory, and we strive to limit them to smaller spaces and narrower contexts, we will all pay the price. If you find a mouse in your home, rather than reaching for poisons, a glue board, or a boot, try to contain your fear, fetch a humane mousetrap, and gently usher the creature outdoors (or look up “humane pest control”). We will all be the better for it.