Why We Might Feel a Lack of Emotional Containment During This Pandemic. By Dr. Linda Berman

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Henri Matisse – Girl in a Pink Blouse [1924] Gandalf’s Gallery. Flickr.

During this pandemic, many of the ‘props’ and structures in our lives have gone, leaving us feeling unsupported. Some important securities have been removed.

Like floating, yet unpractised acrobats, we drift, groping for some certainty, some direction for the future, without the safety nets we so desperately need.

Trapeze_Artists_in_CircusTrapeze artists in circus, lithograph by Calvert Litho. Co., 1890. Wikimedia Commons.

Such safety nets might come in various forms, for we all have different aspects in our lives that make us feel secure and give us a sense of containment.

What does containment mean?

The concept of containment refers to an experience of feeling held and protected, both in a physical and emotional sense.

Such supportive holding is described by the psychoanalyst Winnicott, in terms of the importance of the infant’s experience with the mother.

“All the details of maternal care just before birth and immediately afterwards go towards making up the holding environment. This includes the mother’s primary maternal preoccupation, which enables her to provide the infant with the necessary ego-support. 

The psychological and physical holding an infant needs throughout his development continues to be important, and the holding environment never loses its importance for everyone.”

Abram.

The last sentence above is highly relevant to my post, in that we all want, right into adulthood, the kind of containment that we needed in infancy.

49616933381_5c7b2468a8_oPablo Picasso – Mother and Child with Flowers [1901]

As we mature, we tend to find a multiplicity of ways of gaining support and containment through others, and through different aspects in our environment.

What are some safety nets we may be missing that can leave us feeling uncontained emotionally?

  • The Containment of Experiencing the Rituals Of Ending.

It is terribly sad that many have been unable to say a proper goodbye to their dying loved ones, or attend their funerals, other than online.

Our usual customs around death can give a sense of being ‘held’ to the living, for they can show how much the deceased person meant to us; they may also offer a chance to celebrate the life that is no more.

Being prevented from carrying these out will leave some people missing the ‘containment’ of a symbolic ending, the closure of a peaceful farewell.

In addition, we have been unable to mourn with family and friends, to share feelings and memories about the deceased, to gather as a community. This leaves a gap in many people’s grieving process.

Edvard_Munch,_Dødskamp

Edvard Munch. Death Struggle. Wikimedia Commons.

  • The Containment Of The Group.  

Good groups can offer us a certain safety and support; yet now we are prevented from being with others, in many situations.

Parties, weddings and other celebrations had have to be cancelled. We cannot take part in our usual meetings at work, school or university, or get together with friends, in restaurants, cafés, or at family gatherings.

Up to now we have been unable to go to hotels, pubs, theatres, or cinemas. Some of this may be changing, but there are still necessary strictures and social distancing. It is hard to have a real ‘get-together.’

'Hip,_Hip,_Hurrah!_Artist_Festival_at_Skagen',_by_Peder_Severin_Krøyer_(1888)_Demisted_with_DXO_PhotoLab_Clearview;_cropped_away_black_border_edgeHip hip hooray! Artists’ celebration at Skagen by Peder Severin Krøyer. Wikimedia Commons.

  •  The Symbols of ‘Parenting’

Many of the facilities that have previously offered us some kind of ‘parenting, ‘ or caring, professional containment are also out of reach, or difficult to gain access to.

For example, it is now not as easy to visit one’s doctor, to go to hospital without being aware of avoiding catching the virus, to go the dentist, to see a therapist face to face.

Even hairdressers can provide a listening ear and a familiar escape from daily life and they have, till recently, been unavailable.

Nursing Stock Images NIH

Patient talking with doctor. NIH Clinical Centre. Flickr.

These people may represent some kind of reassuring comfort, a strong presence at times when we are in need of them.

It must also be emphasised that medics themselves have also been uncontained; they lacked prior knowledge about this dreadful new virus.

These were the people who were always there for us ‘before,’ functioning largely with solid scientific back-up. Yet they themselves were initially ‘lost’ in terms of knowledge and expertise in treating this unfamiliar virus.

They were also short of PPE protective clothing for some time, making them feel even more vulnerable and uncontained.

Yet they have soldiered on valiantly, risking their own health, saving many lives, learning as they worked and struggling through; they are there, whilst being under terrible strain.

Our extra need for containment during this pandemic may reflect a perceived lack of such support, a sense that there are no longer these unshakeable external ‘parenting’ figures for us.

This is a fantasy, for no-one is invincible, of course; but perhaps it has been one that is widely-held, a little like the child’s fantasy of the all-knowing parent.

Mary_Cassatt_-_Mother_and_Child_(The_Goodnight_Hug)

Mary Cassatt. Mother and Child. (A Goodnight Hug.) Wikimedia Commons.

  • Physical closeness.

Social distancing obviously prevents hugs, or shaking hands. It is hard to feel contained at a distance and we may miss physical contact with our friends and family.

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Men who hug : painting, scott richard, san francisco (2014) Flickr.

Some men find hugging other men socially unacceptable; yet, consciously or unconsciously, they long to be held. This is a natural and human need.

Sports like football, rugby and wrestling provide ways of touching and hugging; now that these are forbidden, there is, for some, no physically expressive outlet for such camaraderie.

football-1472228_1920

  •  Routine and Structure

However mundane is our daily routine, it gives our lives structure and containment. Now, much of our routine has been altered and this can make us feel insecure.

Kirchner_-_Straßenbild_vor_dem_Friseurladen_-_1926

Kirchner. Street Scene In Front Of A Barber Shop. Wikimedia Commons.

We may be isolated with financial, work and family concerns, as a result of our lives being turned upside down; this pandemic has definitely made difficult things worse.

How Can We Manage all This?

  • Developing a ‘parent inside’, an internal parent.

“We readily feel for the suffering child, but cannot see the child in the adult, who, soul fragmented and isolated, whistles for survival on the streets where we shop or work.”

Dr Gabor Maté.

When we are stressed or under pressure, we might feel unable to cope, regressing to childhood feelings of being lost and uncontained. It is then that we need to practise becoming our own parent.

What does this mean?

There is a child inside us all.  Yet we are adults. Most of us have the ability to help and comfort others in times of difficulty. Can we use some of this adult knowledge to support the child fears in ourselves?

For more on this issue please refer to my previous post “How to Safely Stay in Your Adult Self and Protect Your Inner Child” by following this link.

 “Be the person you needed when you were younger.”

Dandapani

  • Having Psychotherapy . This can provide emotional holding; the therapist is there for the patient, containing difficult feelings.

 “What is needed is a form of holding, such as a mother gives to her distressed child. There are various ways in which one adult can offer to another this holding (or containment).

And it can be crucial for a patient to be thus held in order to recover, or to discover maybe for the first time, a capacity for managing life and life’s difficulties without continued avoidance or suppression. ”

(Casement, 1985, p.133)

Highly relevant here is the concept of the therapist ‘lending her ego‘, that is, allowing the other person in therapy to ‘borrow’ their containing adult strength during painful times in the psychotherapy process:

“The notion of “lending ego” derives from the psychoanalytic tradition; and broadly conceived, it refers to a therapist’s functioning as an “auxiliary ego” for the patient.

The patient is allowed to use or “borrow” the therapist’s presumably well-working mind and psychological capacities in order to enhance his or her own, relatively deficient, psychic functioning in particular domains. In effect, the patient is encouraged to think like the therapist, who presumably represents a good role model for mental health.”

Misch.

We could extend this theory and say that as an adult, we sometimes might need to ‘lend to our inner child’ our own, adult, protective ego or self.

  • Learning To Cope With Uncertainty.

We are all in a state of uncertainty. We do not know what the future holds in terms of Coronavirus and how it might affect our lives.

Whilst it is important to live for the moment, this is a highly anxious and unsettling time for most of us. Learning to manage the inevitable feelings of uncertainty is crucial now.

(See my previous post on this issue: Follow this link.)

  • Discovering Nature As A Form Of Containment.

For some, being in Nature, surrounded by countryside, or in their garden, feels safe and containing. Thankfully, many of us have been able to do this despite the pandemic.

Monet’s twin passions were gardening and painting and, despite his tortured rages, he created an oasis of containing calm and stunning artworks in his flowered sanctuary.

Monet_in_Garden,_New_York_Times,_1922

Monet in his garden at Giverny. New York Times, 1922.Wikimedia Commons.

Water-Lilies-and-Japanese-Bridge-(1897-1899)-Monet

Claude Monet. The Japanese Footbridge and the Water-Lily Pool, Giverny. Wikimedia Commons.

Listen, now, to this poem about the wonders of nature and our world. Somehow, it puts life into perspective; it contains and holds us with its beauty and its encouragement to appreciate what we have:

©Linda Berman.

12 comments

    • Thank you, Penny, so much, for your feedback. I’m pleased you liked the post. It seems important at this time to flag up issues like this.
      I think a lot of people are feeling uncontained and I’ve spent much time pondering the psychological reasons for this. Keep safe and well. Linda. 🙏🌹

      Like

  1. I deeply appreciate your use of artwork to further my understanding of your words. My confusion came, in part, from my prior experience of being told to “contain” my emotions when I was prone as a musician to be what was deemed by some teachers or judges to be overly emotive when playing pieces from the Classical Period. Now I can laugh about the fact that one jurists wrote “This young lady needs to contain her emotions and learn to play with more restraint if she is to be taken seriously as an interpreter of Bach.” That was enough years ago and my professional life took such a different turn that it is now “water under the bridge.” I get that yours is an entirely different meaning.
    Thank you.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for this Glennie. Glad this is now sorted. I can imagine it was frustrating for you in the past to be told as a musician to contain your feelings! Feelings are so important….And yes, this is quite different. 🙏

      Like

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