One day, in my earlier years as a full-time therapist, I was really looking forward to making dinner and hanging out after work with a dear friend from out-of-town. The last session of the day was very challenging. After 45 minutes of the equivalent of pulling teeth from a reluctant client, the client informed me in the remaining five minutes that this session would be her last. It was a treatment ambush. After eight months of successfully working together, she was leaving without a proper goodbye or a valid explanation. I was very shaken as I left work and reached out to a supervisor for perspective and support, but had no luck getting a hold of her. Anxiety consumed me and my mind raced. What had I done wrong?
I was freaking out, but there was nothing I could really do. The last thing I wanted to do was spend the evening talking about my work issues with my old friend. There was so much other juicy stuff to catch up on. I wanted to ignore my panic and show up for the evening as planned. I decided that I would practice emotional containment, or the ability to feel and mine one’s feelings for information but not act out on them. If you are a parent, you already know the incredible value of containing your emotions when your child is behaving provocatively. Therapists are trained in the art of containment so that they can keep the focus on the client’s feelings. It was time to use that skill in real life.
All through dinner prep and catching up with my friend, I breathed into my discomfort as I focused my full attention on him. My task was to really reconnect with him. (If you are familiar with my work or writing, you know I often refer to the incredible value of identifying an organizing principle that I refer to as “task”). We swapped stories and smiles, and even with the nagging provocation hangover, I was enjoying the reunion. About halfway through the meal, a miraculous thing happened: The discomfort was gone. It simply vanished. By containing it — holding it in a space within, but not acting out on it or feeding it — it evaporated, like a fire that extinguishes itself when no more wood is added.
This experience reminded me once again that feelings change. It showed me that I could transfer the invaluable art of containment that I use in my work to my intimate relationships. It fortifies me as a consultant, and helps me stay focused when the groups I train unconsciously try to derail me or the training. I teach the art of containment to executives and managers in leadership positions, and to couples who would rather enjoy their free time, vacations and holidays rather than devolve into the fights and power struggles that create unnecessary discord.
If you are wondering if being emotionally contained is in any way being inauthentic, I would argue that leading your life based on your feelings and emotions is not exactly authentic either. Feelings are informative and powerful, but also fleeting and frequently illogical. Authentic living is based on acting in accordance with one’s core values and principles. Click To Tweet
Containment takes great inner strength. It does not mean that you suppress or avoid feeling your feelings. You simply hold a space for them. You feel them, but they do not get to run the show.
As the Spring holidays are upon us, I encourage you to use the art of emotional containment when necessary and see if it leads you to an inner resurrection of your own.
May you enjoy your spring celebrations, whatever they may be!
If you would like more information about how containment could improve your experience at work or in love, do not hesitate to reach out.