Leadership and the Art of Emotional Containment

containment

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.

6 responses to “Leadership and the Art of Emotional Containment”

  1. Kneale Mann says:

    Hey Blair,

    Excellent piece, thanks for sharing it with us! I guess I used to think compartmentalizing was the best tactic. Now that I read your suggestions, that can only delay – or even fool ourselves into thinking we’re delaying – our reaction to a situation.

    I have a close friend who is always so proud to proclaim she has boxes where she neatly places tough stuff and later stuff.

    The difference with your advice is that we ensure those boxes of later are properly put away with our full intent to bring them out for further examination but for us not to drag them behind us wherever we go to potentially ruin perfectly good experiences that are unrelated.

    Cheers, km

    • Blair Glaser says:

      Dear Kneale,
      Thanks so much for reading and for your comments. Sometimes boxes and compartmentalization work — but it doesn’t bode well when we repeatedly avoid feeling or examining the purpose of the feelings, because as you said so perfectly — we “drag them behind us and ruin perfectly good experiences that are unrelated” later on with others.
      Thanks again, Kneale.
      Warmly,
      Blair

  2. Richard Erickson says:

    Nice article Blair,
    As a manager I frequently find myself with “feelings” about someone or something that has happened. Just as frequently those feelings are not in alignment with my core values. Looking for support for feelings can feel good, we can often find it, but it solves nothing and often perpetuates or worsens the issue. Feelings are part of being human, but they do not have to run the show as you so aptly put it.
    Keep up the good work!

    Richard

    • Blair Glaser says:

      Richard, thank you so much for reading and for your comments. Feelings do create this sense of urgency. I love that you are learning through experience that talking about them and getting support for them can be helpful at times, but isn’t always the best way to handle them, and sometimes perpetuates the very thing we are trying to avoid.
      Happy holidays, Richard!
      Warmly,
      Blair

  3. Joe says:

    As someone just beginning to study containment, I was wondering if you could clarify how what you described is different from repressing emotions?

    • Blair Glaser says:

      Hi Joe,
      I think I say it best in this sentence:
      “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.”
      Repression means you turn away from the feeling and cut off from it. You don’t allow it into your reality (and therefore it must erupt in unhealthy ways to remind you of its existence).
      Containment means you honor your feeling, and feel it, but you get to make choices about when, where, how and even if it needs to be expressed to the world outside. Hope that clarifies.

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