If I had to identify one common factor that seems to connect every patient I encounter, it would be the difficulty in containing and processing psychological pain. Life is full of moments where an individual will be tested and tried. Bereavements, relationship tensions, ill health, unemployment, financial worries, Christmas, just to name a few. However, alongside these everyday challenges, there are other demanding unconscious dynamics, that are bubbling under the conscious surface waiting for an opportunity to express themselves. Hence, our lifelong task as I see it, is our ability to contain and integrate, not only conscious life challenges but more importantly unconscious dynamics as well. It is the combination of conscious and unconscious issues that make the ability to contain so challenging. Life is a struggle at the best to times, but when ladened with unconscious processes/feelings then its a different monster all together!
How an individual responds and understands this interplay between life stressors and unconscious pressures will be the topic of this paper. Will an individual contain and transform their psychological pain or will they spread or transmit it like a virus? Later in the paper I will attempt to clarify the difference between these two states of mind.
To begin with just as people are not aware that they are passing on a virus, for the majority of the population they are not aware that they are spreading a psychological virus. It becomes a way of relating to objects, people, institutions and countries. The contention of this paper is to highlight this phenomenon whilst also proclaiming that people who spread are unconsciously searching for a container that they needed in the first place. I think one of the benefits of this spreading phenomenon is that it’s so easy to do! No blame can be attached to oneself if its projected into an object or person. The individual can adopt a passive position without having to take responsibility and experience the pain of guilt. This idea is nothing new as it stems from Freud’s (1904) ideas about defence mechanisms and how generally they defend an individual against psychological pain by locating the source of the problem outside of oneself. Putting it simply what we struggle to manage and understand internally we generally then project and try and control externally.
We learn how to contain oneself by how we were contained as a baby (Bion, 1963). This early containment is so important because it basically creates the type of ‘mothership’ we will be using for life’s journey. For instance, in life we ideally need a mothership that is sturdy and resilient enough to navigate life’s challenges. The main reason being is that when we encounter developmental milestones on life’s journey, if our mothership (container) starts the journey pretty resilient then we stand a better chance to navigate successfully these milestones. When the milestones are navigated successfully, our mothership gets a refurbishment, which then gives us a better chance to navigate the next milestone. Now for the purpose of this paper, we might understand people who spread more than they contain as having some difficulties on this journey. This could be at the beginning where the mothership was created or during the journey itself. The point I want to stress here is that when we start oﬀ with a mothership that is small and fragile, or in some extreme cases no ship at all, then we face life’s journey and milestones at a deﬁcit.
To elaborate these ideas further I would like to use the concept of a ‘time machine’ to describe a psychological process that unconsciously happens and directly influences a person’s ability to contain psychological distress. For example, in all of us there is a psychological process that I am naming a ‘time machine’ and at any given moment a certain emotional scenario or situation will trigger the time machine. When this happens the scenario that activates the internal time machine also correspondingly inputs the digits in the time machine. This not only plots how far back the machine travels, but more importantly it also brings forth that past self.
As a result, emotional events in the present reconnect us with suppressed emotional events in the past in such a way that past and present become inseparable, conflated. We are both an adult (present) and a child (past) at the same time. The difficulty arises when the past child overwhelms the adult’s ability to contain the current emotional difficulty they find themselves in the present. The reason being is that the past (child) emotional experience, which the time machine transports back to the present was not processed or metabolised.
We might say that painful reality came in too soon. A good example that I use sometimes to describe what happens when a baby/child experiences to much pain/reality too soon is the metaphor of a fuse box or consumer unit. For example, when the surge of electricity (affect) is too much for the circuit board (psyche) the circuit breaker disconnects (splits oﬀ) all power to the main feed to keep you safe. When this happens in infancy we might say a split of part, a fragment or pocket becomes dissociated, and not integrated into the rest of the personality.
According to my experience, the above example is especially true with patients who were traumatised as infants or young children by external events that separated them from their mothers. Unfortunately, these split of parts of experiences that were not integrated remain active in the unconscious awaiting for an opportunity to break through. I see this breaking through into reality as an opportunity to understand and contain what the baby/infant was unable to do. It’s like this part of oneself is saying ‘hello Im here again can you help or contain me!’
These traumatic emotions or affects are knocking on the door of the conscious mind in a desperate attempt to seek a resolution. We might say a repetition compulsion. The infant in the past could not assimilate or process these intense affects so the challenge in the present is to help patients to recover these split oﬀ parts of oneself in order to be noticed, named, and understood. Powerful feelings that can be held in mind become available for assimilation and refinement. Therefore, when the time machine comes into play the person can develop enough self-awareness and resilience to deal with the consequences. Containment becomes possible because an individual learns how to differentiate the past from the present.
Generally speaking the reality for most people is that we slide between these two states of mind (spreading-containing) when dealing with overwhelming emotions, however for some individuals they are more inclined to spread than contain. I will now attempt to distinguish these two different states of mind. However, due to word limitation I will be verging on being over simplistic when making these distinctions.
A spreader is someone who basically struggles to contain their thoughts/feelings and can end up spreading them everywhere and into everything. The ability to use their own mind to self contain or to regulate is impaired, resulting in an evacuation of their thoughts/feelings into people, their own bodies, institutions and inanimate objects to contain them. They generally find it difficult to take responsibility and more inclined to blame and shame. We might say that their past unconscious trauma is directly influencing how they are perceiving and dealing with the present. As a result, mental space or breathing space as I like to call it, is limited so their ability to differentiate past from present is very limited. There is not much room to think about their thinking. Unfortunately, for the individuals who are on the receiving end of this spreading dynamic, this can be very challenging and damaging. The reason being is they are usually left feeling overwhelmed and invaded. Sadly, this can lead to problems for themselves, as then their own ability to contain becomes diﬃcult, which can then lead them to repeating the same dynamic. The spreading pandemic continues!
A container is someone who can contain themselves by using their own mind through insight and self awareness. They have the capacity to observe the operations of their mind, both separately and independently of their actions. A container can deal with psychological challenges like dealing with loss. We might define a container as a person who can think about their own thinking. Their mental space or breathing space is unlimited which allows freedom of thought. Simultaneously, they can take the position of an observer and the observed. The main difference is that a container takes responsibility for their own thoughts/feelings, where a spreader blames and shames. We might describe this dynamic as one impulsively chooses evacuation (spreading) whereas the other thinks about their thinking before acting (containment).
In conclusion, the ability to contain has been written about many times before in psychoanalytic literature. What I’ve tried to do with this short paper is to try and introduce the concept to a wider audience, hopefully in a manner that is accessible. It’s been written about many times before because its such an important function of being human. If we are good enough at being able to contain ourselves then generally we will be good enough container for others. Sadly, the opposite is true if when we can’t contain ourselves, we will struggle to contain others. Also being able to contain increases the chances that we will be better placed to deal and manage life challenges. Ideally being able to contain more than spread is conducive to leading a healthier life not just for the individual concerned but for family members and society. I think the problem arises when we are not aware that we are spreading our unprocessed feelings. If you take anything from this paper I hope it’s this question: Am I containing or spreading?