A Good Strong Box
Posted on 30th June 2022 at 20:56
I find it hard to throw out a good strong box. I know the reason. For most of my formative years growing up on an island, it was a very valuable thing to have. It still is. To travel on the ferry, the good strong box provides security for the transport of goods into and out of the island, withstanding the challenges of loading and unloading with other cargo and of course, inclement weather and frequently rough seas. Further security is added by tying up the box on all sides with doubled string, which also serves as a handle ensuring easier handling.
I have drawn on the analogy of the good strong box a number of times, at psycho educational moments both inside and outside of the therapy room. I usually use it when talking about the importance of containment or more specifically, container-contained, a concept central to the work of psychoanalyst, Wilfred Bion.
According to Bion, in the psychodynamics of the mother-infant bond, the mother functions as the container for all of the upsetting, fearful, painful and generally intolerable feelings of the infant, which it projects into her. The mother in turn feels the emotion herself, has the capacity not to react to it but contains it and returns it in an adapted form to the infant, so that it can reintegrate the emotion as its own. This maternal processing and benign feedback process soothes the infant and allows it to then experience emotion for itself in a more comfortable way. A mother responding instantly to the cries of the hungry baby is a simple example, which when repeated regularly, teaches the infant that instead of being experienced as life threatening, hunger is a temporary state that can be satisfied. Gradually, the infant is able to increasingly tolerate the hunger sensation and not experience it as life threatening. The fear is contained. This allows for the infant’s ego to develop and in time, recognise itself as separate from the mother. This container-contained relationship can go wrong, if the mother has had a poor experience of this process herself as an infant, or is suffering from any impediment to secure bonding such as illness or grief. Instead of the soothing, integrating experience of containment, the infant has to deal with the anxiety of what the sensation represents and develop defences for its ego to enable survival. A misrepresentation of the experience becomes an important survival strategy, that enables delayed encounter with reality and the overwhelming anxiety it represents. In neurosis, we avoid situations we are not ready to face by using denial. In psychosis, we retreat into delusion.
Psychoanalytic psychotherapy offers a chance to repair the process by redoing the container-contained experience. It provides a safe place for the client to look at feelings that otherwise are likely to be experienced as overwhelming and confusing. The therapist, as the secure container - the good strong box- must receive all the client’s threatening thoughts and fears then process them for feedback to the client in a more benign form.
Bion referred to ‘thinking’ as a person’s ability to represent experience to themself or to another. In his description, thoughts come before thinking and he suggests that:
"thinking is something forced on an apparatus, not suited for the purpose, by the demands of reality, and is contemporary
with, as Freud said, the reality principle…. The apparatus has to undergo adaptation to the new tasks involved in meeting the
demands of reality by developing a capacity for thought." [2: p.57]
Bion described the function of the mind that allows thoughts to be thought about as alpha function. The earliest capacity for thinking depends on the infant having found a container for their projected frustrations that feeds it back to them in a more tolerable form. Emotional experience is used to develop thinking and to successfully form memory and dream content. The development of the personality therefore, depends on us making use of the emotional experiences we have in our relationships with others, through thought and what he called ‘linking’ or the mapping of feelings. Bion distinguished that:
“The thinking used in the development of thought differs from the thinking required to use the thoughts when developed…
Clients who have experienced deep pain, fear, abandonment and anger will often find it difficult to think, particularly about their emotions, which can remain completely outside of consciousness, and hence unavailable for reflection.
Containment is closely linked to D.W. Winnicott’s concept of holding by the good enough mother. In order to contain difficult emotions and then return them to the client in a form they can manage, the feelings must be ‘held’ by the therapist , who like the good enough mother, holds the pain, anguish, confusion and shows the client that these feelings are tolerable after all.  So, containment is the ability of the therapist to tolerate the suffering of the client, whilst psychologically and emotionally holding the anguish in a way that allows the emotion to in turn be tolerated by the client.
The importance of containment and holding in the healing process cannot be overstated. As well as the inner containment work in the therapy room, there is also the ‘external’ containment, set up through the therapy contract, including duration and frequency of appointments, the therapy frame, boundary agreements, payment (see blog entitled 'No Ordinary Fee'), agreement on contact between sessions, GDPR etc. This is the outer securement of the process within, perhaps the lid of the box or the string in the 'good strong box' analagy. When a client trusts these processes (sometimes gained by trying to break them by, for example; not showing up, delayed leaving, payment issues ) and their security, then the process of repairing the originally interrupted, container-contained processes, can take place.
If you are in deep, emotional pain and need some help, please get in touch here.
1. Bion, W.R. (1962) Learning from Experience, London: Reprint by Karnac Books
2. Bion,W.R.(1963) Elements of Psycho-Analaysis, London: Reprint by Karnac Books
3. Winnicott, D.W. (1958). Collected Papers. Through Paediatrics to Psycho-Analysis, London: Tavistock Publications
Tagged as: Containment, Ego relating, Emotional Development, Holding, Thinking, Tolerance
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