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Containment and holding environments

Watch Laura Steckley discuss the developmental theory of containment, with reference to Bion and Winnicott.
Hello, and welcome. Thanks for turning up. I’m here to talk to you today about containment in holding environments. My name is Laura Steckley, and I work for the School of Social Work and Social Policy, and for CELCIS here at the University of Strathclyde. So, I’m going to tell you what it’s not, first. Containment. Containment is often used disparagingly in some circles, to mean keeping a lid on things, or constraining people’s freedom or their agency to act. And when I’m talking about containment in this video, I’m talking about something really different. And I’ll go into what all that is in a minute.
If you already have a preexisting idea of containment as this kind of bad thing, I’m just going to invite you to step back and open your mind a little bit. Similarly, holding environments, which is kind of a kindred area of theorisation, sometimes gets confused with holding therapies. So again, I’m going to tell you what holding environments is not, before I go into what it is. Holding therapies is this controversial treatment modality that has actually been completely discredited in some circles, and is very concerning in others. And I’m not going to make a comment about its goodness or badness. I’m just going to say, that’s not what I’m here to talk about.
Holding environments, actually, is a way of understanding how we think about the care environment. And that’s what I’m talking about. But we’re going to start with containment. Containment theory was first introduced by Bion in the early ’60s. And he talked about how, like when you’re first born– how an infant, when their tummy hurts, or their tummy’s empty, or their nappy’s dirty. And they cry and they get upset, that actually, something’s happening here. They’re projecting that unmanageableness of the situation– because they can’t fix it– onto the caregiver. And the caregiver receives this, and then gives it back to the infant in a more manageable, bearable, containable form.
So, containment is really grounded in those early experiences of somebody coming and soothing you, and changing your nappy, and filling your belly. And taking you from this uncontained spilling over stage, to it being containable and manageable again. And actually, it was kind of treated metaphorically at the time, that this was a metaphor for the way we understood this process. But from current neurobiological studies, we are beginning to see that actually, this happens in the brain. The infants, from brain scans, you can see the uncontained state. And you can see the caregiver have a similar, but more manageable rise. And the caregiver’s comes down a bit first. And the baby’s comes down through that process of caregiving.
And it is this continual process that, in some respects, is very mundane and every day. That any of you who have had children or younger siblings thinks, yes. This isn’t rocket science. This happens all the time, a million times a day. Right? But Bion was saying that this process enables children to be able to think, in order to manage emotion. I’m going to talk to you about this a bit more fully. But if you’ve studied attachment theory at all, or if you watched the video from Judy Furnivall, you might start making parallels between the processes of attachment– which are very similar– and the processes of containment.
I think Bion and Bowlby were talking about the same stuff, but from different perspectives. So, it is these early ongoing experiences of it being made manageable for you when you’re a little infant, that enable thinking, in order to manage raw experience and emotion. And when that gets interrupted, either due to ear infections, or some sort of illness, or poverty sometimes, or addiction, perhaps in one or both caregivers. When that gets interrupted, and an infant is left in that uncontained state for periods of time, that actually that interrupts the ability to develop thinking, in order to manage raw experience and emotion. And this, then, affects all other areas of development. And so it’s something that we take pretty much for granted.
That you use thinking all the time to manage your emotions and your experiences. And yet, when you become uncontained, or I become uncontained, all of a sudden that can kind of go out the window. So you may remember times when you felt so upset and so overwhelmed by some sort of experience or emotion, or usually the combination of the two, that you can’t think straight. You can’t complete a sentence. And something that’s maybe very obvious to somebody else who’s not in that predicament is totally invisible to you. Or you’ve seen somebody else in a completely uncontained state. So it’s not just people who’ve had huge interruptions to that process of containment in infancy.
We can all experience periods of uncontainment in our lives, or moments of uncontainment in our lives. There’s something very human about that. And we use language in our day to day discussions that reflect that. Like, he’s falling apart at the seams. Or, I’m just trying to hold it together. And actually, that reflects some of what Bion was trying to talk about in a more systematic and detailed sort of way. So, now I’m shifting to Winnicott, who around the same time, was talking about this thing called emotional holding. emotional holding. So, he talked about when children are held during infancy. Both literally, physically. And metaphorically, the kind of environment that we create for children and young people.
That makes possible emotional development. And he talked about the whole experience of being physically and emotionally held through infancy. He talked about that as the holding environment. And that within this, the child develops trust, the ability to identify thoughts and feelings. And you could see the parallel with Bion, using thinking to manage experience and emotion. Winnicott’s talking about the ability to identify thoughts and feelings. And even the ability to symbolise and play, all comes from those early experiences of the holding environment. And the notion of holding– and holding, not literally necessarily. But holding metaphorically is central to caregiving relationships. Holding environments, according to Winnicott, create reliably safe boundaries. They offer a protective space.
Enable children to experience themselves as valued and secure. And it’s associated with a secure base. So again, very similar kind of territory to attachment theory, but with a slightly different emphasis. So, both Bion and Winnicott applied their respective models to the relationship between the therapist and the client. And they stress the importance of metaphoric containment, or metaphoric holding for the process of healing and development. But also, these concepts have been subsequently applied in all sorts of relationships and settings. Here I’ve included education, social work and consultancy. It’s even been applied to business settings.
So I guess I would offer this. If you look at the video on attachment, it’s going to focus on the development of trust and relationships, as well. The difference, especially with containment, is it really begins to help us understand the impact of anxiety on thinking. And for children who that was a constant state, will have a much more difficult time being able to use thinking in order to manage their behaviour. We call that impulsivity, often. And you can see kids who are coming screaming out of their skins, because they’ve experienced a lot of uncontainment. But actually, this has significant value throughout the lifespan. Not just an understanding for children.
It can inform the way that we try and help people who are struggling, but it can also inform just our own workplaces. And how uncontained anxiety that isn’t made sense of, and understood, and made manageable for people, can interfere with people being productive. Or people making sense of what it is they’re meant to be doing, say in their job, or in other areas of their lives. So, I would encourage further exploration into containment, and holding environments as well. Thank you very much.

In the second presentation this week with Dr Laura Steckley, we are introduced to the concepts of containment and holding environments.

She starts by making clear that containment is not the same as constrainment. Similarly, she highlights how holding environments can sometimes inaccurately be confused with holding therapies.

Containment was first developed as a concept in the 1960’s by Wilfred Bion and is grounded in early childhood experiences of being contained by care givers. Laura makes links between the processes going on within containment and the theory of attachment, covered elsewhere this week with Judy Furnivall. She then goes onto to consider the work of Donald Winnicott, who around the same time period as Bion, developed ideas focussing on the concept of holding environments and the way in which children require to be held both physically and emotionally to help them to manage their behaviour and development.

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Caring for Vulnerable Children

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