2 June, 2021

Recently at MyST, we have been undertaking a process of reviewing the core principles and practices that underpin our service approach. Discussing the ‘MyST fundamentals’ as we’ve termed them, team members who are new hands and those who are rather older hands in the MyST approach have come together to exchange ideas. Discussing our clinical model together, one particular psychological concept held our attention. Containment. Such a fundamental process in human development and in many psychotherapies, and central to our approach here at MyST.Containment is the capacity to hold, bear and organise our emotional experiences. It is the capacity to ‘stay with it’, and through staying with it, to gain space to explore what our experience is telling us and what we will decide to do with it. This process can also teach us that we can survive our emotional experiences, however powerful and difficult they are, and often we don’t need to do anything at all with them except allow them to pass. In this way, containment offers us freedom, freedom from feeling compelled to respond to powerful emotions, for instance by doing their bidding, or perhaps by needing to avoid them.

Ordinarily, we learn about containment from our earliest caregivers, often our parents. We learn as babies through an experience of having a caregiver connect with our minds. When, as babies, we are overwhelmed by powerful feelings, our caregiver connects with our mind and holds the feelings for us and with us. With enough repetition of this process, we develop the capacity to contain our feelings ourselves. Later on, as psychological practitioners, we lend this capacity to contain feelings to others who need to experience this and develop it themselves.

When things don’t go in an ordinary fashion in early childhood, children can find themselves missing out on the experience of being contained by a caregiver, and can find themselves facing challenges of growing up without having developed a capacity for self-containment. Of course, this can cause all kinds of difficulties for children and those around them. For example, how can a child manage at school when they can’t contain themselves? How can they roll with the cut and thrust of friendships?

Many of the children that we work with at MyST have, for one reason or another, missed out on that early opportunity to experience containment and then develop self-containment. Further disruptions throughout their childhoods have got in the way of them finding their way to developing this capacity later, and children can get to adolescence facing many challenging situations, lots of powerful and difficult feelings, with little power to contain these. They will often act in ways which express this need for containment, and invite it to happen. In these circumstances, when psychological containment is lacking, services, often in desperation, respond by placing external structures around these children to contain them. This might be a staff team who can restrain the child, it might be secure care behind a locked door. It might also be more subtle versions of containment by exclusion, isolation or medication.

At MyST, part of our endeavour is to help children make the journey back from a reliance on being contained by external means to becoming able to be contained psychologically, first in a relationship with a caregiver and/or therapist, and through this to eventually develop the capacity to contain themselves psychologically. Happily, even though some of us miss out on the experience of containment as infants, we never lose our potential to develop it, we just need to be given the experience of it, over and over, time and again, until that green shoot of potential grows strong in ourselves. Tending the ‘green shoots’ of potential, watching them grow and then bloom is certainly a joy to all of the ‘gardeners’ involved.

Jen & Jael

A Gwent Partnership Board Service