Key Concepts in Psychodynamic Psychotherapy: The Concept of "Container Contained"


This is a theory developed by Wilfred Bion and it can be useful to apply it in many different scenarios. In the mother/child dynamic the mother acts as the container and the child is the contained. Imagine a child unable to articulate what is the matter crying and when the mother appears the child is soothed without any specific action taking place. Something has shifted within the child. From Bion’s perspective what has changed is that the child’s experience was contained by the mother. Bion believed that through the mother’s presence and her reverie she is able to take in the child’s experience, digest the child’s intolerable experience and then give it back to the child in a way that he/she can now tolerate. The child is then left in a much calmer state. Hence the mother becomes the container for the child’s emotional experience and the child becomes the contained. The child’s experience is more tolerable. Over time as this interaction is repeated the child becomes more able to develop the capacity to tolerate emotional experience and eventually the child is able to act as his own container. This dynamic can then also be thought about in the therapy room. Through the repeated interactions in the therapy room of the therapist containing the patient, the patient’s own capacity to think her own intolerable thoughts is able to grow. This continual interaction of the ‘thinking couple’ develops the individual patients capacity to create meaning and for thinking unthought thoughts.

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