Container and contained theory by Wilfred Bion

Epistemic status: notes about a specific scientific theory.  relevant to therapy, interpersonal relationships and healthy development.  Also includes some personal ideas around the theory.

Container and contained is a psychological theory by Wilfred Bion building on the work by Jung. It’s my current reading project.

The Theory

In the mother/child relationship the mother is the container and the child is the contained. A baby is not good at emotions.  It’s also not good at “strange and new” unfortunately for a developing mind, there’s a lot of strange. And without having any foundation “new” pattern matches to “unknown” and therefore according to the theory “death” or “bad”. The mother has two types of container actions.

The first is to see the pain of the child and present their own emotional strength in the face of it. “no now is a time to be happy” and therefore model the healthy ways to form emotional attachment to experience.  Food is good, hungry is bad. Injury is bad, laughter is good. The second container is more like, “I see your pain and I am able to hold your emotions and be okay. I can be sad too, and not die”.

The two containers are also relevant to therapy.  That’s:

  1. I see your pain and I am okay. And
  2. I can copy your pain, demonstrate having it, and then effectively model self soothing. (as a mature adult container).

The theory also discusses sensory experiences prior to conceptualisation as beta states and interpersonal cognition as alpha function. β: “I see the object”, 𝜶: “object reminds me of my mean friend and therefore (as a 2 year old) the object makes the world upset”. Early childhood is a process of calibrating these states and testing experiences.

Ultimately the healthy adult is their own self sufficient container and knows how to do both containers to their own emotions when they are needed.

A lot of social/friending seems like pairwise containerising.

A friend saying “you are right, I am scared too”, creates the emotional mirroring validation of a container. Or a friend (coach? Archetype) “bravely” saying, “it’s okay to be afraid”.

It seems unclear how to know which container is right, other than “to know already”. It seems like there is no research on this. There is little information on the container theory as it is because it’s still developing.

I have been experimenting with noticing container styles and watching it happen. Today I noticed someone do the wrong one for a particular moment for me. Minutes later they did the other container which was wrong in that situation too.  Internally it was funny. The poor friend probably just felt unhelpful for that moment. Planning to watch myself and which container I tend to give. See how I go and if I can sense into the other one and check to see if it’s more useful.

I suspect that I want lots of “being and being strong” container and I give that off a lot too. Even if it’s sometimes the wrong one.  I don’t want people to take my emotions and be moved by them or to model their management of the emotions. I want them to see me as I am and just be. Suspect that this comes from a particular failing of my upbringing and other people will be different.

I suspect there’s more here in terms of what beliefs and structures are implicitly created by the two types of container. Where the “taking emotions” does more of a, “let me model that for you” and the “just watching and being strong” does more of the, “you are showing me how much of a strong and independent agent you are”.

By different underlying needs, we uncover different underlying desire for validation experiences. There is also probably insight here about BPD and a constantly shifting goalpost where maybe someone can be in a state where “I can’t model my own emotions healthily so don’t watch me”, at the same time as “don’t tell me what to do”. With basically the worst of both worlds of lack/need.

Maybe there’s an internalisation of safe/secure existence?

Where it’s first parentally modelled and later it’s owned by the child.  in theory, a trained alpha function brain knows how to conceptualise keeping itself safe. And carries that information everywhere.   “safe” being a proxy word for all things relevant to keeping an agent alive and evolutionarily relevant.

All I can suggest is to watch the two types of containers and see if this is relevant to your life.

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