We’ve all heard people say things like, “I felt completely overwhelmed” or “I just couldn’t take it”; they mean that the emotions arising for them in a given situation were more than they could tolerate at that time. In psychodynamic psychotherapy, we often talk about the ability to “contain” feelings, where the mind is thought of as a kind of holder or container for experience. People have differing abilities to contain their emotions: some can continue to think in the presence of powerful feelings while others explode under pressure and “lose their minds.” Some of us “over-contain” our feelings, flattening or deadening them, and others get carried away by an emotion and have no capacity for thought or self-reflection. Wilfred Bion, a British psychoanalyst, originally put forward these ideas. Based on his understanding of early mother-infant communications, he elaborated the relationship between the mental container and the contained experience, using it to explain what goes on between client and therapist in the consulting room.
If you think about newborn babies, they have virtually no ability to contain their experience or to understand what it means. The example I find most useful is to think about infants and their first encounters with hunger. For the newborn, accustomed to continuous feeding via the umbilical cord, this unfamiliar experience in its belly doesn’t yet “mean” anything; it doesn’t signify “need for food” in any meaningful sense. Rather, hunger is at first experienced only as something painful and frightening. It’s difficult to use our adult language for these pre-verbal experiences, but I think the newborn feels something like terror; first the birth trauma and later hunger pains are felt as a threat to its ongoing existence — something extremely “bad” in the most primitive (not moral) sense. At first, newborns have no understanding or mental ability to “contain” their bad experiences; all they can do is try to get rid of them via the process we call projection. I’m sure you know what I mean: the screams of a newborn feel extremely projectile, as if the frightened infant wants desperately to expel something very painful, very “bad”. The way they writhe about looks as if they’re trying to get rid of something. Their physical distress and those cries evoke echoes of the infant’s pain within us and are often excrutiating to witness.
But Bion also believed that these projections function as a kind of communication — an innate mechanism, useful for the survival of the species, where the infant’s screaming projections evoke feelings in its caretakers that make them want to do something. It’s the mother’s job to accept and bear those projections; by understanding what the baby needs (food) and providing it, she functions as a kind of external container or mind. As I see it, the mother supplies meaning. The baby feels terrified by its experience, as if in danger of annihilation; the mother’s appropriate response says, “No, you’re not dying; you’re hungry … and here’s the food you need.” Over time, with the mother functioning as the external container for unbearable experience, responding appropriately, the infant learns to bear and understand its own feelings, to know what they “mean”. The infant gradually develops its own mind as a container for experience.
That’s optimal development, of course. When mothers can’t or don’t provide enough of what their babies need, they grow into children and eventually adults with little capacity to bear their own experience. If parents respond inappropriately — say, by providing food when what is actually needed is warmth or comfort — they may teach their children to mis-interpret feelings. If parents feel overwhelmed by the emotions their babies evoke in them and rely upon their own defense mechanisms to cope, they pass along those defenses to the next generation. This is a complex subject and these are only a few of the possible ways that mother-infant communications may go awry.
Bion found that his adult psychotic patients relied heavily on projection, as if they were still trying to communicate via that primitive method and to get what they needed — i.e., understanding. He believed the role of the psychoanalyst vis-a-vis a patient was to function as a kind of external container, in a way analogous to the mother’s relation to her newborn. While Freud famously described how his patients often related to him as if he were somebody else, a significant figure from the patient’s past (transference), Bion and other object relations theorists expanded our understanding of transference to include the ways that patients split off and project unwanted or unbearable parts of themselves into the therapist, often as an attempt to communicate. In my own experience, especially in working with borderline personality disorder, I have found this latter view compelling and useful. While I’ve occasionally found my clients relating to me as if I were a judgmental father or rejecting mother, more often I’ve felt as if unbearable feelings were being projected into me. It often seems to me that the larger part of my job is to bear with my clients long enough to understand what those projections mean and, over time, to help them bear with and understand their own experience, too.
In the next post, I’ll describe what this actually means with some clinical examples to make the concept less theoretical.