The Development of Mind and Meaning (Part I)

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.

By Joseph Burgo

Joe is the author and the owner of, one of the leading online mental health resources on the internet. Be sure to connect with him on Google+ and Linkedin.


  1. I am inclined to believe that infants are born with a type of Cease To Exist Mechanism which is triggered by their need for LOVE, food, security etc. The infant is terrified by the feelings of none existence when their basic needs are not met. They are fighting loudly for survival when we see, and hear them enraged. Given the co ordination and physical strength of an adult the infant would kill to survive.

    With consistent love from a care giver, baby soon associates a wet nappy, and a hungry belly etc with safety, and the fear of none existence largely diminishes. The CTEM is later replaced by the fight or flight mechanism.

    It can go very wrong when the infants need for love is not met. The CTEM remains, leaving the infant in a constant state of panic, and rage. When there is no safe feeling, only a rejecting care giver threatening the infants very being, the infant soon learns an approaching threat triggers rage, and the terror of it. This is an intolerable state of mind, and these feelings of terror and rage are repressed. The infants instinct to survive teaches it to stop asking for love perchance, more rejection. Each time it is rejected the CTEM kicks in causing more panic and rage.

    Added to the repressed infant rage is the supressed anger that happens along in our adult life. When there is a critical level of stored rage and anger the signs and symptoms of it become evident in our daily lives. The fight and flight mechanism kicks in when it is not required to do so. We can be plagued with unnatural fears, and have trouble coping with relationships etc. Also, we over react to rejection or the fear of it.

    That was my story.

  2. I’m really enjoying reading your posts, and your insights – thanks.
    Just a thought on this one though. Why say the baby only feels hungry after birth? If we feel hungry as a pregnant Mother, so will they, so why not vice versa? I vividly remember being woken up every morning at 5am in the final weeks of pregnancy by a jostling in my stomach. I quickly realised baby was just hungry, got up, had a bowl of cereal, then we both got another stint of sleep. So, I am a strong believer that patterns start beforehand – I felt I knew my son before he was born, it was a far more gradual process of a relationship starting, not some step function at birth.

    1. That is fascinating, Ruth. I wonder if there’s any science to support your experience. I have one of those assumptions of “fact” that I can no longer remember where I learned, or if it’s even true: that the fetus just takes what it needs from the mother’s body; when she feels depleted, she would then eats. Maybe that’s not as true as I once believed.

  3. I have been reading through your blog all afternoon. I think you are very insightful about BPD behaviors and origins. Thank you.

    I have an ex who exhibits many of these behaviors. His mom suicided when he was in his 20s. I believe he’s undiagnosed, but I know he has seen a therapist (I think more of marriage counselor). He idealized me for about a year and then I was split and spiked into the end zone. Though he never raged at or acted out in a direct way, I sense great rage in the silence and withdrawal (also pain). We have been broken up for two years. Though I have reached out, and received some basic polite responses, there is no real repair between us. He seems to get overwhelmed (shamed) just to face me. I think I trigger him terribly.

    I do intuit his hurt and need, and I empathize– but I do not know if my empathy ever penetrates the force field. Maybe it even makes him madder? I want to give empathy if itis of value but not if it is a distraction. And not if it enables him to blame me for distress not of my making.

    My question is, how much can empathy and caring from an ex help, if a borderline is not in treatment? If I am split, is it all fuel to the fire?

    I know my main obligation is to maintain my own self-care and boundaries but I am so conscious that he has very very few experiences of being seen, and so much underlying shame… and I actually do think he is worthy of healing and love.

    I would like to know your thoughts on what is appropriate for an ex who cares. I have no illusions of a romantic relationship. I would like to see him get help if at all possible. I would like him to find relief.


    1. This is difficult to answer. In general, I would say that you can’t do a lot for your ex to help him heal because your empathy won’t necessarily help him deal with his shame. You could also end up getting drained because he doesn’t have room to reciprocate. You can’t be a saint and give without getting anything back. You need to take care of yourself, first and foremost. That doesn’t mean you can’t be a friendly support. I just wouldn’t work too hard at it — i.e., don’t keep reaching out of he’s not engaging.

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