On Being a “Container”
A different perspective on the caregiver’s role
I return once again to the in-process dictionary of HomeFocusing, to deconstruct another often-used word, albeit different from the words I typically tear apart—words laden with criticism such as "why" or "expectations." The expression I've had trouble carrying for some time, and that I seek in the following to provide with alternatives, is "to contain." On the face of it, it is a wonderful term, indicating a quality we would like to see more of in the world - among parents, caregivers, spouses and friends. We would like to be more of that ourselves, in all of these roles. And we try - to be “a container.”
"Don't look at the jug but at what it contains” is a common Hebrew rabbinical saying, and that is what we do, as caregivers: often I meet parents who forget to talk about themselves — they are fully oriented towards the child. Therapists and coaches in supervision or consultation are also prone to set themselves aside as they focus their energies on their clients, trying to feel them out. Time and again, the client is considered to be the sole concern of the complex therapist-client relationship and all that it entails: disconnection, anger, even issues of time and money. And so the focus is: why did the client do that? What happens to her? What activates her? Many times they seek for a way to – well - fix her.
The term "to contain" is widely used among people in these (demanding) roles— parents and professional (but not only) caregivers — who, by their very nature, hold others in their care: children as well as the inner children of others. I would like to invite us to look at ourselves, at the person who seeks to be the container, to contain: what happens to me? What do I feel? What are my needs?
When the container is cracked
Take, for instance, parents of young children at the end of summer vacation, tired and worn from the simmering pressure, from the heat and humidity, from the absence of a quiet moment to themselves. Or troubled therapists / coaches, who are concerned about their livelihood, or about something that happened just before they arrived at their clinic, or something that's about to happen afterwards. Or just consider this image: the container is cracked. And when the container is cracked - how will it hold? And how long will it last?
As long as the container is strong, we manage to hold and attune to the person we are holding. But when the container is cracked, our focus on the other stems from this invisible inner place, these worn and abandoned wooden fibers, which did not receive our attention, because we concentrated only on the other's valuable content. It is that invisible, forsaken part that now goes out to the other: in anger at the child who does not see me; in frustration from the client who is late to arrive.
I don't want to be a container
I don't want to be a container. Perhaps a space. Because what is inside the space is not necessarily separate from the space, and is certainly not more important than the space itself; it is part of it. And if we take the "container" and in its place put "space," "to contain" will be replaced by "to expand," which inherently generates a process that is oriented inward as well as out. Indeed, expansion involves deepening, introspection, building and strengthening the space, tuning it. And it surely is a process, also fraught with fears and pain, but this is what allows us to be with the changes, the troubles, and the concerns that the other – a child, a client, a spouse, a friend–awakens in us.
Another word that can sometimes serve us instead of "to contain" is "to hold." In the aforementioned roles, there is no doubt that we often have to hold, especially as the children we encounter – including the inner children of the adults before us – are young or injured or confused or overwhelmed. But in order to hold, we must be strong, strengthened, and be held ourselves.
I want to take a moment to notice the felt sense of the words: I feel my arms carrying the Container; they are struggling, and as they attempt to contain, they become tired. I feel the strength of the Holding in my back and shoulder girdle, especially after a yoga class. They also sometimes get tired, obviously, and are in need of maintenance to sustain them. And I feel the wideness of the Space in the pelvis, which leans comfortably, is softly held by the support.
I don't want to be transparent
As I was preparing to write this post, I was pondering what picture to include with it. Anyone who follows me knows how integral images are to my writing. One option was a transparent cookie jar, because that's the problem with the ones who contain: they are transparent. They are not seen. In fact, even the person or thing "inside" the container does not see them, and here is another aspect of the problem: How can one feel safe in presence of someone whom they cannot see? (And as someone who holds a phobia of transparent elevators, I am the first to confirm this ...).
But then I realized that in the transparent jar picture, we are again looking at, and from, the point-of-view of whoever gets all the attention, of whoever is contained, the cookies. And I want to bring our attention to this worn and cracked container. I want to invite us to say - I see you. I see the cracks and roughness and fatigue, the faded color, even more faded against the colors of what is inside you... I see you, you're not just a container, you are you, and I am with you now.
Because to me, as simple as it sounds, and not at all simple to implement, "being with" instead of containing or holding or treating, is the best way to be with someone. A person with another; a human presence by your side. And in order to be with someone, first of all, I have to be with me.
 Pirkei Avot 4