Have you ever been in a situation where someone was talking to you and in that process, they were making you feel like you either had to do something to fix the situation for them or that you had done something wrong? Perhaps they were complaining or perhaps they were being downright nasty towards you. Typically, when we find ourselves in these situations, we tend to give the negative emotions we are feeling right back to the person giving them to us. We offer solutions to a problem that the other was expressing on a concrete level but completing missing what the person implicitly needed. We can get into power struggles or play, “find the bad guy” in the interactions by blaming each other for what transpired. Some people may even see this reaction as “standing up for yourself” and “not getting walked all over.”
To react in a way that doesn’t further hurt the relationship is difficult. I’m a family/teen therapist in Washington DC who is writing a 3 part series of managing difficult relationships over the holidays. In this post, I want to share a therapuetic technique that I use in my sessions daily–it is the act of containing, or in or words, being a container.
When someone is struggling emotionally or reacting in his/her relationships, there is an “implicit need”—The need is for one party in the relationship to differentiate themselves from the emotional moment and act in a thinking, purposeful way, and not just react to the immediate here and now. This implicit need is not something resembling a math problem that needs to be fixed. This “implicit need” is a universal need–a need is for us to be there for the other, to be supportive, and to be a container for their emotional overload. As a species, we have evolved to provide each other with emotional support, and through that emotional support comes healing. However, to be emotionally supportive, we also have to be emotionally containing. With the stress of our daily lives, this can be very difficult if we do not have a way of unloading our own emotional baggage into a supportive, solid container.
I have been working with kids and adolescents with emotional and behavioral disorders for close to 15 years. In my experience, one of the best ways I can help support the children and adolescents I work with is have a good working relationship founded on being emotionally supportive and validating. Part of that process means being able to contain or hold the emotions that are being expressed by the child or adolescent I’m working with. This process of containment is a function of therapy. While useful, it is much harder to do in real life. When we express or “vent” emotions, we need to expel or discharge emotions that are “too much.” It is tricky to tolerate another person venting when we are struggling to contain what is being unloaded onto us, which can result in us unloading those emotions right back onto the person who originally gave them to us. This scenario, probably experienced by everyone inevitably leads to a back and forth, heated interaction that leaves both people upset and the relationship ruptured.
Containing occurs throughout a growing child’s lifespan–from conception and birth, through infancy (i.e. swaddling), toddlerhood (i.e. hugging, holding), childhood (i.e. limit-setting), adolescence (i.e. rules and conflict resolution), and adulthood (i.e. “venting” and emotional support in friendships and reciprocal relationships). In basic terms, the idea of being an emotional container is to take in overwhelming negative emotions of the other and express it back to the other in a way the other can take in. In family relationships especially over the holidays, this process of containment is important, albeit is often challenging depending on what negative patterns exist or emerge within family relationships. A familial feedback loop that I often see in therapy involves a child unloading on a parent and that parent either unloading back at the child or unloading onto the other parent who then unloads onto the child or the parent who just unloaded. When written down, it becomes clear how dysfunctional this pattern can become.
The important takeaway is this–we “vent” or unload emotions because we are overwhelmed and can’t process it well on our own. We need the containment only found within loving, supportive, non-reactive relationships in order to process the extra emotion. Yet, what if our chosen listener isn’t prepared or too filled up with their own emotion? Then, we create a negative cycle of reacting in an effort to burn off all of that extra emotion. In short, we need to stop and think before we unload. We need to check it out with our loving partner, close friend or chosen recipient to see if they have emotional emotional space to contain some of our emotional baggage. We might even need to make “a date” to unload rather than just assume it is our right to vent exactly at that moment. If we can follow some of these guidelines, we have a better chance of unloading our emotions in a relationally healthy manner.