Containment and Attunement

Containment is both something that we need to receive and it’s something that we can provide for others in our roles as parents, spouses, friends, and members of a greater community – particularly during challenging times.

Containment is not about control or maintaining the status quo; instead, it involves creating a safe space for others to express emotions and navigate difficulties.

The concept of containment is closely tied to attunement, which means being aware of others’ needs and understanding our own capacity as well. 

If you’ve heard about these concepts but want a deeper understanding and practical implementation in your life, we hope this episode offers you an insightful introduction.

Listener Resources:

  • To take a deeper dive into the concepts of containment, attunement, and attachment theory in your own life, particularly as they relate to your family of origin, and learn to provide spaces of containment and healing for others, we recommend enrolling in the Story Sage Series online course from the Allender Center.
  • If you’re a visual learner, we also recommend checking out Lindsay Braman’s article and stunning sketchnotes which wonderfully explain the concepts of containment and attunement.

Episode Transcript:

Dan: Alright, I just want to begin with a question, if you don’t mind.

Rachael: Sure.

Dan: So I’ve been, at least with you a few times with Evie, and occasionally I have the privilege of having a meeting and Evie is there, she’s vocal, she’s engaged, she’s, as we would presume, a wild, courageous, playful, and don’t have to do a lot to read her face. All that’s well said, but I’ve never really asked this. How is her, I’m using maybe a pejorative word, but how is her screaming/wailing?

Rachael: It’s like, if I could say my biggest growth edge as a human in becoming Evie’s mother, mother, it has been growing my resilience to bear her suffering without turning to panic because she is fierce in her agony. And when she was a baby, like a baby baby, she sounded like a pterodactyl. Like an angry pterodactyl. Now her wailing, her screaming wailing, she sounds usually pretty terrified and or enraged. And I’m getting a lot better at staying grounded so that I can try to figure out what she needs. But honestly, the first probably, six months of her life, I would panic and be like, ahhh! Or flood cortisol, or move to fight, flight or freeze, which then meant I just was totally losing my mind, trying to figure out how to help her, which then was fueling her desperation and rage. So we’ve come a long way, but she is very fierce when she gets to that point where either she has a need, it happens a lot in the middle of the night, or if someone scares her or if something scary if her brothers are watching a show that has a scary robot or something.

Dan: Alright. The reason I ask is, Becky and I were tending to our 4-year-old granddaughter Parker, who of all our six grandchildren, has I think the most perfected form of fear-rage-based screaming tears. It’s an intensity that I don’t remember with my children, and it’s probably nostalgia. It’s not comparable to anything I’ve experienced. And I adore her, I love her. But in the presence of that kind of intensity, I kind of fall apart. I can only do four or five minutes. And over the holidays, Becky and I caring for both granddaughters while the parents were out doing whatever, I had to depart even outside I could hear her. So I mean, I had to walk far enough away to get three minutes of the lowering of, as you put it, well, of my stress biochemicals. And then Becky had a little bit more capacity, well, I want to say double. She had double, she was in the 10 to 12 minute range, but for the 30 minutes, this child unabated screamed. We had to tag team. One of us literally would come in and the other would depart, and we were in five minute increments. What I’m getting to is whether you have young children or not, there is something about that level of chaos, of tears, of intensity that begins to fray the center. And what we want to put words to today, particularly with regard to spiritual abuse, but toward life, is the need for containment. And I don’t think containment is one of those categories that is just implicitly clear the moment you say it. So when you think about containment with regard to Evie, but another way, when you think about containment for Evie’s mother…

Rachael: That’s the question, right?

Dan: What does that look like? And how particularly, we’re going to weave this in and out of addressing spiritual abuse, but generally all forms of life itself, living in this significantly complex year, we need containment. And that containment is not control. It’s not turning to another to provide you this container that will make all the threats and uncertainties disappear. So when we think of containment, I think some people actually move very quickly into what enables me to have control. And if that’s the notion of containment, then you’re not containing your children. You’re not allowing containment to be given to you in the way it’s meant to. So given that, launch.

Rachael: Yeah, well, I mean we’ve talked about containment before on the Allender Center podcast. So if you’re needing a refresher, a containment is a word that comes out of attachment, theories and methodology. So just that sense of basic human attachment, how we’re wired for love, and that one of our basic human needs is containment to have a healthy attachment. it’s not just control, it’ s not just boundaries. A lot of times when we talk about it in attachment, people immediately go to like, oh, containment is offering boundaries. When you think about parenting a small child, it is to a certain extent. But when I think about what it means to contain Evie, well, it’s actually to create a big enough container for all of who she is in that moment. And sometimes who she is is really big and fierce. I’ve said to Michael, if I’m storm born, Evie is the storm. She is a storm of a human being. And so for me to offer her containment means I’ve got to stay grounded enough and in my body enough and present with her attuned to her enough. Like she’s having a big emotion and I can be with her in it, keeping her safe. So of course I am making sure she’s staying safe, helping her make sense of her world, but also being really curious what’s happening for her in this moment. I don’t think as a 16-month-old, she’s like, I’m just trying to wreck mom’s life. I just want to dysregulate mom just so I could see how much power I have. It’s like something’s happening for her that she’s dysregulated and she needs a safe space to be dysregulated, but also to come back to regulation. So that’s what she needs. What mom needs in those moments is also to be mothered. So I need community. I need a sense of my own humanity. I need a sense of my own limitations. Often afterwards I need to be like, oh, that was a lot to take in my body and I am feeling really dysregulated and I’m scared. That was scary. I dunno if I’m not being enough ultimately. And so there’s an aspect to me in these parenting moments of actually needing to believe there is one who holds me. And sometimes that’s physically through my spouse and other community, my own mother. I’m getting on the phone, mom, mom, I need you. But I think also I’ve had a lot of imagery of being in the womb of God. So thinking about God’s womb as a container for me, holding all things together, groaning and suffering and birthing new life in these places that feel impossible. And I have my spiritual director to thank for that. When I was pregnant, she kept inviting me to picture myself in God’s womb as I was imagining Evie in my womb. And I think that’s kind of an imagination I’ve just kept with me, that sense of the Spirit hovering over the waters, holding back chaos. And I just think, so there’s a lot of rich biblical imagery for containment. And again, it’s not a sense of control. Like, oh, you need to behave. It’s not like Evie, stop crying or stop being angry or stop feeling human emotions. That’s not containment. It’s also not, well, I’m going to be here for you for your big emotions, but I’m not going to do anything to change the situation that might be causing your big emotions. It’s not just maintaining the status quo. Sometimes it’s a negotiation. So I think if we can keep both those extremes in mind, that’s not what we’re talking about when we talk about we need containment. It’s like we need a space to become regulated in the midst of our dysregulation, to have curiosity about what’s happening for us. Why are we feeling afraid so that we have more choice not to turn to structures of this world, tools of this world, but to maybe have the possibility to lean into our baptismal identity with the spirit to say what other possibilities could be here? And I say that as someone who spends majority of my life dysregulated in this season. So I by no means have figured out how to do this. So I come to this conversation around containment like, yeah, I need it, I need containment.

Dan: Well, and let’s underscore that, oftentimes we’re better at offering it than we are in receiving it. And yet your ability to find a way to create safety. And in some ways what I’m thinking about in the tag team interaction, we’re acknowledging as at least as an older man that my capacity to be able to bear that level of intensity is less than it used to be. You’re naming limits, you’re naming limits, therefore safety for others. But safety for oneself in the process is so crucial. The idea that the center holds because you have no regard for yourself,

Rachael: No, wouldn’t hold very long. Let’s just say that. This old nervous system would definitely take over.

Dan: Yeah, I kind of agree. But what I’m saying is that under certain pressures, under systems and pressures that require mothers don’t have a need to take care of themselves and you’re a bad mother if your children screaming unnerves you. Again, I think that notion of can we acknowledge that systems are often built on using extremity to its advantage, to silence you, to keep you from actually asking really hard questions. And then what you named is, can you attune to your own body, let alone the other? And when we talk about containment, we almost always talk about attunement first. So in one sense, it isn’t separate from this category of attunement, it’s actually living out with true attunement brings. Attunement to others, attunement to yourself, attunement to your body is the awareness of where is my capacity in the moment. And to be able then to honor that there are certainly moments where attunement break, five minute break might be all that is needed to be able to return into the complex interaction. But if you don’t have that attunement to your body and you regulate by dissociation, you regulate by denying what you are experiencing, then in some sense, if we can use this phrase, hard questions. So safety into awareness, into really asking really hard questions. So when you think about containment now outside just of Evie and others, what is it that you think you bring into the interplay with the systems you’re part of the Allender Center and other systems, what do you bring with regard to containment?

Rachael: Am I a container? I feel like one season of my life I was a containing person. So I dunno anymore. Let’s see, what do I bring, well, I mean this feels similar to conversations we’ve had more recently on the podcast around, we talked about discourse, right? We talked about different things. I think I am someone that’s good at anticipating some of the needs in a space, not all of them, but some of them. And actually setting a table that has clear enough rules of engagement and enough sense of like, okay, dignity is going to be honored, but I’m also very intense. So that’s the thing is I think it throws people off sometimes because containment doesn’t mean you don’t have intense emotions. It doesn’t mean you’re not bringing anger or sadness to a space. It means there’s a sense of like, well, what’s the plan when that happens? And who’s holding a frame to say, okay, and now that has to stop. It’s moved. It’s moved into a kind of harm. So I think I do have a capacity to hold a lot of complexity, but also to say, okay, something has to shift here. Do I do that well all the time? No, I think I do also bring a lot of self-awareness maybe too much sometimes.

Dan: Well, again, let’s go back to the categories. You have a sense of what safety is needed with others. We’ve had some intense disagreements over a lot of things, but I’ve never feared that the container is going to crack that somehow what you feel, what I feel would be so overwhelming that in some sense if you use the idea of a cup that the liquid in it is going to melt this little cardboard down to nothingness. So a container is a good image for this notion of, no, we can hold this. And even if it spills over, it’s not so toxic, it can’t be engaged. So I think part of safety is a commitment to safety, not to avoid conflict, but safety, that we can remain engaged even if there are strong feelings or differences that create tension. So I think part of the issue is how in any relationship will conflict or tension be, I don’t like the word I’m about to use, but it’s the beginning. How will it be managed and managed, not defined as resolved or ignored, but how will we hold it together? Will the center hold? And I think containment begins with that. The center will hold, but the center is not keeping the status quo alive. It is allowing the status, the states to move to that evolution of what greater goodness would hold. And so in that sense, it’s not the being bound to this is the way we do it. You don’t treat me this way, you don’t engage me this way. And there are lines and boundaries. You don’t do this. It is the promise that we can engage where there’s hurt or difference or confusion, but stay in it. And I think that’s what I think most of us feel. At some level there will be a point where we can’t stay in it and therefore the threat, we can’t stay in it. This cup is going to dissolve, then keeps the temperature in the range that we think the relationship will survive. And I’ve seen, oh so heartbreaking. So many marriages I’ve worked with as a therapist where the intensity between a couple can’t be engaged with safety, with awareness, but also with care and curiosity because that sense the center will not hold.

Rachael: I mean, my guess is many of us could look around and say there’s not a lot of places right now where it feels like the center can hold. And we know that’s because people are really traumatized right now. And so we know there’s fragmentation at play, there’s fight, flight, freeze or fawn at play. There’s isolation and dissociation and all the things we’ve named that actually work counterintuitively to a kind of mutual commitment not, and again, not to remain in places or contexts that aren’t actually going to lead to your flourishing. So this is not a call to just stay put. It’s a sense of can we find a capacity to trust, to create spaces of trust, which are never going to come without conflict ever. In some ways it’s seeing how people engage conflicts that actually develop new neural pathways inside of us. And what we’re talking about reminds me of, and honestly I would love to reference who this is from, but I just remember in seminary when we were talking about different styles of church and church leadership and even thinking about the Seattle School, we often use language of a bounded set or a centered set movement. And a bounded set movement is one that’s much more rigid and it has really clear boundary lines of who’s in and who’s out. And it’s pretty static. It doesn’t have a lot of movement. Whereas a centered set movement is like you could actually imagine a nucleus that has a mission. It’s moving somewhere. We are moving somewhere together. So in order for there to actually be a capacity to contain, there has to be certain kind of missional alignment. There has to be, there is people can be multiple places around the center. You don’t have to be in one specific place and you can be some distance from the center, but there’s still a line at which, oh, the center won’t hold. We can’t have all this extremity here, we can’t have all this contempt, we can’t have all of this shame, we can’t have all this fear and manipulation. And so I think in some ways we’re trying to propose almost like an imagination for what it looks like to stay in community and in connection in relationship towards something like you said, where there can be negotiations around the structure, around the shape, around the mission. Because we’ve committed, we’re moving somewhere together and we don’t want there to be toxic things holding us back. And change might take time and it might take failure and coming back together and repair. So we’re not trying to propose some kind of utopia or some false sense of peace where we all just get along and we sing kumbaya and we hold hands and that’s how we hold the center. Containment has space. And you mentioned this when we were talking about this, and so maybe we could shift toward this, but in many ways in this season in our world, even when we’re thinking about spiritually abusive, stepping out of spiritually abusive context and trying to move towards healing, it’s really, lament is so much the work of containment. It’s that capacity to suffer with that’s a part of holding together. It’s a part of what transforms us. It’s a part of what brings new imagination with the Spirit. Could you say more about that?

Dan: Well start with something that sounds so painfully obvious, but it’s a lovely beginning and that is, without empathy, there will always be disintegration without some degree of em-pathos. And we’ve said this word a number of times, passion/passus, where we get it’s suffering. It’s the capacity to suffer with and in on behalf of another and on your own behalf. So part I keep coming back to this word, if you’re in a situation where your internal world is threatened or judged, so it’s dangerous to feel you’re already in a position where there can be no containment. So if I have grief on behalf of myself or someone else and that’s judged as wrong, as ugly, stupid, contemptuous, then I’m not allowed to be. And who I am may be wrong, I might be wrong, my empathy may be wrong. But if you can’t enter my suffering, then you cannot engage the core, the center. And so in that sense, if we can begin with empathy is required, but the ultimate form of empathy is that sense of lament. Now I’m going off on a tangent, but I think it’s important. I had the privilege over the holidays of reading N.T. Wright new book on Romans chapter eight and somewhere between as he deals with verse 17 to 19, which I won’t go into other than to say he connects, .lament, groaning with glory. And ultimately he says, we enter the glory of God, we enter the glory of others, we enter our own glory through one means. And this is what took my breath away, lament, what he’s saying is lament isn’t necessary. Indeed it is, but far more. It is a gift that we offer to one another ultimately to God. And so where we refuse to lament we cannot contain. In one sense, if you can put it in this kind of maybe too simplistic, if you’re not lamenting, you’re trying to control. And if you’re controlling even when it’s got awfully good motives, it ultimately isn’t the kind of containment that allows a person to grow in dignity, but even more so to grow in the ability to go, I don’t think this is right. This isn’t the way things are meant to be. So lament is not only a kind of looking back at the level of things are not well, lament is also what prompts us to let our hearts move to what is meant to be. So it is in one sense the depth of holding past and future in the present. It is through our tears. And a person can easily say, well, you’re talking just about crying. And it’s like, well, if you can’t see the suffering that is happening in the world with your heart not groaning, and at times in tears, then what has become dull or dead inside of you, which is another word for dissociation. So we’re contrasting, you can’t provide containment outside of the engagement of attunement that allows you to grief and to suffer. Is that what you’re asking?

Rachael: Yeah, yeah. And it makes me think about when I was in my birthing class, my teachers talked about transformative pain and that the groaning of labor pains and labor pains in general, although your brain is still getting the same signals that something’s wrong, something’s wrong, that it’s actually a transformative pain intended to lead to birthing life, to bringing forth life. But groaning isn’t just sorrow, it’s rage, it’s an acclimation that things are not well, they’re not as they’re meant to be. And I love your connection of the past and the present because it’s saying, it’s that kind of, that lament is groaning with God. It is a birthing process and it’s pulling from the future what we know is meant to be into the now in a collision with all that is. And that’s where I can feel hope that what we need are places of containment that are not going to anesthetize us. They’re going to lead us, I think closer to the feet of Jesus and a kind of following Jesus in this moment, at least I can speak for myself in this current time, this apocalyptic moment that does feel impossible. It feels like I don’t know that kind of invitation to despair or cynicism right now to just throw up my hands and say I don’t see a way through. And again, I’m okay. I am well if there are some things that need to collapse, even if that means suffering, what scares me is when systems collapse, it’s usually the most marginalized, that suffer the most. So it’s like there’s no part of me that wants to flippantly say that. I just mean maybe there are some things that the Spirit of God is saying, it’s time for that to fall. So something different can be built in its place knowing that whatever is built is still going to be built by humans, at least on this side of the new heaven and the new earth.

Dan: Well, but you’re talking about that vulnerability of living in some degree of ongoing tension between the already and not yet yet to go back to the power of that Romans eight passage, the earth groans. Are you hearing? You groan. Are you listening? And to me, particularly in the brilliance of N.T. Wright’s writing, he invites you into how the Spirit groans with words you can’t hear. But the promise that there is one who is holding all together, in other words, if someone’s holding it all together, is actually safe to become undone and in being undone there’s both formality and informality to the letting go. And I think there are moments over holidays, over seasons of the beginning of the year where I’ve just been caught by grief. Again, I’ve already put words to this, but dear friends died last year and their departure leave widows and families that I love deeply, and knowing phone calls, email, grief doesn’t end. And we want it to the data that in America, grief has allowed to last six to eight weeks when most cultures have a widow wear black for a year. She is acknowledging and the community is acknowledging no one gets over death ever let alone in a brief period of time. So to say we don’t have even in the US a system for honoring widows in terms of the attire. Not to say again that a widow has to wear black, but saying that there is a meaningfulness when a culture honors that it is a long process to come into grief and to lament. But I love that you underscored that grief isn’t just tears. And we spoke about that with regard to Evie and my granddaughter, Parker. There’s fear in those tears. There’s rage in those tears. And so lament holds the complexity of our inner world in a way in which, and again, I dunno how to simplify it, and maybe it’s too simplistic, but I have to know that the spirit is holding on my behalf what I cannot feel. I cannot name, and yet it is being named on my behalf. Intercession is my containment, and I am called to pray in lament on behalf of others. But I can’t do that without something of confidence. I don’t have much, but some confidence that the Spirit is articulating not just what I do know, but vastly, vastly more what I don’t and what I can’t.

Rachael: So as we’re… I want to to say amen, amen. As we’re kind of encouraging people to say, this is part of what we need. I’m imagining some of our listeners being like, great, sounds great. How? If this isn’t a part of the communities that you’re in, or it’s not a part of your marriage or not a part of even your relationship with your own body. I’m wondering just some simple steps we could say. I mean, I know containment’s not necessarily simple, but we’re going into this crazy year. When we say crazy year, we’re talking about it being an election year among all the other things playing out in our world. I don’t know, just as we bring this to, unless we didn’t want to bring it to close. But I’m thinking as we bring this to a close, how would we encourage people to create context of containment in a season that that’s going to be very countercultural?

Dan: Well, I can tell you what I’m doing, but it does not, it feels anything but adequate. And that’s part of what I think containment holds. I can’t even provide myself the container, let alone others. But what I’m doing at the moment, I’ve never been that fond of what people have done with gratitude diaries. I think it’s great. But I found myself when I started doing that, saying the same thing over and over and over again. And I got to a point, I feel like I’m grateful over a lot of people and processes. So it’s the beginning of the year, it’s not far into it, but there’ve been two things I’ve been taking notes on, which is different than diarying or journaling. And one is delight. So what brings delight? And I was watching yesterday out my window, two neighbors and their dogs talking in a way in which I could see them but I couldn’t hear them. And the dogs, just how they were playing with one another with no awareness apparently on the part of our neighbors, I just thought was hilarious. It just brought delight. And what I find though is the greater delight I find it creates even more desire. And in that when I move to desire, I almost always enter so much more the realm of lament. So I’ve been keeping in one sense, an intersecting play between delight and lament. And in that, what I’m finding is there’s so much more groaning within me. I’m watching these neighbors and the dogs and wondering, because I know the neighbors, do they actually have as much play together as their dogs do? Do I have as much play with my neighbors who I’m very, very fond of as, so I’m looking at the dogs going, you have a better relationship than I have with any of my neighbors. And I was surprised by how movement into delight opens the door to desire. And desire is always the realm of what we were most ultimately made for systemically, interpersonally, inters, psychically, spiritually. That is, I need the Spirit to continue to name and to bring some awareness, not much for me right now, but some awareness of the unheard groanings that are within me. That is in some sense giving me, I would hope, more ground to enter beauty words that we’ve used a million times and more realm to enter brokenness.

Rachael: I really like that. It’s a good, I mean, I think I’m doing similar things. I’m just not writing it down cause I don’t have time, but I am paying attention to the things. I mean, because I think what I would say is at the very minimum, can you slow down enough to honor your personhood and humanity and the people around you? Because the reality is if we forget or lose sight of what it is we’re made for cynicism, scapegoating, fear, control will be much safer for us if we forget what it actually is we’re meant for and what we’re meant to be creating on behalf of ourselves and others. And I love that you linked desire to groaning. And I think I would just say yes and reminders, constant reminders that the spirit is with us. That we are not groaning alone and we’re not groaning in vain whether we have confidence in that or not. I’m with you, Dan, like I believe, help my unbelief.

Dan: I believe enough to be dangerous and I don’t believe enough to know more joy and to be able to hold those together, we’re back to containment will grow. To the degree you can hold the tension of the ability to grieve, but also desire. Don’t give into cynicism. Don’t give into a form of this new system will work. This new book will work. Maybe this podcast will tell me how. And you go, can we join one another in our excentric centers? And in that, I think, again, we’re back to that frame. Can we grieve together and can we laugh together? And if so, we’re holding death and resurrection well together.