IPA Inter-Regional Encyclopedic Dictionary of Psychoanalysis

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CONTAINMENT: CONTAINER-CONTAINED Tri-Regional Entry Inter-Regional Consultants: Louis Brunet (North America); Vera Regina Fonseca (Latin America); Dimitris-James Jackson (Europe) Coordinating Co-Chair: Eva D. Papiasvili (North America)


Wilfred R. Bion’s concept of Container-Contained was meant to analogize the situation of the analytic couple in terms of the mother-infant nursing situation. It designates the mother not only as the donor of soothing and fulfilling milk, but also it is a receptive organ which receives the infant’s emotional pain and is able to sooth that pain for the infant and restore it to life-size management. In Bion’s terms, most generally, it represents the transformation of pain from O (in its meaning of nameless dread) to K (knowledge), as in “now I can think about the unthinkable!” From the evolution of theory point of view, the concept presents an extension of the theory of Projective Identification (see the separate entry PROJECTIVE IDENTIFICATION), from being a theory of primitive fantasy and defense into a theory of an archaic form of communication necessary for the development of thinking. As a relational model of mental functioning, the Containment process extends a linear reciprocal interplay between the pair of Container-Contained, with the following steps: a mental state (‘content’) is communicated from a sender to a receiver; the receiver potentially ‘contains’ and transforms it through psychic work; the transformed content, together with the ‘function of containing’ itself may be then re-introjected by the sender. While the developmental prototype of this model is the mother-infant relationship, the concept is also applicable as a special kind of unconscious communication that takes place in both dyadic relationships and in groups as well as in the psychoanalytic process. It is also applied for understanding the intrapsychic process where the individual tries to contain, convert/transform and convey his/her emotions in words. In a clinical situation, the process of Containment has a special significance for understanding psychoanalytic processes and the development of thinking/symbolizing. Technically, it means more than silently bearing the infant/patient’s screams, or other displays of pain. Containment involves identification, transformation and interpretation in dealing with the pain when possible.


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