by: Suzanne Stambaugh, Psy.D.


I'm feeling abstract today. The sort of day that one might enjoy sipping espresso on a leaf-littered terrace under a lowering sky, having just browsed a gallery of modern art. The sort of day when one is comfortable inhabiting the liminal spaces of the mind where conundrums and paradoxes can be held like so many faceted jewels, turned this way and that in the light. Today the idea of containment holds particular interest, existing as it does in the intersection of real and symbolic. The word itself evokes physical objects we use everyday, vessels that through the combination of shape and emptiness have versatile utility. In theory, our psyches can acquire a similar versatility and usefulness through experiences of proper containment.

But how do we conceive of a psychic container? How does a word that evokes physical reality both reveal and obscure the psychic correlates? Although the primary caregiver, or the psychotherapist, is the nexus of containment, it is not typically the body of that person that is identified as the container per se. Rather, that person stands as a placeholder helping to delineate the spatial location in which the action of containment takes place.

Perhaps because containment is best understood as a dynamic process, one that transcends vestigial linguistic distinctions between content and container, Bion used symbols to denote those functions. However, before we throw the baby out with the linguistic bathwater, let us entertain the notion that using language to denote spatial location, even if it is misleading or inexact, actually serves an important function.

Language by its nature marks the space between signifier and signified. Although some element of truth or meaning is by necessity lost in that space, it is also within that space that psychotherapy becomes useful, just as a vessel is made useful by the empty space that it circumscribes. The capacity to preserve space for another's experience within one's own is to hold the paradox of separateness with connection, that subtle negotiation of internal and external realities. In my imagining of the flagstones and the sky, I am containing the physical world, just as the physical world, and the minds of others, contains me. In the leaf-strewn terrace of my mind this is an exquisitely lovely jewel to contemplate, hewn by the great minds of the past and entrusted to us through the generations.

Suzanne Stambaugh, Psy.D.
Impulse Staff Writer