It is common for folks to discuss the need to protect themselves from unsafe people. Often times, this stretches beyond the physical safety and presents an emotional concern. A roommate, a co-worker, a parent, or partner each have the potential to create lasting wounds. As I hear stories of abuse and abandonment and hurt turned to harm, it is understandable what these folks mean and gives context to what they deem as unsafe.
This painful impact that others have created has the potential to give great understanding to the recipients’ behaviors. In response to the pain we’ve survived, we adapt and change in ways to help us avoid pain in the future. Some folks shut down and withdrawal. Some busy themselves and pursue perfection. Some let loose and let go. There is no one particular right way to react all the time, though some routes are more effective than others. When we are trying to make it, it is important we learn to protect and boundary ourselves from the unsafe people and places of this world.
Typically when we discuss the idea of and need for boundaries, our minds drift to building a fortress of safety around ourselves that no one can penetrate. Our hearts are tucked away from hurt, though we may portray a desire for closeness and present welcoming. We learn to manipulate and orchestrate ways in which to get our needs for relationship met all the while staying in our safe little bubble. And as we deftly avoid pain, our well-intentioned protection can become a way of qualifying our own hurtful behaviors.
It doesn’t start out malicious. Perhaps our boundaries look like leaving a conversation without regard for the other or exploding in anger after being wounded. We justify our reactions, our behavior, and our truth. Our emotions drive us and we create wreckage in our rearview. Our protective lies become our only reality. It might be drinking to numb or fighting to connect, defensiveness to protect or blaming to avoid. Slowly and surely our previously adaptive ways of protecting become swords that wound others. So as we acknowledge the different styles of coping, we also must begin to see boundaries as not only a way to protect us from the world, but also to protect the world from us.
I once heard it said that boundaries are like hula-hoops, one around us to protect and one around us to contain. Protection, we get that. Containment, on the other hand, containment is so equally important and yet so easily overlooked. Containment is our way of taking care of ourselves and not recklessly letting our baggage crash into those around us. Containment is self-soothing, problem-solving, keeping our side of the street clean, living our values, meeting our own needs, showing up in difficult situations, and taking responsibility. Simply, containment is essential.
The idea of containing and keeping one’s self is not based on a belief that we are all dangerous and terribly harmful to one another. Rather, containing and keeping one’s own self, allows for healthy space between us and others, and allows for the best possible solutions to our own problems. When we contain ourselves we know what’s ours to own and what’s not, we can take responsibility for our actions, and we are free to show up as the men and women we desire to be.
Containing myself allows me to be the solution to my problems, and this is the ultimate gift to myself. Keeping means I learn to check in with myself and meet my own needs, especially when others are unable to meet them. Containing gives me the freedom to set boundaries in a way that I am proud of. Keeping myself provides safety because I am able to care for myself in ways perfectly unique to what I need and want. Containing myself prevents my hurt from hurting others. Keeping myself allows me to hold myself together when it feels the world is trying to take from me.
Containing ourself is just as much for the world as for us, as it provides a foundation for own contentment. So how do we contain and keep ourselves?
Perhaps best learned in relationship, containing yourself is often first practiced in the safety and space of trust and bumping up against others who won’t give up or let go. We learn that others are not able to make us ok and yet that doesn’t relate to their care or love for us. We experience their consistency while recognizing they are not picking up our emotional distress. We are encouraged to find new ways to soothe ourselves and create practices that help us be our own best resource.
As we learn to be the answer to our own problems, ultimately, we must tune into ourselves. Containment requires a sense of honesty and knowing one’s self. This looks like mindfully learning and tuning into what we are feeling beneath the outbursts or isolation, saying no to things that we cannot offer free of expectation, asking for what we need, and accepting that others may or may not meet that need. We take ownership of our behavior rather than make excuse. And remembering we are responsible for how we treat others, we handle our pain in order to not injure another.
Written by Lindsay Williams, MA, LPC