The whole and its parts

The whole & its parts

Holding and containing

In any type of group mechanisms and rules develop themselves. They serve the members of the group when regulating their relationships. These mechanisms and rules are part of the system needed by the group to care for its wellbeing. The leader’s task there is to supervise their usage. Leaders have to pay attention that this happens in a way that serves the group’s well-being.

Mechanisms and rules belong to the group’s culture and are accepted by the members. Newcomers will experience them whenever they trespass rules. That is how they learn to see the group’s codex. Depending on the group’s willingness to integrate newcomers this process may be eased.

Shame and guilt are the natural tools groups will use when their members trespass rules or do something inappropriate. But, feeling shame or guilt are moments of intense vulnerability for the individual. Which is why the group uses them. The feelings of guilt and shame serve in the regulation process by telling individuals what to do. Guilt indicates how the individual status in the group could change. Shame tells how it changed.

In normal times these mechanisms may work well, however, they also lead to defense mechanisms. That is a mechanism individuals use to protect themselves from feeling guilty or ashamed.

When leading groups, being able to help the group address extraordinary situations is necessary. It serves the group to attend to its wellbeing when it isn’t able to do it on its own. These situations occur when the group experiences unusual pressure from within or from outside.

Psychoanalytic theory has two helpful concepts offering a lens for such situations. Both known since early childhood. Winnicott provided the concept of a holding environment to describe the optimal environment for ‘good enough parenting’. Whereas, Bion introduced the concept of container and containment to describe how a mother helps a child process overwhelming experiences.

Both concepts build on the idea that the child needs support when dealing with his emotions and experiences. Newborn children lack the ability for self-regulation and need the mother to help them accept and process the experience. Mothers use their experience and ability to connect with the child to help the child with its experience. In some situations, by allowing just enough frustration for the child to learn to accept its discomfort.  In other situations, the mother assists the child to reduce its anxiety by transforming seemingly unbearable experiences into experiences the child can process.

When working with groups we’ll regularly encounter situations that remind of the above concepts. One may brush them aside assuming that adults are more rational. However, good enough parenting also means that the children may not have learned all the ways they need to self-regulate.

The holding environment then becomes the space needed for group members to become willing to step into vulnerability. Vulnerability allowing for example to have open and honest conversations. To reach this state, there is a need to overcome the anxiety individuals experience. The anxiety is provoked for example by a situation in which they might be trespassing unwritten rules and be moving into unchartered territory. The concepts of psychological safety have become the way to go here.

Bringing containment to a group becomes necessary when there is a crisis. That is when the group members experience a situation they don’t know how to deal with and find themselves under emotional pressure. A leader who is capable to see these emotions within the context of the crisis and allow group members to express them without the need to fear shame or guilt is providing containment.  Such presence of a leader allows individuals to experience their challenging emotions without endangering the group.   It is a subtle expansion of the usual rules and norms of the group and one that helps individuals feel the danger as well as the group’s protection. It is only once they have been able to process their emotions that they’ll be able to address the crisis as such.

Both holding and containment can require intense work as well as happen on the fly. They can only be mutual. They are natural to us in many situations. Not in all. Which is when leadership is helpful and sought after.

But it is emotional leadership that is being asked for in these moments. Not rational leadership.


Share this post:

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *