The Psychology and Value of Emotional Containment

“Remember, you have warrior’s blood in your veins. The code that made your father who he was is the same code that will make you a man he would admire, respect. Put your pain in a box. Lock it down. Like those people in the paintings your father liked, we are men made up of boxes, chambers of loss and triumph. Of hurt and hope and love. No one is stronger or more dangerous than a man who can harness his emotions. His past…. Use it as fuel, as ammunition. As ink to write the most important letter of your life.” (Chief Dave’s letter to a deceased officer’s son; from the movie, Act of Valor.)

The above advice may seem to run counter to the conventional psychological wisdom. We are told that anger, grief, sorrow, etc. should be expressed so that they can be let go of, so that we can move on with our lives. To be sure, the expression of emotions is often helpful–even essential–to healing, personal growth, and healthier relationships. But there are also times when your emotions must be harnessed and contained.

Have you known people who are habitually angry? They vent their anger yet never seem to move beyond it. Their anger is like a drug, and the more they express it the more they grow it. Or, perhaps you know someone who is caught in a whirlpool of regret, guilt, or self-criticism. Instead of moving on from their self-perceived errors, they recycle them. They dwell on them, add to, bolster, and build upon them. They have become their own worst enemy. Clearly, there is a time for expressing your feelings, and a time to put them in a box.

When you put your emotions in a box you initiate a kind of moratorium. When they are in a box, you have time to reflect on them, contemplate and learn from them. In the box they are contained. Like is added to like: hurt to hurt, anger to anger, joy to joy, and loss to loss. Through this process, a pressure and “heat” is created that may fuel a process of inner transformation. Perhaps your hurt will become compassion; your frustration, surrender; your anger, conviction or courage; your guilt, humility; your sorrow, forgiveness; your joy, gratitude?

Once in the box, your emotions can be utilized and discharged with a controlled intensity that is more likely to hit its mark. Uncontrolled emotions, on the other hand, spray like steam from a burst radiator. A spoiled child throwing a temper tantrum has no box to place his anger in. Help him build a box and he may someday become a man. A dependent woman who falls for abusive men lacks the proper box to place her love in. Help her build a box and she may be able to temper her love with careful restraint, reason, and discernment.

Place your emotions in a box not to ignore but to hold and contain them. Give them time to percolate through your being, like rainwater through parched soil, so that the seed of your soul can be awakened and take root.

4 thoughts on “The Psychology and Value of Emotional Containment

  1. Hard to find the proper words, to describe how this analysis of that quote from Act of Valor has helped my mind and soul understand what it means to able to put my emotions in the metaphorical (but spiritually real) box. Expressing my emotions about anything and everything, has seemingly never proved to be the best course of action in any given scenario in which I feel that it’s the ‘right’ thing to do. Holding my emotions back, keeping things to myself, and letting go of certain feelings, has never been a strong suit for me. Before I get over-expressive with this comment; Basically, what I’d to say is that reading this article helped me understand the need to ‘lock it down’ when necessary; easier said than done, it may be, but in my case, it comes down to ‘needing’ to.

  2. I am new to Jung and I was searching for an appropriate definition and/or illustration for the concept of containment. I could not have found a better place. Your explanation was highly illuminating as well as inspiring for further study. Thank you very much.
    Best regards, Jacek

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