When we really come out of a state of denial about climate change, the reality of the disaster that we are now facing may feel overwhelming and we slip straight from denial to despair. To avoid this, we need to find ways of processing this experience, of working it through, so that the difficult truth can be faced and engagement with the issue sustained. Then we can stay with the trouble, finding commitment and agency to combat apathy and withdrawal. This capacity to stay with and work through potentially overwhelming experience is called ‘containment’.
The non-human foundation
Our very first containing environment is a non-human environment extending to the biosphere – the world of our immediate lived experience; one we absorb via the realm of the senses – the smell or touch of a body, the light of a room, the pulsing of the foetal environment, the air passing by us and through us, perhaps a glimmering sense of space. This is the origin of the ‘internal landscape’ (Weintrobe, 2018) that lies at the core of being human, a landscape that will be found and re-found as we go through life via experiences of nature, time and the universe. That sense of being something so small in something so vast is the foundational containment available to all of us.
The role of the other
Together with this foundation of interconnection with the other-than-human (place, plants, animals), there is the containment to be had from other humans. A capacity that is internalised through encounters with others who, when we are troubled, provide the right balance of support (compassion, recognition) and challenge (perspective, a different point of view) to help us. Such encounters provide a containing psychological space in which experiences such as grief, hurt and rage arising from personal or political events can be digested (Winnicott, 1960; Bion, 1962).
Containment is crucial to any difficult conversation, including conversations about climate change (Randall and Brown, 2015). A person must first feel that they have been understood before they might reach for a new understanding. Have their feelings, which might include resentment, been understood by you? Have the difficulties and dilemmas they face in making changes in their life been recognised? Do they feel that you are interested in them, curious to know more about their difficulties, or not? If these things are absent then a relationship in which new insights and different perspectives might occur is also absent.
Having a sense of attunement to others provides containment, as does the realisation that one is not alone in having these thoughts and feelings. This is key to innovations such as Climate Cafés.
The solidarity of a group undoubtedly contributes to containment, but how might containment be provided at a cultural rather than individual level? Traditionally, this was one of the roles of ritual, particularly those marking key rites of passage in the life of the individual and community. The sharing of stories and dreams also performed this function, as did community leadership, and the role of village elders and wise women.
Whilst in modern society these have been largely lost in their original form, they can be, and are, created through works of art and fiction, through the adoption of creative ritual in environmental movements and protests (such as the Keystone Pipeline), and via containing political leadership (Alford, 1994) such as that offered by Vaclav Havel, Nelson Mandela and, today perhaps, Jacinda Ardern.
Alford, C.F. (1994). Leadership. In Group psychology and political theory. New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press.
Bion, W.R. (1962). Learning from experience. London: Heinemann.
Randall, R. and Brown, A. (2015). In time for tomorrow? The carbon conversations handbook. The Surefoot Effect.
Weintrobe, S. (2018). Communicating psychoanalytic ideas about climate change: a case study. In Garvey, P, and Long, K. (Eds.). The Klein tradition. Abingdon-on-Thames: Routledge.
Winnicott, D.W. (1960). The theory of the parent-infant relationship. In Winnicott, D.W. (1976). The maturational processes and the facilitating environment: studies in the theory of emotional development. London: Hogarth Press.