What does it mean to “Hold the Container”?

HomeBlogWhat does it mean to “Hold the Container”?

To understand this strategy, we need to reflect on what the metaphor is implying.

A container is composed of walls and the space inside. The space inside is contained by the walls of the container so that something can be held within.

In this metaphor, the walls are composed of our values, guidelines, rules, ethics, standards, policies, and belief systems. They are also composed of how well leaders/parents are able to model, and uphold these values, guideline, rules etc. The ability to do this is based on leaders’/parents’ confidence, clarity, sense of Self, psychological “weight”, and buy in to the structure of the “walls”. The walls are an indication of the boundaries demonstrating how far a person/group can go before they are outside the container – or leaking out.

When we, “Hold the Container”, the walls of the container expand or contract in direct proportion to the level of maturity and responsibility the people within it demonstrate. This is based on the leaders’ assessment and attunement to the level of maturity they are dealing with.

The space inside the container represents the level of privilege the person has earned based on their ability to demonstrate being self responsible and mature.

Low maturity = smaller space inside/more rules because:

  • The person needs to be kept safe and too much space/privilege will overwhelm them
  • The person cannot be trusted to make good choices
  • In a group situation: The whole group is demonstrating reduced maturity and this anxiety indicates they are overwhelmed with how much privilege they have been given and they can’t handle it. To help them calm down and reset, leaders can reduce the “space” or privileges or self responsibility they have been trusted with to the space they can handle

Approaching maturity/Growing = widening the space inside because:

  • The person is demonstrating a growing ability to make choices that keep themselves safe. They are improving in the area of taking responsibility for themselves and demonstrating consistently that they can handle more privilege – but not all of it yet
  • The person can more frequently, but not always, be trusted to make better and safer choices and has more skills to repair or clean up their mess if they don’t
  • In a group situation: The whole group is demonstrating improved responsibility, have sorted out their “storming” and have earned more trust between them and with the leaders.

Full maturity= person takes responsibility for their own container – adult self

  • The person can keep themselves safe and can handle the level of privilege they have earned
  • The person can be trusted to make good choices and to be responsible for the outcome of those choices
  • In a group situation: The group demonstrates that they are able to function and work together with everyone being self responsible. They can repair ruptures and ask for help when needed, but essentially all are trustworthy and working well together.

When leaders/parents are trying to help people and groups mature, we must hold the container for them and gradually allow the walls to expand based on the responsibility the person or group is able to handle or to contract the walls by removing privileges, setting limits and thus keeping them safe and calming them down while insisting on maturity. As soon as maturity increases, the walls of the container shift outward incrementally based on the level of privilege the person is demonstrating they are ready for which is based on their demonstrated levels of responsibility and self regulation.

A simple example is this:

A 2 year old wants to cross the street by themselves. Developmentally, they do not have the ability to take on this responsibility and to keep themselves safe. Their parent/caregiver holds the container by having a rule that they are not allowed to cross the street by themselves and must be holding the hand of an adult to do so. The adult keeps close eye on the child anytime they are near the road.

As they mature, the parent may gradually see that the child can be trusted to wait for an adult before crossing the road. They may also be able to cross the road and walk next to the adult without needing to hold their hand. Thus, the walls of the container expand incrementally based on the child’s developing maturity and ability to be trusted to an extent.

As they mature even more, the parent attunes to the child and notices the child now understands the concept that the road has cars and they could hurt you. The child knows to look both ways and can assess when it is safe to cross the street. They may now be ready to cross the street with an adult looking on but not necessarily crossing with them. The container has again been widened based on the adult’s assessment and the child’s demonstrated level of responsibility.

If the child one day runs out in the street without looking and without informing the adult, the container will be made small again for a time, until the child can earn the trust back by demonstrating they have learned how to keep themselves safe and that they are going to consistently choose this. Once that maturity has been demonstrated consistently, the parent will once again allow them to cross on their own with parental supervision.

This goes on and on – expanding and contracting – until the person achieves the milestone of always being allowed to cross the street by themselves and there is no more need for an external container because the person has internalized the container.

Notice that I have not mentioned age.

Age is not a good marker of maturity; Parents/caregivers/leaders must not think that age correlates to maturity because it does not. Have you not met a 55 year old who lacks the characteristics that define maturity? Not everyone “grows up” and as parents or leaders who are trying to develop people, we need to be attuned to what type of container each child and each person needs at which time. This is based purely on the assessment and attunement of the parent/caregiver/leader of the level of maturity and responsibility taken and then the level of privilege/space in the container provided.

The goal of holding the container:

The purpose of the container is to help people develop into mature, self responsible adults who can hold the container for themselves.  The ultimate goal is to set your child, teen or group you are leading (as in a group you are coaching or employing) free with an internalized container that is composed of their own values, guidelines, responsibilities, levels of privilege and assessment of where they are at in terms of their own maturity. Eventually, the parent gives the child their life to them to be responsible for and takes away their own parental responsibility for creating and holding the container. The leaders gives their group the freedom to make their own decisions and trusts that those decisions will be for the highest good of the group.

The outcome of holding the container is that people feel held, seen, protected, calm, understood, valued and capable. They develop the ability to be self responsible, to keep themselves safe and they embody the qualities of maturity. They learn to build their own container and perhaps, to hold the container for their own children in the future.

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