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Section 4: Containment and holding

I love you just the way you are

Dr Hayley Berman

Art psychotherapist, founder of Lefika La Phodiso

As community art counsellors we need to understand the concepts of containment and holding as it pertains to group work. These concepts will help you understand your role as a community art counsellor and the way that we shape our groups and sessions with participants. This is one of the most important elements in our work - if you can create a safe, contained and holding space, you are well on your way to become a community art counsellor.

In this section we will be drawing on the work Wilfred Bion, Donald Woods Winnicott and Melanie Klein.

Holding and containing

Dr Hayley Berman

Art psychotherapist, founder of Lefika La Phodiso


3.1 Definitions

What is containment?

Containment in relation to community art counselling refers to how the facilitator takes in the thoughts and feelings from the group members /group and giving them back to the group members/group in a more understandable and less potentially destructive way. Wilfred Bion’s theory (1959, 1962) of containment explains how a mother receives unwanted and/or overwhelming projections from an infant, processes them and then returns the experience to the infant in a modified, palatable form. Bion’s view is that infants become overwhelmed by their experience as they lack sufficient internal controls. The mother’s containing function involves helping the infant develop a capacity for self-regulation. This infant takes in (internalises) this sense of being contained and experiences the mother’s emotional availability and then will eventually develop their own capacity to do the same. Bion extended his theorising to describe social groups as a type of ‘maternal container’ .


More about Bion

Wilfred Bion (1897-1979) was born in Muttra, northwest India, and was educated at boarding school in England. He was unhappy there, missing his parents, his Aya and the India he loved. He fought in France in the Tank Regiment during the First World War and was awarded the DSO (Distinguished Service Order), and, by the French Government, the Légion d'Honneur.

After the war Bion took History at Queen's College, Oxford and later went on to study medicine at University College London. After qualifying as a doctor, he spent seven years at the Tavistock Clinic in London, training in psychoanalytic psychotherapy. While there he saw Samuel Beckett for therapeutic interviews. In 1938 he began his first training analysis with John Rickman. This was ended by the outbreak of the Second World War, during which Bion worked with traumatised soldiers in military hospitals. Around 1946 Bion entered into training analysis with Melanie Klein, and he became a full Member of the British Psychoanalytical Society in 1950.

Bion married twice and had three children; his daughter Parthenope went on to become a gifted analyst in Italy. In 1968, at the age of 71, Bion moved to California. He returned to England shortly before his death in 1979.

(Taken from the website of the Melanie Klein Trust)


What is holding?

For a simplified definition of holding, we turn to the website Good Therapy (2015). In community art counselling, holding refers to the creation by the counsellor of a supportive environment. According to Donald Winnicott this holding relationship is compared to the nurturing and caring behaviour a mother displays with her child. This relationship results in a sense of trust and safety. Winnicott believed that this holding environment was critical to the therapeutic environment and could be created through the therapist’s direct engagement with a client. Winnicott also believed that antisocial behaviours developed from a person having been deprived of a holding environment in childhood and from feelings of insecurity.

It is important to know that when we talk about the mother/parent and infant relationship it also serves as a metaphor for the community art counsellor and the group member.


 More about Winnicott

Donald Woods Winnicott was born on April 7, 1896 in Plymouth, England. His father was a prosperous merchant, and his mother suffered from depression during Winnicott’s youth. Winnicott was the youngest child, and his recollections of his childhood are filled with memories of trying to lift the darkness in his home. This early experience with mental health problems led Winnicott toward helping other people troubled with psychological problems.

Winnicott began studying medicine at Jesus College in Cambridge in 1914, and he joined the Royal Navy in 1917. He completed his medical degree at the University of London’s St. Bartholomew’s Hospital Medical College. In 1923, Winnicott began working as a paediatrician at the Paddington Green Children’s Hospital, where he remained until 1962.

Winnicott developed an interest in psychoanalysis, and he studied under Melanie Klein, a highly influential psychoanalyst who refuted many of Freud's theories on child development. Winnicott became a child analyst in 1935 and a full member of the British Psychoanalytic Society in 1936. Over time, Winnicott distanced himself from Klein's work, and he developed his own theories on child development.

Winnicott’s first marriage to Alice Taylor ended in 1951, and he subsequently married Clare Britton, a social worker with whom he had begun working in 1941. The couple continued to collaborate professionally while they were married, and Clare published much of Winnicott’s work after he died in 1971.

Taken from Good Therapy (2015)


3.2 Containment and holding in community art counselling


In a community art counselling session the counsellor is the container. Containing includes thinking with another; translating the chaos that give us into a more digestible or manageable form so that they feel understood; and reflecting back the group member’s internal world to them in a form which is gentle and not overwhelming. The process of containment is essential to psychic growth.

For example, a mother bird will eat and digest a worm, and then cough it up in a form which the baby bird can take in and swallow because it is in a more digestible form.


 Remember the following:

▪          This is a slow and gentle guiding process.

▪          Without an understanding of our internal worlds, we will keep enacting our chaotic unconscious lives. Until understanding comes, through someone containing and reflecting back to you, nothing will change.


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