Bion on containment

The following quotation from Bion’s “Attacks on Linking” of 1959 shows how his formulation of the container concept involved an interpretive alignment of a difficult clinical encounter with a common situation in early childhood:

…When the patient strove to rid himself of fears of death which were felt to be too powerful for his personality to contain he split off his fears and put them into me, the idea apparently being that if they were allowed to repose there long enough they would undergo modification by my psyche and could then be safely reintrojected. On the occasion I have in mind the patient had felt …that I evacuated them so quickly that the feelings were not modified but had become more painful …he strove to force them into me with increased desperation and violence.

… The analytic situation built up in my mind a sense of witnessing an extremely early scene. I felt that the patient had witnessed in infancy a mother who dutifully responded to the infant’s emotional displays. The dutiful response had in it an element of impatient ‘I don’t know what’s the matter with the child.’  My deduction was that in order to understand what the child wanted the mother should have treated the infant’s cry as more than a demand for her presence.  From the infant’s point of view she should have taken into her, and thus experienced, the fear that the child was dying.  It was this fear that the child could not contain. He strove to split it off together with the part of the personality in which it lay and project it into mother. An understanding mother is able to experience the feeling of dread that this baby was striving to deal with by projective identification, and yet retain a balanced outlook. This patient had had to deal with a mother who could not tolerate experiencing such feelings and reacted either by denying them ingress, or alternatively by becoming a prey to the anxiety which resulted from introjection of the baby’s bad feelings. (Bion, W.R. (1959). “Attacks on Linking.” Int. J. Psycho-Anal., 40:308-315. Pps. 312-313.)

I would emphasize how what can be described as “seeking reassurance” is here understood to be supported by an unconscious fantasy of expelling something bad into the mother, then subsequently reintrojected in moderated form.

This dynamic can be understood as a forerunner of inquiry into the nature of the world in the sense that the projection of distress and then reintrojection of moderated content anticipates the more cognitively framed process of asking questions about whether distress is merited and how it can be resolved.  In short, learning how the world works is indissolubly linked to archaic experiences of distress and their resolution through the mediation of a caring object.