The Container Exercise
I am a firm believer that we should never, ever try to stuff down negative emotions. Because the truth is that those hard emotions don’t just dissolve when we ignore them.
Nope, they actually create an internal build up and then we feel blocked. Or, more often than not, they end up popping up in unhealthy ways that can disrupt our lives and end up taking up even more energy than if we’d worked through the original feeling.
Now believe me, I know we can’t always fully unpack those feelings in the moment.
Your anxiety can creep up on you when you’re in the middle of an important presentation at work. Your insecurities can sneak in when you’re helping your kiddo with homework. Your frustration can side-swipe you when you’re about to walk into a big job interview.
We can’t avoid those emotions forever, but sometimes we do need to be able to set them aside in the moment—to keep our heads clear and our focus sharp and to make sure that we aren’t unleashing those emotions onto the people around us.
So how do we do that?
Years ago I was at a grief counseling certification course, and I was speaking with a fellow widow, who also happened to be a psychologist.
I was explaining to her that sometimes I would feel my emotions bubbling up in moments when I knew I couldn’t fully process them, times when I knew I needed to be present in the moment, so I would try to set them to the side temporarily until I was in a space where I could really let them sink in. She told me there’s actually a name for this strategy I’d already been using—“the containment method.”
Let me tell you, mind blown!
She explained that we all find ourselves in moments where stress or heavy emotions start boiling up for us, but we’re not able to process it in the moment. She gave the example of being a surgeon who receives bad news just as they’re about to head into the operating room. How do you get your mind in the right space to complete this really intense, important task without creating prolonged harm by suppressing emotions?
When you use the containment method, you tell yourself, “You know what? This is a big, valid, important feeling, but I just can’t work through it right now. I’m going to come back to it tonight at eight o’clock, when the busyness of my day is done. I’m going to set myself an alarm, and then I’ll take the time I need to process these feelings.” You honor both your responsibilities and your emotions by giving each your full attention at the appropriate time.
Because here’s the reality—either you’re going to revisit that emotion or it’s going to revisit you.
Rather than waiting for it to reappear unexpectedly in another situation, where it can disrupt the flow of your life, you’re setting an appointment with yourself to proactively circle back to it.
I’ve always thought this was such an amazing strategy, although it did have one small problem.
What happens when that alarm goes off at eight and you realize you’ve forgotten what you were supposed to be processing?
Listen, friends, it’s happened to me enough times to know, this is a real thing.
A few weeks ago, I read this article, which had an ah-maz-ing solution.
The author’s therapist recommended an exercise that’s a lot like the containment method but adds an additional layer—you visualize a container where you can put those hard emotions until you can come back to them later.
But the author noticed the same problem I did. Sometimes she forgot what she’d tucked away in her imaginary container, which meant she never had a chance to circle back and work on them.
So she decided to pick a real container and jot down a note about what she was feeling in the moment. That way she could get it out of her head and record it in the moment. And when it was time to come back to it later, she had a clear reminder of what she’d been feeling and what she needed to work through.
How you keep those notes and what your container looks like are completely up to you! You could write them down on a scrap of paper and put them in a jar, like the author.
You could use the notes function on your phone.
You could use a digital journal to write yourself some quick notes (I personally love Notion).
You could record a voice memo to capture your feelings in a very real and vulnerable way.
And then, yes, set yourself an alarm to remind you to come back to these notes later. If writing helps you process, you might use the time to keep writing in your journal. Or you can just take a moment to sit with those feelings in a safe space at a time that you’ve carved out for that purpose.
Honestly, this is a big part of the reason why I do not stand for toxic positivity. Because there are enough tools out here that can help us move through our emotions, rather than avoiding them. Let’s use tools like the containment method or container exercise or journaling or the bubble maker or ones you’ve learned from your therapist.
Whatever way you choose to work through it, just know that it’s absolutely okay to feel those emotions.
You can still be a high-performing person and use tools like this when your emotions are about to get the best of you in a moment when you just can’t lose your stuff.
It doesn’t make you less of a go-getter. It doesn’t make you less of an awesome parent. It doesn’t make you less of a leader.
It makes you a real person with real emotions.
And now you have a real tool that will allow you to stay in flow so you can show up as your best self and so you can also honor your emotions and keep your heart and mind open to do amazing things.
Hiya! I'm Karen.
My main goal is to give you the mental skills you need to experience less stress and more joy.
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