Attunement and Containment – along with Rupture and Repair – are key building blocks for relationships that support the formation of healthy attachments. In this article, we’ll dive a little deeper into understanding containment and attunement, and how these puzzle pieces fit into the larger concept of forming healthy attachments to the people we care about.
Containment and Why It Matters for Attachment
To help understand how containment works in attachment, think of a container: a defined space that can safely hold and accommodate its contents.
In the realm of psychology, containment refers to the relational ability to “hold” whatever the other person needs held (emotionally, mentally), and to create a sense of safety in the relational space.
Consider a parent or caregiver interacting with a toddler who is just beginning to experience more complex emotions: the child may be overwhelmed by what they are feeling, unable to regulate themselves, and past their capacity to calm themselves down. When a caregiver steps in with a regulated and calm demeanor, acknowledges and identifies the emotion, offers good care, and helps the child begin to regulate, what the caregiver is offering is containment. The parent helps hold the emotion while the child can safely begin to soothe.
[PS: If you are this parent/caregiver/teacher/etc. currently helping a child learn emotional regulation, check out my resources on Emotional Regulation.]
These early experiences of containment are key in building secure attachments: a child can consistently depend on an adult to help create a safe relational space for self-regulation. Adults who may not have had this opportunity for early containment experiences and may have different relational attachment styles (like drama bonding or being anxiously attachment) can experience earned secure attachments within relationships that offer containment – whether a therapeutic relationship or with an attuned partner (*read more about attunement below!).
Whether in early childhood, adolescence, or in adulthood – containment looks like being able to trust the other person in the relationship to be physically, emotionally, and mentally present with us. This looks like taking the time to be present with us – without distraction, having mental space to be with us and process emotions and experiences, communicating and responding in an empathic manner, and being boundaried in their interaction with us.
Boundaries are important for a myriad of reasons, but essentially: it is important that there be a distinction between helping hold emotional experiences and becoming overwhelmed by them, as the person holding. A boundary helps both people involved know where their emotions and experiences end and the others’ begins.
While empathy is important in containment – to express to the person that their feelings are being mutually felt and they are not alone in them – empathy alone does not contain. The process of containment involves:
- Courage from both people to be present with emotions,
- Wisdom from the one containing to know how to help navigate the experience with the other person
- Boundaries (as mentioned above), and
- Self-awareness from both people – which is helpful in understanding boundaries, emotions, experiences, and regulation.
Cats like to curl up and nap in cardboard boxes because boxes provide a defined space that is boundaried and set apart from the outside world. We do this emotionally and experientially, as humans, through boundaries that define “this is my space” versus “this is your space.” Boundaries are helpful- especially in offering containment to those we care about or work with. To be able to hold space for another person, we must know where our boundaries lie.
Though some of us may have experienced a lack of boundaries in previous relationships (even to the point of enmeshment, where personal boundaries are blurred to an unhealthy degree of functioning), wanting good boundaries is natural and healthy.
Ultimately, the feeling and experience of containment comes through attuned care. This means that in our relationships – whether in childhood, adolescence, or adulthood – where the other person is attuned, attentive, responsive, and empathic, we will experience containment.
Now, let’s dive into what it means to be attuned:
Attunement and Why it Matters for Forming Attachments
To best understand the term attunement, think of the phrase “in tune with.” Attunement is being aware of and responsive to another person’s emotions and/or needs. In some way, if a person is attuned to another, this sensing of emotions and needs can almost be predictive: the person is known so well that their response can be anticipated.
This can be as simple as a caregiver sensing when a child needs a snack because they know the child’s natural rhythm to a person sensing their friend’s emotions and being able to sit with them or care for them in the way they need without them having to ask. Attunement feels like being the center of someone else’s attention and receiving care out of that attention.
Knowing exactly how to respond to someone’s needs and emotions, whether a child or an adult, can be overwhelming. Terrifying even. Perhaps it feels like a big responsibility. What if you don’t respond the “best” way? Don’t worry: attunement isn’t about responding perfectly or in a way that meets all needs, but is simply about empathically responding, period. Attunement looks like showing up – being present for the person and their needs/emotions – and validating those things for them.
Attunement is about having a person feel as though they are understood, seen, and felt with by another person. Good attunement requires just this: being able to read a person’s needs or emotions, see those needs and emotions, and stay present with that person, even when it feels tough. At the end of the day: attunement is always a choice – to show up and be with a person or not, and it’s not always an easy choice!
As we consistently show up and validate a person’s needs, this attuning process grows the capacity for felt safety within relationships. As you provide attunement for a person, they will feel safe with you – or as a person does this for you, you may feel safer with them! The important piece here is attention: distraction prevents attunement. It may feel easier to tap out and not be present, but as presence and connection are mindfully attended to in a relationship, attunement will grow.
Download a Printable PDF of this Attachment Series
Image Description for Screen Readers:
Two key images are anchored in the text. The first image has a pink background with the title “Containment.” On the top left of the image, under the title, is a dark pink banner with the word “containment” inside. Underneath the sentence continues, “is key to secure attachments.” There are small circles drawn as a divider, with a bullet pointed list below: “It takes: courage, wisdom, boundaries, self-awareness.”
In the top middle of the image is a drawing of a grey cat inside of a tan cardboard box. Underneath is written, “Like cats, we love holding space with boundaries.” An arrow is drawn from this text to the drawing of the cat. Below this is written, “Empathy alone doesn’t contain.” The two words “doesn’t contain” are written inside of a yellow box with black outlining.
A third column of text on the right side of the image begins “Containment looks like:” words are highlighted in yellow with a bullet pointed list following, “being able to trust someone: can offer us empathy (word is highlighted in pink), has mental space (word is highlighted in pink) for us, has time (word is highlighted in pink) for us, isn’t distracted (words are highlighted in pink) when they’re with us, and sets and holds clear boundaries (word is highlighted in pink).”
At the bottom of the image are two drawings of light-skinned infants, each on a grey circular background. The one on the left is in a pink onesie with arms and legs splayed, crying. The one on the right is wrapped in a yellow sleep sack, sleeping peacefully on a pillow. Between the infants is written “CONTAINMENT comes through attuned care.” An arrow is pointing from the crying infant to the text and from the text to the soothed infant. Image was created by Lindsay Braman with content from The Allender Center.
The second image has a green background with a lighter green, shadowed bubble letter title that reads, “Attunement.” Underneath is written, “Being attuned to feels like being the center of someone’s attention.” On the right of this is a drawing of two people. The person on the left is light skinned with shoulder-length blond hair, wearing a green shirt and an interested expression. The person on the right is dark skinned with short dark hair, wearing a light green shirt and an engaged expression. There are dotted lines from the person on the right to the person on the left, illustrating that they are the center of that person’s attention. Below this is a vertically striped, dark and light green divider.
Below this to the left is written, “Other people’s need can be terrifying, but… we don’t have to MEET needs, just show up and validate.” Amidst this text is a drawing of a bumble bee chasing after a person with a medium skin tone, no hair, and a terrified expression running away with their arms waving in the air. To the right of this is a block of text that reads, “Good attunement requires being able to: read (written inside a yellow box with black outlining), see (written inside a green box with black outlining), and stay present (written inside a brown box with black outlining) to people in conversations. Attuning is a choice (phrase written inside a yellow banner). And it’s hard!”
At the bottom of the image is written, “Consistent attunement grows our capacity to feel safe in a relationship.” To the right of this is a drawing of a buzzing black and light green cell phone with the phrase “Bzzz!” on the screen. To the right of this is written, “Distractions prevent attunement.” An arrow is drawn from this text to the phone. Image was created by Lindsay Braman with content from a lecture on attachment by The Allender Center.