We can all identify with the nursery rhyme Humpty Dumpty. At some point in our lives we’ve unwittingly sat on the wrong wall (some taller than others), fallen (some more disastrously than others), and broken into so many pieces we feel beyond repair. Whether our breaking has taken the form of a simple blow to the ego (i.e., not getting cast as the Jolly Green Giant in the school play—because you’re four feet tall), or severe trauma, abuse, or loss, each of us has felt broken, disconnected, and fragmented.
Recognizing that all the king’s horses and men can’t put us back together, we try to reassemble ourselves, or at least attempt to contain our broken bits – as if temporarily storing them in an urn - until we figure out how to heal, and to feel whole again.
Here are a few ways we try to contain our feelings of brokenness:
1) We seek mastery over our great fall by overcompensating. Not only are we determined NEVER to fall again, but we are also determined to become absolutely UNBREAKABLE. For example, if as a little girl you were cruelly criticized for your inadequate tennis skills, you might attempt to contain your feelings of incompetence through the single-minded goal of becoming the next Serena Williams.
2) We might use the creative arts to express our brokenness. The parameters that surround a work of art might allow us freedom to express ourselves. By directing the focus off of us and onto our creation, we contain our fragmented feelings within the part we play, the dance we choreograph, the picture we paint, or the book we write.
3) We seek guidance in the form of a therapist, counselor, or spiritual advisor - Psychoanalyst Wilfred Bion used the term “container” to describe a process where a psychotherapist holds, and reflects back a client’s thoughts and feelings for the client, until the client is ready to identify with those thoughts and feelings and possess them as their very own.
Containing our shattered emotions can be the beginning of great healing, but it only works if the container is secure. If it leaks, breaks or combusts, then it is no longer a container, but rather a piñata instead. When the walls of our containers crack, this can re-stimulate the experience of our original fall, leaving us once again feeling vulnerable, weak, broken, and hopeless. Here are some examples of the containers that I described above, becoming piñatas:
1) We are simply unable to overcompensate for the damage caused by our shattering fall – overcompensation being a precarious goal/container to begin with. If the little girl who was criticized for her inadequacies as a tennis player, fails to become the next Serena Williams, her debilitating feelings of inadequacy will inevitably become re-stimulated.
2) The work of art we create, in order to hold our broken feelings becomes too revealing, too unfocused - a scattered expose. If the parameters of the character we play, the story we’re trying to tell, or picture we’re trying to create, are not clear and appropriately observed, the work could potentially become too unnecessarily personal and exposing, leaving us vulnerable to harsh rejection and judgment by our peers and audiences that is directed at us and not our creation.
3) If our therapists, counselors, or spiritual advisors, take on more personal roles in our lives (friends, peers, co-workers, lovers, companions), or freely expel information we give them in confidence to anyone who will listen, we are being compromised, and will likely become less trustful, less hopeful, and more broken then we were when we sought help.
It is far easier to freely discharge our broken fragments into piñatas, rather than endure the discipline of keeping them contained. However, by respecting the solid parameters of a container, particularly in terms of a psychotherapeutic relationship with clear and agreed upon boundaries, much progress can be made. Emotional healing takes time, it is a process, and it is hard work, but respecting and accepting the limitations of a container can result in great liberation—and with time, you may even feel “back together again.”