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Containing Our Emotions: When It’s Helpful To Hold Back

I usually write about allowing our feelings to be felt, to be talked about, and to be shown. Today, I’ve been thinking about the opposite: containing them – and how to know when to do what!
Containing our emotions means to hold back how we’re feeling from someone else.  It’s what we do when we know something’s going on inside of us because we have strong emotions about something, but we choose not to let it show on the outside.  We deliberately decide not to say anything.  We choose to stay quiet.  We limit what our face expresses by refraining from rolling our eyes or frowning.  We still our body and do not shrug our shoulders, cross our arms, or tap our feet.

Why would we want to do this?  We do it to create safety for another person.  Let’s say your spouse comes home with a scowl on his face.  You’ve known him for a long time, you’re certain he is angry about something and you hope to God it’s not you!  In the past, you may have had an emotional reaction to seeing him like this.  Maybe it made you curious and you went into interrogation-mode.  Maybe you felt frustrated with a long-standing pattern of him scowling and it made you want to roll your eyes in a “there-he-goes-again” sort of way.  Maybe you felt scared that he was angry with you and you tried to assuage him by making a joke or offering him something to eat. Maybe your fear of his look made you want to get away: go upstairs, call a friend, do something with the kids – anything! – just to avoid him.

To hold back your emotions means that you keep whatever you’re feeling from showing on the outside.  In this case, the wife wouldn’t question her spouse, mock him with or without words, offer him food (or a drink!), or run away from him.  Instead, she would notice (with her mind) what she feels and what she has the impulse to do.  She would make a mental note of what’s going on inside of her without talking out loud.  A mini-light bulb goes off inside her head: “Oh, I’m feeling ______ when he comes home like that!”  Then she makes a deliberate decision to keep the feeling from showing with words, a look on her face, a move of her body, or an action she takes.

Containing our emotions from our married partner is an important tool that great relationships have.  It’s a valuable tool that comes in handy in some situations, but not all.  Just as a hammer is great for putting a nail in the wall but not for screwing in a screw, this is a relationship tool that works great when it’s needed.

How do we know when containment is what’s needed?  Containment is needed when we want to create a space for our spouse to open up about him/herself, to work something through, or to get out what’s going on with him/her.  It can work especially well when our spouse is hurting or ashamed.  At those times, questioning is the last thing most people want. When you contain your feelings (because you see your spouse has a difficult feeling that needs to be worked out), you are doing something important for your partner.  Rather than add your feelings to what your spouse is already going through, you keep things separate.  Your emotions stay separate from his.  This separation gives your spouse the space and time to experience, work though, or talk about what the scowl is about.  It creates in your home and your relationship a safety for each spouse to have whatever feeling they have without having to worry about their partner’s reaction to it.  It’s hard enough to feel hurt, lonely, discouraged, or hopeless without having to deal with your partner’s feelings about your feelings.  It gets complicated, quick!  And those kinds of complications set the stage for arguments and feeling misunderstood.

You can ask to talk about your own reactions or feelings at a later time, after your spouse has worked it through or calmed down.  But, for now, respect that your spouse is allowed to have his/her feelings.  Sit and listen if your partner will talk or give him/her space if that’s what he/she wants: all with the intention of making your relationship a safe place for you both to turn when you need love and comfort.

To learn more or to schedule an appointment, call us at  908-246-3074 or email


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