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Gunther Forg, Untitled, 2007
Two friends once told me that after a decade of working on startups together they had exhausted their ability to panic. I understood what they were pointing to—not enlightenment but a kind of hard-won resignation, an ability to be calm under pressure borne from living through intense chaos for a long period of time. I like think of it as containment, though some people would say control, or poise.
It’s the quality that’s most important to me, somewhat in other people but mostly in myself. The ability to distinguish between what’s outside and what’s inside, and also the ability to keep the two separate. My friend T describes some people as leaky—I think of containment as the opposite of leakiness.
What it looks like: thinking before talking. Regulating your most extreme emotions. And summoning the will to grit your teeth and do the thing you have to do. Containment sometimes demands passivity (keeping a secret, listening instead of talking, suppressing an outburst) but I think it also demands activity (doing your chores, apologizing first, holding on, letting go). It’s a willingness to stomach unpleasantness, to control yourself for the sake of self-respect.
Which means, often, forgoing catharsis. Means accepting that you are not always going to get the last word, or be able to confess your sins to someone else. The dating advice I most consistently give friends: you only need to know what’s happening, you don’t need to know why. Closure is sometimes given, but never summoned.
There are rewards to living this way, of course. It’s cleaner, less messy. There are also downsides: it creates a barrier between you and others. To some extent, it prohibits relaxation. That’s what I work on in therapy: the ability to completely relax. I’m preoccupied with what I should be doing. How to make things better. How to be right. Which naturally leaves less space to just be.
Many of the people I love are not contained and have no desire to be that way. I don’t think I’d like to live in a world where everyone values composure. But I value it. I value it because I’m self-protective, because I’m insular, because I feel uneasy unless I know I’m doing in the right thing.
My family is expressive, but I’ve chosen to turn inwards. Sometimes it goes the other way. I came of age in an environment where there were meaningful penalties, emotional and otherwise, for not having self control. My instinctual response to that was to believe that safety could only be found in extreme discernment. What to let out, what to keep in. What to think and what to say. When to run and when to rest. I thought that if I was contained enough I could find the right words, and when I spoke them I wouldn’t be sorry.