Holding and containing: reflections on the emotional demands of working in communities

Flying children logoFlying Children is a South African non-profit organisation dedicated to improving the quality of care available to pre-school children in South Africa’s disadvantaged areas. Working with ‘clusters’ of around 18 schools, their programme offers makeovers that achieve a basic quality of facilities. They conduct intense teaching, mentoring and supervision with the teachers, and then build services in aftercare, parenting training and support for orphans and vulnerable children at “hub” schools.  This work can however be emotionally draining – in this article Flying Children CEO, Lindy Harris describes how she copes with the emotional demands of community work and gives advice to others who are doing similar work.

This is an abbreviated article based on the original published on the Flying Children Website:  Working in the NGO field blesses you? – By Lindy Harris

Without some passion, some belief in the rightness of doing things for others and some emotional investment, the work of NGOs simply cannot be done.  This always requires nurturing and giving of one’s own inner resources.

During the course of our work we often feel ‘blessed’ or enriched by some of the people that we help, while others are projecting their pain, anger, disappointment and so much more on us. Without fail you will find the role of mother, grandmother, father, boss, nasty or kind teacher being thrust on you.  According to the work of Winnicott and Bion an infant projects the feelings that they cannot cope with onto the ‘good enough mother’ who then process these feelings and gives it back in a way that the infant can deal  with. This process Winnicott called ‘holding’ and Bion called ‘containment’. Anyone who is in need of help or who is struggling to cope will need someone to ‘contain’ and ‘hold’ them until they come to the point where they can manage themselves.

But, being so many things to so many people, how does one cope oneself?

We don’t always cope. Sometimes I feel so tired at night I can’t speak. Physically tired, but mainly emotionally drained. Only my community group, my academic endeavors and my long experience of processing this sort of emotional exhaustion helps me to find equilibrium again. And of course the ability to see why people are projecting certain roles on you and how to mediate and process their feelings so that you can give them back in a way that becomes understandable to them! This helps them to learn and increases their ability to cope with challenges.

My advice: If you work in a helping profession always seek places and people of support – even if you are ‘blessed’ by all and sundry you will also be absorbing a great deal more very unhappy feelings from people who are hurting and who are not able to stop projecting these feelings on those appearing to ‘help’ them.  If you are not getting enough support it can create moments that you lash-out and project feelings yourself instead of containing them. Hold onto your humanity and keep trying to understand all the frailty and strength of the person you are for your own sake and for those you work with and want to help.

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