A Cocoon for Healing
Kathryn McClain, MSW, MBA
 min read

The average age of disclosure for a survivor of sexual assault is 52 years old. Why? What does this reveal about recovery and healing from sexual assault? 

From a therapeutic perspective, a large part of delayed disclosure connects to survivors feeling a sense of safety (or lack thereof) in their lives and having (or not having) an adequate container available to hold and process their experiences. 

A container is a visual or metaphorical place someone chooses to create to hold the hard stuff. Containers are essentially vats of time and space that you can drop into for healing. A big container can help hold you while you excavate, process, and address the mess, the torment, the long-form version, the layers upon layers, and the roots of what has potentially been held inside. A series of smaller containers can help you keep from boiling over, giving you an outlet and area for your healing journey in a manageable way. 

Think of how water is dammed, and then if released without an outlet to pour into, floods our roadways, homes, and systems. Similarly, a survivor's thoughts, feelings, and emotions may be dammed internally, consciously and subconsciously, to prevent overwhelm, chaos, and potentially more damage. It is the feeling of holding it all in or holding it all together despite the feeling that a tidal wave may hit or that your emotions may be seeping out everywhere. 

Rather, if the dammed water is given a reservoir or lake to stream into, the water can be utilized; and, if the survivor has a dedicated container to spill into safely, the power of the bottled-up emotions and trauma can be channeled in a manageable way. By setting a container, you can work with the water and pent-up feelings in a more controlled and less destructive manner, letting it flow into a designated space. 

This strengths-based approach of setting a container keeps the survivor empowered and in charge of their process. A therapeutic container is necessary for the healing and recovery process for a survivor in that it creates a safe cocoon. In such a cocoon, there is trust and knowing that when they open the floodgates of what they have been holding things can be channeled and held responsibly, making it so survivors do not have the fear that their life may implode or flash flood. 

This concept is not only for survivors of sexual abuse, but anyone experiencing intense emotions, stressful situations, or strong thoughts or feelings. Smaller containers can be exceedingly helpful in balancing your daily functioning while still tending to your internal experiences. Similar to how you won't open a ‘can of worms’ with someone if you only have five minutes - you hold on and wait till later - maybe until after work, or Tuesday at 3 for your therapy session.

When triggered or feeling symptoms of trauma or deep emotion, acknowledge that and set a container either with yourself or with a trusted support person at a near date and time. This helps honor what you are experiencing in the present moment, delegating it to when you will have the time and space to fully tap into the sensation to give it the attention it needs to heal, better supporting you to continue your current task. This provides your internal emotions with the experience of being seen, validated, and heard, which helps take the edge and sting off. Then you keep and build trust with yourself and open the container when you say that you would. This takes practice but can be a helpful management technique. 

Sometimes, you may need different sizes and types of containers for different things. Really hard and really big stuff may not fit in the smaller containers and we may reach a point where we are ready to and need to set a larger container to hold, honor, and bear witness to what we have been carrying. A big enough container holds the opportunity to let it all out, to swim in it, and alchemize the pain into possibility; a safe place for metamorphosis. 

Big containers can look different for everyone. No size fits all. Perhaps your container is the Grand Canyon while you hike for 10 hours. It may be a week-long outpatient intensive with a medicine journey. It may be a recurring 3-hour therapy session. Or a 12-week sabbatical where you go on a cross-country road trip, a sleepover night with your best friend, or a long run.

These containers work by leveraging the concept of ‘holding space.’ When someone ‘holds space’ for someone else, they are showing up and anchoring in the present with listening and non-judgment for whatever comes up. They are providing an outlet, time, and setting to be of service to let the other person process in a safe environment. 

Containers are held space in intentional and planned ways. The individual elects the container as a vat for their feelings that have been stored. This container serves as a boundary between the individual and their pain, emotions, or traumas. And, it creates the opportunity for the individual to jump into and out of processing the hard stuff and come back to daily functioning. 

Having another person holding the container as a guide for when the waters get rough inside the container can be the most effective, gentle, and efficient method. While in the thick of it, you may forget that you are in the container and things may feel too big or too much. Having a support person to hold that container can keep touchpoints for you in the present while you travel to the past, your memories, and your subconscious. This guide is often someone familiar with the territory, like a mental health professional. You may have less trepidation in overwhelming them or not feel the need to over-explain or justify because they get it, they can handle it, and show up solely to hold that space for you. 

This also enables lasting impact when you have a container set relationally with another person. This is because we heal in relationship. We are an interdependent and connected species; though we may have been harmed by others we have trusted, the only way to heal that is via trusting another. Grief, shame, and most other complex emotions need to be witnessed to heal. 

So, the next time you are feeling like you can’t get into it all during a traditional therapy session, that you are only scratching the surface, or don't have time to get to the bottom of an emotion; or, perhaps you haven’t started to address the tidal wave because it feels like it’s too big or too much - do yourself a favor and ask for and create a bigger container. It may seem luxurious, unnecessary, or uncomfortable, or you may be scared or not ready, which is okay too. There is no rush. But when you can, set up that big container, and dive in. 

This is all part of ‘the work’; advocating for what you want and need. Discovering what you need and finding it. If you choose to do work with a trusted individual, this person holding the container should be experienced in holding space and have the necessary skills and knowledge surrounding trauma, grounding, and listening. They are there for your safety, you are there to do your work. They are there to support you, you are there to feel what needs to be felt. The only way out is through.

In the meantime, while you are contemplating diving into a bigger container or are setting one up, practice setting smaller containers for yourself and honoring them. Maybe this looks like noting your anxiety all day and putting it in a little box in your mind and then at 5 pm, you open it up for 10 minutes and acknowledge and sit with your feelings, maybe through meditation, journaling, or art. At 5:10 pm you close the container and continue your evening. You can also try in-person or online support groups or meetings to serve as temporary touchpoint containers to practice this method. 

When we feel safe and have an adequate container, we are better positioned to address our feelings. Sometimes this happens at a younger age, or at 52, when our kids are more self-reliant, time has passed, and we are at a stable point in our lives where we can delve into our healing. There are no judgments on the timeline or the process. May this blog post help provide another lens or way to look at what conditions may be necessary for you to create safety and space for yourself.

Kathryn McClain, MSW, MBA

Program and Partnerships Director at #WeRideTogether


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