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Is Your Refrigerator Your Holding Environment?


One of my favorite highly useful concepts in psychology is about the emotional holding environment. It describes a space that is safe and predictable, where you can spill your guts, and someone is there to share your pain and soothe your suffering. If you think about what you might have felt being held in a parent’s arms as a baby, that would be the feeling. Engulfed with love and completely protected from harm.


Psychoanalyst Galit Atlas, PhD explains what Donald Winnicott, PhD, pediatrician and psychoanalyst who coined the term means by emotional holding in her book Emotional Inheritance: “Emotional holding is the steady emotional arms and available presence of the parents that allow the baby to feel safe and protected. The parent holds the baby in his or her mind, available to tolerate the baby’s emotions, tuned into her signals.”

Atlas then describes the benefits of adequate emotional holding: “When a baby feels safe both physically and emotionally, she develops a sense of a safe world where she can rely on the parent and trust that her needs will be met. But when emotional holding collapses, the baby usually stops turning to others and instead turns inward.”

Or she turns elsewhere for that sense of soothing, security and predictability: to food. It’s really not too much of a stretch to think that a refrigerator (symbolic of any kind of food repository) would do the job of emotional holding that parents couldn’t. This is why it’s so difficult to break away from emotional eating, especially when you don’t trust people and don’t have an effective support system. It’s the best you can do.

Think about the emotional holding you received when you were a baby, toddler and adolescent. Was a parent (hopefully both, if there were two) attuned to your needs and wants? Did you feel empathized with and emotionally validated? Did they regularly put your needs before theirs so that you were adequately attended to? Were they regulated affectively enough to calm and soothe you and to establish a safe place for you to express your feelings? Did you feel protected or were they the ones who made you feel emotionally unsafe? Or were they sometimes there to protect you and other times were the violators of your sense of security?

This is where therapy can help, as a holding environment, a place where you can feel safe and learn about your emotions and yourself while being protected and supported. And through this reparenting, you can then go on to take your new comfort level out into the world and find this sense of “holding” with other people in other places.