Today I interviewed for a job that I have to turn down. It pays 13/hour and takes place during weekend nights. I would be working with youth, specifically those with mental/emotional disturbances, trauma, those who have been through juvenile court, and those with nowhere else to go. The goal is to rehabilitate the youth so they can return to society hopefully with a better foundation for which to live their lives.
Sounds right up my ally, right?
I thought so too, until I learned what “emotional containment” means.
The supervisor I interviewed with assured me that the theory and practice of emotional containment has been proven successful time and again, that it was researched and developed carefully by professional psychiatrists and psychologists, that each worker at the facility could adapt to it, and that, eventually, the kids would be grateful for it.
So what is emotional containment?
Emotional containment means that, as a worker at the facility, you are not allowed to express your emotional reactions to the kids’ behavior in front of them. The example my interviewer used was self harm.
“Most kids do it for attention,” she explained. “So if we give them the satisfaction of an emotional reaction, whether positive or negative, it just reinforces their attention-seeking behavior.”
Emotional containment means not asking the child if they are okay.
Emotional containment means not expressing empathy towards their torment and their pain.
Emotional containment means assuming that all the youth in the facility are subversive attention-seekers utilizing extreme behaviors to get them something they don’t deserve.
I can’t work somewhere that has this mentality.
I can’t walk into a kid’s room, see the scars or the blood or the weapon, and not take a deep breath, get as near as they feel comfortable letting me, and quietly asking them if they are okay.
I can’t not ask them if they are okay.
I can’t not react with empathy and the desire to love and to help.
I can’t not check in on them with the intent to give them the attention and care they crave and deserve.
I can’t ignore my gut instinct to coddle and protect those who need it most.
I listened to my interviewer and felt slowly less engaged.
I heard her voice and the words and I felt my intuition guiding me gently away.
Because I knew I couldn’t do what she was asking me to.
When she asked me if that was a philosophy I could stand behind, I hemmed for a moment before looking her in the eye and telling her that was not something I could do.
She nodded and moved on, indicating that I could be trained in this practice, that eventually I would recognize its effectiveness and appreciate it.
That’s when my gut, my spirit, my brain, my pasts lives, whatever–that voice inside me that every day drives who I am, but who rarely speaks out so loudly and so strongly–told me to get out of there, leave, to say no.
We finished up with pleasantries. I thanked her for taking the time to meet with me. I walked out of there conflicted: maybe it was just me. Maybe I was the one who had to change.
Later that night I had job training for my current job, another position working with youth, but this time in an after-school setting. One of our training activities was about body language and personal space, and the demonstration required us to get very close to and touch our team members. My personal bubble is very large, and I am an extremely touch-sensitive person. My arms are especially vulnerable and this was the part our instructors wanted us to touch. I walked away from that activity with my nerves on haywire, trying to figure out if they had been hurt or not. I rubbed my arms to calm the skin and remind myself that I was intact and alright. As I waited for my team to rejoin at our table I glanced at the faded brown lines staggered up and down my forearms.
I remembered my interview, and how the interviewee had described and self-harm situation; how I had been triggered right there and fought to stay professional, struggled to stave off my rising panic. Imagining blood. Imagining scars. Seeing the blade. Feeling the pain again.
I rubbed my arms and wished no one would ever touch me there again.
I wished that someone, anyone, would have asked me if I was okay, that first time.
I wished someone could have caught me in the act–and sat with me quietly, asking what I needed.
I thought of the kids I’ll be working with at the school, and how I could never turn calmly away from them if they expressed pain or distress.
I thought of my TRIO kids and how I could fight to protect them.
I thought of my Literacy kids and how they would let me hold them and kiss their bruises and scrapes.
I remembered the empathy expressed by the little girl, who I’d saved from the slide monsters at the park with my invisible bottle of monster spray. “Tss, tss,” I said, spraying. “Now you don’t have to be scared.” She happily slid down and into my arms.
“I was scared,” I told her later, holding her hand as we walked back to our building–“When you ran into the street, I was really scared.”
She turned to me and pinched her fingers in front of her face. “Tss, tss,” she said.
It took me a moment to realize what she was doing.
She was saving me from being scared, as I had done with her.
Kids are so empathetic. And so intuitive. They know more than we think. They read me better than I read them. And they can tell when I really care and when I’m pretending. They understand what it means to feel someone else’s pain or fear.
I can’t contain my emotions when I know they are choosing to expose theirs to me.
I don’t care how many PhDs reviewed the emotional containment method, I can’t do something that goes against everything I know and see and believe about kids. And I can’t work somewhere that will try to convince me that my intuition is wrong, that could change the way I think and work and live. Chang who I am. Not when I have such huge goals. Not when I see so much more opportunity than that.
Effective as that strategy may be, it’s not something I can do and live with myself at the end of the day. It’s not something I can do and look into the mirror afterwards saying “That was my best me.”
I can’t suppress the empathy I was blessed, or cursed, with, that has literally tried to kill me but also been the only thing keeping me alive.
I turned down a $260/week paycheck because, as much as I need the money, I can’t compromise myself to get it. I’ll work at McDonald’s if I need to. I can’t fathom working somewhere that does exactly what I want to do the exact opposite way I want to do it.

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