When an infant is born, he or she has a very limited capacity to tolerate distress. This is why babies cry as much as they do. When they are cold they cry. When they are wet they cry. When they are hungry they cry. This is because they really can't do much to help themselves. Not only can they not change their own diaper or get their own blanket, but they can't tell themselves "well, it's OK that I am cold/wet/hungry right now because I know that it's only going to be a few minutes and then someone will come and take care of me." They can't do this because they don't have a sense of time yet, or of cause and effect, or of problem solving, etc. So they are just stuck with their crummy feeling and it doesn't take long before they feel overwhelmed and start to cry. So if you think about their capacity to tolerate upsetting feelings (physical or emotional) as a container, it would be very small. An infant, for example, would have maybe a thimble-sized container inside of them in which to store painful experiences. Once that thimble is overflowing with distress the baby will start to fuss and cry because they are overwhelmed.
Feeling overwhelmed is not good for your nervous system. Our brains and bodies were not designed to manage distress for long periods of time. This is what people are talking about when they discuss stress-related illnesses. Long-term emotional or physical stress taxes our bodies and our psyches. So we don't want that little baby to sit in their distress for very long. We know that they only have a tiny little capacity for distress and we need to be ready to swoop in and put a saucer under their thimble. That way the over-flow is caught and doesn't make a big mess. When a parent or caregiver is able to quickly come in and put a saucer under the thimble of the baby when it starts to overflow, the baby learns that "OK, that was really uncomfortable to feel overwhelmed, but someone came along quickly and helped me contain it so it didn't' make a huge mess". And through that experience the baby learns to expand his or her capacity for distress. So over time the thimble-size container grows and becomes larger-- say a small teacup or espresso cup. So now the baby has more capacity to manage distress the next time it comes up.
Over the span of one's childhood, if the person is lucky enough to have parents who can provide support quickly and adequately, the capacity to tolerate distress grows considerably large. By adulthood if all goes well a person has a container inside of them that is the size of a rain barrel. This means that as they go through their day they can tolerate a lot of stress and discomfort if need be. Which is a fantastic capacity to have in our stressful modern world!
However, as you can imagine, if a child grows up in a family where the parents are not able to quickly and adequately support the baby things can take a different turn. Maybe mom is depressed, or dad works two jobs, or one of the parents is an alcoholic, or mentally ill. Or one of the siblings has a serious medical condition. There are many reasons why parents may not be able to adequately saucer their children. But regardless of the reason for the failure the result is the same. The child grows into an adult who still has that thimble-sized capacity for distress inside of them. And this means that they are constantly feeling overwhelmed and flooded by painful feelings that interfere with their functioning.
For some people the effects may be obvious-- not being able to keep a job, not being able to maintain friendships or romantic relationships. For others it may be the underlying reason for developing addictions. Or just never fully reaching one's potential. The manifestation of having a small internal capacity for distress is different for different people but it is damaging to all.
So what can be done about this? Since the "failure" is in childhood, what can the person do as an adult to work on this problem?
If you are fortunate enough to be in a committed relationship with a willing partner, you already have a saucer. You just don't know it and he or she may not know it either! Our partners are natural proxies for our parents if we will let them. In a healthy relationship our partner, just like our parent did when we were little, watches us all of the time and pays attention to our tone of voice, our facial expressions, our body posture, even our breathing. And because they are watching us so closely they know when we are starting to feel overwhelmed. A good partner can then, just like a good parent, swoop in and provide a saucer for our overflowing feelings of distress.
Many people who did not grow up being saucered have two problems: one, they don't know how to use others as a saucer, and two, they don't know how to be good saucers for others. If you find yourself in that situation, what can be done?
Well, it turns out that therapists are fantastic saucers. Pretty much everything we learn in our training is in the service of saucering people. So not only do we make great saucers, we also make great teachers of saucering. By sitting with a couple and watching them interact, a good couples therapist can see when one partner needs some saucering and can instruct the other partner on how to do it. Over time with this coaching partners can learn to be reliable saucers for each other, and in turn increase each other's capacity for emotional distress. In having repeated experiences of being "saucered" by his or her partner the adult is able to increase his or her capacity for distress, just as the child would have. While these changes take time, they are also permanent and far-reaching.
If you and/or your partner feel that you have trouble sitting with painful feelings, whether it's anger, hurt, sadness, grief, boredom, jealously or anxiety, you may want to consider finding a good couples therapist. Remember that the most important thing in starting therapy is to feel comfortable with the therapist, to feel that the three of you have a good "fit". Feel free to interview several different therapists-- we don't mind! Any good therapist will encourage you to shop around and wait until you feel you have found someone that you can feel comfortable with.
One of the most wonderful things about being part of a couple, in my opinion, is having someone who can help you change and grow into a better person. By learning to saucer each other more effectively you can increase your capacity for stress and reduce the number of "meltdowns" that each of you have. I hope you can take advantage of this remarkable capacity that humans have to support each other and reach the highest potential for both of you.
First I need to give credit to the originator of this metaphor, a friend and mentor Dr. Stephen Finn. Dr. Finn is a psychologist in practice here in Austin, Texas and is on faculty at UT Austin. He has mentored many psychologists over the years and is a world-renown expert on psychological assessment. If you are interested in psychological assessment you may find his website, www.therapeuticassessment.com, of interest. Now that I have given credit, let me explain what "saucering" is.
Krista Jordan, Ph.D., ABPP