Perhaps when you encounter certain people, such as your parents, you start feeling and acting like you did as a child; this is an example of emotional regression.
Usually, when we are in close, interpersonal relationships with certain people, we find ourselves most vulnerable to regressing emotionally. The purpose of this article is to educate you on what emotional regression is, and teach you how to help yourself find your composure and your “adult self” in these times of regression, especially if you see that it is not a healthy place for you to be.
When you are in a state of emotional regression, you tend to act in ways that are overly sensitive; your reaction does not fit the event; you find yourself overreacting to something someone says or does. This happens because you are being “triggered” in a place of vulnerability – an “emotional soft spot,” causing you to momentarily regress to an earlier place in your life.
This happens because someone has “pushed a button” inside your psyche, causing you to have a sort of déjà vu experience where you have mentally and emotionally gone back in time. When you do go back in time mentally and emotionally, most likely you will also go back behaviorally as well.
This is the problem.
You find yourself reacting very immaturely, because, while you may look mature and appear mature to others, your inner world has regressed. You have been “triggered.”
This happens because our brains operate in very complicated ways and tend to store our memories in a variety of capacities. It is important to remember that memories, often, do not respond in terms of “past,” but tend to “feel” present. Bonnie Badenoch, calls this the “ever present past.”
Not only can we remember things visually or auditorily, but we can also remember things viscerally. This means that we can feel it in our body and in our intuitive mind. A visceral experience is something that defies logic. Our emotions get stored in various “pockets” in our brains, at least figuratively, if not literally.
These types of memories are also timeless, that is, they don’t feel as they have happened a long time ago. Each one of our trigger points tells us is that something is happening and we had better prepare for it. The part of our brain responsible for the “fight, flight, or freeze” response goes in to action and during these moments the executive functioning of our brain takes a hiatus.
How can you identify if you are emotionally regressing, and more importantly, what can you do about it? Here are some steps to take, and it will require a few minutes to do this, so while you find yourself in an agitated state, anxious, with your stomach in knots, stop and think about yourself as you try and pretend you’re “present” with the person or persons in the room. If you can’t pretend for a while, excuse yourself so you can give yourself a few minutes of alone time to digest what is going on inside your mind. Do the following exercises:
- Notice how you’re breathing and take long, deep, slow breaths, from the diaphragm.
- Notice where your feet are: on the ground. Point that out to yourself.
- Stop and ask yourself how you feel. Name the emotion.
- Ask yourself how old you feel. Picture yourself at that age.
- Try to mentally picture your young self and talk to him/her. Be compassionate and understanding.
- Imagine yourself at your current age, with wisdom and kindness, and let your younger self know that you will be taking over now.
- “Fake it ‘til you make it.” In other words, do your best to respond in a way that doesn’t necessarily match how you emotionally feel. You want to remember that no one else knows what’s going on inside your head, so try and keep it that way.
- When you can, get away from the situation. Seek support from a safe friend, mentor, or sponsor.
- Make it a general rule in your life not to act or say much if you are feeling that your perspective is off.
It is important for you to do your own work separate from your “in the moment” experiences, to help yourself grow up in areas where you are emotionally stuck or not developed fully. This will help you when you encounter situations that, in the past, caused you great amounts of emotional energy and regressive experiences.
The best approach to take to avoid these problems in your life is preventative maintenance. You need to do some soul searching and recovery work prior to your “in the moment” regressive experiences. After you do the “fake it ‘til you make it” routine, mentioned above, realize you need to work on those parts of you that got triggered in the first place.
John Lee, quotes in his book: Growing Yourself Back Up, the following statement which depicts this phenomenon:
“Adults who are not regressing can express their anger in approximately 5 to 10 minutes, because they are able to discuss the issue in the moment and without residue from the past. It is the emotionally regressive anger that is so time-consuming and drama filled. When a person expresses anger in a regressive state there will be one or all of the following: shaming, blaming, demeaning, demoralizing, criticizing, preaching, or lecturing.”
Always remember, as you go through any type of healing or recovery process, to be easy on yourself and exercise self-acceptance. Realize that you are not alone in experiencing times of emotional regression, and in general, all people do, to some degree.