Why self-regulation isn’t enough is a topic that has been rumbling about in the back of my mind for some time now. This recent essay from Tad Hargrave has brought it forward and spurred me into writing about it.
According to Arlin Cuncic, “emotional self-regulation refers to the ability to manage disruptive emotions and impulses — in other words, to think before acting.”
What inhibits our ability to think before acting?
From my perspective, unresolved trauma is at the root of whether or not we can manage disruptive emotions and impulses.
Accordingly, much of what I practice and teach involves skills to track how our nervous systems respond in real-time.
When we notice our nervous systems shifting into a state of activation (often into some form of fight, flight, fawn, or freeze) that isn’t attuned with what is actually happening around us, we turn to skills that help us to settle our nervous systems and that allow us to return to a more centered and calm baseline.
In other words, we seek to self-regulate.
Sounds pretty good right? Who wouldn’t want to be able to make conscious decisions and to respond in ways that are appropriate to the current situation?
Self-regulation IS important.
However, in my experience, if we want to experience deeper healing and a complete transformation of the unresolved trauma that lives on within us, more is needed. Self-regulation, in and of itself, is not enough.
Self-regulation is but a first step.
It allows us to sooth our nervous systems so that we can again feel our bodies and through our bodies, connect with the larger ecosystem of support that surrounds us.
Because… we don’t actually self-regulate that well on our own.
Tad speaks to this piece beautifully:
“…We are left with psychological practices of the ‘self-regulating’ of our nervous systems, a triage like practice that can pull people through an overwhelming crisis by pulling them ever deeper into themselves and by disconnecting and detaching from the world.
Self-regulation is not the end all and be all. There are those in the field of psychology pointing at research that shows up how the jangled nervous systems of humans are best regulated with the presence and support of other humans, eye-contact, touch, listening, playing together, this sort of co-regulation seems to be more aligned with our neuro-biology.
Self-regulation is deified because our culture deifies the Self and its independence. It’s deified because our culture worships heroes not villages. Self-regulation is seen as a sign of how incredibly strong and resilient we are. Self-regulation helps us survive but that doesn’t mean it’s healthy. It just keeps us from dying.”
Thinking that we must regulate on our own sets us up for failure and for wondering if we are broken or what the fuck is wrong with us.
Even when we are able to self-regulate for the moment (yay!) it is often not long that we are again a mess on the floor*, utterly at the whims of whatever overwhelm is flooding our systems in that moment.
*As much as I love being a mess on the floor (and I do), there are also times when I need to work, when my child needs to be fed, and when my life isn’t actually all that well served through being a mess on the floor.
Self-regulation sets us up for failure because we think that it is up to us to settle our nervous systems and to be able to pull ourselves together and make wise, rational decisions that support our values and what we want in life.
But, what if Tad is correct (in my experience, he is)? What if we aren’t meant to self-regulate?
What if our bodies, our spirits, our nervous systems actually need others in order to regulate well?
Here’s a sad, undeniable fact:
Not many of us actually have wise, supportive in-person (or even online) others who we can reach out to for help with regulation, for help with processing through the terror, fear, grief, etc that has arisen within us.
We all DO have instant and ever-present access to an entire ecosystem of support within the unseen realms… our other than human kin (the trees, waters, the earth…) including our well ancestors.
As we build (rebuild) and feed our relationships with the unseen, we sink into an ever-deepening field of support, of love, and of access to help when in need.
As our nervous systems begin to attune to these relationships and we lean into this support, our external world (slowly often; swiftly sometimes) begins to reflect this support as well.
We begin to meet and feed relationships with living humans as well who we can also turn to in times of need (and who can turn to us; who recognize within us the ability to witness, to support, to offer love and wise council as needed).
Our nervous systems learn to regulate, not just in moments of crisis, but on a day-to-day, moment-to-moment basis.
Why? Because we know we aren’t alone.
We know that if (when) we fall or fail, we are still held… that there are those in both the seen and the unseen realms who love us, who support us, and who need us (as we need them).