Emotion Regulation (and Dys-regulation) 101:
Emotion Regulation happens when our thoughts-emotions-actions are in a balanced state. We are well regulated when we can respond to the demands of the environment, without reacting impulsively, or shutting down entirely. This is an optimal functioning of the holistic system of mind and body.
Emotion DYS- regulation occurs when either stressors are high, and thus, normal coping becomes challenged, OR the mind-body system is already compromised by a poorly set up thoughts-emotion-action system.
How does emotion regulation get set up in the first place?
In the best of situations, a child is born to parents who are a good match, “attuned” to the needs of the infant. It works like this. As an infant grows into a toddler he or she begins exploring the world, and naturally begins to have experiences of sadness, frustration, fear or anxiety. In a well-matched parent child interaction, the primary care giver (usually mom) is able to read the facial expressions of the small child. So, at the most basic level, mom is capable of noticing what is going on with the infant. She is not overly distracted, either by life or her own difficulties. Next, mom (or the primary caregiver) also mirrors a similar facial expression, with some additional affectation. When baby is sad, mom makes a sad (slightly exaggerated) face. Then she verbalizes in a kind and nurturing tone, words that label and validate the child’s experience. So, for example, when the child cries, the caregiver would make a frown face and say something to the effect of “Ohhh, Suzie. Are you sad? Yeah, that was really sad (or mad, or scary or whatever the situation calls for).”
IMPORTANT NOTE!: The parent does NOT tell the child, "You don't feel that way." "Or, that is silly, you shouldn't feel that way." The important thing to remember is this: It is NEVER a good idea to tell someone how they SHOULD feel, even if it seems the person is being illogical about their interpretations about facts. Feelings and emotions are valid! The actions related to the emotion may be reinforced or punished, never the emotion.
• PAUSE: What implicit or explicit messages were sent in your family about having and expressing emotions? Was it safe to express emotions openly? Or were there judgments passed for showing vulnerability?
During this process, small children are learning “Oh, okay, this is what “sad” feels like.” And, depending on the parents’ response, “hey, I am still loveable, and acceptable when I feel this way.” These experiences over time are literally setting up the neural networks of the emotion regulation processes, which the child will draw upon through out life. Scholars call this the development of a “secure attachment style.” But, when there is a mismatch between the needs of the infant and the capacity of the mother, a vulnerability is produced. We call this an “invalidating environment.” Not necessarily through any fault of the parents, the internal experience of the child was not “validated,” was not observed, attended to, or accepted, as needed by the particular child. (See NOTE above) In these cases, the child may grow to have an “insecure attachment style.”
Now, some very hardy kids can grow up in an incredibly invalidating environment, where their emotions, needs and internal experience are either neglected, or outright abused. And they do just fine. On the other hand, some highly vulnerable kids can grow up in a nurturing environment with normal rules and expectations of children, but their system is more sensitive, and required more nurturing, more attunement. The balance of care and consideration was not adequate to the demands of the family unit, and as a result, the emotion regulation system does not get adequately set up.
• PAUSE: Did you/Do you feel like there was a good enough match between your needs and what your parents were capable of giving you?
You may be thinking at this point, “Okay, great! Now what do I do if there was a mismatch?!” The very important thing to remember is this. Emotion regulation is a SKILL. And like any skills, it can be taught, and learned. While a mismatch early in life may (or may not) make things more challenging for you, you are left with the ability and the responsibility to work with the system you have. Similar to if you wanted to learn a new language or play an instrument later in life, you may not ever get rid of your accent or play for the Boston Philharmonic…. AND you can still learn to gain the joy and fulfillment that the skill brings you!
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