It can be extremely useful to understand the phenomenon of emotional regression. I don’t know anyone who is immune from it.
When we are under stress, and particularly under stress within an important relationship, we may be far more likely to revert back to a way of being rooted in some earlier stage of development. We may become childlike in our plea for attention; we may uncontrollably cry; we may lash out with a toddler’s rage; we may become shut down in silence and emotional numbness; we may escape to the “shelter” of substances. In these moments the path back to our best, adult self may be entirely blocked, or not even sought. Instead we find ourselves taking on our adult pain with a child’s tools. What is this about?
When we’ve regressed to an early, largely ineffective way of coping with a situation, we have no doubt been feeling unsafe and disempowered. The unsafety is relational; in the moment that triggers a regression, we are feeling unseen by someone important, uncared for, unattended to, perhaps even abandoned. The disempowerment is rooted in our inability to trust that the effective deployment of our adultness will bring about connection; either because we can’t find our own adult powers to know and express ourselves clearly, or because we feel the other person is unable to meet us in our experience for their own reasons, we lose hope in the moment and find ourselves impotent to restore connection.
To be disconnected and disempowered is to be afraid. When we find ourselves regressing, our internal alarm system is going off, alerting us that we are swimming alone, and there’s nothing we can do about it. So we move down the ladder to more primitive ways of self-soothing, of protecting our vital organs from the pain of the moment. In the language of the nervous system, we are thrown into fight/flight/freeze. We might become puffed up with aggression and an empty sort of power (fight); we might become deeply avoidant, either physically absent or emotionally unbridgeable in our internality (flight); or we might become entirely disconnected from our own experience (freeze). In each of these instances, our true, adult self is moving further and further into alienation.
Of course we all have moments of losing contact with our most developed self, and there is a time and place for testing – consciously or otherwise - any given relationship’s capacity for holding us when we are not at our best. But ultimately regressing simply doesn’t work. It’s not good practice because it is just not effective. Regressive behavior does not in the end bring us closer to what we all want: the experience of being understood, the experience of love. If we are to sustain the love we’ve been lucky enough to find, it is essential to note and understand our moments of regression, and cultivate our adult powers of self-possession and communication.