I recently had a conversation with someone about self-regulation. Self-regulation is the ability to control or adjust one’s functioning without depending on others. One way to think about it is the capacity to regulate thoughts, feelings, and actions independent of others. At infancy, bodily regulation is dependent on others, particularly the mother. Fathers have some influence. As we develop into adulthood, we decrease the dependency on others and increase the capacity to self-regulate. No one ever makes it all the way! We enter adulthood with a mix of both. Dr. Murray Bowen developed this idea in his concept of differentiation of self. You can read about it by clicking here.
The extent to which any one of us can self-regulate is connected to a couple of factors. These factors include the capacity of the parents to self-regulate, the amount of tension in the family during a child’s development, the level of anxiety in the family, and the way previous generations managed tension and anxiety. Adult children leave the family with more or less the same capacity to self-regulate as parents. Some do a little bit better, some do a little bit worse. But it’s roughly the same.
When adult children leave the family to start a new one, they hook up with someone who has a similar capacity to self-regulate. Whatever dependency is leftover from the family of origin will be managed in this new relationship through a process of reciprocity. For example, one spouse may be vulnerable to health problems while the other spouse is consistently healthy. I had someone tell me, after the death of their spouse, that they were surprised to discover how their overall health had improved. In the marriage, they were always sick, and the other was always healthy. Now that the spouse was gone, their general health was improving.
Individual models dominate most approaches to improving functioning. People work at doing better as if it’s completely about them. New Year’s is coming up. Resolutions are usually about doing a better job of self-regulating. “I’m going to lose weight.” “I’m going to learn to play the cello.” “I’m going to read more novels.” These resolutions represent efforts to self-regulate behavior. But without an understanding of the family emotional process, people generally fail in their individually focused efforts. The challenges we face to regulate ourselves are remnants (the stuff leftover) from our childhood. It represents our dependency on others to function. The challenge is to finish the unfinished work of growing up.
There is a natural developmental process of staying focused on what is important to self. This process of staying focused is disrupted to a greater and lesser degree by the amount of tension and anxiety in the family. As the level of anxiety in the family increases, the force of togetherness pulls individuals away from self-regulation towards the family which operates as one emotional unit. It’s not unusually for people to miss this. It’s automatic. The phrase that best describes this process is learning to “catch yourself.” It’s difficult to do, to be sure! Most people can identify it happens after the fact. So, how can we learn to catch ourselves earlier in the process?
Learning to catch oneself requires what I call the three C’s: clear, calm, and connected. The first “C” is about being clear about how the family emotional process influences individual functioning. Sometimes it’s simply an awareness that there is a process and then “seeing” it at work. The second “C” is about staying calmer than everyone else in the family to observe the family emotional process and how it impacts each person in the family. The third “C” is about getting connected with everyone in the family. You can only observe this process if you are connected to everyone else.
Beyond these three steps, there are no specific techniques. It is a learn-as-you-go process. A coach who is a good thinker can make a big difference. Being curious, inquisitive, observational, interested, motivated, and organized can all contribute to this process of catching oneself, and lead one to doing a better job of self-regulating. The effort to pay attention to one’s functioning while at the same time observing the functioning of others can lead to better self-regulation. In my experience, as one works on observing the family emotional process, one can catch oneself sooner with practice.