Psychological Regression – the perils and the power

Regression

For quite some time now I have wanted to write a follow up post on my first post about regression. I’ve brooded over it for weeks now, never finding quite the right words to say, only ever adding ideas and thought fragments, never getting to coherence. But I think I have finally managed. Please note, though, that everything I write is solely my own personal opinion that comes from my own experience with the subject and fom reflection alone and with my mom.

Psychological regression is the term that is used for when people engage in behavior that is associated with a younger age or earlier developmental stage than they really are. This kind of behavior is often considered to be immature, infantile, childish, self-indulgent, egoistic or inappropriate. It can range anywhere from harmless, like sucking your thumb or chewing on the ends of pencils, to potentially dangerous, like doing hard drugs.

I believe that in itself psychological regression is neither good nor bad. It just IS. I believe that whether it becomes bad and a peril, or good and a source of healing energy, depends first and foremost on what we make of it. So let’s have a closer, nonjudgmental look at what it is. Since I am no stranger at all to regression, I’ll provide examples from my own life where I can.

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Key features of psychological regression:

Psychological regression can range anywhere from very subtle to very noticeable.

Subtle regressive behavior is usually socially accepted within either the society as a whole or a social group. Excessive smoking, drinking, partying or a devil-may-care attitude, all those can be socially accepted and still be regressive behavior, if the person who’s doing them should be able to operate at a more mature level.

On the other end of the spectrum regressive behavior can also be very noticeable. Most of my own regressive behaviors range there. My default way to dress, look and behave is that of a younger teenager, for example. Biologically I am in my mid-20s, but people think I’m way younger than that. And it gets even more noticeable when I resort to things like my pacifier or throw a tantrum that makes the terrible twos look like a picnic. Very noticeable, trust me.

Psychological regression is self-centered.

While regressive behavior can be very interactional, aiming to get other people to react in a certain way, it does not, in itself, consider other people and their needs. It is self-centered and thus fairly reckless. When I behave younger than I am, I do it because something inside of myself calls for it, even when it is inconvenient or annoying or frustrating for others. It does not really care about others very much, it’s only about me. Which leads to the next point.

Psychological regression satisfies needs.

Regressive behavior aims at getting people something that they feel is necessary in order to end a state of deficiency. It can be hard to figure out WHICH need a certain regressive behavior satisfies, but I believe every regressive behavior satisfies one. It might be the need to feel important, seen, provided for, indulged, valued or loved. Or the need to relax, feel safe, to be distracted, to forget, to avoid something or to create security. Or some other need.

Psychological regression is a coping response to psychological distress.

Distress is what happens when the level of stress exceeds the person’s ability to cope with it in a healthy and appropriate way. Psychological distress usually involves feelings and their going out of balance. When the person ran out of healthy, appropriate and mature ways to cope with it, she resorts to regressive behaviors that have, on earlier developmental levels, been known to provide relief. For example I have a pacifier and at home I am not shy to use it. Not because I think it’s “fun” or “cool” or because I want to call special attention to myself, but because it helps me cope. It soothes me. It helps me calm down. It helps me feel safe. If I were capable of more mature ways to achieve that, I’d use them, but as it is, I am happy I have any way at all.

Psychological regression can’t just be “snapped out of”.

As I illustrated above, regressive behavior is not about being lazy or unwilling to bother for maturity, but the best possible way to satisfy a psychological need and/or cope with psychological distress. Neither the need, nor the distress just go away if they are unattended. Therefore it’s not possible to just “snap out of” the regressive behavior that is used to cope with them. People don’t go for the least mature way to deal with things on purpose, after all, but because more mature alternatives are, for whatever reason, not available to them at the time. So “snapping out of it” is no real possibility. And not really desirable either, because while it’s possible to suppress the behavior for a certain time, it’s not going to improve the well-being of the person in the long run. For example I can take the pacifier out of my mouth when a neighbor drops by. But discontinuing my coping behavior means my stress level rises again and while I can endure that for a little while, it better not be a long while. So just “snapping out of it” is off the table, please.

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Okay, so much for what I believe psychological regression to be. Like I said, I think that in itself this is neither bad nor good. It just IS. At the same time, however, I have grown convinced that regressive behavior can be a very powerful source of healing and psychological development, but that it can also become a really destructive force that can even put the self and others at substantial danger.

I think whether regression becomes a peril or a benefit largely depends on those two things:

Are the people who are primarily involved aware that it is happening?

Are there safe boundaries in place within which the regressive behavior takes place?

I think if the answer to either of these questions is “no”, then the regressive behavior becomes potentially unhealthy and a peril to the person who employs the regressive behavior, as well as to other people around the person. Why?

  • because without awareness it’s easy to get stuck
  • because without awareness it easily leads to feelings of unhappiness and negative attitudes towards oneself for repeatedly failing to “cope better” like other people can
  • because without awareness people generally just accept the behavior or make random and often futile attempts at improving it, so that the regressive behavior doesn’t go away and can ultimately get in the way of achieving ones goals
  • because without boundaries it can end up involving abuse and harm done to oneself or others (like by coping through drugs, casual sex, little commitment to adult commitments and because of the general inconsideration of others that regressive behavior comes with)
  • because without boundaries regressive behavior can easily lead to yet more regressive behavior, with the person eventually losing sight of more mature ways to react or losing the desire to get there, ending in a vicious spiral at the end of which the person gets less and less capable of living a mature and happy life

If the answer to those two questions about regression, however, is:

Yes, the people who are primarily involved are aware that it’s happening.

Yes, there are safe boundaries in place within which the regressive behavior takes place.

then it is possible to gain access to the power that lies within psychological regression and regressive behavior. For one thing because it is possible to recognize those positive things then. And for another thing because if there are awareness and safe boundaries, the behaviors can get addressed and worked on, too, with consideration for the potential and positive aspects of psychological regression. So what are those?

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In my experience the positive aspects are:

Psychological regression is an important signal.

Regressive behavior makes an important statement about where the person is at in her psychological development. For example I dress and behave like a teenager, because that’s where I feel I am at in large aspects of my life. I have a hard time relating to many adult things, like getting a job and being a productive member of society. I feel like there are things I need to take care of first, before I can advance, because I’m still stuck between being a child and being an adult. Which means that at the moment I can go both ways. While I am writing this blog post, for example, it’s pretty much the adult in me who is writing. But in situations that involve my emotions, I’m usually very much drawn to the child-like side.

In my original development I have experienced several traumas at various stages of my development. Those are not resolved yet, so I keep getting drawn back. Looking at what I get drawn back to is very helpful, because it helps me, my mom, and my therapist with figuring out what my issues are, exactly. So that is definitely a very positive aspect, that the regressive behavior can give us a pointer on where to dig for stuff that needs some work.

Psychological regression is a form of self-soothing.

Like discussed above, it is a coping mechanism. If used with awareness and within safe boundaries that is something positive. Being able to revert to regressive behavior that satisfies my needs and calms me down is good because it gives me a certain sense of self-efficiency that I would otherwise lack.

Psychological regression is an opportunity to make up for something that has been lost.

This ties in with the needs thing mentioned above. I know that for myself, many times my regressive behavior gives me a good feeling, like maybe it’s not too late yet to make the experiences I missed out on. For me most of those experiences are interactional. My mom responding to a tantrum like I were little. Or sometimes I play possum when it’s time to get dressed, hoping that she will pick up on the cue and dress me, because I like feeling like she cares about how I look, because she’s gentle when she puts clothes on me and because it’s fun. We’re both aware that we’re “playing little” and that it’s about adding a fuzzy and warm experience and not just me trying to maneuver her into doing something because I’m a sick manipulator who enjoys a little power trip. No, I’m just in need of some experiences that I had to miss out on. And I believe that collecting those experiences and being aware of them will ultimately help me progress. Going forward by going backward. Go figure!

Psychological regression is an opportunity to recover some innocence.

At least for me it is. At times it feels like I employ a regressive behavior solely for reclaiming some of the innocence that was stolen from me. Cuddling with mom, for example. She’s my one really safe person and while I know that I am in my mid 20s and technically should not want to sit on my moms lap and / or require her to cuddle with me so much, I do. Because I enjoy it. Because I enjoy that it is innocent and safe and because I don’t feel like I am this old anyway. I enjoy that I feel safe with her, that she can hug me and kiss me and touch me and that it feels innocent and like the way it is supposed to be. Like it should have been all along. I could add more examples, but hey, this is really long already.

Psychological regression can serve as a moratorium.

Fancy word, eh, moratorium? 😉 Mom used it. It means delay or postponement or something. Kind of like buying time before proceeding. Sometimes that’s just what’s necessary. Everybody needs breaks. Even the best progress can’t just improve and improve and improve without a breather, without a little orientation backwards, too. Sometimes you just need to make sure everything is still safe, that you can get a break when you need one and that you have time and a space to do some catching up before you go somewhere. To prepare. To collect your resources. To summon your energy. To get ready for tackling something. Psychological regression can help with doing that.

Psychological regression can be a recreational space.

Hm, just what it says, really. Regressive behavior can be relaxing and comforting and de-stressing. Especially if it’s harmless regressive behavior that shouldn’t really be bothering anyone. So it’s okay to value it for what it is, a recreational space, rather than devaluing it as childish or immature. Really.

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There you go, that’s been a long post, but one I have brooding over for a long time. Congratulations if you’ve made it all the way through! Feel free to take one of the sparkly bags of invisible candy over there, I made them myself. Do also feel free to share your own thoughts on regressive behavior as well! 🙂

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16 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. vwoopvwoop
    Jan 05, 2013 @ 14:51:24

    i love this post, it’s wonderful. and i particularly love that you draw a line between how the behaviors can be used to healing effect or harming/stagnant effect. 🙂

    • Lola
      Jan 05, 2013 @ 17:15:55

      Thank you! I think it’s important to realize that it’s not the thing in itself that is good or bad, but what I manage (or don’t manage) to use it for. That way I don’t feel so guilty or ashamed for regressive behaviors (which I often can’t help), but feel like I can still use it in a healthy way, turning it into something good. Thinking that way about it makes quite a difference for me. 🙂

  2. prideinmadness
    Jan 05, 2013 @ 16:47:35

    Thanks for the positive spin on regression! We spend a lot of time looking how certain behaviours are bad but they’re still doing something positive for us.

    I never thought of myself as someone who regresses in times of stress but as I was sitting on the kitchen floor, crying, screaming and banging my head against the cupboard door I realized that I was throwing a temper tantrum…..a little embarrassing but I didn’t know what else to do.

    • Lola
      Jan 05, 2013 @ 17:44:52

      You’re welcome. 🙂

      I must say that I can relate very well to the temper tantrum thing, both to the embarrassing part, and also to the not knowing what to do part. I think my worst temper tantrum involved breaking the glass door of a small dvd cabinet and using a shard to threaten to hurt myself, while screaming my head off to get my way, which I perceived as the only way I was going to survive (emotionally). Fairly out of control and not pretty. I felt awful afterwards for breaking the cabinet and being such a horrible person, but at the time I was desperate and had no idea what else to do to cope. I’m glad I learned some things since then, like using the regressive behavior in a positive way more often now.

      • prideinmadness
        Jan 06, 2013 @ 00:26:10

        My worst temper tantrum is probably whenever I hit my partner (this makes me feel like I should die) or when I hit my head off the fridge door a few too many times. It is out of control and knowing that you’re out of control contributes to more out of control-ness! I’m glad you’ve been able to do something positive with your regressive behaviour. Hopefully I can figure that out for myself!

        • Lola
          Jan 06, 2013 @ 11:48:00

          I think half of my being able to do something positive with regressive behavuor has to do with awareness. Being aware it’s happening helps me with finding okay and safe ways to deal with it. With regard to those temper tantrums I find that catching them early enough helps. Like last night I had this really terrible train of thought about not deserving my family, and it happened so fast that I couldn’t really react and ended up fighting, physically, against mom and dad because I wanted to leave the house and my life, yet they didn’t want me to run away or harm myself. I felt overwhelmed and felt like they prevented me from doing the ONE thing that was going to make me feel better, so I tried to fight them. But often the point at which I am overwhelmed doesn’t come quite this fast, and if I catch my slowly growing overwhelmed early enough I can still (with some help) prevent a tantrum or acting out and do something that is still regressive and answers to what I need, but less severe or less damaging.

          • prideinmadness
            Jan 06, 2013 @ 14:19:18

            It is about awareness, I agree with you. My problem is that I can’t usually catch myself, mostly when it’s a rage issue, like someone has done something that I have deemed a threat to my emotional or physical safety.

            As long as we have people in our lives who love us I think we’ll be ok 🙂

            • Lola
              Jan 06, 2013 @ 20:19:43

              I know what you mean. Especially with anger, or feeling like I’ve been wronged (that one is particularly nasty with me), I’m often unable to catch myself, too. I have come to a point where I kind of know, while I am in the middle of it, that I’m likely overreacting and that my response is probably disproportionate, but I don’t really manage acting accordingly yet. I think my blessing is that the people I live with know me quite well and are themselves capable of approproate responses, so that things don’t usually escalate. And yeah, I totally agree that as long as we have people in our lives who love us, we’ll be okay. 🙂 And we’ll learn and grow in time. At least that’s what I hope! 🙂

  3. weordmyndum
    Jan 05, 2013 @ 18:58:10

    Interesting…I’m reflecting on how this plays out for me. I never really got to be a kid–I was just a miniature adult with way too much to cope with. I wasn’t allowed to have needs, so I shut them down metaphorically and literally. I wouldn’t let myself need anything or anyone. I made myself totally self-sufficient and denied myself even basic things like sleep and food.

    But because I never got to be a child, I never grew up. People I know wouldn’t describe me as childish most of the time; I’ve always acted older than my age. I don’t let myself regress visibly, but inside is this gaping hole of child-neediness. I’m always wanting surrogate parents to love me and take care of me the way my real parents didn’t. I don’t know how, but I always seem to attract surrogate parental figures into my life. I don’t know how it happens, and it leaves me feeling manipulative (something my mother always accused me of when I looked for affection or approval from her), so I pull away from the relationships. But for some reason, these people tend to stick around and not let me disappear. It feels regressive, that pulling away and being reassured that I’m still wanted.

    Wow, novel length comment. Sorry.

    • Lola
      Jan 06, 2013 @ 12:08:11

      Thank you for the comment! 🙂 I can relate to how never having been a kid prevented you from growing up properly and healthily. Maybe theose people who can and are willing to assume parental roles appear in your life appear for a very good reason. I can also relate to pulling away and getting reassured that you are still wanted. I went through a LOT of that for a long time (and occasionally still do) when I first came to live with my parents. I think it IS a regressive need, to feel the reassurance over and over again and regressive behavior to provoke it. Awareness helped me cope with my regressive behavior. Maybe awareness of the regessive tendencies, communicating them and allowing them to be there in a positive, non-harmful way might help you, too? I wish you all the best! 🙂

  4. gypsy116
    Jan 05, 2013 @ 23:37:00

    This was very well written, and I really agree. You made some points that I dont think Ive really consciously thought about before, but reading them made me realize that the these thoughts were already in my mind. Not sure if that makes any sense. Anyway, thanks for writing this, and than you for the candy 🙂

    • Lola
      Jan 06, 2013 @ 11:50:36

      You’re welcome to the candy! 🙂 And I think you made sense. I’m often this way, that I kind of had some thoughts already, but not consciously enough that I could have put them into words, yet then when I read this kind of thing somewhere I’m all “yeah, exactly, that’s just what I was thinking!” Is that what you meant? Anyway, thanks for saying it’s well written. 🙂

  5. kat
    Jan 06, 2013 @ 06:48:53

    well explained!

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