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! 🙂

An Eating Disorder That is Not About Food

I sit down for breakfast. It’s a routine. It’s what I do when I enter the kitchen in the morning. Always.

„Cereal?“, mom asks.

She’s standing in front of the kitchen counter, her hand on the cupboard door. It’s only a pro forma question, my bowl is already sitting on the counter. It’s what I have on most mornings. But seeing my bowl, my throat tightens. I shrug. Shove the problem her way, make her decide, make it be her fault.

She doesn’t take it.

“Take your time. Let me know if you made up your mind.”

I glance at the bowl, look down at the tabletop and shrug again.

“Nothing. I’m not hungry. I’ll eat later.”

Mom takes her own breakfast over to the table and sits down. Strokes my shoulder. Smiles.

“Having a hard time eating?”

I nod.

“What’s up? Do you want to talk?”

I shake my head. Don’t want to talk. Don’t want to think. Just want to not eat. I know she’ll let me. For now. I have one free shot. And we start the day.

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Lunchtime. Mom made a salad with chicken. I’m a tad hungry. Which makes me upset. I don’t want to be hungry. I don’t want to eat. I don’t deserve to eat. So instead of finishing setting the table like mom asked me to, I sit down with the table half set and start to cry. Glance at the fork and get mental images of stabbing my forearm with it. Of dragging the tines across the scars that are already there. For a moment it takes my mind off the salad.

It takes my mom about five seconds to notice.

I hate her for it. I hate that she comes over. Hate that she let’s the salad be salad and sits down with me. Hate that she cares. Why can’t she just let me be, only for once?! My life would be way less complicated if she didn’t muck around in it all the time. But at the same time I want her to be there. Had she not noticed, I would have made her.

When she reaches out, I shove her hand away. Twice. Three times. But she gets a hold of me anyway. Because I let her. Because it’s all part of the ritual. Like it is part of the ritual that she pulls me onto her lap and puts her arms around me.

I curl up. Make myself small. And cry more. Angry tears, because the whole world sucks, because it is difficult and unfair and has salad with chicken in it and because my stupid body betrays me by being hungry.

My anger eventually leads to sadness. Mom knows and waits me out. She talks when I’m done being angry and start being sad.

“What is going on, kiddo? What is giving you a hard time today?”

I don’t reply. Don’t know what to say. There is no single thing. Just a bunch of crap. I don’t deserve to eat. But she already knows that’s what I’m thinking. That’s always what I’m thinking when I don’t eat. She strokes my hair, kisses the side of my head and with her really gentle and warm mom-voice speaks into my ear.

“What age feels appropriate, baby?”

I have an easier time answering this one. The question is familiar. It feels safe. She is asking for how old I feel, emotionally. I close my eyes and after a brief internal evaluation raise four fingers. Mom takes my hand, kisses my fingers and nods.

“The world is a one scary and exhausting place when you are four and have to deal with all those big, tricky things, isn’t it?”

I nod.

“Does it feel like you can’t do it good enough?”

I nod again.
Mom strokes my wet cheek.

“I can imagine that that’s just how it feels. But you know what, baby? You are doing mighty fine for four years old. It’s simply a bit big a task for a little girl, dealing with all those things. That’s why I’m here to help you.”

A pressure within my chest, one that I hadn’t even noticed being there, eases. I feel like I can breathe a little better. Like maybe I’m not doing so bad, after all. I stop crying.

“You’ve been trying really hard, haven’t you?”

I become aware of how exhausted I feel and nod. Mom cuddles me and smiles.

“Yes, I can tell how hard you are trying. You are doing a really good job. You have not had a major breakdown in quite a while. You are holding yourself together admirably for a four-year-old, even when it’s hard. And if it gets too hard, you let me know. That’s just what you are supposed to be doing.”

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Greetings from the land of EDNOS (Eating Disorder Not Otherwise Specified). I had salad with chicken in the end. I am going to have dinner. I am feeling better about myself again, remembering that even when I’m struggling, I’m doing good for where my emotional development is at.

I am also making the millionth mental note about allowing mom to talk about my not eating with me the first time around already. Or heck, even tell her. But it’s difficult, so I don’t know how many more repeats I’m going to need until I manage.

Regressive behavior and BPD / PTSD

In psychology regression is a term to describe behavior and ways of thinking or feeling that suggest or tie in with an earlier developmental level. Regressive behavior can be open or covert, and it can happen in very mild up to very severe forms.

Functionally, regressive behavior is a coping mechanism. It also has communicative value, making a statement about where the person is at emotionally and what she needs. Personally, I think it is also a way for unresolved issues from earlier developmental stages to show and allows for those issues to get addressed, treated and (hopefully eventually) resolved.

I have no idea if regressive behavior is more of a Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) or a Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) thing, or if it even matters to know. For me it’s all just one big messy tangle anyway where everything ties in with everything else somehow.

For me regressive behavior is very, very common. I think I operate on some kind of regressive level most of the time, in fact. Sometimes I wonder if when I’m writing blog posts is the only time of the day when I’m not. Sure feels like it. Anyway, I’ll describe a little how my regressive behavior looks, so you get an idea of what I’m talking about.

Some of the many colorful shades of my regressive behavior:

  • being clingy and in distress when I’m left alone
  • using a pacifier
  • having temper tantrums
  • picking fights
  • demanding ongoing and undivided attention
  • using baby-talk
  • crying as the main response to stress
  • whining to get my way
  • resorting to physical passivity and muteness
  • needing a comfort object
  • hitting, biting, scratching, kicking
  • acting silly and playing dumb
  • claiming not to be able / not to know how to do something
  • wanting to sit on my mom’s lap or hold her hand or be physically close otherwise
  • not sleeping alone
  • not staying with other people or anywhere, really, unless mom is with me / separation anxiety
  • monitoring and trying to control what other people do
  • assuming a fetal position and / or rocking myself back and forth
  • putting my hands over my ears and turning away, pretending to not hear or see anything
  • replying with “No!” instead of listening to reason

I swing back and forth between a varying number of those (and probably more) at pretty much any given time. I show more of those behaviors when I’m stressed, less when I’m feeling good, but at no time (that I’m aware of) none. Yesterday evening I showed a lot of them. In general, when I feel compelled to behave that way, I find it hard to suppress it, even when I know that those behaviors are no appropriate way to react by mentally healthy people standards, and often feel embarrassed about it. I can suppress it when I absolutely need to, but not forever because it makes the stress worse, so if I have to keep it up, it usually results in something that’s worse than age-inappropriate behavior.

What is really, really hard on me is when I get criticized, punished or even ridiculed for showing these behaviors, or when someone alleges I do it on purpose out of malice to manipulate everyone around me, or to just seek the easy way out, and advises my mom not to indulge my behavior.

I really wish people would understand! From the outside it probably looks like that is what mom does – indulge me, spoil me, allow for me to manipulate her, making me worse – but that’s not what happens at all. I wish people would see that it is her who is in charge. That the part of me that acts that way really IS that little and that mom pushing me away and demanding I act my age would be like telling a little child to get her act together already. It would harm more than help. She does what she does because she chooses to, not because I make her. And she knows what she’s doing. That’s what makes her a safe person to form a healthy attachment to.

Sometimes it sucks to have a big body but a little kid’s heart. Because yes, I am capable of intelligent and mature thought, and yes, I am technically capable of mature behavior, but not always and often I feel very little inside. My mom just reacts to how old I am inside at that moment, not to how old my body is. That’s not overindulgence, it’s not succumbing to BPD scheming, it’s parenting. It really is that easy.

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