Self-regulation refers to tools we use by ourselves to manage our emotions. Examples of self-regulation: Exercising, listening to music, taking a walk, focused breathing practice, mindfulness, grounding exercises, positive and self-soothing self-statements, pleasant imagery exercises, etc.
Co-regulation, also known as social regulation of emotions (see the work of James Coan from the University of Virginia), refers to our neurobiological capacity to be in resonance with one another and to help soothe/regulate each other’s nervous system through presence and connection. Lack of connection is inherently dysregulating and can even be traumatizing. Peter Levine, the founder of Somatic Experiencing, once said: “Trauma is not what happens to us, but what we hold inside in the absence of an empathetic witness.” Feeling our feelings with a responsive and attuned other helps us feel less alone and regulates our emotional state. A safe touch, physical proximity, and an empathic response of another person are examples of co-regulation.
Research shows that self-regulation and co-regulation have distinct neurobiological mechanisms. Self-regulation engages areas of the brain that are responsible for executive functioning (e.g., prefrontal cortex). While the exact mechanisms of social emotion regulation are still being investigated, they seem to be distinct from self-regulation mechanisms.
In Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy, we help couples develop their capacity for co-regulation. As the couple learns to decrease their reactivity towards each other and to have bonding conversations, their safety and security in the relationship grows. And as the safety grows, they become a greater resource to each other in terms of co-regulation. As Sue Johnson says, “The most functional way to regulate difficult emotions is to share them.”
Here are 4 steps you can use to try to improve your relationship after an argument:
Learning to repair takes courage and time! But your relationship is worth it. Give it a try And if you have thoughts or questions, feel free to reach out!
What is your unique medicine?
“One of the most calming and powerful actions you can do to intervene in a stormy world is to stand up and show your soul. Soul on deck shines like gold in dark times. The light of the soul throws sparks, can send up flares, builds signal fires… causes proper matters to catch fire…. Struggling souls catch light from other souls who are fully lit and willing to show it." -- Clarissa Pinkola Estes.
As war and division continues to take lives, hope, and security from thousands of people, I feel the challenge and the call to continue cultivate the unwavering inner sense of balance, stability, and resilience. When the world is shaking, we can find internal anchors to stay stable. This is not an easy practice and one I am coming back to every day, moment by moment.
At this time of uncertainty, anxiety, and turmoil, the best we all can do is not to feed fear but to cultivate light and healing for ourselves and those around us. That does not mean that we should hide our heads in the sand and be oblivious to what is going on in the world we live in. It is important to stay informed and at least attempt to understand the universal, social, political, and cultural forces that shape the external events.
These times call us to become aware of our unique strengths and gifts, and to cultivate and express them. What is your unique medicine that you can share with the world right now? What is your light that you can carry like Prometeus through these dark times?
However big is your light — a torch or a candle — protect that flame and share it with others. Don’t undermine your impact. We are all interwoven in a unique design of this life together and we all can strive to make this world a better place in our own unique way.
What is your medicine? What is your light? Feel free to share with me. I would love to hear from you! ☀️☀️☀️
From Self-Protection to Connection
Gets activated when we feel threatened.
Emotions: Anger, frustration, resentment, etc.
Action: Criticize, defend oneself, attack, explain, withdraw, pull away/distance.
Possible when we feel safe.
Emotions: Vulnerable, softer feelings
Action: Open to sharing and listening, reaching, receiving.
So how do we switch from the self-protective mode to connecting mode? It all starts with awareness. Slowing down, noticing, and being able to self-reflect when we are getting upset is the first step toward change. By slowing down, we can take a moment to self-regulate and choose a different response. We can choose to activate our protective armor or to lean into connection and share our feelings in a softer and more vulnerable way.
In couples therapy, especially Emotionally Focused Therapy for couples, we breathe awareness into tight places of constriction, tension, and defensiveness, learning to become curious about what lies underneath. A therapist can help slow down the process of escalation and to tap into the power of connection, allowing the old armor to slowly melt away.
Set the intention before each day/session.
Bringing intention and awareness to whatever we do helps us feel more engaged and present. Setting an intention in a form of an affirmation, a prayer, or a phrase can allow us to bring our focus and attention where we want them to be. Before my sessions I try to find a moment to bring my attention to my heart and say to myself:
May this be a healing space.
May I be a channel of compassion, love, and acceptance.
May my words offer peace, ease, and clarity.
May I remain centered and connected to my heart.
Carl Rogers shared: “Before every session, I take a moment to remember my humanity. There is no experience that this man has that I cannot share with him, no fear that I cannot understand, no suffering that I cannot care about, because I too am human. No matter how deep his wound, he does not need to be ashamed in front of me. I too am vulnerable. And because of this, I am enough. Whatever his story, he no longer needs to be alone with it. This is what will allow his healing to begin.”
Drink water throughout the day. There are numerous known benefits of staying hydrated. Providing our bodies, including the brain, with hydration allows us to concentrate better and to feel more alive and energized. The properties of water are many, and include cleansing, purifying, flowing, revitalising, and nourishing.
Tune into your physical sensations during and after each session. The body always speaks to us through sensations, including potential pain, constriction, tension, openness, expansion, etc. Do you notice some constriction in your ribcage as you sit with a particular client? Or tension that runs up and down your back? Get curious about the information that those sensations hold, give them a voice. Breathe into them and allow your body to relax after you receive its message.
Move your body. I noticed that stretching and moving my body before I sit down at my desk to see clients create a sense of openness and flow in my body and mind and allows me to be more present and effective. I recommend incorporating stretching, moving, jumping, dancing, hopping, shaking before and/or in between sessions to ground yourself and reset.
Manage your schedule intentionally and with care. Don’t let the schedule run your life. Take agency. I suggest looking at your schedule every once in a while and checking in with yourself about how makes you feel. Do you sense openness and excitement or stress and constriction? Those and other feelings are your cues regarding potential changes that you need to make. Finding the right balance in your schedule a process that can take some time. But however long it takes, your best navigation system is inside you.
Speak kindly to yourself. If you tend to be critical of yourself, perhaps it is time to soften and practice kindness and self-compassion. Notice when you are being blaming and critical and breathe into that space, opening your heart for various experiences to enter as they are, without the need to judge them or yourself.
Do what you love each day, even if it is for 5-10 minutes. For me a creative art practice or being in nature are two of my main go-to practices that always help me tap into the vibrancy and excitement in life. I used to feel that if I don’t have 2 hours to paint, there is no point in trying. However, I now learned that even 10-15 minutes of collaging, drawing, or playing with paints can be deeply satisfying. I also practice a daily walk in the park, sky gazing, and interacting with flowers and animals as a way to recharge.
Call parts of you home at the end of each day. As therapists, we spend long hours attuning and listening to other people’s stories, feelings, and experiences. Most therapists are highly empathic beings who feel deeply about other people. Whether or not you believe in the idea of energy, it can be helpful to call all fragments and aspects of you back home into your heart at the end of each day. You can approach this practice as an amusing imaginary exercise or infuse it with the energetic and symbolic meaning. Either way, it can help you center and regroup yourself after spending your day in the world.