Skip to content

Self-Regulation Doesn’t Exist!!

January 29, 2018

Self-regulation isn’t the goal.

No really.  It’s not.

Not only is it not the goal, I actually wonder if it even exists.

Self Regulation Doesn't Exist

Regulation circuits are built INSIDE relationship.  We aren’t born with them.  They are created inside of repeated experiences with a bigger, stronger, wiser, and kind (thank you, Circle of Security) grown-up.  Over and over, the regulated adult goes to the dysregulated baby, lending their regulation through presence, attunement, and reflection.

The baby’s brain is literally shaped and built inside relationship.  Those experiences of co-regulation are imprinted in the brain.  And because of mirror neurons and some other complicated neural happenings, the baby creates a neural net of their own regulation AS WELL AS a neural net of the OTHER’S regulation.  BOTH happen.

When this happens over and over, the other person becomes internalized and we carry their offers of coregulation with us- all the time!!!!

Eventually this experience of coregulation is so strongly imprinted that we begin to access the coregulation EVEN WHEN THE OTHER PERSON ISN’T THERE!!!!!!!

Whoa.  Think about that.

We ALL have internalized others.  Bring your primary person to mind.  The person you would turn to in times of dysregulation.  For me, it’s my husband.  When I’m in distress, my first thought is to reach out to him.  But I don’t need him to be present for me to bring him to mind and start to feel his coregulation.  Because after 22 years, I have internalized his coregulation.  We coregulate even when he isn’t with me.

Self-regulation is really internalized co-regulation!!!!

This is especially important to remember with children.  Yes, we can teach them skills to help calm and regulate.  Yes, this is important.  But skills live in the neocortex- the highest part of the brain.  Dysregulation lives in the limbic system and brainstem- lower parts of the brain.  The cortex can help to regulate the lower parts of the brain, but it is much more effective to regulate those lower parts without involving the ‘thinking brain.’

Over and over again I hear about kids who “know” all the right skills but don’t use them.  YES!  In children especially (but adults too) the dysregulated brain isn’t able to retrieve all the smart information in the cortex.

What really works isn’t teaching self-regulation.  It’s giving children experiences of co-regulation over and over and over again.  Until their brains literally take in and imprint the regulated adult.  Then the coregulation becomes internalized…but it’s still coregulation.


Like what you read here?  To get even more support, click here to sign up for my newsletter! I try to send it out monthly. Sometimes I succeed. Mostly I don’t 🙂

Therapists!!! Come play with me in Austin on March 2 & 3 for “Beyond Bowlby: Applying the Neurobiology of Attachment to Play Therapy.”  CLICK HERE for all the details!

One Comment leave one →
  1. February 2, 2018 10:26 am

    Thank you for saying this. As an adult living with the affects of long term complex trauma, one of which is relational/attachment challenges, and raising adopted children. I appreciate your speaking this so plainly. Both children and adults with these challenges are often so pathologized and told we need to learn how to “self-regulate” when that is so far out of the realm of possibility. I would only argue that we do not ALL have internalized others with whom we can co-regulate. Some of us have never been afforded this privilege. As adults we are expected to buck up and “handle our shit.” The world does not care that we never had the benefit of a secure base, mirroring, etc. We must carry on without the benefit of that kind of foundation underneath us and learning to give ourselves what little of the impossible we can manage to piece together.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: