Understanding emotional/age regression

“Fear and anxiety affect decision making in the direction of more caution and risk aversion… Traumatized individuals pay more attention to cues of threat than other experiences, and they interpret ambiguous stimuli and situations as threatening (Eyesenck, 1992), leading to more fear-driven decisions. In people with a dissociative disorder, certain parts are compelled to focus on the perception of danger. Living in trauma-time, these dissociative parts immediately perceive the present as being “just like” the past and “emergency” emotions such as fear, rage, or terror are immediately evoked, which compel impulsive decisions to engage in defensive behaviors (freeze, flight, fight, or collapse). When parts of you are triggered, more rational and grounded parts may be overwhelmed and unable to make effective decisions.”

Suzzette Boon, Coping with Trauma Related Dissociation

Hot on the heels of earlier posts on anger that is denied as well as repressed feelings I wanted to share here about the subject of emotional (age) regression (sometimes called emotional triggering, hijacking or flashback).  The subject is comprehensively dealt with in two books by recovering alcoholic and therapist John Lee  :  Growing Yourself Back Up and The Anger Solution : The Proven Method for Achieving Calm and Developing Hea lthy, Long Lasting Relationships.  

As Lee explains it, emotional age regression occurs when we start to feel young, small and vulnerable in the face of some behaviour that has resonances for inner child pain from the past.  An example could be being called into the bosses office, being left waiting from some time with no explanation, seeing a child being ignored or hit.

When we regress according to Lee “we create worst case scenarios…. fictitious stories from the regressed mind.”  We are trying to self soothe but the result is more anxiety and we end up feeling more fear, anger and rage as a result.

Age regression also alters our sense of time, compressing it or expanding it so that seconds or minutes seem endless because we have slipped from an adult state back to experiencing that drawn out terror of the young child being told “you just wait until your father comes home!”

When time is no longer “real’, people tend to feel nervous and fearful, which then acerbates regression, which can then lead to anger when (for example) a loved one doesn’t call as promised.  The good news is that once you know Child Time (how time distorts when we regress) to be a sign of regression, you catch it and bring time back to its normal pace and thus reduce your anxiety and fear.  This is a tool you didn’t have to work with before.

Another sign of regression is disproportional energy : “feeling flooded by (a) speaker’s words that comprise unfair accusations, insinuations and criticism.  The torrent of energy is not usually expressing enthusiasm; rather judgement or shame.”

In this case we may be on the receiving end of someone else’s regression.  They may be responding out of old pain in shaming or criticising us, or alternatively we may not be only hearing them but the parent who condemned or criticised or tried to silence us in childhood.  It may also be triggered by the knowledge that we need to address an important issue with someone that opens up our past vulnerabilities or bad experiences of not being recieved, validated or listened to in a respectful way.   In this state our body will be signalling to us a lot of discomfort and distress.  If this amount of feeling seems out of proportion to the situation at hand, its a tell tale sign we may be flashing back or regressing to an earlier upsetting or distressing event.

Feeling like we have no choice is yet another sign of age regression.  Feelings of powerlessness naturally bring up anger/rage or depression/passivity and are often linked to younger feelings of being ‘stuck’.  In this regressed state we are no longer open to adult solutions, we are literally trapped in childhood/victim.

Not being able to find the words is yet another sign of regression.   In this kind of regression our thinking just siezes up and its not until later when we come out of the regression we realise what it was we needed to say. This often occurs because someone’s request to talk through an issue has triggered earlier encounters of being young and on the end of some kind of emotional hammering.

Talking and not saying anything is another sign of regression and often occurs when conflicts, arguments or disagreements send us back in time.  According to Lee :

Most people grow up never seeing conflict and confrontations expressed gracefully and resolved successfully.  Instead, someone would strom out of the house in a fury.  Others screamed or yelled, or dished out the silent treatment, or worse, got hit, slapped, pushed or shoved – or indulged in those behaviours themselves.  As soon as conflict arises in the present, such people descend back to those unpleasant or painful times and use the methods they saw modeled for them so long ago.  They attack or retreat from their partner/opponents/spouse… coworker/conspirator only to discover one more time that those methods didnt work effectively back then and they still dont work today.

Feeling like we know what is best can be another sign of age regression which comes from a mistaken belief that we can actually know what is happening inside another person’s skin without asking.  While as children we are in touch with our bodies and can be incredibly intuitive, we can also get it wrong when it comes to our parent’s behaviour.  We may also be lied to about what is really going on but know intuitively on some level that its not true.

However when we believe as adults we know what is going on according to Lee, often what is happening is that we have “become the scared child who must know and take steps to contain what is frightening them, in order to navigate or survive what is going on.  They return to their felt sense or feeling that something is wrong and then soothe themselves by convincing themselves and trying to convince others that they know much more than they do (or possibly could know.)  They take on a fake parental role adn think they are doing the right thing for everyone involved.”

Thinking we know what is right for others gives the message we are better in some way when in fact we are not.  Often we don’t know what is happening fully until we talk to the other person and they confirm it, if they have access to their own feelings.  Acting like we know can put us in a one up position as a defence against feeling like we dont know.

Not being able to ask for help is yet another sign of emotional regression.  As children we were often stuck or trapped in difficult situations with no way out, especially if we found ourselves at the mercy of a hostile, abusive or neglectful parent.  We may have learned to give up and that there is no point asking for help or that we have to do it all alone.  When we find ourselves in this state as adults we know we are regressed.  Adults can do something to leave or get help in most situations, (although in writing this I know that in severe abuse this is not humanly possible for many due to trauma bonding or other factors) however even in these situations its a sign we are age regressed.

Learning to ask for help and get the right help is our way of depression, anxiety and age regression.   When we feel we cannot ask or trust that help will come we need to understand why and do all we can to change the situation.  We may need to become adult to our regressed inner child and take action letting the inner child know she is safe and its no longer 1969 or 1982 or whatever year we were trapped in childhood.

Tied up with this age regression is also our inability when age regressed to open up truthfully to others.  The example John Lee gives is of a corporate father who said to Lee he could never open up to his sons about his inner emotional world (which contained insecurity and a lot of fear) because he was their `role model`

Lee said to the man

So basically, you want them to think you are someone you`re not and that you basically dont need anyone`s help or support, and you are teaching them to walk though life the way you have had to all of your life - looking, acting, and sounding stronger than you really are?

The man in question sadly could not break out of that regression.  Where there are roles, there is rage, Lee says at the end of this section.  The price of hiding out who we are behind facades and roles exacts a big toll and keeps us regressed, not opening up, embracing vulnerability and change and moving forward.

Trianglulation is the final thing Lee deals with in the chapter on emotional regression.  Triangulation occurs when we don​t speak directly to a person (say in the family) but behind their back due to fear or other blockages.   It`s an indirect way of trying to dealing with what is going on in dysfunctional groups and families and something I have witnessed a lot of in my family; trying to get information but in a suberfuge way.  The said person not being spoken with is spoken about and often the information can get back to that person via the third party but in a distorted way.  I cannot tell you the number of times this has happened to me and about me in my dysfunctional family.

The healing of what Lee calls the tangled web of triangulation according to Lee involves making straight lines.  Go directly to the person and ask or address the issue.  People who fear in this way to open up direct communication, according to Lee really are being affected by passivity in their relationships.  He sites the case of the son of a man in counselling who came to him seeking information about his Dad and saying how hurt he had been.  Lee advised the son to open up communication with his father based on acceptance, rather than his own mixed up and hurt feelings.  Lee was willing to help the son with any anger or other issues triggered with his Dad, but only as long as the son was willing to confront the issue.

Often we fear going directly to others and being honest.  It doesn`t really matter in the end how they respond because that will give us more information about the matter in hand, the important thing is that we address it directly and do not triangulate.  When we are avoiding in this way we can be aware that we are probably regressed and do the inner work to find out why.

Further on in his book on anger Lee shows how we can deal with the information that comes to us about out past out of age regression.  Its a wonderful book for understanding the way passivity, insecurity and fear can keep us blocked or trapped in anger or rage.  An understanding of emotional or age regression is such a fundamental awareness for us on the path of recovery as we seek to grow ourselves up in the best way by not severing our connection with the past but through understanding how it came to have such power.

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