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Emotional Regulation: Is There an App For That?

Here's how we download emotional regulation from our parents.

Think of the mind as a computer. Think of emotional regulation as computer software. Where can we get an app that will let us regulate our arousal and our emotional response? According to researcher Allan Schore, we download that app from our primary caregiver. Emotional regulation, he says, is "relationship dependent."

Perhaps you’ve seen this. Someone speaks to a child in a way that recognizes him or her as a real person. The child’s parent is surprised to see how cooperatively the child responds. Unfortunately, many parents speak to their children in a way that keeps them from learning to regulate arousal and emotion.

You may think that’s a stretch, but it isn’t. The ability to regulate ourselves emotionally is developed early in life. How well this ability develops depends upon the child’s relationship with those who are important to the child. The development of good self-regulation requires high quality conscious and unconscious communication between the child and its caregivers.

Stephen Porges has discovered that when we humans are together, we - completely without knowing it - send and receive signals that have a significant effect on our emotions. Even when stress hormones are revving us up, calming takes place when another person is empathic, attuned, and non-judgmental. Unconsciously received signals slow our heart rate and activate the parasympathetic nervous system.

Try it. Think of moment when you were with a person who - at least at that moment - was attuned and completely non-judgmental. Such a moment may not be easy to find. In most social situations, we are competitive with each other. We constantly make judgments about each other. Though we usually moderate it to be socially acceptable, we try to establish that we smarter or superior to the others present. Even giving advice, though it may be benevolent, is usually done from a one-up position.

So, don’t look for a group moment. Look for a private moment when you were with just one other person, and you felt your guard being let down. You were both physically safe and emotionally safe. The other person’s attuned, empathic, and non-judgmental presence causes our guard to be let down. That is the “vagal brake” in action. The unconsciously received signals that you are safe in every way stimulate the vagus nerve. This nerve goes to the heart. Even though stress hormones may be trying to speed your heart rate up, the vagus nerve slows your heart down.

It is like being in a car with an automatic transmission. If you hold your left foot solidly on the brake, even if you pump the accelerator with your right foot to send more gas into the engine, the car goes nowhere. The brake prevents it. Similarly, when stressed, another person’s attuned and non-judgmental presence calms you.

In order for a child to learn to regulate emotion when stressed, the child needs to be calmed by the presence of an caregiver who is empathic, and non-judgmental. Just as any learning requires repetition, when an attuned, empathic, and non-judgmental caregiver is repeatedly present in the stressful situation, the caregiver becomes linked in the child’s memory to the situation. In time, when the child is alone in the stressful situation, the caregiver will be psychologically present even when not physically present.

Many children are not spoken to in a way that shows the parent recognizes their personhood. When personhood is not part of ones experience, being alive is emotionally painful. Depression is inescapable.

Think about what it is like to go through childhood, never being related to as a person, and with no realistic options for escape. When personhood is not experienced in the parent-child relationship, there is no basis for the child to develop healthy emotional regulation. You look forward to emancipation when you, as an adult, can live as you like. But then, as an adult, there still is no escape. The parent-child relationship is a formative relationship; it has a life-long consequences.

What was it like for you when you were growing up? If you have children, what is it like now for your children?

Psychological theorist Peter Fonagy says, in order for a child to become mentally healthy, the child needs to know that a recognizable version of himself or herself exists in the primary caregiver’s mind. Why? Because, though we can look into a mirror and see who we are physically, we have to look into the mind of a person who loves us to see who we are psychologically. It is by being psychologically mirrored that we develop our sense of self. Fonagy goes on to say that if the primary caregiver - let’s say the mother - does not have the child accurately in her mind, she can not mirror the child’s self accurately back to the child. This means the child cannot internalize its real self.

Here is where psychological disaster takes place. First, if the mother, for whatever reason, has a distorted version of the child in her mind, that is the self the child internalizes, and becomes. Second, if the mother has no version of the child in her mind, or is not transparent enough to the child, the child internalizes the mother’s self as its own self.

Internalization of a false sense of self, according to Fonagy, sets up a life-long process of acting out in which the child, sensing something alien within, tries to rid itself of that alien-ness. At the same time, the person tries to raise its real self by its own bootstraps, and cannot do so.

This is where good psychotherapy comes in. Dr. James Masterson, M..D., wrote a book called The Search For The Real Self, It is a classic. I cannot recommend it too highly. In his view, once a person has internalized a false self, the person’s real self cannot arise without accurate mirroring, which, he said, is found only by working for an extended period with a therapist who has no agenda, and thus can non-judgmentally and accurately mirror back to the client his or her real self so that, finally, the real self can be realized.

Unfortunately for many of us, our primary caregiver did not mirror back our real self. They had in mind who they wanted us to be. Instead of mirroring back our real self, we received inaccurate mirroring in which they judged us comparing us with who they wanted us to be.

You may be ready to say, "Yes, that's what all parents do." No. It isn't. If that's how it seems to you, most likely that's what happened to you. Believe it or not, there are parents who take great delight in who their child is, and mirror that back to the child. That's love. If that's not what you got, sad to say, you - the real you - were not loved by your parent. You were judged. You were judged in comparison with the child they desperately needed you to be. Without therapy to reveal the real self, quiet desperation - in the form of anxiety and depression - lives on.