With the holiday season wrapping up I'm assuming that many of my readers are either spending time with their families or are returning from doing so. This can be a very stressful and hectic time of year, there are tons of obligations, social visits, and expectations put on us by our friends, families, and society as a whole. Although the holidays are a great time to take a break from our lives they sometimes throw us into old patterns and behavior. It is common for us to feel child-like when we are around our parents or to become more dominant when we are around our children. We can find ourselves slipping into old roles and doing and saying things that we haven't done or said in years.
Sometimes this can be fun, we can psychically return to a more carefree time, engaging in old traditions or playing old games. For others it can be a painful experience, we can return to feeling invalidated or act out by throwing temper tantrums or sulking. It's a weird experience and sometimes we deeply feel that we are younger than we truly are. How many of you have experienced this?
This is called regression. The human brain is fantastic at recognizing patterns, it notices how groups interact and tries its best to fit in. If this group is well established, such as a family, the brain will regress and use tactics to fit in that worked before. The key part here, is that the goal is to simply have a place in the system, not to be effective within it. If the brain knows that it can be noticed by acting out it will do that instead of trying new, riskier, yet healthier relational patterns.
For people struggling with addiction thing can be very dangerous. This time of year carries with it the highest chance of relapse. Regression can lead to acting out or expressing emotion by way of consuming substances. Pair that with a series of holidays that encourage substance use as well as interactions with old friends and family members that either don't understand the importance of sobriety or simply don't know how to relate without using and you have a recipe for disaster. This battle can turn what is usually a relaxing break into a constant struggle for self-control.
In order to understand the experience of regression it can be helpful to look at the family unit as an system instead of looking at each members. Organic systems, such as families, aim to be stable, they want to be predictable. Again, the key part is predictable, not healthy, not rewarding, just predictable. We fall into roles that help maintain the stability of the system, often an the cost of our own personal needs.
So is this a bad thing? Not exactly, in fact, it's necessary to creating any kind of functional system. There need to be rules, there need to be norms. And most of the time, the rules work out for most of the members. Rarely, they can even work out for all of the members! However, the danger comes if we are not aware that this is happening. If we are thrown into old ways of relating without being conscious of it we may get stuck there. If we let situations consume us, we may not be able to return to healthier ways of being.
So the idea here is to just talk about it. Be aware of when you are regressing and have a way to talk about it with the people that matter to you. Be able to ask for a pause or a break in order to figure out what's going on before you act or say something that you don't mean. If left unchecked regression can cause the system to stagnate and fester. If a system becomes too rigid it becomes brittle.
Families are not the only things that can regress us. We can be regressed by our relationship partners, by joining social groups, by using substances, or even by wearing certain clothes. Remember, this isn't a bad thing as long as we are aware of it.
If you are reading this and you have acted out or relapsed from a place of regression. Don't fret, each day is a new opportunity to repair those ruptures and recommit to a healthy lifestyle. Change does not happen all at once, in fact, it's actually painfully slow. Self-compassion and patience are critical to the path.