What is self-regulation?
Self-regulation is a flexible way of knowing and understanding our body and mind. Self-regulation is the ability to monitor and have control of our thoughts, emotions, behaviour and impulses. Self-regulation helps us experience and express our emotions. It provides us with the confidence to alter our self-expression with other people in any situation.
Self-regulation is a key skill in navigating through conflict or arguments. It is the capacity to stay aware of our thoughts and feelings while recognising and understanding the other person’s experience.
Self-regulation is having greater control of strong emotions triggered by uncertainty, grief, abandonment, or excitement for example. In essence it is the capacity to be flexible and choose how we respond. Self-regulation is the ability to act in our best interest, consistently in line with our deepest values.
Self-regulation is essential for our emotional well-being
It is a turning point in therapy when a person expresses or shows feelings they have been avoiding. The avoidance of strong emotions causes us to feel anxious and depressed. Individuals can explore and express these feelings in therapy. It is in the context of a safe therapeutic relationship that we can learn how to engage socially, maintain a secure attachment, and regulate our emotional states.
People feeling depressed and anxious often feel they have no say or self-determination over how they feel and behave. An aspect of people feeling they lack control in how they relate with others is their inability to see how they contribute to conflict.
Often a person feeling anxious and depressed will avoid their emotions and body sensations. Feeling shame and self-hatred towards their body is not uncommon. A well-worn and unrewarding habit of over thinking as an attempt to resolve difficulties can occur.
Families that do not relate well or prize relationships can equip individuals without skills in self-soothing autonomously or when relating with others. When people find it difficult to regulate themselves they may have grown up in a family where their parents were too busy to give them adequate attention. Harsh, critical, inconsistent, insensitive and performance orientated attention from caregivers also hampers a person’s ability to be with their emotions.
Mind-body psychotherapy helps with self-regulation
People can turn to mind-body psychotherapy for support to learn helpful ways to come to terms with emotional overwhelm and develop self-confidence. As a therapist we realise that people often are already doing something unconsciously to take care of their emotions or body dysregulation.
The therapist helps a person become conscious of what is already helping them to feel calm. It is important to ask the client questions, such as: “how do you calm, comfort, soothe and reassure yourself? Do you have supportive people around you? What are your hobbies or interests? And what are you doing for yourself that you haven’t yet recognised is soothing you?”
An aspect of learning to self-regulate ourselves begins with self-awareness. The therapist supports and encourages a person to slowly become conscious of their self-judgment for feeling emotions, or feeling fearful of being themselves, or self-imposing a pressure to perform successfully.
First the therapist provides a holding environment to help the client share difficult memories and strong emotions without feeling overwhelmed. Second the therapist models for the client how to begin to self-regulate their emotions and body sensations. This includes trusting the body and it’s self-expression by using mindfulness to develop a witnessing self. A person learns that it is safe to be present and attend to their body sensations and emotions without needing to analyse or interpret them.
Mindfulness is an important component of self-regulation
As a person becomes mindful they can gain a sense of agency by paying attention to their internal experience in the present moment. They can begin to know themselves and decipher what triggers their emotions and body sensations. An individual can then locate their adult witnessing self being separate from their inner critic or sabotaging self. This is why mindfulness is an important tool used in therapy as it enables one to be able to step back and observe oneself.
Self-awareness and having the ability to feel grounded in the body assists in our capacity to regulate our emotions and body sensations. For example the therapist invites the client to be curious and sense how their body breathes and how it relaxes. A person can sense how they connect to their skin boundary and their environment in the here and now without dissociating. It is liberating for us when we learn how to regulate ourselves. We feel containment in our body and we feel safe and strong to be able to express ourselves with confidence.
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- Contemporary Body Psychotherapy. Edited by Hartley, L., 2009.
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- Sensorimotor Psychotherapy. Ogden, P., Fisher, J. 2015.
- Hakomi Minfulness-Centered Somatic Psychotherapy. Weiss, H., Johanson, G., Monda, L. 2015.
- The Handbook of Body Psychotherapy & Somatic Psychology. Weiss, H., Marlock, G. 2015.