Our ego – the voice in our head that tells stories from first thing in the morning until late at night – is constantly attempting to create meaning to protect our identity and sense of self. We hear a moment-to-moment commentary about what’s happening inside of ourselves mentally and physically, and outside of ourselves with other people, situations, and environments. Our ego creates this.
Whenever our ego is operating, we are not dealing with facts. It’s always narrating our experience from our own subjective perspective. This is why we all have such different views of ourselves, situations, and other people.
As our ego is concerned with preserving our identity, when we feel it is being threatened, we have a range of tools to protect ourselves. These are called ego defence mechanisms. They emerge when we emotionally wobble as we haven’t yet learned to process or tolerate difficult experiences in another way. We use defence mechanisms without even being aware, as they are unconscious. There are quite a few, some of these include denial, projection, splitting, repression, rationalisation, and regression.
I want to share the common defence mechanism regression, so that you can be on the look out for it when you’re relating to yourself via your ego, your partner or anyone else.
What is Regression?
Regression is an unconscious ego defence mechanism used when we revert to the emotions or behaviour of an earlier developmental stage. What we’re doing is ‘escaping’ to the earlier stage as the situation we are in feels too much for us to tolerate. We’re avoiding the reality of the situation as we may feel overwhelmed, anxious, or upset.
We can easily recognise regression when young children regress to earlier developmental stages. Sometimes this can feel quite alarming for parents. A common regressed behaviour is when a child becomes aware that their parents are going to have another child. They may show their excitement offering great relief to parents, yet that doesn’t mean it’s plain sailing for them emotionally.
The child is often too young to verbalise how they may also feel upset or anxious about the changes that they never asked for, or they may fear they are no longer the special child to their parents, or not good enough to remain the last or an only child.
These feelings may be seen through their regressed state where they revert to wetting the bed or having accidents when they’ve been nappy trained or insisting on being spoon fed like a baby. Regressed behaviour is completely normal. If you see regressed behaviours in your child, it’s a clue that they are struggling. Use it as an opportunity to talk with your child – even if they’re very young – about how they feel about their sibling’s arrival and what they may worry about.
In adults, regression is used when our ego doesn’t have the emotional maturity to deal with our feelings regarding ourselves, others, or events. As you will see in the list below, when we regress, we have lost our ability to relate from an adult framework and can quickly become rather childlike.
Regressed behaviours include:
- Throwing objects
- Hugging or sleeping with soft toys
- Using a baby voice
- Whining or complaining
- Name calling
- Curling up in the foetal position
- Stonewalling/Refusing to speak
Be honest with yourself, do you use any of these? We need to ask ourselves, how do we try to avoid and escape reality? It’s important to become aware of our use of regression, as identifying our behaviours is the first step to growing up emotionally and developing the capacity to tolerate upsetting or overwhelming feelings.
It’s not our fault we can’t face reality and use regression. Remember it’s all unconscious. We learnt these behaviours when we were young, and for many of us we didn’t outgrow them. They’ve been pre-programmed so when we feel overwhelmed or that our ego (our identity or sense of self) feels challenged we don’t know what else to do so we revert to being young again.
As adults when we regress, we may look for comfort in a stuffed animal like we did when we were a child or even eat comfort food from childhood. When we don’t get our own way, we may complain. When we are hurt, which masquerades as anger, we may name call or throw an object. This regressed behaviour can hurt the people closest to us, such as our partner and/or our children. They are exposed to us losing our adult selves. We may even be a bit frightening for them if we scream, tantrum, smack them, or lock ourselves in the bathroom. Unfortunately for all of us, in that moment we don’t have a more productive way of coping.
If regression is left unchecked it can cause longer-term problems, as emotional maturity is vital for healthy relationships.
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