Reflection and dysregulation
Joseph Kindred, MS, MFT
Reflection is too dysregulating for them.
Healthy reflection requires already-in-place resiliency. The moment we reflect on something painful or difficult, if we are to stay regulated, we are drawing on a set of regulation skills within us to help us modulate the energy of something challenging, something overwhelming, something traumatic – the feelings from that – moving through us.
Co-regulation involves someone else staying regulated in their own body while facing our distress with us. Ideally, one develops regulation skills at the youngest of ages through co-regulation with a healthy caregiver.
Processing grief through reflection, such as processing personal and community grief, requires two things: a safe container to hold it inside of, and regulation skills at a fairly high level. The container is built, independently, through a weaving of the regulation skills a person has, combined with anything in the environment helping them to regulate. A calm environment, and/or others regulating nearby, help to create the container.
A supportive image can help us understand. This might be a ship at sea, which, in calm waters, needs less resilience and strength to function. Upon entering a stormy patch of weather, the waves batter the container with increased intensity. “Ballast” is a heavy material that is used inside of the ship to keep it steady and upright, even through very intense waves. A ship made of steel, with plenty of ballast, is going to have an easier time navigating straightly and calmly through any level of storm. A ship made of wood, with little or no ballast to center it, will start wavering and spinning in comparison to the well-ballasted steel ship. The waves grow, they spin and toss the ship about, potentially creating an increasingly dangerous and dysregulated situation.
Here’s where the metaphor of shipbuilding can reflect our state of resourcing. No one can think a ballast into place inside of them. Ballast in a person is built through experiences of receiving support and nearby forces engaging to help with internal stabilization. We all build ballast when we feel safe and co-regulated. This often means we need to feel seen, supported, and cared for within that safety.
For those who are dipping their toes into reflection, the waves externally will start to rise. The storm outside will start to intensify. And at this moment, we can begin to see if our ship has enough ballast to counteract the energy and weight of the emotions that arise with reflection.
Someone with a wealth of successful co-regulation experiences will generally be able to remain calm and focused and stay on track while traveling through stormy waters. However, someone who has a more marginalized identity, and may not have had opportunities to learn regulating skills in the past, is already likely to be vulnerable in the situation of a storm. With just a small change in wind – which could be as simple as thoughts about a stormy situation – there isn’t enough ballast inside of their ship to counteract the dysregulating external forces. Balance is sometimes quickly lost, and the ship’s course falters at the early signs of a storm.
Rebuilding a boat is a challenging process. Rebuilding community is a challenging process. Both require individual work and co-regulation to build up ballast. Over time, this work can also transform the wood some people’s ships were built with into cladding of steel.
Ballast can be built up over time, by things like healthy and satisfying community interactions, having enough resources to comfortably function, and most importantly, having “extra.” What I mean by this is having extra energy, plenty of safety, and experiences of co-regulation with others while we are in a compromised or vulnerable state. When this doesn’t develop in childhood, and we are constantly operating from a deficit instead of having “extra,” it’s even more difficult to build up regulation skills. However, this can also be experienced and developed in our adulthood. This often requires paying close attention to our sense of safety and the needs we have to fulfill in order to have extra resources, visible and invisible, surrounding us.
Adults dysregulate rather quickly if the speed of processing or discussing a traumatic event moves along too quickly for us to handle. The ship is desperately seeking balance, but if the force of the storm outside is greater than its weight and ballast, it will start to spin wildly, and possibly become out of control quickly.
We can seek to change this pattern of dysregulation in our communities by starting on a more granular level, in the shipyards, rebuilding our ships to be more prepared to withstand the storms that we experience when processing big feelings. We cannot judge a ship for doing its best and falling short, just as we cannot judge people for lacking the needed ballast to manage to stay steady within a storm.
It is critical that we use research in trauma recovery to help us build – and rebuild – our community. FORGE seeks to be at the forefront of this type of conscious community building, and seeks to find new ways to help in the shipyards of broken or inadequately built ships.
Emotional regulation is not a mystery. There is excellent, developed science in the field of trauma therapy that can help us to understand how we, as a community, can be building and rebuilding together.
Bio: A survivor of challenging experiences of abuse himself, Joseph Kindred now seeks to live a happy, full, and free-feeling life with his beloved nesting partner, Arden, and their youngest child in The Netherlands. Joseph is disabled, openly trans, and works as a holistic massage therapist, consultant, and artist. His years of training as a Marriage and Family Therapist, as well as a sex therapist, included deep study of Somatic Experiencing methods and research to find ways to help the body and spirit untangle themselves after traumas. He is always growing and learning, and currently leads online groups that support individual and collective healing, including all kinds of transitions and body needs.
His work with clients is listed at: https://wanderstarcoaching.wordpress.com/groups/
In spring 2023 he expects to be opening a new healing center in The Netherlands.