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Best Therapist in Portland

my musings

The magic between us

Humans are social. We love people. (Even those of us who hate people.) We need people. (Even those of us who say we don’t.) We do. Because our brains do. It turns out that the people we are with the most influence our lives in pretty profound ways (see last week’s post). The question is why? And how? And one part of the answer to that is co-regulation. 

Co-regulation is essentially my brain taking cues from others around me to know if I’m safe or not.

The biggest, brightest, most primal example of this is the child-parent relationship. Infants are programmed to respond to the microcues of parents. Think breathing patterns, body temperature, pupil dilation, smile lines (real smiles are different from fake smiles!). If all the cues are vibing calm, cool, and collected the kiddo’s brain says “great, I’m safe” and she goes on wondering about the miracle of her own toes.  If the cues suggest otherwise, her nervous system springs into action. Concern, anxiety, even fear. She zeros in on mom and calls for her attention.  If mom/dad’s worried, I should be worried. Keep in mind this isn’t language based. These little blobs of humans don’t have language yet. They just have senses. Vibes. Comfortable or uncomfortable. Cozy or cold. Pain or pleasure. They sense the parent is in distress, and then they feel distress. Or they sense the parent is calm and they feel calm. 

Human brains are programmed to respond to the vibes of others. And then to actually match them. It’s kind of miraculous when you think about it. My brain reading your brain and your brain reading my brain creating a kind of emotional bond. Kind of like magic between us.  If my herd is lazily munching on lunch in the sun, and one of us has a sudden spike of fear because they see a lion, it is to my benefit to match their feeling and rev myself up to get the heck out of dodge. I don’t need to actually see the lion, I just take the cue from my buddy. Life saved. Thank you brain. 

Ever notice how if your boss is grumpy and mumbling under her breath you feel a little uneasy? Or if your partner walks into the room and yells that their coffee cup is missing your heart rate speeds up a little? Or if your child screeches at the top of their lungs you can feel it in the bottom of your feet? Ever notice that when you and your friend rile each other up about how terrible your kids are it feels GOOD even though you are talking about stuff that is hard? 

If any of these sound familiar then you my sweet friend have noticed yourself co-regulating. When we realize that humans want to co-regulate and that we can co-regulate each other up into a frenzy or down into a state of calm then we start to understand the power of relationship. And that is when some magical things can occur. 

With our partners. We are constantly co-regulating with our partners whether we know it or not. The healthiest of couples intuitively know (or maybe they listened to their therapist) that everything goes better if we are not in fight-or-flight. So when one partner sees the other in distress, they do something that helps that partner calm. The over-achieving couples actually do this DURING conflict! Which is pretty amazing. They hold hands, use humor, give each other hugs. Soft eye contact, words of affirmation, gentle voices. They do this so that they can have conflict and actually get through it productively. What these unicorns know is that if their partner is distressed then the content doesn’t matter because everything is being processed through the fight-or-flight brain. Most of us mere mortals get upset when our partner gets upset, our brains naturally co-regulating up (there must be a lion here!) until we are both distressed, dysregulated, and disconnected from each other. Yuck. The good news is that you don’t have to be born a unicorn. You can learn to bring out your full-fledged unicorn and have the over-achieving, regulated, full-of-love conflict you thought only existed in episodes of This Is Us (iykyk).  Remember, our brains want to co-regulate down as much as they want to co-regulate up. We just have to be a bit more intentional in making it happen.

With our kids. See above. Except that it only goes one way. With our partners we should expect them to regulate us as much as we regulate them. Quid pro quo. But kids don’t work like that. They can’t regulate themselves (at least not in the beginning) and our regulation is literally what teaches them how to regulate. So the student can become the teacher…but not until the teacher has taught. So bummer for us, parents are contractually obligated to be the most regulated person in the room.  But the good news is it’s only for the first 20 or so years.  

Kids are on a roller coaster of big emotions that seem to make no sense. Anybody who has been in the room when the red cup is not available to a three-year-old knows I speak the truth. The reality though is that it does actually make sense. It is in fact, VERY disappointing to not have your favorite cup (I can testify to that). And to a three-year-old brain with very few communication skills, executive functioning, or emotional intelligence, that disappointment is LEGIT, filling up that entire three-year-old body with FEELINGS. What is needed here is some practice regulating emotion…if only there was a regulated brain around that could help the three-year-old’s brain find a place of safety...hmmmm…if only. So the unicorn parent doesn’t try to get rid of the disappointment or solve the problem, they offer their regulation to help the child self-soothe and learn to process the disappointment in a regulated way (unicorn parents also magically have endless amounts of time…but that’s another post). What the mere mortal parent might be tempted to do is regulate UP with our kid, resulting in frustration and dare I say…rage…at the fact that this tantrum (the tenth one this morning) is going to keep us from leaving on time. My vibe gets frantic and starts to communicate back to the toddler…“you’re right, there must be a lion! Let us all FREAK OUT,” resulting in a higher emotional state for the kiddo. And around and around we spin. If I can learn the ways of the unicorn, and practice self-regulation when I’m with my kid (no matter what they are doing), I'm going to have access to so many more parenting skills, my kid is going to learn how to regulate, and while the red cup is still going to feel like the end of the world to my toddler, that won’t feel like the end of the world to me. And that, my friend, is pure parent gold. 

With friends. You know how you have friends that make you feel great? And you have friends that make you feel exhausted? Maybe you have a coworker who flies into the room and leaves a trail of chaos and you notice it takes you five minutes to remember what you were working on after they leave. You just feel a little disoriented when you are around them. Or maybe you have that friend (or friends) who you always end up raging with about the state of government. They rile you up in a way that feels good (or not) and when you come home you notice you're more likely to yell at your partner for forgetting they promised to stop by the grocery store. Maybe you have a friend that is so positive and sunny and bright and happy that you feel like you want to dance around the house every time she texts you. 

We all have vibes. And those vibes are contagious. And that is co-regulation. We get in sync with each other and it feels so good. Or it feels so bad. Yep, you guessed it. Those unicorn people are at it again. They are pretty aware of the impact that others have on them and guess what they do. They choose wisely. They surround themselves with people that feel good. What? Choose friends who make me feel good? That sounds so selfish. Yep. Go re-read last week’s post. Also, look for a post soon on selfishness and why I’m all for it. 

When we think of all this it becomes clear that co-regulation is actually the heart of all our relationships. It’s like a magic tether that keeps us connected. And when we become aware that we can actually practice regulating and co-regulating then we unleash the magic of what our sweet, sweet human brains are capable of in terms of relating to each other. Doesn’t that sound amazing?!

We are all unicorns in training.


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