Table of Contents
Generally about the concept of age regression
After all these years of writing about and working with emotions from childhood, it may finally be time to clarify some more the term I use in virtually every other article. 🙂
Generally, the term “age regression” is used in several different meanings depending on the context and the approach. It is often used as a term for guided visualization or a therapeutic approach that leads a client to discover traumatic childhood memories. In developmental psychology, the term describes periods in which children return to behaviors they have already grown out of, common in earlier stages of development, usually as an attempt to avoid difficulties and challenges in the present. Such a phase can take weeks, even months.
However, in our approach, “age regression” refers to the everyday moments of awakening of emotions from childhood, in situations which remind us of something unresolved from the past. Most people are not aware that some of their emotional reactions are childish. This happens to most people many times a day, but most of these moments are not something particularly important; just brief and slight feelings of discomfort and uncertainty at some trigger from the environment.
Moments of age regression become important, even crucial, for the quality of our lives when they are intense enough to adversely affect our behavior toward other people or ourselves. For example, moments of childish anger directed at people who are not the real cause of it; childish shame or guilt which can make us feel depressed, numb, and cause unbalanced behavior at our own expense; arrogance which conceals unconscious childish sense of inadequacy; fear of punishment if we stand up for ourselves; or falling in love with a toxic person (see: What Does Your Subconscious Believe About Love?) …
Evolution, survival and learning
The reason for such reactions is that we learn how to survive, how to be human beings, and how to adjust to our surroundings in early childhood, mostly in preschool. Evolution – primarily concerned with survival, not necessarily the quality of life – instilled in us the instinct to trust our parents and our early environment, and to seek their approval and belonging in order to survive. There are also children in which this instinct is less pronounced, but most children have it, and some may have a little too much of it.
We learn how to survive partly by imitating the adults around us and partly through our own experience – often through punishment, criticism, rejection, intimidation and even the violence we experience. A child also conducts many small experiments with his or her own behavior, unconsciously creating a growing database of which behaviors bring the most benefit for the smallest “price”, either physically or emotionally. What conclusions one draws depends largely on the everyday reactions of the environment, but also on our innate instincts such as the instinct of empathy and cooperation (which are not the same in everybody). Based on our accumulated experience in combination with our innate tendencies, we create our habits of spontaneous reactions to the environment.
Every day, whatever happens around us, our subconscious constantly compares the details of the current situation with the rich treasure trove of memories, and how we have learned to survive and avoid discomfort in similar situations in the past. Instead of trying to find an “original” solution in every situation, which would take our time and energy away from various other things, the more experience we have, the more our subconscious relies on previously learned and eventually automated solutions, including emotional reactions.
So when we face a situation which reminds us of something similar from childhood, old emotional reactions remind us of how we have learned to survive in similar situations, and these emotions tend to stimulate automated behavior. The problem is that these emotions, created and stored at a very early age, reflect childhood inexperience, wrong conclusions, and often childhood disadvantages (dependence and physical and intellectual underdevelopment) in relation to the environment.
That is why childish emotions and reactions are, most of the time, unrealistic, or at least unrealistic in relation to our adult abilities and range of choices, but our brains are most often unaware of this. Too bad evolution didn’t come up with some more adaptable learning principle, but perhaps it could have been worse, too.
How to identify age regression
The biggest problem with age regression is not even that the emotions are unrealistic, but that people are generally not aware of what is actually happening. People who are interested in self-improvement are usually at least somewhat familiar with the basic concept, though it is usually much easier to recognize moments of age regression in retrospect, after they pass, than in the time they come out. But many people are not aware of any of this and may be quite surprised to find that some (if not many) of their emotions are unrealistic and unnecessary.
Childish emotions, when they emerge, are usually much more intense than realistic and adult ones. Just as we as children are deeply immersed in our experiences, and our emotions are intense and simple, such intensity and immediacy of emotions are present even as they emerge decades later. It is logical that one would assume that the more intense the emotion, the more realistic it is. But in adulthood, the opposite is usually the case. (Not always, though, as I mentioned in the article “The Gift of Fear “).
Being unaware of all this, and trusting their intense emotions, many people keep spoiling the quality of life to themselves and others, through unnecessary conflicts (or withdrawals), beating themselves down internally, or even physical reckoning including killings. What lawyers in court call diminished responsibility, I’d guess in most cases is related to uncontrolled childish emotions.
The variations in childish reactions are endless just as every personal past is unique. But once you understand what is going on, with a little exercise you can learn to recognize age regression in yourself fairly easily. Then even if you can’t resolve it on the spot, at least it will be easier to put such emotions aside for later rather than having them guide you. Here I will copy what I wrote in the article “Emotional Maturity” on how to recognize childish emotions (because it’s useful to have this in more than one place):
Healthy or adult emotions are:
– appropriate in their intensity to the situation (in everyday situations, it’s usually mild discomfort, like a warning)
– we are able to see the complexity of the situation and different perspectives,
– Healthy emotions motivate us, give us the energy for the appropriate and constructive action,
– We usually have no problem expressing them, as those parts of us were able to mature because they could be recognized and expressed within our families. (We might feel problems and tension, though, if our adult emotions are mixed with unhealthy feelings and guilt. This is most common, since many people learn at an early age to feel guilty if they express their feelings sincerely.)
– There is no tension and discomfort left once the situation is resolved
– There is no black or white attitude, we perceive both sides of the story. We are able to see the other person as a complex human being and separate their personality from their behavior (rejection of behavior without rejection of the person)
– We do not feel humiliated or bad about ourselves, nor do we feel a need to humiliate or hurt others.
Unhealthy (childish) emotions, or those which characterize age regression, are:
– either overly intense or suppressed
– The ideas and thoughts that accompany them are simplified, generalized, “either – or”
– They often include an inner conflict, usually between guilt (maybe it is my fault) and shame (I acted stupidly) on one side, and anger (they have no right to treat me like that, I should tell them what they deserve!) on the other, accompanied by unpleasant bodily sensations. This conflict can persist long after the unpleasant situation is over. Even if you are objectively right, such emotions can show you that there is a part of you that either is frightened or feels guilty. Some childish emotions can feel good temporarily (arrogance, spite…) but the inner conflict remains.
– These inner conflicts sap your energy and, if prolonged, result in stress and tiredness
– You feel that you are (primarily) right, and the other person (primarily) wrong (sometimes the other way around, although that is more common with children or very insecure people)
– You feel uncomfortable and doubtful about yourself, which may motivate you to criticize and find even more faults in other people.
What to do about it?
With some introspection, most people can learn to recognize age regression relatively quickly. The problem is that even when we know an emotion is childish, it is still much easier to give in to it than to resist it. Another common mistake is to try to fight these emotions and push them down. So what to do if we should neither indulge or suppress them? One nice quote from an author I forgot: “Emotions are like children: you won’t let them behind the wheel, but you won’t put them in the trunk, either.”
Try the following:
– Recognize that a particular emotion is actually a memory, a reaction to the past, not the present
– Try to identify of what (or whom) does the situation or the person who triggered the emotion remind you
– Remind yourself that you are an adult and have far more choice, knowledge and experience than when you were a child
– Connect with a child part of you which is overwhelmed with emotion, convey to that part of yourself a sense of support, protection, and especially a sense of self-worth
– Think of a parent (or a healthier version of a parent) supporting you, or perhaps a good friend or some quality authority as support.
If a certain emotion is persistent and often occurs in your life, it is probably a consequence of trauma or a troubled childhood emotional attachment. More complex work is then needed to address trauma and trauma-related relationships and to build new emotional patterns.
When I first dived into the sea of psychological literature, it was a great relief and inspiration for me to learn that most of the heavy emotions are neither realistic nor necessary, and that such emotions and beliefs can change. Maybe for some of the (newer) readers, this might be a revelation too.