Growing Yourself Back Up
By John Lee
Regression is what happens to us when, emotionally, we leave the present moment. By contrast, staying present with yourself, your partner, your children, friends, colleagues, and boss means that, emotionally, you are completely in the here and now, and that a small part of you is neither wandering over the hills and valleys of your past nor trying to predict the future. While staying present is one of the greatest gifts you can give to yourself and others, it is much easier said than done.
When we regress, we go from being clear-thinking adults to talking, acting, and sometimes even looking like children who are not getting their way. We feel powerless and out of control, as if we don't have choices. We think we know what others need, but at the moment we can't say what we ourselves need. As we regress, we fall back toward an earlier time in life, usually childhood. When this happens, we very often think that others are being childish, and we might even make the fatal mistake of telling them, "I think you're regressing."
By picking up this book, you have taken the first step toward learning skills to help you avoid regression. When you understand the phenomenon of regression, you will find yourself really being seen and heard by others, and you will learn to listen to others in new ways. Cultivating this skill will move your life forward in a way that you could never have imagined.
When you regress, you slip into past ways of perceiving, feeling, and thinking that make you unable to see all of the choices available to you in the present. You probably regress because you are feeling unsafe, an experience that many of us fell as children. You might also feel as if forces greater than yourself are in control, and that you have no choice but to follow someone else's moods, whims, feelings, and directions. Another trigger for regression is feeling that someone important is abandoning you, when in fact regression is really your abandoning of your mature adult self.
In a very real sense, I have been gathering material and experiences to write this book for the last fifteen years. My first glimmering of regression came from the hundreds of workshop I led on anger. As I taught others about this very misunderstood feeling - how to recognize it, understand it, and express it in a conscious and healthy way - I realized that anger is no more negative than any other feeling, such as joy or sadness. I also knew, however, that anger has a dark cousin, rage. Rage occurs when anger festers in a person, without release, to the point where he or she regresses to a childish state and explodes or implodes.
I realized that I had lo differentiate anger, which everybody feels at times and has a perfect right to express in appropriate ways, from rage, which cannot be expressed safely and harms both those on whom it is inflicted and those who inflict it. Rage is not a feeling but rather a behavior or action that a person demonstrates when they are emotionally regressing. They regress because they are afraid to feel then feelings of sadness, anger, hurt, loneliness, or abandonment. In other words, anger is a grown-up emotion that we feel in the present. Rage is a behavior that we exhibit when we get stuck in feelings left over from unresolved situations and relationships in the past.
When I realized this, I knew I was on to something important, and I had to find out more. Since the personal growth psychology literature contains almost nothing on emotional regression (which is not to be confused with past-life regression), I read mostly academic psychology books to see what I could learn. Most psychologists and psychiatrists, I discovered, use the word infrequently.
A field called self psychology often discusses regression, though in ways that are difficult to understand. It took me several years to get clear in my mind what the self psychologists meant to say. When I did, I began using some of their ideas, reformulated in my very personal and, some say, humorous presentation style, in some of my public talks and workshops.
I went on to present this material to thousands of laypersons and professionals, and the response has been overwhelming. Two years ago when I Spoke on "Better Communication Through Understanding Regression" at the Open Center, an alternative educational facility in New York City, a woman in her late seventies came up to meat the end of my talk and extended her hand. "Mr. Lee," she said, "I have been a psychiatrist for over forty years, and I have just listened to one of the most important, potentially life-changing talks I have ever heard. If the general public had access to this material, it would change the way they think about communication. Every relationship they have could be improved. It could save many couples who are doomed to misunderstanding at best and divorce at worst. It could heal parent-child relationships, friendships, and even relationships at work."
I cannot tell you how gratified I was to hear those words. Since then, hundreds of people have enthusiastically responded to my workshops and lectures on regression. Many of them say something like "John, this is one of the best explanations I have ever heard for behaviors that I never understood in myself. Why aren't more people talking about this?"
Why indeed? I've thought about why more has not been written or said on regression, and I've come lo the following conclusions. One of the main reasons is that regression is so prevalent in our lives. It is such an integral part of our culture and our relationships that it is often mislabeled as many other things, such as neurosis and addiction, to name just two. One of the most important reasons why I have devoted so much time to understanding regression is that it is a universal experience, touching on many areas of our lives, including relationships with parents, children, spouses, and employers.
Another reason why emotional regression is one of the best-kept secrets in the study of emotional behavior is that behavior modification and cognitive psychotherapy are currently in vogue, which means that the cost of these treatment modalities is covered by the insurance accepted by many HMOs. The more both-centered approaches, such as my own, are often not covered, due not to lack of efficacy but to lack of understanding. Also, psychology, like main other aspects of our culture, has recently been adopting a "fast-food" approach. The rapidly growing field known as "brief therapy" is becoming popular with patients who are looking for a quick fix to their personal issues and dysfunctions.
Unfortunately many well-educated, well-intentioned Americans have been raised to believe that "the past should be left in the past" and that, at all costs, we should "let sleeping dogs lie." This is ironic, given that modern-day psychology and psychotherapy are predicated on Freud's theories, which rely on delving into one's past. Analysis involves deep exploration into one's past relationships, memories, dreams, and free associations.