Why are regressions not more commonly named as such? It seems to this writer that the conditions brought upon by regression are severe and frequent; yet, this pull-back into an earlier region of the personality are hardly ever referred to as regressions and go by other names, such as, moody, irritable, grouchy, depressed, nuts, crazy, insane…and of course the list goes on.
We might leave it at that were it not for the idea that many of the names that are given to regression imply that this is a static condition, or one that the person has little to no control over its effects.
The use of the the correct word, “regression,” might help us to recognize that it is a clinical condition and that there are some very direct applications of treatment that can remediate the condition. A regression is a draw back into the region of the mind that contains, or highlights a certain period during the development of the organism, the person. A regression can be triggered by an event in the environment or can be triggered by a subjective event within the mind-experience of the person in question. Let’s give our patient a name–Reggie.
Reggie was out with his family on a family vacation. The family had decided that as older siblings it might be fun to re create an earlier visit to a wild animal farm. A summer day was chosen and the the family arrived at the parents home–the same house that the four children were brought up in, at nine in the morning. This would give everyone time to decide on which cars to take and those other last minute details.
Reggie got a late start that morning. he is the youngest in the family. His age now is 29. Reggie arrived looking somewhat unshaven and a bit frazzled and immediately asked if he still had any clothes left in his old closet because there was a shirt he wanted to wear.
This did not go over very well with the older brother Ronald who had arrived before nine with a cleaned car for the trip. His wife and his two kids were all polished and ready for the road. The fact that Reggie was not ready angered Ronald and he began instantly to bark orders at Reggie who immediately said “screw-you” I’m not going anywhere with you. Ronald barked back that anyone who did not want to go was welcome to stay home which greatly upset the mother of the clan as it had been her wish to see the family come together for a great “old-fashioned” outing.
Sarah the second oldest set out to fetch Reggie as it was her role to be the mother in place of her mother whenever her mother was left overwhelmed and it seemed that most any emotion could serve as that trigger that could overwhelm Mom. Christine the 3rd child was already boiling mad with her younger brother and she thought that since a number of cars were going to be taken–why not at least one car leave now. In that way if some people wanted to spoil the day they would not have to spoil everyone’s day.
Christine, un-partnered jumped into the back seat of Ronald’s car and they left each bearing a very sober look. The very serious car left to go and have a seriously-fun day at the park.
Left back at home were Mom and Dad and Sarah with her only daughter, and Reggie. Reggie was in his old room which he had only vacated several years previous and he was behaving very boyishly. Mom tried to reason with him but he abused her. Dad came in and said–“Hey, son…come on let’s get it together you don’t want to disappoint your mother, do you?” To which Reggie replied, I don’t care–jut go leave me alone.”
Sarah, came into his room after knocking lightly and said–“R.J., come on do it for me. You know I would not hurt you…come along and you and i can have a good time and you won’t even have to deal with Ronnie.”
So, they left in the second car with Dad driving and Reggie pouting in the back seat while his 12 year old niece tried her best to get him to play a traveling bingo game. But Reggie held fast to his looking out the window with the biggest frown and furrowed brow that you can imagine.
What happened? Reggie regressed, but so did nearly everyone else. Reggie was both the trigger and he triggered an old family response. One could have almost predicted the scene if they knew that family.
For Reggie, his older brother who had always done everything right was once again right. And for Ronnie the older brother his never-do-good brother was at it already ready to spoil the day for every one. Ronnie took his old place in the family and righteously drove off without a care of negotiating anything and Reggie threw himself on his old bed–took a tantrum, was cared for by Mom and dad and sarah as he has always been and the family–the old family dynamics were re created.
Regression in this case is very easy to spot. Essentially it is easy to understand that each member in the family was ready to take up their old roles in the family and when Reggie arrived late the family was all too ready to oblige with the old behaviors so that the idea of re-creating an old family day in the park was more similar to the old family days than anyone had planned for.
This is a blatantly easy regression to spot because we put our patient, Reggie in a situation that we all can relate to. Going back to our old family of origins often has us regressing to a younger stage in our development–son comes home from school mid-semester with a duffle bag full of laundry and Mom does it as if he had never left home. This despite the fact that for the last eight weeks he had been doing all his own laundry. These are the obvious regressions.
But, in our lives we can trip a regression with much more subtle conditions acting as the trigger. A common but much more subtle that our first example is what might happen when the trigger of anger turns itself inward. Carol a mature, well educated and matronly woman has had a great deal of therapy and see herself as a rather sophisticated person, emotionally. At work recently where she is a well respected marketing executive, one of her subordinates a young program director stepped into Carol’s office while Carol was finishing a call. The young executive peeked in saw she was on the phone made a gesture that she thought indicated she was entering. Unknown to her, Carol was on a personal phone call something that she does only rarely and something that she strictly prohibits her staff from doing.
Carol hung up quickly and immediately went to close the door to her office and turned sharply on the young executive and boldly told her she was out of line, she had no boundaries and that she was going to write this up in the personnel file and then just as abruptly as she had scolded her she said with a stern look, “that will be all.”
The personal call that she was handling when the young executive came in was a call from her daughter who was decidedly upset with her mother for a note that she accused her mother of writing with no concern for her privacy. Carol had wanted to hold on to her position as mature and able to handle her feelings well, but the call had so upset her that as soon as she had an opportunity to she blasted out a bold order much as she had always done when she was bringing up her children.
Carol regressed to a place in her life where she felt very uncomfortable and to a place in her life when she acted very rashly when she felt insecure. Although much of Carol’s character was evolved the conversation with her own daughter so frazzled her that her mind was not working with the moment, rather she regressed–went back in time to a place where her behavior was not at all in control and she belted out a bold-face scolding despite the fact that nothing in her would have done that unless the circumstances had come together in exactly the way that they did. The convergence of the call from her daughter, her finding herself speechless, then feeling invaded all replayed a time in her life when those were the conditions by which she saw her life operating.
A regression is always in service of the ego. When we say that a regression is in service of the ego we mean that Carol was not protecting herself, but rather protecting her ego when she lashed out to the employee. All regression is defensive in nature and therefore by definition is activated to protect the ego…
Reggie and Carol both acted out in ways that were once comfortable to them, but which no longer fit the situation at hand. Regressions do not always look like tantrums they can be very benign, to others while being very destructive to the self.
I will take up the question of regression as a service to the ego in a future blog.