Emotional (Dys?) Regulation


In his book, The Relationship Cure (2001), University of Washington psychology professor and relationship specialist John Gottman observes that “emotional intelligence” (EQ, “emotional quotient”, widely publicized through the research/writings of Daniel Goleman) “consists largely of our ability to bid and to respond to another’s bids for emotional connection.” (p. 24) A person’s EQ, says Gottman, is influenced by many factors, but especially “the way their brains process feelings, the way emotions were handled in the homes where they grew up, and their own emotional communication skills.” (p. 19) Given Gottman’s trifecta of nature, nurture, and one’s conscious development of their emotional/communicative skills, I am particularly interested in “the way emotions were handled in the homes where they grew up.”

In her book The Body Remembers (2000), psychotherapist and trauma specialist Babette Rothschild beautifully, almost poetically, describes how EQ begins with us all:

“The newborn infant is a bundle of raw sensory receptors. For nine months the fetus is swathed and insulated in its mother’s amniotic fluid. Though there are sensory stimuli in utero, they are dampened. The newborn is ill-prepared for the sudden inundation of stimuli at birth. Suddenly it is literally propelled into an environment full of new and intense sensations of touch, sound, taste, sight, smell, cold, heat, and pain. The infant screams in response to this first flood of stimuli. But when placed on its mother’s belly, hearing her familiar (if previously muffled) voice, and feeling her loving touch, perhaps even smelling her familiar scent, the newborn is quickly soothed. This is the infant’s first experience of stimulus regulation mediated by its primary caretaker (my emphasis bold print). The baby’s mother has (usually), in an instant, been able to intercede and quell the overwhelming inundation of multiple new stimuli, calming the child. And so it goes, ideally, throughout infancy. The baby is upset, and the caretaker’s presence soothes.” (p. 23)

Rothschild continues to describe how this initial–and external–regulation of emotion continues throughout childhood – for better, or worse. The “worse” part is sobering, because some children grow up predispositioned to disturbance because of “stressful events during early development: neglect, physical and sexual abuse, failure of the attachment bond, and traumatic incidents (hospitalization, death of a parent, car accident, etc.). There is speculation that individuals who suffered early trauma and/or did not have the benefit of a healthy attachment may have limited capacity for regulating stress and making sense of traumatic experiences later in their lives.” (my emphasis bold print; p. 24)

Rothschild’s “speculation” is much less speculative now according to the research of the last 10+ years. UCLA’s Allan Schore (2012) writes: “Both scientists and clinicians now assert that affect dysregulation is a fundamental mechanism of all psychiatric disorders, and that an impaired ability to regulate the intensity of affect is the most enduring consequence of early relational trauma. This deficit in implicit affect regulation underpins later problems in emotional and interpersonal functioning.” (my emphasis bold print; pp. 138-139)

So far, so bad! But, wait. There’s good news! Consider these hopeful words from Babette Rothschild (2000): “Infancy is not the only chance an individual has for a healthy attachment….For example, many children who were deprived of a good infantile relationship do, to a large extent, make up for that lack later in life – with a best friend, special teacher, or comforting neighbor. And many adolescents and adults find a healing bond within a mature love relationship. For many, such relationships go a long way to compensate for what they missed or suffered as infants. Still others find the needed bond in the (counseling) relationship.” (pp. 25-26)

You knew I had to emphasize in bold that last line about counseling, didn’t you? 🙂

Bill Bray, Colorado Springs, CO

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