Have you every marveled at another person’s ability to stop eating when they are satisfied but before they are stuffed? Admired those who put away for a rainy day and stay on a budget? Gulped when you’re expected to consistently arrive on time?
In contrast, maybe you find yourself quick to judge those who struggles with indulgence? Or you find yourself frustrated when someone is unable or unwilling to try a different approach. What is it about self regulation that is so challenging for us humans?
THE CHALLENGES IN DEVELOPING SELF REGULATION
I’m thinking part of the problem lies in how we think about self regulation. We don’t talk about it much, and it’s almost as if we expect self regulation to develop via osmosis. Yet functional and effective self regulation requires a complex mix of skills and insights. It is clearly more than making a different decision.
Most adults recognize the need to teach children how to self regulate, however that’s easier said than done. What happens if a child grows up without anyone bothering to model or teach self regulation skills? What happens when parents lack skills of their own? And what happens when someone’s idea of self regulation translates to rigid behavior or inflexible expectations with no opportunity to determine what works, and just as critically, what doesn’t?
WHERE DO YOU PLOT ALONG SPECTRUM OF SELF REGULATION?
As with most human attributes how we self regulate ranges widely, even for the same person. For instance, one client I know places enormous value on being on time with an almost inflexible expectation for others. At the same time she struggles mightily with overeating at night, a rather indulgent pattern of behavior. I recall a number of clients who live very patterned and inflexible lives. Pork chops on Tuesday, Roast Beef on Wednesday. One client kept it exquisitely simple. At the supermarket he bought 7 heads of lettuce and fourteen cans of tuna every week.
This kind rigidity leaves minimum opportunity to enjoy anything spontaneous in the moment, even a good meal. Sometimes the rigidity gets in the way of long term goals. Mr tuna salad played beach volleyball every afternoon and complained about low energy and stamina. Rigid structure may simplify life, but at a significant cost.
INDULGENCE VS RIGIDITY
More indulgent clients wrestle with limits in many facets of their life. They struggle with debt and often find themselves overextended. They struggle to go to bed on time to get enough sleep. The consistently wake up late and stumble through the day with one excuse after another. When it comes to eating, the allure of a tasty treat trumps the best of intentions.
Inadequate self regulation limits one’s capacity to respond intuitively to normal physiological cues such as hunger and satiety. However, we can develop and strengthen our skills. While it’s seductive to think indulgence is the opposite of rigidity, these extremes actually represent two sides of the same coin. The opposite of these behaviors allows a flexibility to step into a more functional level of self regulation.
WHAT PART NATURE? WHAT PART NURTURE?
When Noah was young I remember reading the sage advice of developmental psychiatrist Stanley Greenspan. MD. Like most parents, we felt inundated with expectations and sighed in relief with his wise counsel. He taught me that it doesn’t matter so much when we reach developmental milestones, it matters that we reach developmental milestones. Truth for children and truth for adults, especially when it comes to self regulation.
Just recently I spent a session with “Chase”, one of my more earnest clients who struggles mightily with self indulgence. During the session I gently reminded him that he had never had an opportunity to develop a level of functional self regulation as a child. No caring adult was there to model, reflect, support or encourage him.
EFFECTIVE SELF SOOTHING
Without effective parenting, he was left to soothe himself. It’s no surprise to me that as an adult he continues to tap into food and spending money to navigate everything.
Ironically those who don’t use food often “graduate” to using drugs, alcohol, and/or sex for the same purpose. In too many instances we incorrectly assume an adolescent reaches a developmental milestone when a more socially “cool” or acceptable behavior replaces using food. Addiction profiles tells us otherwise, and many of my sober clients confess that food was always their first drug of choice.
Thankfully, Chase recognizes that this scared and scarred little boy still lives within. He also recognizes that his full adult self has many more resources and skills to support that little boy, certainly more than anyone he lived with as a child. Today Chase has the opportunity to re-parent himself. This time he will be the one modeling, guiding, reflecting, and helping that little boy to eat better because that’s what an effective parent does.
Functional self regulation means developing skills needed to navigate the challenges of life. These skills are invaluable, from tackling the ever increasing demands of living in a modern world to the deceptively complex challenge of trying to figure out what and how much to eat. It’s never too late. Are there any additional skills you would like develop today?