The ability to manage your emotions actually started with your first caregiver

Jake Ernst says, on his instagram bio, that he’s “writing notes that make you think & help you feel.”

This did both, for me.

You may have heard the word “self-regulation” – it basically means having the ability to manage your emotions, so they don’t become disruptive outbursts, but can be channeled or metabolized. It’s a skill that kindergarteners are monitored for.

Ernst takes it a step further in this post, reminding us that self-regulation doesn’t arise out of nowhere. It’s connected to co-regulation, which is this wonderful marvellous mammalian ability, to sync nervous systems.

We are wired for belonging.

We really are.

An infant isn’t born with a developed nervous system. What do they do while that wiring is developing? They piggyback on the nervous system of their primary care giver. (This is why providing supports and care for new mothers is CRUCIAL.)

I thought a lot about this, during the pandemic – that the time I would take away from my family, to go upstairs and log on to a mindfulness meditation class (with Susan Reifer, still happening, through the Whistler Library, for free, sign up here, seriously, SO GOOD! June 9 and June 23), was contributing to the overall emotional wellbeing of our household. Because I am developing some skilfulness in self-regulation, through mindfulness, I can then help drop the stress overall, through this mystery of co-regulation.

That’s at least my amateur understanding of what’s happening.

Here’s Jake Ernst, who actually has qualifications:

For a while I’ve been exploring the complexity that comes along with using the term “regulation”. In our culture, it can be used to imply that self-regulation is the goal 100% of the time which can set us up to believe that regulating independently, even during our toughest moments, is what it means to be a mature adult.

I want to add more nuance here because sometimes this causes us to overlook an important factor: Coregulation is a prerequisite for self regulation. Feeling safe with someone else is a prerequisite for feeling safe within ourselves. Coregulation is a biological imperative and we need each other to survive.

Coregulation, to me, can be defined as nervous system nourishment through the nurturing and soothing mechanism of safety with another living being.

Coregulation requires mutual exchange. For the nervous system to experience a calming or nourishing affect it must register a safe enough energetic presence. This presence with another life force helps us to establish a presence or groundedness within ourselves. We use that calm and soothing presence as an anchor and model for what safety should feel like.

This underscores an important point: When we haven’t received or achieved a felt sense of coregulation with another lifeforce, our nervous system will still find ways to meet that need. When we haven’t experienced this in our early years, we are left no choice but to constantly seek safety through relationship with someone or something. We will even engage in destructive behaviours if that’s what helps us feel soothed. This is how we form unhelpful coping habits and it is even the basis for addiction. Without coregulation, all of our future attempts at self regulation are a survival response.

The nuance here is tricky to articulate but just because we look successful in achieving self-regulation does not mean that our unmet needs for coregulation are met. We need each other to be well. We should not be made to do it alone even if we have the option to because our nervous systems are always seeking safety through coregulation. Even in our toughest moments. Even when we can self-regulate well. Even into the later years of life.

Jake Ernst

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