Learning to regulate ourselves–recognizing healthy choices, making them, and carrying them out–takes a lifetime. Part of that self regulation entails understanding the process of our own conscious awareness. Our minds generate an enormous number of thoughts and emotions continuously, and we have to figure out which ones are important to attend to, which ones are accurate reflections of a reality outside of ourselves, and which ones will result in outcomes that are good for us and desirable. As we learn to carry out this activity called life, we get better at it. We begin to see that we can do more than we thought we could. We see that our minds generate all sorts of realities and there is some agency inside of us that chooses which ones count and which ones don’t. We begin to see that there is that margin of free will.
Each thought or emotion vies for our attention. It may be alarming, interesting, or unusual. Sometimes the magnitude of the demand becomes so all-consuming we forget that we can choose whether to get involved with a particular thought or feeling. That margin of choice is where self-regulation happens. It doesn’t mean we don’t feel the emotion. It means we recognize that it may or may not accurately signal some external or internal reality. And therefore we may decide to act on it or not act on it. And in that decision, we own our own minds: Our experience is reflectively chosen and not driven by unseen meaning structures from our past or current circumstances.
Self-regulation is learned, just like any discipline. The word discipline comes from the word disciple, because it refers to a process of learning from a mentor a system of skills and knowledge. So, self-regulation can be helped by having a person outside the system to provide accurate reflections of reality. Sometimes this person is a parent. Sometimes it is a therapist. Sometimes it is an unusual spouse.
Discipline does not require punishment. It does require effort. If we have learned to teach ourselves by applying punishment, in the form of deprivation, internal criticism, or even self-harm, we not only have to learn the exercise of self-regulation, we first have to become convinced that punishment does not work, then we have to recognize when we do it, and then we have to practice not punishing ourselves.
When we conflate the notions of regulation and punishment, we give ourselves unnecessary and destructive losses. We make growth impossible. And we are isolated from the external world. We cannot learn because the stakes are too high: The consequences of errors are too damaging. We avoid the punishment by avoiding the growth.
Structure building relationships work. We can see it. Our own connection with caregiving people in our lives is the result of a healthy self-regulation, a move toward growth, and a decision to make effort. These relationships are rare and difficult to find, but they make an existential difference in our future path. Not every therapist is right for every person. Not every process leads to our chosen destination. Fortunately, we can continually be reflective and make our best self-caretaking, and caregiving, choices.