The Ability to Reflect & Compassion for Dysregulation

Last week in talking about emotional security, I mentioned that the ability to reflect on experience is associated with an internal sense of security.  According to attachment research, the ability to reflect on experience is possibly the most important skill in changing the way one relates to themselves and others.

It is the ability to move into relationship with experience rather than just be in it, that unlocks the door to emotional regulation and the dissolution of shame.  As soon as you begin to give a name to your experience you become a bit bigger. This moment of expanding around your experience is itself regulating. It also gives you access to cultivate mindfulness and engage in intentional regulation strategies like focusing on your breath or relaxing tension in your face.  In addition, when you name any aspect of your experience and are received by others with caring, you gain the perspective that experience is valid and, at the same time, not who you are. You can root your identity is something more reliable and expansive than a passing feeling, thought, or impulse.

When you know how to do this, it can be exasperating to relate to others who don't.  Not understanding their inner world, you might be tempted to judge them as lazy, stubborn, or crazy.  It may seem to you that they want to suffer, because they don't do the things that you see as simple and obvious.  Thinking this way, you tell them what they should do to help themselves and when they don't do it, you return to judgment of them.

Sadly, information and advice are not enough to help someone change.   When someone is unable to reflect on their own experience, they can't benefit from advice about how to relate differently.  They are likely spending most of their energy defending against shame and the perceived threat of rejection or abandonment. Whether they can remember it or not, they likely grew up with caregivers who met their expression of feelings and needs with anger, dismissal, or non-responsiveness. This results in shame; a felt sense that "who I am is not welcome here."  This kind of shame is typically unconscious and exists at a nonverbal level. Shame is so painful that it motivates movement away from anything that will activate it. This usually means moving away from the vulnerability that comes with conscious awareness of feelings and needs. This only begins to describe the complex inner world of someone who is not able to reflect on their own experience.

Your ability to name your feelings, needs, and thoughts as they arise in the moment and notice your relationship to them is a skill that is learned and cultivated within the container of a secure relationship or with the support of a secure internal model of relationships.  Remembering this, can help you find compassion and understanding for someone in your life who is caught in tragic strategies for managing feelings, needs, and relationships with others.

Understanding and compassion for the other may also help you to give up your own tragic strategies to try to educate or fix the other hoping that you can get them to meet your needs for empathy and connection.  The best you can do is to offer caring presence and empathy from a secure place in yourself. Every time someone experiences others responding to them in this way, a little bit of healing occurs.


Take a moment now to bring to mind someone that typically triggers irritation in you. Imagine yourself responding to them from a secure place in yourself.  Notice what you say, how you breath, and what happens in your body.