No More Regulation
Photo by Andrew Davis
I am heretofore removing the word ‘regulation’ and its subsidiaries, ‘down-regulation,’ ‘up-regulation,’ ‘dysregulation,’ and ‘co-regulation’ from my lexicon — at least as they relate to intra- and interpersonal experiences, and replacing it with ‘attunement,’ ‘loss of resonance,’ and lots of metaphors for all the beautiful and dissonant ways life moves— hot air balloons floating over the ridge together, tectonic plates shifting, flames bursting from dry wood, streams braiding together. There are so many ways to talk about the energy that moves through and between us and how it goes in and out of alignment.
Words matter. And that word “regulation” has been sticking in my throat and my ear canal for a long time now. I want to swallow it back down. I would blink it out if I had earlids. It arises increasingly frequently in therapist talk as neurophysiological research works its way into the language of growing and healing. These words came up so much in my trainings on trauma and somatic healing that I made symbols for them. Those symbols entered my progress notes — arrows angling upward and downward.
No more. I am regulating the word regulation. I am making more squiggly lines in my therapy notes.
The definition of ‘regulate’ is “to govern or dictate according to rule,” “to bring under the rule of law,” “to bring order, method, or uniformity to,” “to fix or adjust the time, amount or degree of.” (1) It derives from the root ‘reg’— to move in a straight line. Regulate is a transitive verb — a ruling subject regulates a ruled object.
This recognition of the dominance/subjection inherent in these words is why I’m excising it from communication about humans and how we relate with ourselves and each other —especially as therapists of one sort or another. It assumes that there is a subject, within or without a person, who can regulate the dysregulated, who can dial up or down the regulation to their choosing. If used intra-personally, it places a verbal and analytical part of ourselves over a behaving/expressing part of ourselves.
At this point I need to thank my unruly clients who made sure I unlearned the kyriarchy underlying this. I have also been that unruly client/object, so I thank those who stayed with me —really stayed with me, letting go of the safety net of where they thought we were going and trusting the resonance we were creating.
I need to thank every teammate, aikido partner, dance partner, and lover, every breeze and wave, every bending trees and rumbling storm that pulled me out to run wild though Texas streets as the rain pelted down after all the quiet heavy holding. I need to thank a few thousand musicians. I need to thank them all because their lessons are in my body more than the words of regulation are in my neocortex.
Following Audré Lord’s admonition to “throw away the master’s tools”, Nick Walker calls for us to liberate ourselves from the pathology paradigm when working with and talking about neurodiversity.(2) Walker’s call echoes in me as I think about regulation, as I throw away the tool that is that word. When I was in somatic training with Bill Bowen, he had us practice, in random unspoken order, three kinds of touch with our study partners: 1. Attempting to do something, 2. Being with, 3. Not sure we know what we’re doing. We would do our best to not change the pressure of our touch, but to only shift our intentions.
Our study partners almost always knew which touch was which, and they always preferred “being with.”
I don’t need to regulate my touch. I need to give myself to the joining.
So, you may wonder what if the person you are working with is in panic, is overwhelmed, has gone numb? What if I’m afraid that, if I join them, I will lose my center and therefore my capacity to be of any help? Don’t I need to regulate myself? To hold boundaries?
Well, here is where all the aikido and other body and spirit training, all the time being with the land, and all the times I was well met come in. It is all about being centered and connected with bigger life forces while also being with another — it’s the bass line, the rhythm, the drone. Or it’s the net of stars we rest in. Or it’s the ancestors and guides. Not just mine but the other person’s as well.
So, what if it’s too much? My answer to that is humility. Humility means acknowledging my limits and communicating what I need, as the practitioner, to hold the space. If my limits are too tight for the person I am working with, then we have a problem to solve together. Do they need to try something else or someone else? Can we take it step-by-step and build up our shared capacity? Do I need to get help or deepen my practices so that I can hold the space and be with my client where they need or want to go?
And what if neither of us knows exactly where we are going? I don’t know anything to do in those times but remember that’s how life is —nothing to do but take a breath, notice where you are together, and listen. Something will arise. Then you get to be transparent, to say, “This is what I know. This is what I don’t know. Let’s just be here together.” If you start to notice a direction, a breeze, a calling in the field, then it can be shared. A choice can be made, knowing that you may need to stop and make a different choice. I have lost my way again and again in touch psychotherapy work, each time saying out loud and through my hands – “joining,” “joining again,” “sorry I lost you for a moment.” We slow down, find our way again, back up, repair, if needed. We are not only tuning our shared resonance, but the internal resonance inside a client by being present and humble and transparent. Inside they are recognizing that they can sense with me when something isn’t quite right, how it wasn’t aligned clearly with healing. This growing sense, with its falling away of appeasement and numbness feeds clients’ awareness of what does work of what feels aligned and attuned within them.
Here are some inner words, words of the body (my body) from a session that moved from regulation to resonance a decade ago.
You want me to settle? Why? Actually, I feel that it’s going another way. It needs to move like this. I want to follow this movement, but I think you have a different idea. Darn. It was getting good. Wait. Where did you go? Are you coming with me or am I doing this alone? I’m doing it alone again. Sadness. Loneliness. Can I even do it alone? Do I need to leave it and just try to follow you? No. I will try to say a word. (No. Come back.) Oh, you’re listening. This may work. Maybe I can let you back in. I need to feel your heart. There it is. Good. I think I can feel something strong and solid in you. Do you feel my presence? Yes, there is that pause, that curiosity and care. Okay. I’m going to let you back in. Now, we’re in connection. You’re not trying to do something to or control something in me. Now I can share more with you. We can learn some things together.
Words get into our bodies. If you think ‘resonance’ instead of ‘regulation,’ the feelings change. Try feeling “regulation.” How do you sense it? What are its shapes and textures in you? How does it move in you? Where does it move from and towards? Can you move, dance, or sing in a regulated way? What is that like? Now try “resonance” or “attunement” in your body. What shapes and textures does it make? How does it move you or move within you? Do you make the movement happen or do you join it? or both?
I wish I had learned this better before I had children. Humility. Repair. Practice. I don’t want to co-regulate with anyone. I want to meet them in the resonant humming that moves in the field of life we co-exist within. I want to find the common rhythms. I want to back up the harmonies and I want to find my own harmonies, knowing others are backing me up. I want all the parts of my own being to keep finding their way to resonance with each other, to make a glorious big band of humming strands of nerves and swishing organs, all my young, old, strong, tender parts playing together to the lub-dubbing of my heart, and the deep tidal rhythm of my lungs — all separate, connected, and resonant.
(1) “Regulate.” Merriam-Webster.com Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/regulate. Accessed 24 Apr. 2022.
(2) Walker, N. (2021) “Throw away the master’s tools, liberating ourselves from the pathology paradigm.” Neuroqueer Heresies. Autonomous Press, Fort Worth, TX.