The Keys to Self-Regulation
by Thaddeus Camlin, Psy.D.
We know now through research, experience, and common sense that all so-called “addicts” are not the same, and that addiction is not an intractable, lifelong condition that cannot be overcome. At the heart of addictive problems a compromised capacity for self-regulation is often found. Self-regulation is not a genetic trait that some inherit and some do not – it is a skill developed and nurtured largely by the environment. An expertise in horticulture is not required to understand that lacking conditions are the most likely explanation for an underwhelming harvest. The good news is that self-regulation can be developed and refined at any stage of life, and there are concrete factors that help us improve our capacity for it.
Underdeveloped self-regulation results in dependency on external sources to boost mood and manage emotions. Environments with high emotionality, especially anger, sadness, and fear, often result in difficulty differentiating one’s emotions from the emotions of others. Blurred emotional boundaries stunt the development of a sense of self that is separate from inner experience. Self-regulation requires the ability to differentiate between self and the predominant emotion in any particular moment, otherwise feelings cloud judgments and define actions.
Without a sense of self separate from inner experience, boundaries in adult relationships become blurred as well. Self-regulation requires an individuated sense of self that does not tailor presentation to mirror or reject external expectations and does not repress or impulsively act upon feelings. No child is born with the capacity for self-regulation, children require caregivers to manage psychological and physical needs. Self-regulation is learned, and yes, even so-called “addicts” can and usually do learn the required skills successfully.
The keys to self-regulation are self-worth, a differentiated sense of self, and impulse control. Building self-worth, cultivating a differentiated sense of self, and improving impulse control are all pursuits that respond quite well to intentional, persistent effort. With healthy confidence, a grounded sense of who we are, and ample experience of success resisting impulses the foundation is laid for successful regulation of any addictive behavior and our emotions in general.