This time of year is pressure-filled and brings up old wounds. The holidays involve a lot of detail-minding and extra effort. Entertaining, holiday cards, gift buying, baking, decorating, party attending, putting up lights, traveling and making sure everyone is happy, take a lot of energy. All three of my children have birthdays during the holiday season as well. Because I live in Minnesota, there is often snow shoveling to do too.
There are days in December I want to curl up into a ball and hibernate.
Why do I do it? Because I get a personal note from a 98-year-old relative every year thanking me for the wonderful family letter I include with the holiday cards. Because my kids get excited for the holidays and the traditions we have in place. Because I can’t figure out how to stop doing it, without feeling bad.
One year I had help from a partner. It was heavenly. My kids have begun to provide assistance in small ways. I appreciate that. I vent to my closest friends about my feelings of overwhelm. They empathize. I feel better, for a while.
Strong people take care of things
But over the years, starting when I was a child, I learned not to burden others with my needs or feelings. Other people are busy with their own to do lists. Strong people don’t need comforting. Strong people take care of things on their own.
Permission to let someone else help you
In Love and War in Intimate Relationships, Dr. Stan Tatkin and Dr. Marion Solomon stress the importance of interactive regulation. Interactive regulation is the process whereby at least two individuals co-manage and balance nervous system arousal in real-time.
A key point of Love and War is that we are in the care of our primary intimate partner. Our focal duty is to soothe and comfort each other. Often as adults we put out fires for our co-workers, resolve problems for our children, care for our aging parents, make sure our house is in order, etc. We put our partner and/or ourselves at the bottom of the care list.
When you can’t ask for help
Responses learned in childhood (due to a caregiver’s lack of attentiveness) and efforts to spare our partner added grief, often cause us to self-soothe or auto-regulate. If there is no spouse or partner, auto-regulation is even more likely.
When I don’t have a partner who comforts me and makes me feel secure, auto-regulation becomes my norm. I calm my nervous system by giving myself space and time away from the demands of others. When I don’t have this time away, I get overwhelmed and disregulated.
When you receive help
There have been periods in my life when a partner and I interactively regulated each other (although we had no idea we were doing that). We quieted each other’s anxieties. We were a team. Those were times of wonderful inner and outer peace.
According to Tatkin and Solomon, interactive regulation and attunement (a feeling of being on the same page, in alignment or in synchrony), produce a sense of safety and security as well as attraction. Both processes require a couple to be predictable and friendly on a micromoment basis. A micromoment is the subcortical speed at which people appraise and respond to social situations — roughly 30-300 milliseconds. Any perceived injuries or misattunement should be repaired quickly because they are perceived quickly.
Dr. Tatkin gives an example of a young couple and their struggle to regulate each other while taking care of their children. The wife often had a hard time getting their four-year-old dressed in the morning. The child fought against the mother until the mother ended up yelling at the child. The yelling, heard as a distress signal by the husband, caused him to charge into the room and swiftly yell at and discipline the child. This action disempowered the wife and did not change the behavior in the child. The next day the same scene took place. Dr. Tatkin suggested the husband calmly enter the room, kiss his wife on the head or rest his hand on her shoulder and ask if there is anything he can do to help her. These gestures would soothe the wife’s nerves and most likely help the child feel secure too. Tatkin calls this ‘regulating the regulator’. This kind of interaction puts your partner and your relationship first. It makes your partner feel secure and cared for.
Healing old wounds
Interactive regulation involves learning each other’s old wounds and working to heal them. It requires closeness and keen observation of facial expressions, tone of voice, body language, etc. It requires deep listening with intent to understand and comfort in the way your partner needs. It requires appreciation, respect and admission of vulnerability.
One of my old wounds is not feeling I can count on the support of a loved one. Any sign someone is not consistently reliable with their words and actions, puts my nervous system on alert.
The holidays are a time when I feel that wound. I feel alone in my tasks and sometimes even in the celebrations. My extended family lives far away. The interdependence of a partnership has been rare. It’s not my children’s place to provide emotional support.
My friends fill in as family and support, which I greatly appreciate. The inclusion of a church community this year has also eased my dis-ease. Knowing there is somewhere I am consistently embraced and included, gives me energy to support others.
As the holiday season kicks off this week with Thanksgiving, I am extremely grateful for the good people in my life who interactively regulate with me. I look forward to getting better at caring for others while being cared for.
Do you ever feel like you’re doing everything alone? Is self-soothing your default method of emotional regulation? How could someone comfort you?