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As a teenager, when upset, under stress, or in conflict with my parents/step-parent (and at any given time, it seems, retrospectively, I was in at least one of these states) my behaviour could become regressive (i.e. I would act in a manner far more typical of a much younger child).

This regressive behaviour, in my case, included raging tantrums, uncontrollable sobbing, and, once, even, as I’ve mentioned in a previous post, shutting myself in a wardrobe, when I was about fifteen years old, after an argument with my father and stepmother.

I could go on, but you get the general picture, I imagine.

If we suffer significant trauma at an early age, it can result in part of us remaining child-like. This childhood part is cut off and separate from the main part of our personality (psychologists call it a dissociated part) and represents a phase of our childhood that was severely disrupted due to psychological and emotional turmoil.

Depending on the phase of our childhood was disrupted, this part of us may be infant-like, toddler-like, child-like, or adolescent-like.

As the part of us in question is a dissociated part (as explained above) it can often remain hidden, both from ourselves and others.

However, at times of stress, this part of us may rise to the surface and express itself in an overt manner. When this happens, we both feel and act like an infant/toddler/child/adolescent. Or, to put it more technically, we REGRESS, behaviourally, socially, and emotionally.

 

In accordance with this temporary transition we may, for example :

  • suck our thumb
  • cling to a soft toy
  • hide under a table (or, in my case, shut ourselves in a wardrobe – see above)
  • feel an intense sense of vulnerability
  • feel exceptionally dependent on others and emotionally ‘needy’ with an overwhelming desire to be protected, loved, and cared for
  • display tantrum-like behaviour
  • engage in baby talk
  • become incontinent
  • masturbate
  • become mute
  • be aggressive
  • rock backward and forwards
  • wet bed
  • be unable to care for ourselves and so need assistance with washing and grooming etc.
  • sob in the fetal position


We need, too, to grant ourselves permission to grieve for our unmet childhood needs, and look for ways to satisfy these needs
in the here and now that are not self-destructive and which do not compromise our adult lives. Whilst we should aim not to indulge such aspects of ourselves in ways that are ultimately self-destructive, it is important that we acknowledge they exist and accept them in a spirit of self-compassion.

REGRESSION AND BORDERLINE PERSONALITY DISORDER:

I have,. of course, written many articles about the link between childhood trauma and the later development of borderline personality disorder(BPD). But how are BPD and regression connected?

According to Stone (2006), because those suffering from BPD lack a clear sense of their own identity, they are particularly susceptible to display regressive behaviour at times of stress.

REGRESSION AND SIGMUND FREUD:

Freud regarded regression as a defense mechanism leading us to revert to an earlier developmental stage such as the oral, anal or phallic stage. Examples of regressive behaviours associated with these phases are:

  • overeating, being verbally abusive, smoking, nail-biting, gum chewing, excessive drinking (associated with a fixation on the oral stage of development)
  • being excessively tidy or excessively messy (associated with a fixation on  the anal stage of development)
  • being extremely vain, exhibitionistic, and sexually aggressive (associated with a fixation on the genital stage of development)

CARL JUNG: THE POSITIVE SIDE OF REGRESSION:

Carl Jung argued that there can be a positive side to the act of regressing, including an attempt to regain the ‘universal feeling of childhood innocence as well as the sense of ‘security and ‘protection’ of childhood together with feelings of ‘reciprocated love, or trust.’ However, many people with BPD will have found such aspects of childhood conspicuously lacking, so it is harder to see how Jung’s theory could apply to this section of the population unless, perhaps, the individual with BPD has idealized his/her experience of his/her childhood and parents.

 

For advice about managing our ‘inner child’, a useful link can be found by clicking here.

REFERENCES:

Stone MH. Management of borderline personality disorder: a review of psychotherapeutic approaches. World Psychiatry. 2006;5(1):15–20. [PMC free article] [PubMed[]

 

Resource:

EBook – click image below:

 

David Hosier BSc Hons; MSc; PGDE(FAHE).