Self-Regulation is always Co-Regulation


We need others. Whether we like it or not, we are designed to depend on others to feel safe, supported and understood in the world.

So why do we place such high value on independence?

Dependence is a dirty word in American culture. We’re either shamed for being too needy, or with good intentions, we’re told to “take care of ourselves.” This perpetuates the myth that we can and must do it alone.

Bonnie Badenoch, author of Being a Brain-Wise Therapist, is working to dispel this myth of self-regulation; that we can survive as independent, self-reliant creatures.

Bonnie uses the term co-regulation to describe how we are regulated in relationships and how we carry the support of others within us, even when they are not physically with us.

Our capacity to self-regulate is rooted in the healthy relationships we have experienced. Feeling safe & cared for by another expands our window of tolerance for strong emotions and for what once felt impossible to bear.

Many agree that as children we need warm relationships, but believe that this dependency has an expiration date when we become adults. However, Bonnie describes our need for co-regulation as an ongoing undulating pattern of needing the safety & stability of others to move into pain, and emerge with resolutions & expanded capacity, to later enter a future period of needing support. Rather than being a weakness, these times of emotional dependency allow us to sink deeper into our personal healing work and help us grow.

Bonnie turns to research on mirror neurons and resonance circuitry to argue that we are always internalizing other beings and carrying them around with us. Those who have cared for us continue to live within us as ongoing resources for co-regulation.

Co-regulation is always happening and as we become more conscious of it our nervous system settles, our amygdala quiets, and we feel calmer. Truly, self-regulation is always co-regulation.

Pause here to see if you can recall a time you felt a sense of warmth & connection with another person. Maybe you can imagine warm smiles or caring eyes? See if you can experience a felt sense of warmth and safety in your body connected to these memories and images.

Bonnie suggests inviting in the images and felt sense of 1 or 2 people that can accompany us, which she calls “our internal community.” As we strengthen this awareness of inner others, we deepen our internal sense of being accompanied wherever we are. The more we conjure these memories the stronger they become with each neural firing. 

As our own co-regulation strengthens we become more available to support others, creating a ripple effect of co-regulation, and a stronger community.