Why Quarantine May Be Causing You To Emotionally Regress & How To Avoid It
If you returned home to provide your parents company or escape a crowded city amid the quarantine, you may be noticing old habits reemerging. Petty sibling arguments. Former insecurities. Even a lack of motivation to complete basic household chores. You're still an adult when you look in the mirror, but internally you may feel like a teenager again.
Why do we fall into old patterns at home?
Spending a significant amount of time at home can cause us to revert to former patterns and behaviors, rooted in family dynamics. This can sometimes be referred to as regression—the process of reverting to an earlier development stage (emotionally, socially, or behaviorally). Regression commonly occurs in times of stress, so unsurprisingly, being stuck at home in the middle of a pandemic may be triggering a lot of regression for many people.
Although we most often notice regression when spending time around parents or siblings again as adults, this can also happen when we start visiting old friends. The reason being, all relationships have certain relational dynamics. These can include power dynamics, emotional dynamics, and habitual interactions based on certain actions or words.
"When we're not with people on a regular ongoing basis, those dynamics are still under the surface," explains social psychologist Jennifer Goldman-Wetzler, Ph.D., "but because we're not interacting often, we're no longer aware of them."
As soon as you go home, or start catching up with old friends on a regular basis, those dynamics come back. "They can either help you or haunt you," she says.
Getting stuck in conflict loops.
Along with relational dynamics, we all have conflict habits. These are the four main conflict habits, according to Goldman-Wetzler:
- Blaming others
- Avoiding others
- Blaming yourself
- Relentlessly seeking to collaborate with others
A lot of times we share our conflict habits with family members, because that's who we learned them from. These tend to get us stuck in conflict loops, where we're repeating the same habits over and over. "These dynamics may feel comfortable, even if in reality they're anything but," Goldman-Wetzler says. What you're likely feeling is familiarity, not genuine comfort.
"If you haven't closely interacted with your parents on a regular basis, and suddenly you're living under their roof," she says, "you can slide back into these very familiar patterns of interaction without even realizing it."
Though they may seem permanent, it's possible to alter those patterns and avoid this regression.
Three steps to avoid regression:
1. Identify your family's pattern dynamic.
When your family has maintained the same dynamic your entire life, it's nearly impossible to change it overnight. For example, if your mom has the conflict habit of blaming others, and you have the conflict habit of avoiding others, you can get stuck in a blame-shutdown pattern, meaning, your mom may be arguing and placing blame on you, and you respond by running to your room and slamming the door.
If you're not ready to change your response yet, identifying the pattern can go a long way. "Just naming it frees you from it," Goldman-Wetzler says. "Once you've named the pattern, it's hard not to see it." And seeing it is the first step in changing it.
2. Try to talk about the pattern with others.
After you've identified the pattern, try to talk through it with family members—particularly those who you tend to have conflict with.
"This can be challenging," Goldman-Wetzler notes. If you have a trusting relationship with your parents or siblings, the conversation could be productive as long as you approach it from a spirit of wanting to improve your relationship as family members. If you don't, it could inflame them and make things worse.
"You want to be thoughtful about whom you do this with, when you bring it up, and how you say it." If this is too difficult or if you have toxic family members, you can skip to Step 3.
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3. Take a different action.
Once you've identified the pattern, you don't necessarily have to talk about it with others—just choose to break it.
For example, instead of slamming the door when your mom blames you for something, stick around and explain why you disagree.
The first time you take that different action, it will feel uncomfortable. "So uncomfortable," she says, "you will barely recognize yourself. That's how you know you're doing the right thing."
Taking a different action over time will subtly let your family members know that you're no longer a child and that they can't treat you like one anymore.
The bottom line.
Falling into old patterns and family conflicts from childhood can be frustrating as an adult. The best way to prevent that is by doing the work yourself. You can't expect things out of your control (i.e., other people) to change, Goldman-Wetzler says. When you take what you can control, like your own behavior, that's when progress is made.
To take control, first acknowledge that you and your family members are stuck in a dynamic together. If one person is exerting power, it takes another person to succumb to it. "When you're a child, you have no power, so you basically don't have any recourse," she says. "When you're an adult coming back, you have a choice about whether you'll succumb to it or take a different action."
And try to remember—even amid the conflict—to be grateful. Your ability to retreat to a safe and loving home is a blessing that not everybody has.
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