One of the oldest pieces of furniture and one too which has been used in countless metaphors is the three-legged stool. It is simple in its design and yet consistent in its stability. Science has been able to prove that the three-legged stool, chair or table is superior to the four-legged versions that we typically use on any surface. However, if the floor is relatively flat, then the four or more-legged furniture versions are better. Put simply, on unstable ground, a three-legged stool will always give you a better sense of stability. Using the three-legged stool as an analogy for our own stability, let’s imagine that the ground is our life experience. Like Forrest Gump, life really is like a box of chocolates and we never really know what we are going to get. So, with unstable ground to begin with, it is important that we have a three-legged stool on which to balance in that uncertain terrain. Let’s also imagine that each leg of the three-legged stool represents a different form of regulation: auto-regulation, self-regulation and co-regulation. We need all three of these forms of regulation in equal measure, or our own stability and balance becomes questionable in the face of the ongoing uncertainty and instability of our life experiences.
Auto-regulation refers to the subconscious and automatic processes that we do not have to put conscious control and effort into. For example, our mind and body regulate temperature, digestion, fluids, organs, breathing, sleeping, etc. However, we can make choices that disrupt this auto-regulation. We can choose to stay up later or wake up earlier than the normal rhythm of sleep that our body needs. We can ignore signals for hunger or temperature and when we do, we feel hungry, cold or hot for longer periods of time. We can experience things that disrupt our auto-regulation without our choice or knowledge. Traumatic experiences such as abuse, and neglect can do this.
Self-regulation refers to the conscious choices we make to feel regulated and balanced. This type of regulation requires awareness of one’s self and a healthy use of our agency to know what activities will help us cope with uncomfortable emotions, thoughts, experiences or relationships. Healthy self-regulation activities may include exercise, meditation, reading a book, listening to music, being in nature, etc. Many times, people make choices for self-regulation which are unhealthy regulation behaviors to compensate for out of balance auto-regulation. For example, over eating, under eating, over sleeping, under sleeping, wearing warm clothes in warm weather or cool clothes in cool weather, self-harm, substance abuse and other behaviors each have a pay-off of ‘feeling better’ but also don’t fix the problem or fully regulate us.
Co-regulation refers to the connections we make with others to feel balanced and stable. People function better within the context of a relationship or attachment. However, a stable relationship or secure attachment is one that functions like a see-saw where both individuals give and take, are comfortable with and know how to navigate being close and distanced. The unhealthy versions of co-regulation include co-dependency when both are on one side of the see-saw or isolation in which only one person is on the see-saw.
The three-legged stool of stability in the uncertain and unstable life we live can only be achieved when each leg of the stool is the proper length – not too long or not too short. When we learn to listen to our bodies we can experience auto-regulation. When we are accountable for our moods, thoughts and behaviors and learn how to tolerate these things for our self and know what keeps us balanced, we can experience self-regulation. When we know how to communicate, validate, recognize and express our emotions and learn how to tolerate others’ emotions, we can experience co-regulation. If you feel that you are struggling with one or more legs of your three-legged stool of regulation, please consult with a medical and/or mental health professional to help you identify what may be dysregulated and learn how you can achieve stability.