Flourishing with Sensory Processing Sensitivity
Calm is Overrated
By Kim Barthel
“Regulation (of the nervous system) does not mean to calm; it means to connect.” – Lisa Dion
The term “regulation” has become an everyday word, used liberally to describe the perception of a person’s behavioural state. For example, when we see a child sitting very still in the classroom, we often interpret this to mean they are “regulated” because they look calm. When we witness a person yelling at someone in the street, we may say “wow, they’re dysregulated”. What is challenging about making assumptions about behaviours as arousal states (even though they could be accurate) is that we also may be completely incorrect. Our perception of what is occurring within a person’s inner life is highly subjective. A still, compliant body does not always represent a regulated organized internal experience. This individual can be frozen with fear with their mind being overwhelmed with stress and/or disconnection (dissociation), yet appear to be present. Alternately, the individual who is yelling may be fully connected to their need to protect themself through their experience, and be relatively regulated as compared with the child sitting still.
These deeper considerations may confuse teachers, parents or clinical professionals who may characterize states of dysregulation as being moments when intense emotions emerge, and it is typically assumed these emotional states need “fixing”. Towards this, goals are often set to teach “self-regulation” in therapeutic settings. These well-intentioned goals, both therapeutic and educational, are supported by many neurobiologically-informed, psychotherapeutic theories that emphasize the importance of calm/regulation as the home of human function, learning, and relating. But calm is overrated – calm has become a seemingly coveted state that has been erroneously equated with regulation, the actual home for optimal function.
What is missing in this dialogue about states of regulation is the importance of recognizing and valuing the nuances of blended states of arousal, where an individual can be activated with emotion and still be connected to themselves and others. These blended states occur in play, intimacy, arguments, and everyday experiences. It is neurobiologically and behaviourally possible to be highly aroused and still be regulated and contained within one’s window of tolerance. Discerning the difference between regulated activation of emotions as information and triggered states of emotional dyregulation that lie beneath awareness is a critical distinction. Disconnected, harmful and reactive emotions that are truly dysregulated can result in the perpetuation of suffering rather than as a communication aimed at restoring and maintaining contact in relationship.
Thankfully, in the last decade there has been a shift away from the need for behavioural compliance and self-suppression to an appreciation for the importance of co-regulation for homeostasis (internal state of balance). Appropriately, as this awareness increases, a deeper inquiry around what co-regulation means continues to evolve. As we each attempt to increase our personal consciousness within our relationships, it is apparent that co-regulation requires an unfolding depth of self-awareness, self-compassion, and authenticity. When we show up in relationships with the intent to be present with another person, it can sometimes look messy rather than “calm” in its presentation. When “messy” is authentic and connected and therefore regulated, even those moments can ultimately have the impact of repair, reconnection and security.
The human brain and our entire beings (whether in children or adults) are designed for connection with a deep desire to be felt by others. We all need to be seen, valued, and met within our relationships. Emotions are our innate communication system, informing us interoceptively and neuroceptively about our feelings of safety and danger in the environment and with the people around us. As the brain tracks the potential for danger in the environment, disingenuous outward behavioural responses that are not congruent with a person’s inner emotional experience can be perceived by the brain as DANGER. When we sense that a person’s inside and outside don’t match, we feel as if something is wrong. Especially when our brain is developing in childhood, it is the congruence of experiencing and feeling a full range of emotions in a safe, contained and authentic manner that prepares us for the management of our emotions and arousal states in our future relationships to come.
When I state that “Calm is Overrated” this is not to dismiss the deep need for the inner knowing of an interoceptive calm, safe and balanced place within us all. The statement today that “Calm is Overrated” is to add that deep feelings do not need to be equated with dysregulation. Feelings of joyous elation, intense disappointment, loss, anger and frustration are also places where we can connect and feel truly felt by another. When experiencing the full ranges of these emotions even as blended states, when experienced within a container of safety – we can still be regulated. It’s when we feel our feelings deeply while we maintain our sense of regulation that we expand into our fullness of the human experience.
The sweet spot of highly sensitive living.
This helped me view my trait as an asset.
Another brilliant sensitive human I’m learning from.
Sensitive Is the New Strong: The Power of Empaths in an Increasingly Harsh World
Song I have on repeat.