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The True Extent of Self-Regulation Problems & Why It’s Not a Matter of Poor Self-Discipline

The True Extent of Self-Regulation Problems & Why It’s Not a Matter of Poor Self-Discipline

There is something modern parents know about young children who have explosive emotional displays. Toddlers rolling around and screaming may be an uncomfortable sight, but ultimately parents know it can’t always be avoided. Young children have no emotional self-regulation and they need to learn to release their inner turmoil so they can learn healthy self-regulation. 

Yet, not every child has the chance of growing up with understanding parents. As a result, they may grow up with repressed emotions, which are emotions they were not able or allowed to express during their childhood. Indeed, people are emotional creatures who are led by their feelings. While self-regulation can help process these feelings without acting on them, it is important to understand that self-regulation is a learned behavior. Without the support of a loving and caring environment, individuals of all ages can choose to repress and ignore their emotions instead of self-regulating. In fact, many believe that ignoring what they feel is part of self-regulating. Unfortunately, they are wrong and the consequences of thwarting emotions can be hefty for both your mental and physical health. 

So why is self-regulation skill so precious? Self-regulation plays a crucial role in our everyday lives, and helps us control our impulses while making conscious decisions that align with our inner turmoil and our long-term goals. There is a delicate balance to maintain between acknowledging one’s emotional experience and self-regulating. Self-regulation is neither ignoring nor indulging. However, in many cases, adults discover too late self-regulation problems, which may have a variety of causes. What is the dark side of self-regulation and how much damage can society do when it tells people to “suck it up”? Let’s explore.

Substance abuse

Perhaps, the most visible sign of a self-regulation problem is substance abuse, whether you call it drugs or alcohol. Nowadays, the detox and rehab experience has changed dramatically to get to the bottom of this self-regulation issue. It isn’t a case of keeping people in clinical treatment until they stop drinking or doing drugs in the hope they will maintain their newly found good habit outside. It has been recognized that individuals who struggle with addictive behavior need a dual diagnosis treatment center that can address both the physical journey of withdrawal and the psychological scar underneath. 

So how do self-regulation issues can actually lead to this destructive cycle? Lack of emotional self-regulation can create a complex emotional drain where the unprocessed and unmanaged experiences of the past continue to burden the individual. They may be linked to a traumatic event. But they can also be the result of strained emotional internalizing. The pent up angst and pain that could not be expressed doesn’t disappear. It stays within, leading to unhealthy coping mechanisms. 

Binge eating

Anyone who’s been trying to maintain a healthy weight or drop a dress size is aware of the importance of building a healthy relationship with food. Binge eating is another area where self-regulation problems can have a profound impact. Contrary to common belief, individuals who experience difficulties in regulating their eating habits do not lack self-discipline. They consume excessive amounts of food in a short period of time but MRI binge eaters’ brains revealed a self-regulation issue. 

The real question as to how does a self-regulation problem arise and how does it rewire the brain is tough to answer. But scientists have already observed how trauma, neurodiversity, and psychiatric disorders can dramatically transform the way the brain behaves. Yet, the bottom line is that eating disorders are not linked to lazy or indulging personalities. They are tightly connected to the brain map. As such, when the brain undergoes dramatic changes, or is more vulnerable to different circuit connectivity, harmful habits become soothing, either because they drive pleasure or they help soothe an overactive nervous system. 

Compulsive shopping

Uncontrollable shopping impulses are another commonly ignored manifestation of self-regulation problems. Buying more than you can afford is vilified as a modern-day behavior in a capitalistic world. In reality, individuals with self-regulation challenges physically struggle to resist the urge to make impulsive and extravagant purchases. 

Compulsive shopping, however, is more commonly acceptable, as many Americans describe themselves as occasional impulsive buyers, splurging on average $276 a month. As such, many real compulsive buyers can go unnoticed until their self-regulation issues start driving uncontrollable debts. The truth is that compulsive shopping is a real disorder that can be a lot more severe than a few hundred dollars a month. People crave the feel-good sensation they get, which refers to a change in the emotional processes in the brain.


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Self-regulation issues are linked to self-destructive behavior patterns, even though the first reaction could be positive. For instance, despite the health risks associated with drugs, individuals often explain they turn to hard substances to cope. As such, drugs do seem to deliver, at first, a positive element, such as reducing overstimulation or helping them detach themselves from the oppressing reality. Similarly, binge-eating and compulsive shopping can boost feel-good sensations. But in excess, these behaviors are self-destructive. 

Self-sabotage is an unwanted end goal that feels inevitable for individuals with self-regulation issues. Why does it happen? Why do they try to undermine their own well-being or success? Self-regulation disorders can enhance negative self-talks, responsibility avoidance, and fear of failure. As such, it isn’t uncommon for individuals to unconsciously opt for self-sabotaging behaviors as they believe they are not able to aspire to anything else. Many feel trapped in a cycle of self-defeating behaviors, which is even harder to break as they may not be fully aware of it. 

Self-regulation problems can not only have far-reaching consequences in various aspects of everyday life, but they can also have complex causes. Indeed, they are perceived as a result of brain changes. The brain remains a complex organ that scientists still struggle to fully understand. What is certain is that the brain can be affected by a variety of issues, ranging from neurodiversity to lack of emotional support as a child. 

Understanding self-regulation problems is no easy task, as it can be tricky to acknowledge their existence. Yet, now is the time for honest compassion towards ourselves. Harsh self-criticism and judgments make it hard to accept that some behaviors are out of your control. But the moment you begin to recognize self-regulation problems for what they are, you can also seek the support you need to overcome or manage them.

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