Regression is a large basket of creative possibilities. It is the human capacity to return to earlier ways of responding or versions of self identity and relate as if this is the current reality. Under conditions of stress we can revisit, relive or get lost in other times and ways of being. Aspects of self that were disconnected in an earlier time exist out of awareness and continue to exert a powerful influence over current living. The protective solutions of the past can become a destructive pattern for the now/future conditions.

By far the most common manifestations of regression are all around us on a daily basis read The West Australian, talk to stressed friends, hear the little kid in your own voice when upset. Regressed behaviour can be understood as the consequence of an overwhelmed self insufficiently resourced to meet life's challenges.

Through relationship, earlier versions of self can communicate and be engaged with. The experience of being met in the now as the child we once were makes it possible for us to recalibrate earlier/younger views of events and the stance we took, in order to integrate these into a contemporary sense of wholeness. Ultimately it is the adult we now are, forming a respectful relationship with the child self we still carry, that enables the integration.

Appreciating regression as a living presence keeps the counsellor open to meeting 'who is there'. Which aspect of the client is speaking? The counsellor can connect directly with the person within their interior reality. The client's subjective experience in that moment may be within another time, place, personhood or event to that of ordinary here-and-now reality. These special times of fluidity can enable the 'glue' of unifying beliefs to soften and a transformation to a new ordering of meaning is possible. The empathic, non-intrusive, calm warmth of a counsellor can facilitate an experience of wellbeing from which a person can reform their identity and find a basis for reworking constricting life habits in relating to self and other.

Regression in this way arises in the course of deep therapy and is part of the healing journey. Such a therapeutic endeavour can be undertaken when the counsellor's steadiness, focus, emotional availability and capacity to relate is in alliance with the client who has sufficient resources, courage and determination to bring the wounded self into relationship.

Counsellors don't invent or cause regression so much as be sensitive to the 'one who is here' and acknowledge their existence. They engage in dialogue with the person as they present themselves. In holding both subjective and objective realities the counsellor can assist the client to discover the connection between the two and find the gold of integration.

On the other hand, without the catharsis of integration or an observing awareness, regression has the power to fragment a person's identity. Chaotic functioning and further regression may occur.

Regression without integration can occur in therapy when the counsellor is out of their depth with the destructive aspects of the regressed state, or is not attuned emotionally with the developmental age of the regressed state. Uncontained regression may be the consequence of over-enthusiastic therapy: moving too fast, too forcefully, too cognitively or too intense a catharsis. Muddle may occur when there is too much self disclosure from the counsellor or insistent interpretation by the counsellor. Short fusing of therapy may also occur with premature simplification of the client's dilemmas. Regular quality professional supervision is the way through.

Naturally counsellors are often on a learning edge with clients in freshly meeting with the client's unique system of self. Favourite formulaic approaches tempt us towards the security of known ground. These can affect a lock-out from authentic connection. The counselling encounter can also trigger out-of-awareness regressed aspects of the counsellor's self-functioning. Regular supervision with a more experienced colleague provides the reflective stillness to clear the relational space of the counsellor and negotiate the territory of regression as a collaborative work with the client.

Qualitative Differences in Regression

There are qualitative differences in the form regression takes between those clients who are:
regressing in the face of current crisis revisiting unfinished business from the past
in transference (child/parent) patterns of relating to the therapist   reliving flashbacks of trauma
moving between dissociated identities arrested in emotional development
acting out regressed behaviour  

Responsiveness to the person who is relating from a younger sense of self is informed by an understanding of the client's developmental level, psychological state, meaning-making systems, personality structure and ego strength.

The observing self may be present reporting to the counsellor about the inner young self, or the young self may speak directly to the counsellor. The person may be in the grip of a preverbal state which has no language or thinking and yet is full of meaning and affect. When there is an arrest in development the client may present as a small person disguised in an adult body with adult language. Or the client who reveals a wise adult functioning only in session and in the remainder of life lives the world view of a five year old.

These meetings with clients are very different in quality to a generally integrated person revisiting a disconnected aspect of self, who has consciousness of the whole and can move between with awareness.

Different again is the absence of 'adult' or 'executive self'; where there are shifts of self state between defensive, coping aspects or core aspects without a coordinating consciousness. There may be no inner sense of self, no capacity for mindfulness nor language for the inner experience. Repetitive acting out of early learned ways of being may be the prison without parole.

It is a shocking experience as a counsellor to realize a client is traveling simultaneously in two realities - when severe traumatic past events and their aftermath are operating in the here and now, woven through ordinary reality, sometimes differentiated (as intrusive breakthroughs) and sometimes not.

Formulaic therapy will miss these nuances. The counsellor is continuously challenged to catch the moment, attune to 'who is here' and engage with respect, sensitivity and humanness whilst holding awareness of a bigger picture of the client as a whole person?

Susanna Howlett