Part 3 – Self-Regulation? What? How?: Adventures in Ambiguity

Part 3 – Self-Regulation? What? How?: Adventures in Ambiguity January 21, 2016

Undermuchgraceby Cindy Kunsman cross posted from her blog Under Much Grace

Editor’s note: Cindy has oodles of very cute cat and kitten graphics at her site to illustrate her points. You should take a look at them on her site!)

How can I possibly know anything about emotional self-regulation? I was faced and am often still faced with the quandary of growing up without it, not really knowing that I lacked it, and then trying to figure out how to develop it. And though trauma therapy helped me make great strides to develop it, I still have my days…

The process works out differently for everyone, and some people have less difficulty than others.  This represents what I experienced in my journey thus far.

In “good enough” parenting, the goal of parenting focuses on teaching children the skills they will need to live outside of the family. In high demand systems and families, leaders and parents foster dependency and don’t teach good coping skills like emotional stability and balance because they don’t have it themselves. (You can only give to someone that which you have yourself.)

Instead of spending my energy on the hard work of growing up, I had to sort through trauma and learn how to function as I went along because I didn’t have the skills that I needed.

I started therapy at age nineteen and worked hard at developing good and healthy thinking, but I was never able to get over the emotional element of trauma. I was always waiting for the other shoe to drop, and I swung around like an emotional pendulum. I reacted to what happened in my life, and I had to work to learn how to respond from a place of safety and power.

That work laid the foundation for the exit counseling that I would receive when I was thirty years old.  By then, I felt that I’d sorted through a great deal of the chaos and had a picture of what a better, less chaotic life looked like.  I had a plan, and I’d learned some good skills to get me well on my way.

I still had quite a lot of chaos to straighten out, but I didn’t feel so lost and helpless anymore.

Though I’d come a long way, I still struggled with boundaries, particularly with my parents. I didn’t cope effectively with many triggers, and I still had a very difficult time in certain situations. I felt separated from so much of my goodness and my good abilities. Everything felt so futile and exhausting.

No matter what I did, I could give the right textbook answer about how to respond maturely from a place of confidence, but I didn’t feel it. I knew about good boundaries, but I didn’t know how to defend them or was too afraid to defend them. A boundary which a person doesn’t defend is just a nice idea, and did that fact frustrate me!

I was still too hyper-vigilant from so many traumas and trauma upon trauma. I was still very isolated socially and didn’t feel safe enough to reconnect with others in a healthy way.

Still quite disappointed in my progress and frustrated with myself, I decided to keep looking for alternatives that would help me cope more effectively. At age thirty-seven, I ended up putting great distance between my parents and myself so that I could have the opportunity to heal.

I sought out a few different types of therapy and worked on learning new ways to self-soothe, and I realized what many self-help books were talking about when the mentioned “re-parenting.” I had to learn and master skills that good enough parenting would have given me. And this was hard to even admit, because so many of the areas of the parenting I did receive were excellent. But cognitive behavioral work (looking at thoughts beneath emotion) wasn’t enough to make up for hyper-vigilance.

I greatly benefited from EMDR therapy for trauma because it addressed my emotions and not just how I thought about things. As Judith Herman says in her book, Trauma and Recovery, the therapist serves as a witness to the harm suffered and an ally in recovery. I plugged away in extended sessions weekly (or more often) for more than two years, and I continue to follow up with my therapist.

The paradox of life after working to develop emotional self-regulation in adulthood.

In some areas of life I seem to have at least sorted things out and have created some very useful, helpful accomplishments. In many areas of life I strive for much more, but at least I manage to make something aesthetic and creative out of that which I’d been given. Sometimes I just can’t resist the drama. And in many areas, I feel as though I’m still tangled up.


Cindy is a member of the Spiritual Abuse Survivor Blogs Network.

Cynthia Mullen Kunsman is a nurse (BSN), naturopath (ND) and seminary graduate (MMin) with a wide variety of training and over 20 years of clinical experience. She has used her training in Complementary and Alternative Medicine as a lecturer and liaison to professional scientific and medical groups, in both academic and traditional clinical healthcare settings. She also completed additional studies in the field of thought reform, hypnotherapy for pain management, and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) that is often associated with cultic group involvement. Her nursing experience ranges from intensive care, the training of critical care nurses, hospice care, case management and quality management, though she currently limits her practice to forensic medical record review and evaluation. Most of her current professional efforts concern the study of manipulative and coercive evangelical Christian groups and the recovery process from both thought reform and PTSD.


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  • ConcepcionImmaculadaPantalones

    I do a lot of self-regulating and self-censoring of emotions and thoughts (I’m bipolar after all) when it comes to spending time around my family. They’re far too uptight and conservative to be able to not look at me weird if I just stopped making all the effort to manage myself emotionally (and verbally…i don’t know what it is about family that makes me suddenly start to ‘accidentally’ swear a ton…) but I don’t spend much time with family and haven’t for years. The effort required is exhausting.

  • SAO

    To me, self-regulating is something you do for yourself, not others. It’s self-care, not company manners.

  • gimpi1

    I’m glad the author was able to find her way through to therapy and techniques that helped her. Also, I went to the original post and, OMG, CUTE KITTIES GALORE! Everything is better with cute kitties, even recovering from trauma.

  • Abigail Smith

    Wow…I could have written this post. Except it took me 10 years longer to go no contact….Cindy, if you read this, do you know about Luke 17:3 Ministries (for adult children who have been abused by parents) and also Toxic Mom Toolkit? These resources have helped me so much, along with a Youtube Channel called Narcissism Survivor, an SSRI prescription and yoga. There is a great site called Do You Yoga that offers all kinds of free videos plus some paying ones. It’s wonderful and healing….(this info is for anyone who would like it)

  • Abigail Smith

    Agreeing! It’s less stressful to be no contact and deal with the backlash of that than it is to actually be in contact and constantly crawl out from under the rubbish of their toxins

  • Anne, I have to look this stuff up. These resources are all new to me. I may have seen that Luke 17:3 Ministries one before, but to be honest, I could say in my head that I endured abuse (none of which was physical but super sick psych stuff), but it took forever to really call it what it was and resist it. I probably would have passed that up as an option out of guilt through most of my recovery. It’s the weirdest paradox, because my parents are some of the finest, kind, compassionte and moral people you could hope to meet. But the look at me and see all the things that they don’t like about themselves. I think of myself as the family toilet into which they flushed all their waste. And they don’t understand that this is what was done to them and that they’re just repeating what happened to them. It makes it a knitted mess.

    EMDR helped work that into my heart. I had a counselor tell me when I was 37 that, “Your problems are not cognitive ones.” I couldn’t wrap my emotions around things until EMDR helped me get out of that PTSD roller coaster car. I had good cognitive work to build on, but I was a prisoner to panic and performance before pulling that big ball of mess apart with the right counselor. (Link over to my blog for the pictures!)

  • The kitties are essential. I picked them out online to use in a workshop, but I had too much material. So happy to use them for a bog post!

  • Please link over to the post to see the kitties!

  • Suzanne Harper Titkemeyer

    They are linked to several places in the post for anyone wanting to see the darling kitties..

  • Abigail Smith

    Good for you! I’ve heard so much about EMDR. I may look into it….Right now, no contact has almost totally diminished my PTSD, panic attacks and nightmares.

    I heard about a book called “The Body Keeps the Score” in which the dr talks about trauma and how it’s held in the body even if you don’t realize it….Here’s a brief clip from Youtube (there is a full interview with the author too about an hour long…haven’t seen that yet)

  • Abigail Smith

    Too much cuteness! Great metaphor for your struggles…I can totally relate to the tangles

  • I’m a Van dear Kolk groupie! I’ve heard him speak severa times and have talked to him twice. He’s the current trauma guru. Love him! Another good book is Francine Shapiro’s book bout self help tips from lessons learned in EMDR.

    Va de Kolk and researchers associated with him have demonstrated that kids who suffer trauma are at high risk for complex PTSD, addictions, and a bunch of lifelong health problems. Treatment is also effective, but adult children of trauma need more therapy and over a longer period of time.

  • ConcepcionImmaculadaPantalones

    My aunt has a tendency to make me feel like my bipolar disorder must be the cause when I express things that are not in line with her very rigid view of acceptable behavior. I take my meds because they allow me to function as close to ‘normal’ as I will ever get. When she throws out a “maybe you need to talk to your doctor about adjusting your meds again”, despite the many conversations about not doing this that have been had with myself, my mother, and her involved…

    Those times take from the limited amount available to spend with my mother on her visits here, which is why I have been making a point of telling my mom what the problem is and arranging to spend as much time as I can with just her there, though it’s impossible to avoid being around my aunt entirely because my mom stays at her house and they are twins – from before birth their entire lives have been closer than close with each other. When my mom moved to Nebraska was the first time they hadn’t lived within 20 minutes of each other their entire lives, the distance is difficult for them both.

  • Abigail Smith

    Thank you so much

    I’m so glad this issue of childhood trauma being addressed in the media…lots of these QF kids are going to need help in the years to come….

    There’s a new film that’s premiering at the Sundance Film Festival about this topic. It’s called Resilience, directed by James Redford (I think it’s Robert’s son?)

  • SAO

    advice columnists often suggest just marking this stuff with a ‘there you go again’ type remark and moving on.

  • Steph Lane

    Im in therapy now for the same thing. after leaving my parent’s loony bin house everything I had suppressed for years bubbled up and I had symptoms similar to depression. I’m so glad I started speaking to a professional who specializes in trauma it is a great experience.

  • Steph Lane

    thanks anne!!!