I have two young children. As a psychologist, I can't prevent myself to see them growing and compare what I observe every day with what I have learned at the university 20 years ago... Among the notions that I remember, Piaget's ideas around "regression" recently came back to my mind.
Back to Piaget
For Piaget, regression may occur each time one gets to a new stage of cognitive development. As a new form of mental structure is emerging, it provokes a disequilibrium in the way the child processes new information (e.g., the discovery of a new object or a new behavior) – what Piaget calls assimilation – and her/his capacity to modify her/his existing ways of thinking – what Piaget calls accommodation. Such a disequilibrium may temporarily lead to regression, until a new way of thinking or behaving emerges. In this post, I would like however to go beyond the cognitive aspect of regression, well described by Piaget, and question the experience of regression beyond the formative years of childhood.
Everybody experiences regression on a regular base
Such a phenomenon is common throughout one's life. You may be skillful at using a specific tool or technique; whenever you have to adapt what you already know to a new setting, that involves for instance new ways of thinking, you may become temporarily clumsy (e.g., throwing out your hammer when you feel frustrated with the construction of an IKEA bookshelf). More deeply, it may also occur whenever one is confronted to a new environment.
For instance, the first years when I moved to the United States, even if knew how to speak English, my capacity to express myself in this language was far less sophisticated than my ability to speak French. It took me years to feel self-confident whenever I was speaking English in a professional setting. Probably because I was very self-aware and because language remains critical in my work (writing or teaching), this transitional period led me to experience a feeling of regression, considering my feeling of autonomy; I felt dependent on relatives and colleagues to make sure that I was expressing myself appropriately at work (e.g., asking them to regularly proofread what I was writing). Years later, I perceive this period as a springboard that allowed me to develop a specific linguistic skill and, even if I don't master it as well as my mother tongue, I do not experience the same feeling of dependence or regression anymore, whenever I evolve in an English-speaking environment.
Regression is a rhythmic phenomenon
When I observe my children learning and regressing throughout the sequence of activities that constitute their everyday life, I perceive regression as being fundamentally a rhythmic experience. I can see both of my children regressing whenever they feel jealous of each other; there is a pattern of behavior that occurs again and again. We experience regression on a regular base during our childhood. We also experience it as adults (intellectually, emotionally and socially), whenever we experience a gap between a new situation (e.g., new knowledge, new relationship) and our cognitive, emotional and social ability to deal with it. That means that regression is a form of experience that tends to repeat itself through time and throughout one's existence; this is a "periodic" phenomenon. It is recognizable, because it is characterized by a way of thinking, feeling or relating to others, that tends to be less appropriate that the level of adaptation we usually display at a specific time of our life; regression displays therefore some form of pattern. It is also inscribed in a specific time of one's existence. It belongs to the historical movement of one's life; a movement that is expressed by actions that are never fully self-similar. Following Sauvanet (2000) rhythmic criteria (pattern, periodicity, movement), we can therefore conceive the experience of regression as a rhythmic phenomenon.
Regression may reveal the way one relates to one's own development
The experience of regression tells something about where a person stands (mentally, emotionally, socially). It expresses something about the present situation, as much as it reveals connections with the past ("I don't understand, I used to be capable of dealing with such situations in the past") and a possible future ("If I overcome this challenge, I may feel more skillful"). The experience of regression appears therefore as a temporal marker. It is a marker because it draws attention to our own way of being through an unusual pattern of behavior. Also, we all have different ways of experiencing regression. For instance, it can be acknowledged, denied, understood or feared. So, questioning one's experience of regression is a way to learn something relevant about where we are in time, that is, where we are in relation to where we used to be, or where we may be in the future, and how we relate to such changes. If education is about learning and development (among others aspects), then questioning the experience of regression appears as a strategic way to position one's learning in regard to one's development. And because regression keeps occurring in one's life, it also reveals something about how one evolves through time. It constitutes a significant temporal marker.
What about you?
Are you aware of the times in your life when you feel regressing? Do you notice specific patterns in the way such an experience repeats itself? Do you perceive an evolution in the way you may deal with such an experience? Feel free to share your comments below!