Psychologists often use the image of a three-legged stool to show us what “coming into balance” looks like. The stool can represent a number of things. Diet, exercise and sleep can be the legs of good health. Home, work, and social lives can intertwine to give life meaning. The three-legged stool I am thinking of today is made up of our three basic emotional regulation systems. One is our “get up and go”. It helps us feel incentive and seek resources. Another is our “fight, flight, or freeze”. It helps us perceive threats and move into self-protection. The third leg of the stool is our “social animal”. It gives us our ability to soothe and care for each other. Let’s take a look at these three emotional regulation systems, and then check our balance. It would be interesting to make a three-column inventory of our thoughts for a day, and get a visual of where we are putting our focus and our energy.
What does resource-seeking look like? What resources does the human brain seek after? The basic means of survival: food and shelter. In our modern world, this gives us the incentive that leads to secure work. Using our jobs to pay our bills. Or more frequently, borrowing money and paying debt. Investing and risking. Getting ahead or falling behind. When we are successful in this area, it is going to be rewarding. We feel excited when we find out we are getting a raise or a promotion. We are satisfied when we can support ourselves and our family. We are happy when we feel strong and healthy. We are filled with vitality when we have our house, our garden, our physical lives set up and working well. We feel eager.
What about self-protection? These feeling are not so nice to fall into, although in the face of a real and imminent danger, they are literally life-saving. The problem is that very few of us spend our days actually running from top predators or escaping from burning buildings. Our threats are quite commonly made up in our own minds as we linger in this system, caught in a web of our own creation. This threat system motivates us to react when we fear we are in danger, conscious or unconsciously. We feel panic and a desperate need to lash out or run – or we shut down and cannot take necessary action. Yes, fear is the overwhelming emotion here. But this is also the system that awakens our feelings of disgust, and anger, and judgment as well. We see so much wrong with others here, and it helps to keep us at a safe distance as we look down upon these idiots. So judgment is part of our self-protection system, and is fear-based.
In the dominant US culture, where we live in a paradigm of right and wrong, winners and losers, the strong and the wimps, we may lose sight of the necessary third leg of our emotional regulation system: caring and soothing. This is where we harbor our pro-social feeling of affiliation with others. Belonging. We give and receive affection. We encourage others and are encouraged in our turn. We give and receive reassurance, comfort, and love. We find our people, our family, our friends, our clan. We are in overlapping groups and have shared interests. And how does this make us feel (once we conquer our competitive beast and move from “I have to win” to “we are all in this together”)? Relaxed. At ease. Content. Safe. Receptive to others. Able to listen and learn, in trust. Compassionate. And wanting to soothe and comfort others.
Unlike systems with on and off switches, these three regulatory systems are not mutually exclusive. They moderate and influence each other, but do not exclude each other. So we can run some background fear even as our bills are getting paid. We can choose to feel safe, taking it one day at a time, even when facing a grave illness. And we can easily be judgmental, even of the people we love the most, the ones who have our backs. So how does this information help us live more happy, useful lives? What researchers have found is that when we turn up our reactive and fearful emotions, including our fears about resource-seeking, we become self-focused and are less able to attend to the needs of others. And we scare ourselves. By practicing mindfulness and especially compassion, we are moving the focus off ourselves, and heightening the emotional system that regulates caring and soothing. And we soothe ourselves. So consciously spending more time in our social affiliation zone heightens our sense of community and calm safety. It actually helps us to care about others.