In Freudian psychoanalytic theory regression is a defense mechanism in which the ego partially or fully revisits an earlier phase of libidinal¹ development.
This process is generally viewed as a backward step, one brought on by unresolved anxiety that challenges ‘normal’ functioning. It is also maladaptive because the person re-experiences anxiety clustered around an infantile stage of psychological development. In very real sense, one becomes fixated at an earlier developmental stage and aspects of the world are interpreted though the lens of an anxious child.
Not surprisingly, regression can contribute to negative personality characteristics. In the extreme, we get the paranoid, the grandiose, the manipulator, the pathological liar, or some combination thereof.
That’s the down side of regression.
However, consciously chosen regression – for example, creative play, reading childhood books or listening to old records – need not be maladaptive. Returning to earlier pastimes and pleasures in a controlled way can be therapeutic. It helps to integrate the total personality and possibly leads to increased awareness, experience and wisdom.
As a personal example, one of my favorite controlled regressions is listening to music from different periods of my childhood and young teen years. When I listen to my old favorites now, it’s almost like I psychologically ‘travel’ and connect with aspects of my former self. This can lead to an increased appreciation of where I was at within a given era. But this isn’t something I do on a regular schedule. For me, the right time to revisit and reflect simply arises, and discerning that time is more an art than a science. And when the time isn’t right, old tunes just sound like old tunes… stale, small and uninspiring.²
Hanging man artwork, in Husova street, central Prague, Czech Republic, a work by David Cerny intended to depict Sigmund Freud.
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In a nutshell, the main difference between healthy and unhealthy regression depends on whether one
- consciously participates in opportunities to remember, feel and reflect
- unconsciously plays out old neuroses, over and over like a broken record
I touched on this in a piece influenced by the late, great sociologist Max Weber, “Childish or Childlike?”
But not all childish people are necessarily fixated to something from early childhood. This is just a theory. Some believers in reincarnation, for instance, believe that we can be fixated to trauma occurring in past lives. On the other hand, geneticists would probably say that some people are simply born sensitive or anxious, and their anxiety and the resulting distortion of ‘reality’ has little or nothing to do with early childhood or past lives. Meanwhile, philosophers ask “what is reality?”
My point is that we should consider various perspectives but never get caught up in a single one, because that’s a kind of fixation too.
¹ Libido commonly refers to sexual energy or the supposed “sex drive” but for Sigmund Freud and his followers, the meaning is far more nuanced. See
² Or as The Bard put it, “stale, flat and unprofitable.”