When I first greet clients in the waiting area and take them back to my office whether it’s for our first or fortieth session they are usually feeling a combination of nervous, afraid, agitated, stressed, and any other possible emotion.
If I were to try and plow full speed ahead into a deep conversation with probing questions the moment they sat down they would probably short circuit in front of me. There are some important things that need to happen before a person has the capacity to dive into meaningful conversation.
Bruce Perry, is an American psychiatrist, and currently the Senior Fellow of the Child Trauma Academy in Houston, Texas along with many other things. However, Bruce coined something simple but profound as it relates to what needs to take place for a person before they can answer questions or process their thoughts and feelings.
Bruce came up with the three R’s: Regulate, Relate, Reason.
These three R’s were discovered through his research and work with traumatized children where he noticed significant barriers and difficulties when counselors attempted to “Reason” with children before attempting to regulate difficult emotions. This reasoning approach only created a battle of the wills between the child and the helping professional. Bruce’s research indicated “that children who are stressed and anxious struggle to use the parts of their brain that allow for strong relationships and rational reasoning. So our first step, before relationships or therapy can occur, is to help our children to feel calm and regulated.”
This research is not limited to those working in the counseling field, but would be an important practice for every one of us no matter what sphere of life we find ourselves in. Are you a stay at home mom with children constantly vying for your attention? Are you a salesman with quotas to fill and customers to meet? Are you a student with a constant list of deadlines to meet and tests to prepare for? We can quickly see that this idea of regulating our emotions, relating to another person in a meaningful way, and then being able to reason and process is vital to all of us in life.
We all have different ways of regulating our emotions. Whether it’s through deep breathing, prayer, going for a walk or listening to music. This practice of regulating our feelings is foundational to being able to relate to any other person effectively. If I’m emotionally regulated and calm within myself I’ll be able to listen better, respond more thoughtfully, and process situations and conversations on a deeper level.
One of our core needs as people is to stay connected to one another. We need to relate to God and to each other. We are designed as relational beings so in order to reason and process our thoughts we need to relate either alone with God or with someone I’m close with and love. Healthy relationships cause us to feel safe, accepted, and loved and this creates further capacity to reason and be curious about other areas of ourselves and life in general.
Now that we’ve regulated our emotions, and related to either God and/or another person we are now set up to be able to reason and process questions and deeper considerations. Self reflection and awareness may only breed shame and further confusion if we don’t first regulate and relate. We need to feel safe and accepted before we can take a closer look at ourselves and our world.