An Overactive Social Engagement System


If a person is stressed, overwhelmed, out of their window of tolerance, is the answer always to help them engage their social engagement system, on the outside, with another person or being? Is it always external co-regulation that is the best answer?

No. Not in my opinion. Especially not if a person is having an overactive Social Engagement System – as part of their defense strategy. Too much of the good is, is, as always, too much.

Or maybe – what looks like a way too overactive social engagement system is not in fact that? Or maybe it is – it depends on how you define a social engagement system. At least if you talk the language of Vagus, where the social engagement system lives in the ventral vagal complex and dissociation in the dorsal vagal complex.

Is there a difference between SEEKING systems, as in the seeking system for protection, safety, nurturance and care and the seeking of social support from another being?

That depends too on if you see one or two attachment systems, a first attachment system for protection, safety, and care and a second one for companionship, play and learning.

In my opinion. What happens when we simplify the world and divide everything, every situation, and everyone into neat categories, we lose sight of the whole picture.

For a human person, who is terrified, the first impulse is to seek someone who can save/help them, or if that is not possible, to “be with them” in the fearful situation. Especially if it is a small human, with none or few resources to save themselves and be with themselves.

This is, according to me, a primal instinct we have as highly socially dependent beings. As infants and children growing up, we are totally dependent on someone else to hear and see us enough to not let us die. Because that is what we are going to do, as small humans, if nobody takes care of us. From how old can you take care of yourself and survive? That depends, of course, on the surroundings, climate etc, but the smaller the child is, the more dependent it is on someone else. Someone(s) the child can get to know and depend on. So it does not have to depend on different people every time it has a need.

What can a small child do to make sure this happens? That it is taken care of? It can call out – for someone. And with that someone (or several ones), the child can interact, so “the other(s)” like (care for) the child enough to repeatedly come back to it, so it has someone that helps it survive and to make sure it is not alone, or will be left behind.

What does it do to a person who grows up with constant neglect, in isolation, with few or no dependable persons around, often adding active abuse on top of that? Will they grow up being fearful of other people, the ones that abuse them? Yes. Probably. Will the grow up continue to seek the interactions they need for survival, terrified it will not be there enough for them? Yes. Probably. Will they develop a “disorganized” way of attaching to people, fearing them, yet needing them? Yes. Probably. Will they then see the world and its people (or even beings) as inherently dangerous? But also seek them out of fear of not surviving? Yes. Probably. Will the person comfort themselves with fantasies of getting what they need? Yes. Probably. Will they dare to be upset with the ones they are dependent on for survival. No. Probably not.

When a person is in survival mode – seeking out another being, he or she is not thinking. They are trying to make sure the person showing up will not leave, will like them enough to stay around. So they can breathe, hope for survival.

This creates a dilemma. A person who is in survival mode cannot think, cannot learn. Such a person will also repeatedly go into shut-down mode. When the social interaction that is needed for survival is not happening, shut down is a merciful solution. Shutdown, or going inwards, into your own creative solutions to social interactions.

This person will also override all his or her fears and go into social engagement being terrified but instinctually knowing the best survival opportunities will be to engage with whatever perpetrator or abuser they need to interact with. Or force themselves to seek contact with people who demonstrable and obvious do not want to be in contact with them, or do not have the capacity to be in contact with them. It will learn to accommodate, please and appease. And to live of whatever scrapes of social interaction and inclusion that there is, abusive or not. The better the person can do that, the higher the survival potential is. In that lays also a distorted sense of agency, control, and empowerment. To do, becomes better than to shut down.

Dissociation is a complex defense mechanism. It does not only contain disconnect, feigning death, fainting, falling asleep etc. There are ways out of such states, using the Social Engagement System that will increase your survival potential. A small malleable child will learn this, will toggle between what the body goes into to protect itself = a shut down, what is automatically put in motion = the seeking system, what the mind comes up with in its tunnel vision way of using its cognition = figure out who you have in front of you and appease, please to the best of your ability. And it will toggle fast, almost, or factually doing all this at the same time.

Then the neatly divided walls between a shut-down, a seeking stress response with its potential reward of social interaction/connection and a please/appease social engagement response disappears. Then you will also have the fight and fight response enter now and then, but those are generally suppressed or unavailable. A small child has very limited ways of fighting or fleeing, hence the variations of dissociation kicks in. But understanding dissociation as simply a mode of shutdown, feigning death etc, that is not at all taking in the complexities that the mind, or the body can come up with, together, and apart – as a very intricate defense system.

This is why relying on a simple notion of co-regulation as a panacea to all non-regulated states is not helpful. Yes, if someone simply is stressed, that might work, if they are in one of these places, moving towards a shutdown, fight, flight – it works too. But what if the person you have in front of you is toggling fast between the states? Or factually – are in several of them at the same time?

Then offering co-regulation could be what sends them even further into the loop. Further into their defenses.

I do strongly believe in somatic approaches, but for a person like this, that will perhaps not work. The mind is a very strong survival ally. Even for very small children. They will use it to the best of their abilities. If they lived with severe neglect and abuse growing up, they will also have modified, developed, expanded on their survival skills for years, some older ones will have been kept, other will have been adapted and added. They will have a plethora of “dissociative skills”.

What hurts you as an adult having lived through a severely neglectful and abusive childhood, is not really what happened to you, per se, it is how you defended yourself against it, using a defense system that grew intricate, complex, detailed – and that you as that person do not really see. It has become part of who you are. It has become how you function in the world.

Then your way of engaging socially will not marry well with most other people, I would say, with perhaps, no other people. Still one of your strongest ways you have to deal with your life depends on reaching out to others. Still you will probably not respond to efforts to co-regulate and will not have access to either co-regulation or self-regulatory resources in the same way as other people.

Can these people be helped? Yes. I do really think so. And yes, they are helped trough social engagement, but not in the ways I see the social engagement system being put forward and used in theories and therapies.

What is needed is support to find resources to develop a co-regulatory practice WITHIN the individual. As the capacity for that grows, the capacity for co-regulation on the outside will grow too, will stop to be blocked out and become available, and then eventually the capacity for self-regulation will develop.

And think about it – to be able to self-regulate you need to have access to enough of yourself to do that. With too many internal contradictions that is not possible. When you live with a system where parts of you can be in shutdown while other parts of you are in pleasing/appeasing mode, and yet other parts in fight or flight mode, how do you self-regulate such a system? How do you co-regulate such a system? You do not. You can only co-regulate parts of it, one part at a time, while you teach it to co-regulate itself. While you teach it to attach to its own parts, while you teach it to socially engage within the system.

And yes. I am writing out of my own experiences. I am living with this. And I find it really hard to navigate the simplistic solutions put “out there” trough theories, charts, practices etc. I know it is well meant, but it can actually make things worse. I know it applies to people with “simple trauma”, to people who were older when they went through their trauma, who foremost do not operate on a dissociative spectrum. My childhood was a long series of repeatedly occurring trauma in combination with no safe attachments and emotional and social neglect. It does not even make sense to call it trauma. For me, that was life. That was my childhood. It has left me with a relational phobia – and a strong urge to solve my fears with reaching out for social engagement. A contradiction I still struggle with navigating.

I wish there were more understanding of this “out there”. More understanding of the complexities of dissociation as a defense system. That is why I put this, myself “out there”. To initiate discussions, give room for more perspectives on dissociation, as lived experiences, not only to be read about in textbooks.

We still know so little about the brain and its capacity to solve problems. The more fixed we formulate ourselves and use single theories to explain how people function, the harder it will be to see complexities and individuals and their solutions to live and how to be able to live and function.

I am calling for a greater humbleness among us all who wants to help ourselves and others. To build what you know from what you see and meet (feel and experience), not only from what you read and learn in schools, or are taught by someone else, an “expert”.

My ex-husband called me the most stupid person he ever met, and the most brilliant. I have an inner experience of being totally dys-functional and highly functional – my way of being in the world rooms extremes. Sometimes I do not have access to the simplest of cognition or emotional intelligence, the next moment I can be wise, empathetic, and logical. I am not helped by simplistic solutions or standard techniques, a 1-2-3 manual. You will get confused by me if you do not care to learn about the complexities of dissociation. Then I will be a contradictory, lying, manipulative, resistant, and sometimes a charming enigma to you. Without seeing me in the context of complex dissociation (due to experiences) – I will look like chaos and contradictions to you. Luckily, I have had support and am better and better at seeing this chaos and contradictions myself. I am learning to co-regulate WITHIN my own system. By now, I am quite fond of us. It has not been like that all the time. And it is still not that easy. I think a lot about how to make sense to people. Because when I am not making sense to people, I get met by responses that does not make sense to me…

I don’t like to label myself and I don’t like pathologizing myself. My experiences and ways of functioning makes sense in the context of how I grew up, without that context, without understanding complex dissociation, I simply do not make sense, neither to myself, nor to anyone else.

So, we need to talk about the complexities of dissociation, dissociation as a defense system that uses ALL kinds of defense strategies, creating a way of functioning, and a way of presenting to the world that seems to mimic all kinds of sane and sound ways of functioning, as well as all the unsane and unsound ones, but are learned, adapted echoes of the “real thing”. Why do I say that? Because what ever shows up, is just part of the picture. What is dangerous here is that as long as the dissociative system inside is not aware of this and the outside meet it as it is all that is there, the path to destruction can be surprisingly fast and goal-oriented. That is why simplistic solutions will fail. What helps one part of the dissociative person, is un-helpful to another. The system in its totality cannot be co-regulated from the outside.

And a small additional piece of the puzzle; even if there is some sort of internal co-regulation going on, it will mimic the dysfunctional relationships it grew up with. What looks like self-harm can be an effort to connect to parts of self…

A complex dissociative system relies as heavily on the shutting down as on the social engagement system, it uses both excessively. Dissociation, too – like so much else – exists on a spectrum, and a dissociative person can use a small part of it, or the the whole spectrum, a complex dissociative person uses the whole spectrum, in all kinds of constellations and combinations.

So, if you think dissociation is only about severely shutting down and that your role when you see that is to co-regulate or up-regulate. You will not be able to help.

At least, you will not be able to help me. Even though I have asked for it repeatedly through all my life. Through all my life I have yearned for outer social interaction (and help), but not been able to handle it. But there is hope. I am learning to tolerate it (and appreciate it)! Through what might look like a detour, but is a crucial step to me, internal co-regulation… and the more I learn to do it – the more social I can be with other people and beings, without loosing important parts of myself…

Whatever your favorite theory is, read about it, learn about it, read and learn about some other theories, but then – go out and see people, beings, individuals – and listen to them… then they will tell you things… show you things… that you will not find in your books and articles. If you want to learn about dissociation, talk to dissociative people. Please…

PS. I am not saying do not use co-regulation. I am however saying, with a system that uses a variety of dissociative defenses and strategies – you will not be able to co-regulate the whole system at the same time. At times, co-regulating part of it will be necessary. But then, ALWAYS ask for consent or have a pre-arranged permission to co-regulate. The risk for it to be perceived as a violation is otherwise very high. Have the goal to in various ways teach internal co-regulation, internal social engagement and whatever follows that.

Disclaimer. I am not a therapist. I write about my own experiences and what I have come to learn through studying what is said about dissociation in literature and articles, as interested for my own sake, as a master student in cognitive Science and through having discussions with people being dissociative as well as practitioners treating dissociation.

Copyright Protected © Katarina Lundgren 2020

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Tuesday, 28 May 2024