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Blog Short #62: When are regressions good for you?

Welcome to Monday Blog Shorts – ideas to make even Monday a good day! Every Monday, I share a short article with you about a strategy you can use, or new facts or info that informs you, or a new idea that inspires you. My wish is to give you something to think about in the week ahead. Let’s dig in!

Photo by Onzeg, Courtesy of iStock Photo

Last week I took you through the “thrive versus destroy” tendencies we all have to wrangle with, and I recommended a way to increase your awareness of where you are on that continuum by examining your daily activities. The purpose was to help you increase your “thrive” activities and decisions.

This week I want to piggyback on that conversation and talk to you about something called “regression in service of the ego.”

That’s a psychoanalytic term that has an involved explanation, but for our purposes today it simply means that sometimes we do things or get in moods that are regressive, but ultimately help us bump ourselves back up. For example:

Have you ever called in sick because you were overwhelmed or tired and needed a “mental health” day? And then you returned to work the next day more refreshed and better able to get things done.

Or you ate healthy all week, but on Saturday, you ate anything you wanted, some of which definitely wouldn’t pass the “good for you” food test, but the next day, you went back to your healthy diet.

Or you worked super hard all day and then plopped down in front of the TV to binge-watch shows that don’t require any thought.

In all these cases, you engaged in a small regression and then recouped and moved back to your good habits.

More importantly, by engaging in a little regression, you actually ended up bumping up your game and were more productive the next day.

But aren’t regressions always destructive?

Regressions would seem to fit into the “destructive activities” category, yes?

But done the right way, they aren’t. They’re respites for short periods that allow you to recuperate.

You take your foot off the gas pedal temporarily and slow down by doing something that doesn’t require any discipline or strain, or maybe treat yourself to something that’s off the usual list of “good activity,” like eating a big piece of chocolate cake with fudge icing! Then you get back on track.

That’s what “regression in service of the ego” means. You regress temporarily to help yourself regroup and then move forward again. The regrouping is an aid to the forward movement rather than a hindrance.

How is this type of regression different from destructive activities?

The regressions I just described were short-lived. They’re not habitual and don’t stretch out over a lot of time. You’re in and out.

Longer regressions are different. For example, if you

  • Stayed home for five days instead of just one,
  • Or binge-watched TV for days at a time instead of doing work that needed doing,
  • Or ate fast food for one week and into another week and essentially abandoned your good eating habits . . .

. . . you would be doing something destructive.

These activities would not be “in service of the ego” but are slippages that can and often do result in a downward spiral.

They’re extended regressions that become destructive because their momentum increases the longer you stay in them. They sneakily shift from simple short respites to unhealthy habitual behaviors, and the more you do them, the more they pull you down. These are the destructive trends we talked about last week.

How do I make sure my regressions are good for me?

It’s tricky. The destructive drive is always looking for an entrance, and if you give it one, it’ll slide in and take hold.

The good thing is, you can always turn things around even when you’ve gotten way off track. Still, it’s good not to let things get out of hand in the first place. Here are some ideas to help you manage that.

1) Be deliberate in your decision to engage in a regression.

In other words, if you’re overwhelmed, and you decide you need a mental health day, then get clear on exactly what that means and what it looks like.

“I’m taking Tuesday off from work, but promise myself I’ll go back in on Wednesday and hit the ground running.”

Then take that day and allow yourself to totally immerse in whatever relaxes you. Don’t take the day and spend it feeling guilty or fretting all day about what’s going on at work. Be deliberate.

2) Get specific about what activities you’ll engage in during your regression.

Using our mental health day example again, what exactly are you going to do with your time? Are you going to read novels and lie around, watch TV, or take a walk? What relaxes you?

For some people cleaning out a closet and organizing stuff makes them feel better because it’s an activity with a beginning and an end and feels like an accomplishment. For others, it’s being passively entertained.

Decide ahead what you’ll do and set up for it. If you just want to wing it, do that, but make sure you don’t spend the whole day deciding what to do. That makes things worse.

Get clear, plan, and then give yourself permission to do what you’ve decided on.

3) Define the endpoint.

This is very important because, as we’ve already determined, regressions can open the door to that nasty destructive drive that’s looking for a way to slip in and take over. One mental health day. One piece of cake. One day off from exercise. Define it in time and quantity, and know exactly when it ends and when you’ll return to your normal activities.

The whole idea behind this type of regression is that it makes things better when you’re finished, not worse. The extra calories one day bumps your metabolism up. The extra rest away from work increases your engagement the next day. The day off from exercise gives your body a chance to recoup so your performance is easier when you return to it.

Progress is not a straight line upward.

Any kind of development or progress is five steps up and two steps back, and then five steps up again. It might be a different ratio like three to two or four to one, but always there is a back and forth. That’s because learning requires trial and error, failures and successes, and high energy followed by rest.

Regressions are one type of backward step. In our case, they’re calculated, short-term variations from the norm to help you take a step back and then start moving forward again with more vigor.

One important note here:

Regressions that are truly destructive should never be an option like indulging in an addictive habit, or wild spending that sets you back financially, or any type of impulsive behavior that has ongoing negative consequences for you.

The key is to choose wisely and allow for brief close-ended regressions that provide a needed respite to get you back on track or renew your dedication to your goals.

Final Note

Today’s blog is the last one for this year. Due to the holidays, I won’t be publishing a blog on December 27th, but I’ll be back to you in 2022 on January 3rd!

I wish you Happy Holidays!

All my best,


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