Dysregulation is arguably one of the most significant drivers of infighting. It’s also probably one of the most significant drivers of counterproductive advocacy, because it causes advocates to communicate in a way that creates defensiveness, rather than receptivity, to their message.

Dysregulation, sometimes referred to as emotional dysregulation, is the experience of our nervous system being out of balance. When we become dysregulated, we often feel overstimulated, emotionally raw, irritable, anxious, and like there’s a “charge” inside us, an intensity of negative emotion.

Dysregulation exists on a spectrum. We can be extremely dysregulated, fully regulated, or anywhere in between. Many people are chronically dysregulated and are therefore easily triggered into more extreme states of dysregulation. We sometimes refer to people in this situation as “having a short fuse.”

Most people aren’t aware of the fact that they’re dysregulated, nor do they know how to self-regulate (to bring themselves back into a state of regulation). So they end up dysregulating others, because dysregulation is contagious.

Dysregulated people dysregulate people

One reason dysregulation is contagious is that when we’re dysregulated, we’re more likely to engage in nonrelational behaviors, which are disrespectful behaviors that tend to cause others to become dysregulated. Another reason is that emotions in general are contagious: studies have shown that people pick up on and “catch” the emotional state of those they encounter.

When we’re dysregulated, we’re more likely to engage in disrespectful behaviors that cause others to become dysregulated.

For example, imagine you’re in a pleasant mood, sipping your morning coffee or tea as you read your emails. Then you open a message from a colleague that’s full of all caps and exclamation points, stressing the urgency of taking immediate action to rectify a problem caused by another member of your team and berating that other individual. Chances are your mood will go from regulated to dysregulated in a matter of seconds. And there’s a good chance that you’ll communicate less relationally in the next email you write or with the next person you encounter, passing your dysregulation along to them.

Dysregulation and trauma

Everyone gets dysregulated at times. However, it’s likely that being an advocate for a just cause increases those chances.

Simply becoming aware of widespread injustice and harm can be dysregulating, as can emotions such as the grief, helplessness, and moral outrage that often accompany this awareness and the efforts to end the injustice.

A key contributor to dysregulation among advocates is the traumatization that many experience as the result of witnessing violence and suffering. This kind of traumatization is referred to as secondary traumatic stress (STS).

When we’re experiencing STS, we can become chronically dysregulated. We can end up feeling highly sensitized to even the slightest stressors, such as misunderstandings or perceived affronts, reacting defensively, and causing the person on the receiving end of our reaction to feel dysregulated and defensive as well.

And the more dysregulated we become, the more our risk of developing STS increases. This is because two keys to preventing and healing STS are engaging in self-care and cultivating healthy relationships with others—and when we’re dysregulated, we become more self-neglecting and more likely to interact with others nonrelationally, which damages relationships.

Breaking the cycle of dysregulation

Given the harm caused by chronic, unmanaged dysregulation among advocates and the highly contagious nature of the problem, it’s essential to address this issue if we hope to end infighting and increase the impact of our efforts to bring about justice.

The good news is that even though dysregulation appears to be epidemic in many progressive movements, there are simple, straightforward actions that can help break the cycle of dysregulation.

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