Stop Saying Dysregulated People Are “Showing Their True Colors” (And Stop Believing It About Yourself, Too)

Understanding the nervous system is a powerful gateway to compassion for ourselves and others.

Your nervous system is in charge of keeping you alive. When there is a true threat to your safety (like a lion) your body and brain go into a fight or flight response to keep you alive. 

Go, nervous system! We love that!

HOWEVER, when past trauma, old habits, social media or our environment keeps us in this threat response (dysregulation) for a prolonged period of time or has our threat response get set off at inappropriate times, this is when we get in trouble (your ex’s IG post with their new boo is not a lion but your body thinks it is… especially at 3am). 

It’s these times when we might start to question whether we are a bad person or crazy (or both!) But judging our character based on how we are when we are dysregulated is actually counterproductive if we want to become a better, more evolved person. 

Self blame, like blaming others, is never productive and distracts us from the reality of what is going on and how we can change it.

Before I understood about regulation and dysregulation, I was confused. I didn’t like myself very much.

I was approaching the world in a very black and white way. I made judgments about other people and myself. Good or bad. Nice or mean. 

Very quickly however, I realized that things were a lot messier than that. Placing a rigid label on anyone required throwing away a lot of data to the contrary to keep up the belief. This felt out of alignment but seemed necessary to make sense of the world.

I tried to figure out if I was a good person or a bad person, but as soon as I put a tally on one side, I would experience myself acting a different way and have to put a tally on the other side. 

Since I clearly wasn’t all good, I reasoned that I must be bad. Believing I was a bad person felt terrible. I felt stressed and hopeless, and also paranoid at being “found out.” It was a very strange type of imposter syndrome/identity crisis. I felt like a different person depending on my mood (i.e. level of regulation). 

When I learned about the nervous system, it was such a relief, and things suddenly made so much more sense. 

When we are regulated, we feel like a totally different person than when we’re dysregulated. We also act totally differently than when we are dysregulated (“toxic traits” are dysregulated behaviors).

When I learned this, I was free. 

Free from the false judgments of myself as good or bad, and free to intentionally impact my regulation so I could show up in the world the way I wanted to. This has changed everything for me, and I am no longer a victim of my past feelings and reactions. 

I am far from perfect, and I still get dysregulated, but I now have the tools to recognize it quickly and address it without doing damage or wasting energy creating some bullshit narrative about what happened and why.

My intention is to normalize talking about regulation and dysregulation in these conversations about bad behavior, not value judgements of good or bad. 

The extent to which we as a culture believe in these judgements is so extreme that it’s baked into our idioms and the language we use. 

People say that you “showed your true colors” when you show up in a situation dysregulated. And many of us really believe this about people (and ourselves). We convince ourselves that the version of them we met when they were regulated was a mask or an act, and this negative side of them is somehow more true.

“True colors” language points to the main problem in the way we think about regulation and dysregulation (or rather, DON’T think about it).

The idea that when you’re in a threat response, and you’re dysregulated you are “the real you” or you’re “showing your true colors” is the opposite of what’s true.

You are the most yourself when you are calm and regulated and present. If anything, those are your true colors. That’s who you really are, not who you are in a threat response. 

At this point I want to make it very clear that I am NOT making excuses for bad behavior or saying adults don’t need to be accountable for their words and actions in a threat response. I am saying the exact opposite.

If your bad behavior isn’t who you really are, but is merely evidence of your dysregulation, then you have the power to take responsibility. Once it’s not who you are, it becomes something you can change.

Some of the things I do daily to regulate my nervous system are walking, EFT tapping and meditation. I also do daily neuro drills that I learned from Elisabeth Kristof, an amazing teacher and coach on all things nervous system who has taught me so much.

We live in an increasingly dysregulated world. 

Taking responsibility for your own regulation is a powerful act of compassion and has a ripple effect that can transform the planet.