Revertigo is the act of reverting to old patterns of behavior when around family or others from your past. I unexpectedly came across the term revertigo while doing research for a class on Family Patterns and Conflict in the Workplace. This evocative word was not created by psychologists, but by writers on the popular sitcom, How I Met Your Mother. (Castles in the Sand episode April 2008).
When I heard it, I was immediately struck by the accuracy and value of this term for certain kinds of conflict, not only with family members, but with people at work as well.
I am a relatively mature adult, with a lot of communication wisdom and clarity. But with some members of my family, or certain authority figures, I can get triggered to feel 15 or even 4 years old and act accordingly, with predictably awful results.
With old friends, revertigo can have a playful aspect, but if our parents or siblings are still seeing us at 50 as if we were 15, and we respond accordingly or if we start acting like 9 year olds with our supervisors, we can quickly find ourselves in deep communication trouble.
A client I’ll call Bettina is a perfect example of this pattern. Bettina, a project manager, was having serious problems getting along with her supervisor, Carla. Bettina found herself reacting defensively or arguing with Carla over any feedback or instructions she gave her. Although Bettina was extremely good at other aspects of her job, and got along well with most of her project team, this conflict was affecting her evaluations and other relationships at work. She had to heal this for her own sake and for her job.
Through coaching sessions, Bettina and I examined why this relationship was triggering her and what was fueling their conflict. In fact, she realized the supervisor reminded her of her cold and critical mother. With awareness, reflection, and guided visualization, Bettina was able to separate her attitude toward her mother from how she felt about Carla so she could interact with more detachment and professionalism.
How can you change this pattern?
If you, like Bettina, are around people at work or in your family who trigger revertigo, here are some tips to help you avoid acting out that old behavior, or catch yourselves quickly if you do start reacting:
Be aware. What tends to trigger your revertigo? By reading this article and by reflecting on past situations, you can understand more about what might set you off. As soon as you notice yourself beginning to react, you can pause and intervene. A few deep breaths or a quick time out of the room can help you return to an adult response. Naming your feelings can also help you detach.
Acknowledge your inner child/teenager but don’t let him or her run the show. Those feelings and impulses are real and are there for good reasons. These parts of yourself deserve support, but must not be in charge. Thank him/her, but set boundaries.
Listen carefully in a detached manner, gathering information calmly rather than reactive instantly. Is there a grain of truth in the triggering person’s comments? Are they way off base? Do you need to respond at all? You can analyze this calmly rather than react as you may have done as a child or young adult.
Practice the new behaviors. As I often tell my clients, managing conflict is an absolutely learnable skill. But like all skills, it takes practice, repetition, and patience. You may not be able to respond completely with the new approach the first time you try (or the 10th) but you can definitely get better at this.
Remember how the other person sees you isn’t your truth, only their limited perspective. They are not the all-knowing judge of who you are. And, unless you allow it, they do not have the power to make you a rebellious teenage or acting out child.
By the way, I recently learned that psychology does have a professional term for this–
associative regression. But I still think revertigo describes it best!