Self-regulation on the graduation stage

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Last week I attended my students’ graduation ceremony at the University of Dundee.  That makes this the 18th occasion on which, over the last 19 years, I have had the pleasure of taking part in the event that marks my students’ achievements.  I love sitting on the stage with the other staff, all of us dressed in colourful academic robes, and clapping continually while hundreds of students pass before us to be ‘dubbed by the Dundee Bonnet’.  This is the moment when our Chancellor transforms graduands into graduates, tapping them on the head with a traditional weaver’s cap.  The history of Dundee as a city is entirely intertwined with the weaving of jute, so this is a most fitting symbolic act.

I’ve been asked before if I don’t get a bit bored by so much clapping, especially as I have never met the many students who pursued a degree other than Psychology.  But I don’t — partly because it’s just so enjoyable watching their pride.  But it is also the shoes that keep me engaged!  I am always intrigued by the array of shoes that the women wear – heels, flats, boots, flamboyant,understated, glittery bows, gold buckles, leopard print, serious black.  This year it was particularly fascinating given the current trend for platform wedges, which have heels easily reaching 5 or 6 inches.

Women have to negotiate their way across the stage, looking calm and self-possessed, in what is often a brand new pair of heels.  They have to do this in front of an audience well over 1500 people.  And for all but a very few, this is the first time they have ever attempted such a performance!  You can see them readying themselves for it, at the side of the stage, as they breathe out, adjust their outfit, smile determinedly at the official attendant, or look up again toward family members sitting across the hall.

It was watching again such preparations that I had a thought that has not previously occurred to me so clearly.  These are moments of self-regulation – these moments when each individual becomes, for perhaps 10 seconds, the focus of attention for a vast hall of strangers.  There has been no chance to practice for the occasion or to prepare for what its really going to feel like.  You just have to take a deep breath and GO FOR IT, hoping that you don’t fall off your tall perch!  Its easy to tell from watching their first step, after the Dean has called out their name, how confident the student is feeling about this risk, how hard or easy it is to keep their nervousness under control.  The story I most often hear from female students, afterwards, is how worried they felt that they might trip and fall in front of all those people.  In my 18 years, no student ever has tripped, but that doesn’t take away the fear that you might be the exception.

It is the necessity for each of them that they a find a way to manage their nervousness that makes this a moment of self-regulation.  One has to keep the physiological processes, including fluttery stomach or light headedness or dry mouth or quickening breath or weak knees, under control.  Those symptoms don’t have to be totally suppressed, but they absolutely do have to be managed enough so that the task of getting to the other side of the stage can be achieved.  I found myself thinking:  its hard enough managing this unfamiliar, public moment.  To do it in brand new 5-inch heels takes things up a gear!  And yet managing is what all the students achieve.  I have never seen anyone get to the edge of the stage, only to change their mind and turn around.

Self-regulation is one of the many things our body is learning to do during the first few years of life.  The challenge of self-regulation is why 2-year-olds have such intense tantrums.  They aren’t yet very good at regulating their emotions.  They don’t have the neural pathways or physiological systems that let them cope with strong feelings.  We now know, from scientific studies, that the help that toddlers receive from adults’ spontaneous responses assists children’s brains and bodies in building strong self-regulatory capacities.  If you are a 2-year-old and you don’t get attuned responses from your key adult(s), then later on your capacity to keep yourself calm and to meet your own emotional-physiological needs is weakened.   It was striking to realize, as I watched all these young men and women grab their moment in the spotlight, that I was also catching a glimpse of their toddler selves, first learning how to manage anxiety and excitement.

In conversations afterward at our Garden Party, I heard all sorts of humorous stories about pre-graduation shoe deliberations.  Some regretted their decision, because their feet were now aching.  A numbered volunteered that they had explicitly decided to wear flats, as a way of avoiding any worry about the possibility of tripping.  Wearing flats was a way of enjoying the day more.  This was for me a confirmation of my ideas about self-regulation; they were actively managing emotions — through shoe choice!  I wanted to share my thoughts, but such psychological jargonizing seemed a bit much for a sunny June day!

Instead, I found myself beginning to think about the minority of students who choose each year to absent themselves from graduation ceremonies.  There is a line in our ceremony when the Chancellor officially confers upon these students their degrees, too.  The rest of us typically imagine that they have already departed on some new adventure or are not bothered about formal acknowledgement. But I’m sure there are some who simply couldn’t find a way to master their anxiety about appearing in front of a gigantic crowd, whatever shoes they chose.  The emotional self-regulatory systems of those students will have prevented them from sharing in one of life’s celebratory events.

At this time of year, there are countless numbers of students across the world taking part in graduation ceremonies.  Each of them successfully finds a way to steel their nerves.  Thus, it becomes easy for us to take for granted this ability.  And yet, this is a major developmental achievement – finding ways to manage the emotions that challenge our calm, our coping, our confidence.  What we are able to do for ourselves in adulthood is shaped by what we were helped by others to do in childhood.

This is what is so compelling for me about the psychological and neuro sciences:  they are showing us just how thoroughly our most basic capacities, our very biology as humans, is shaped by our early relationships with others.  This seems to include even our awareness of our self as a self.  Self-awareness is yet another domain where we are learning that more than cognitive maturation isgoing on.  New data are showing how self-awareness is shaped by the particular aspects of self that your parent calls attention to – e.g., where your nose is, what colour your jumper is, what it feels like to see yourself in the mirror.  I can say this because some of that data is being generated in the work of my own PhD student, Dr. Mandy Yilmaz.

I wanted to end on this point because Dr. Yilmaz was amongst the students walking across the Dundee stage to collect their degree certificates this week.  I was so filled with pride that I forgot to notice what shoes she was wearing.

Congratulations, Mandy.  Congratulations, Dundee Psychology Class of 2012.  Congratulations, students everywhere taking part in academic celebrations.  And congratulations, students who have chosen not to participate because it just felt too much.  This means that you are managing your emotions in a way that works for you.

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