It is likely you, the reader, like many people have never put too much thought into the concept of self-soothing.
In most peoples minds, self-soothing is not a not really a thing. It gets lumped in with things like self-pity, or playing oneself a tiny violin. It is often seen as the mark of someone weak, incapable of facing the difficulties of life or circumstance with the steely, stiff upper lip that gets paraded around like it is something healthy, or more worryingly, to be aspired to. Yet it is one of the most important skills you can learn, and one that will be a tremendous help throughout your life. For it is not about being weak, or self-pitiful. It is about acknowledging that life can be painful, and finding the strength to push forward does not require we ignore the emotional toll that digging deep to find that strength takes on us. Self-soothing helps and compliments that drive to keep going by ensuring our emotional experience is recognised and attended to while we pursue the things that are important to us.
Self-soothing is a life skill that most children learn, or fail to learn, from their parents or those who provide us care at an early age.
When a father rubs his distressed son’s back to help him fall asleep after a nightmare; when a mother holds her crying child and smooths his forehead; when a foster-parent listens carefully to their daughter’s long story about something unfair that happened to her at school that day; when a grandparent sits with calm quiet empathy through her grandchild’s tantrum, these emotionally present parents and caregivers, as they soothe their children, are organically teaching their children how to soothe themselves. They are teaching them that amidst pain, distress, hardship there can also be room for quietude, calm, love and kindness.
Those of us fortunate enough to be raised in an environment where this skill was fostered and nurtured in us may never need to give it much thought. It may come naturally and be drawn upon with all the ease of being on auto-pilot – but not everyone is so lucky.
Enter the emotionally neglectful parent/caregiver.
Emotionally neglectful parents and caregivers come in different varieties. For example, they may be self-involved, and so focused on themselves that they fail to notice the needs of their child. They may be struggling to cope financially or emotionally so that they have little time or energy left to offer their child. Or they may be terrific parents in every visible sense, providing for all of the child’s material and educational needs, yet fail their child in one far less visible but very impactful way: emotionally.
Think about parents who are working several jobs, trying to stay financially afloat. Think about parents who do not know how to soothe themselves and so are unable to soothe their children. Or think about parents who simply are not attuned to the world of emotions and emotional needs.
All of these parents, although for very different reasons, fail to respond sufficiently to their child’s emotional needs. All tend to fail to teach their children this vital life skill.
Even if you were raised by emotionally neglectful parents you probably didn’t grow up completely devoid of soothing. It all comes down to whether you received enough. Did your parents notice your distress, hurt, anger, sadness or anxiety enough, and did they soothe you in ways that you could internalize for yourself enough?
The Good News – How To Learn The Self-Soothing Skill
There is nothing complicated or difficult about self-soothing. Its only a skill, and skills can be learned. The place to start to acquire this skill is to spend a bit of time and energy thinking about yourself.
Just as no two people are exactly the same, no two people are soothed in the exact same way. Everyones needs are different, and Step 1 is figuring out what works for you. The possibilities are endless.
It is smart to make a list of possible soothers before you are experiencing a difficult emotion. It will work very much to your advantage to identify good possible strategies and have them ready to try when you do need them.
Its likely that a self-soothing strategy that works in one situation may not work in another, so its good to have not just one strategy but a list of them. That way, in your moment of need, you can try one and if it doesn’t work, try another. The aim here isn’t to get it right the first time around. It is to continue to trial strategies and ways of soothing ourselves that in a trial-and-error way until we end up with two piles of strategies: ones that work, and ones that we have tried and don’t. We then simply discard the pile that don’t work, and are left with, hopefully, a big pile of strategies that do help sooth us, and make painful, difficult or otherwise stressful situations feel more tolerable, more surmountable, while we continue to push towards the things that matter to us in life.
In order to identify effective soothers, it may help to think back to your childhood. Were there things that you found comforting as a child? Also, think back to the most emotionally challenging times of your adulthood. Have there been helpful self-soothing strategies that you’ve used in the past without realising it? If it is challenging to find things from your own life, it can be worth discussing it with people who you regard as generally seeming to have it together emotionally – who seem calm and collected in the face of stress or anxiety. They may have strategies that you can try and see if they work for you to, and if they don’t, then they simply go in the ‘these don’t work’ pile, but if we happen upon a gem that does work – then we have one more thing to draw upon in the future.
It is important to make sure that the strategies you use are adaptive and contribute positively to your life. For example, alcohol, shopping, and eating can seem easy and effective to make us feel better in the short term, but they should never be used for self-soothing, because at their core they are not actually soothing the emotion you are experiencing – they are either numbing it or suppressing it with another emotion and they can easily end up giving you another problem to deal with (e.g. debt, weight problems, self-esteem issues etc.).
Below are some examples of healthy self-soothing strategies that have been identified and used effectively by others. Go through this list and remove the ones that clearly will not work for you. Then think about your own personal ideas to add.Keep your list handy, and use it when you need it.
Self-Soothing Ideas To Start With
- Take a bubble bath
- Make a cup of soothing tea
- Take a long, hot shower
- Listen to your favourite music
- Wash or polish your car
- Exercise: run, lift weights, or take a bike ride
- Play a musical instrument
- Cook or bake (were talking about the process here; be careful not to over-use food itself for self-soothing!)
- Spend time with your pet
- Play with a child
- Go for a walk
- Call a friend
- Lie in the grass and watch the clouds, or go outside at night and look at the stars
- Go to the movies
- Sit quietly and look out the window
- Sit in a quiet space and meditate
- Self-talk: Self-talk is probably the most useful and versatile of all self-soothing strategies. It involves literally talking yourself through your uncomfortable feeling state. You can do it quietly in your own head. So you can do it in public, in a meeting or on a train. Remind yourself of simple, honest truths that will help you keep things in perspective. Here are some examples of things you can say to yourself:
Its only a feeling, and feelings dont’ last forever.
You know you’re a good person.
You know you meant well.
You tried your best, and it didn’t work out.
Just wait it out.
This will pass.
I need to figure out what I can learn from this, and then put it behind me.
The possibilities are endless and must be determined by the situation and by what you’re feeling. This self-soothing strategy works for most people. It is definitely worth adding to your repertoire.
Be sure to keep your list flexible. Remove strategies that stop working for you and add new ones as needed. Make self-soothing a meaningful, purposeful endeavour that grows and changes with you. All of your life you will need to have the ability to soothe yourself. As you get better at it, you’ll find yourself a calmer person who feels more in control and more comfortable overall.
You never have to go it alone. Help is only a click or phone call away.
If you would like to know more about any of the psychological phenomena discussed in this post, or would like to discuss arranging a consultation for an assessment regarding any difficulties you may be experiencing, please feel free to contact us.
Sanctum Psychology, Cyprus.
Sanctum Psychology is a Wellbeing and Psychological Services Center based in Nicosia, Northern Cyprus (TRNC) offering psychological support for a wide array of psychological presentations which are also discussed within the psychology blog maintained by Sanctum’s Founder and lead Clinical Psychologist, Savaş Akgonul
Sanctum Psikoloji Lefkoşa, KKTC’de hizmet veren Klinik Psikoloji ve Psikolojik Hizmetler veren bir kurumdur. Kapsamlı psikoterapi yaklaşımları ile psikolojik zorluklarin birçoğu için tedavi opsiyonlari sunan Sanctum, İngiltere’de Klinik Psikoloji Doktorasi yapan, 15 yıllık NHS deneyimi olan kurucusu Klinik Psikolog Savaş Akgönül tarafından çalıştırılmaktadır.