In psychology, we talk about people’s self-soothing skills. Really what it means is: what do you do to comfort yourself when you are feeling badly? Take a moment to think about it. Do you know yourself enough to know what you do to make yourself feel better?
If you take a look around, we do all sorts of things to soothe ourselves when our emotional feathers get ruffled. For example, there’s drinking, eating a pint of Haagen-Dazs, using drugs, shopping, having a cigarette…etc. Or, if you’re someone who knows how to self-soothe in a healthy way, maybe you go for a walk, play with your dog, go to the gym, or breathe deeply.
I think of it as a range that spans from “healthy” (yoga) to “not so great but won’t do permanent damage” (Haagen-Dazs) to “completely self-destructive and will ruin your life” (drugs.) Where do you lie on this spectrum?
I’ve asked patients how they comfort themselves and I often get a blank stare or sadness at the realization that they never learned how. If you didn’t grow up with someone who comforted you, you may never have learned how to do it yourself. (I’m not blaming your parents. It may have been something they didn’t know how to do for themselves, so they couldn’t do it for you.)
Here’s an example of someone who knew how to comfort: I once saw a mother and her little boy walking along the sidewalk and he fell. She, with a laugh, gently said, “Aw, come here,” as she helped him up and gave him a smile and a quick hug. He followed her cue and smiled back – crying crisis averted. But I’ve also seen kids fall and get a response that isn’t comforting but adds anger and blame to the injury, such as, “Ugh, I told you not to run!” Now the child is upset about falling and getting scolded.
As adults, we often continue our childhood traditions. When you make a mistake, what do you tell yourself? Is it something like, “Ugh, that didn’t work out, but I really tried my best,” or is it more akin to, “You’re so stupid, nothing is ever going to work out for you!” We can be really cruel to ourselves, often more cruel than anyone else is to us.
If you don’t know how to comfort yourself or are in the self-destructive range, then you may want to try something new. One thing you can do is to talk to yourself as if you were a child (because really aren’t there times when we all feel like a child?) Picture a 7-year old version of yourself in front of you looking scared, upset, and oh so small. Would you yell at this child? Maybe you would hug him or her, and you would probably say some version of, “Everything is going to be okay,” knowing that this little one needs reassurance. Try telling this to yourself. It sounds strange, but try it next time you need some comforting.
No one’s parents were perfect and at some point we have to move beyond their limitations and give ourselves what they didn’t. No blame, no judgment, and no shame. Just acknowledgment that we all need some kindness and compassion, and we can actually give it to ourselves.
See what words resonate with you, what words you longed to hear in times of pain. See what actions make you feel better. Then take a deep breath because everything is going to be okay.