Most likely you have never put much thought into the concept of self-soothing.
In most people’s minds, self-soothing is not a “thing.” Yet it is one of the most important skills you can learn, and one that will be a tremendous help throughout your life.
Self-soothing is a life skill that most children learn, or fail to learn, from their parents.
When a father rubs his fitful son’s back to help him fall asleep after a nightmare; when a mother holds her crying child and smooths his forehead; when a father listens carefully to his daughter’s long story about something unfair that happened to her at school that day; when a mother sits with calm quiet empathy through her son’s tantrum, these emotionally present parents, as they soothe their children, are organically teaching their children how to soothe themselves.
Children who have the skill never need to give it much thought, but not everyone is so lucky.
Enter the emotionally neglectful parent.
Emotionally neglectful parents come in different varieties. For example, they may be self-involved, and so focused on themselves that they fail to notice their child’s needs. 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. It’s 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. Everyone’s 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.
It’s likely that a self-soothing strategy that works in one situation may not work in another, so it’s 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.
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 realizing it?
Be careful what types of strategies you use. Make sure they’re healthy for you. For example, alcohol, shopping, and eating can seem easy and effective, but they should never be used for self-soothing. They can easily end up giving you another problem to deal with.
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 favorite music
- Wash or polish your car
- Exercise: run, lift weights, or take a bike ride
- Play a musical instrument
- Cook or bake (we’re 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:
“It’s only a feeling, and feelings don’t 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 endeavor 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.
Go HERE to download the Self-Soothing Change Sheet from the book Running on Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect.
Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN) can be difficult to see and remember. To find out if you grew up with it, Take The Emotional Neglect Questionnaire. It’s free.