Self-soothing is how we administer emotional first-aid to ourselves.
Self-Soothing: "The Best Person to Comfort Me Is . . . Me!"
Self-validation is intimately tied to self-soothing. But whereas the former centers on reassuring ourselves intellectually--telling ourselves that we're not unacceptable simply because we did something wrong (or were perceived this way)--the latter focuses more on calming ourselves emotionally--on being able, when we get upset, to comfort our mind, body and spirit.
Here the encouraging message we give ourselves is that we have the resources to deal with whatever's disturbing us. We needn't be troubled by it, we'll find a way to safely address it, it'll all turn out okay. Feeling that we possess the emotional strength to quiet our temporarily jangled nerves, we don't need to flee from the situation . . . or ourselves. And being able to confront our vulnerability and persuade ourselves that the circumstance is not as worrisome as it might feel, reduces our anxiety and restores in us a sense of control.
When we offer ourselves succor, we're not primarily concerned with how others might think of us. Self-soothing might even take the form of "going public" with our most vulnerable emotions. For instance, if we're overcome with sadness and unapologetically release our tears in front of others--consciously venting deep feelings of disappointment or loss--we're confirming that it's okay to openly express vulnerable emotions. And what enables us to feel safe in such situations is that we're not reactive to others' judgment.
Contrary to conventional opinion, it may well take more courage to cry in public (especially if we're male) than to keep a stiff upper lip and self-protectively hide the sorrow we're experiencing. Assuming we're not simply overwhelmed by tears but have consciously permitted ourselves to vent our heavy-hearted emotions, we're telling others that we're at peace with our vulnerability, that we don't have to camouflage it. Here, too, in not feeling compelled to conceal our emotional susceptibilities, we become not more vulnerable but (ironically) less so. Now that our behavior is no longer dictated by the possibly critical response of others, we can comfortably "expose" ourselves--transforming what once may have made us feel weak about ourselves into a self-proclaiming strength.
By allowing ourselves to give vent to highly charged emotions, we're conveying that we regard such emotions as legitimate and reasonable to express, even though we recognize that others might feel obliged to inhibit such expression. Our self-control here derives not from suppressing ourselves but having the confidence and self-assurance to divulge what we so keenly feel. Simply put, to avoid communicating these sorrowful emotions (or otherwise dissociate from them) would be to lack the courage of our emotional convictions. In this case we'd simply be capitulating to old "survival programs"--programs that compelled us as children to minimize or deny the expression of our most vulnerable feelings for fear of parental criticism.
Self-soothing is a kind of loving self-embrace. When our nerves are frayed, it's how we administer emotional first aid to ourselves. In circumstances that leave us feeling attacked or unwanted--or simply unsure of ourselves--we're able to come to our own rescue. And although if we need to, we can self-soothe through tears, there are a multitude of other ways we can calm and comfort ourselves.
As a caveat, it's important to keep in mind that depending on others to soothe us can actually increase feelings of vulnerability. That said, however, some of the ways we can reassure ourselves do involve others. To offer a few examples, when we're upset, we can think about--or actually contact--someone whom we're confident really cares about us. Or we can turn our attention away from ourselves, and in comforting someone else (perhaps through volunteer work) paradoxically experience ourselves as comforted too. After all, our sense of self-worth almost always benefits from experiencing ourselves as valued by others. And--on a non-human level--we can always pet, or talk to, our dog or cat (whose immediate positive response is virtually guaranteed!). A bit more self-indulgently, we can soothe both body and mind by arranging for a relaxing massage.
Alone, we can self-soothe by journaling about what's troubling us. In giving full vent to our negative feelings we can begin to mollify them. Or we can employ one of dozens of ways to relax ourselves--whether through deep breathing, progressive muscle relaxation, yoga, meditation, visualization, guided imagery, or self-hypnosis. We can take a walk in nature (and let ourselves absorb all its peace, beauty and harmony). Whether it be the rustling of leaves in the wind, the dynamic sound of the surf, or the musical balm of songbirds, we can get back some of the tranquility we may have lost. We can nurture ourselves with a long, warm shower or bubble bath. We can listen to soothing music. We can even engage in some form of exercise, which simultaneously can relax our muscles and quiet our restless mind.
But more than anything else, we can talk ourselves into a calmer state by remembering that we've survived situations like this before--that finally it's not such a big deal. Being kind, gentle and understanding with ourselves, we can supply the support and reassurance needed to restore our emotional balance. We can review what left us agitated and try to appreciate it (and ourselves) with more detachment, even humor--a humor that can enable us to grasp the whole situation more realistically and move from a narrowly egocentric to a more philosophical perspective. Or we might simply go outdoors and look at the sun, or stars--again, in the attempt to re-assess our upset feelings in a far broader context, to realize how easy it is for us to magnify what, at last, is hardly catastrophic.
Finally, there's a whole miscellany of things we can do to help ourselves feel better about whatever may have yanked our emotional chain. We can do something imaginative or creative-whether in art, music or make-believe. We can daydream. We can read something that entertains or inspires us. We can run an errand or do a task that we find pleasant, maybe even pleasurable. We can offer ourselves some sort of treat (hopefully, a healthy one!). We can pick flowers, or buy them. We can burn incense. We can walk barefoot on grass, earth or sand. We can release our internal tensions through dance or song (maybe even accompanying ourselves with a musical instrument). We can watch or play with a child. In any number of ways, we can reconnect with our less serious and more sensuous, spontaneous, fun-loving side.
Ultimately, if feeling vulnerable is about feeling threatened, rejected, powerless, out of control, or unloved, we can learn how to confront these distressing experiences more comfortably. By coming to deeply believe in ourselves (warts and all), we no longer need to depend on anyone else to make us feel okay. Unconditionally self-accepting, we can validate our behaviors and soothe our feelings all by ourselves.
Perhaps more than anything else, this is what becoming a fully functioning adult is all about. Unquestionably, it's the essence of true personal power.
Note 2: To check out other posts I've written for Psychology Today, please click here.
© 2008 Leon F. Seltzer, Ph.D. All Rights Reserved.