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How to Learn a Valuable Lifetime Skill: Self-Soothing

Being able to tolerate and soothe a painful feeling makes you more resilient.

Key points

  • Everybody has strong feelings sometimes. When you do, it's vital to be able to soothe yourself.
  • Many emotionally neglectful families aren't able to teach their children how to soothe themselves.
  • If self-soothing is not something you learned as a child, you can learn it now.
fizkes Shutterstock
Source: fizkes Shutterstock

Most people don’t give much thought to self-soothing. Yet it is a powerful ability to have and one of the most important life skills you can learn.

Self-soothing can get you through some of the most challenging days or moments of your life by helping you manage feelings of hurt, anger, sadness, or grief. It can make you more resilient as a person. In fact, a 2019 study, (Sar and Sevda, et al.), found that shame-prone women who engaged in purposeful self-soothing were better able to get their emotional needs met.

For many, self-soothing comes naturally because they learned it organically from their parents. This happens simply and automatically when parents soothe their children.

By listening carefully to a long story about something hurtful or unfair that happened to their child that day; by sitting with calm, quiet empathy through their small daughter’s tantrum; by lying next to their child to help him fall asleep after a nightmare; by smoothing their distraught child’s forehead. These are the ways that emotionally present parents teach self-soothing to their children.

Children who receive enough self-soothing from their parents grow up having it for a lifetime. They never need to give it much thought. But this is typically not the case for those who were raised by emotionally neglectful parents.

Why Emotionally Neglectful Parents Can’t Teach Self-Soothing

There are many different types of emotionally neglectful parents. They may be so self-focused that they’re not aware of their children’s emotional needs, much less meeting them. They may be doing their best to keep the family afloat financially so that they’re too exhausted, or not present enough, to respond to their children emotionally. Or, they may seem like wonderful parents in every way, providing their kids with virtually everything they need except for one essential, powerful thing: emotional awareness and support.

Some of these parents are unaware of emotions in general, not just their children’s. They didn’t receive soothing themselves when they were growing up, so they don’t know how to give it to their kids.

In some ways, it doesn’t matter why your parent fails. What really matters is that they failed you. Now, as an adult, you can learn how to provide it for yourself.

The Good News

Fortunately, self-soothing is not complex or difficult to learn. In fact, for most people, it’s mostly a process of self-discovery, trying different ideas, and observing the outcome. As you go through the process of learning self-soothing, an added benefit is getting to know yourself better on an emotional level.

Since every human being is unique, the things that will be soothing to you will be specific to you.

4 Steps to Learn Self-Soothing

  1. Make a list of possible activities that you think might be soothing for you. You will have this initial group of possible strategies ready to try when you need them.
  2. Watch for strong feelings of anger, hurt, sadness, or any other feeling that is too sharp or painful to manage. These are your chances to try out your list.
  3. Try different strategies at different times, since different strategies may work in different situations and with different feelings. Try one strategy and if it doesn’t work, try another.
  4. If one of your strategies isn't good, mark it off. Add new ones as they occur to you.

It may be helpful to think back to your childhood. What comforted you as a child? How about earlier in your adult life? Perhaps you’ve already found and used some things that work for you.

Make sure any strategy you add to your list is healthy. Avoid eating, spending, drinking, or anything that is excessive. Also, keep in mind that we are not looking to avoid a feeling altogether. Avoiding just makes a feeling more powerful. We are trying to soothe the feeling enough that you can tolerate and think through what you’re feeling and why which reduces its overall power now and forever.

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 the list handy, and use it when you need it.

Examples of Self-Soothing

  • write about what you are feeling
  • take a warm bath or a shower
  • play a musical instrument
  • listen to music; this may require a particular song
  • polish your car
  • exercise
  • cook something creative or healthy
  • solve a Sudoku or crossword
  • cuddle with your pet
  • play with a child
  • take a walk
  • lie on the grass and watch the clouds or count the stars
  • clean your house or car
  • call a friend
  • go to the movies
  • sit quietly and look out the window
  • meditate

2 Universal Self-Soothers

1. Self-talk: Self-talk is incredibly powerful and versatile. You can do it any place at any time. Talk to yourself in your own head about what you’re feeling or its cause. Remind yourself of simple, honest truths that will give you balance and perspective. The possibilities are endless and unique to you:

“This is just a feeling, and feelings don’t last forever”

“Everybody makes mistakes”

“You tried your best”

“Just sit through it and it will pass”

“I will learn from this. Then, I’ll put it behind me”

2. Cry: One study, (Sharman, et al., 2020) measured subjects’ physiological responses to stress before and after crying and found that crying helps you maintain biological homeostasis and regulates your heart rate when you are upset.

No one escapes strong feelings. All of your life, you will need the ability to soothe yourself. If you grew up in an emotionally neglectful family, you can teach yourself to do it now. Cry, walk, sing, self-talk. Keep your list and change it over time. This powerful skill will get you through the hard times and make you more resilient and confident in yourself.

© Jonice Webb, Ph.D.

References

To determine whether you might be living with the effects of childhood emotional neglect, you can take the Emotional Neglect Questionnaire. You'll find the link in my Bio.

Sharman, L. S., Dingle, G. A., Vingerhoets, A. J. J. M., & Vanman, E. J. (2020). Using crying to cope: Physiological responses to stress following tears of sadness. Emotion, 20(7), 1279–1291. https://doi.org/10.1037/emo0000633

Women's experiences of group intervention with schema therapy techniques: A qualitative process analysis, Sarı, Sevda , Gençöz, Faruk. Counselling & Psychotherapy Research, Vol 19(3), Sep 2019, 301-310. https://doi.org/10.1002/capr.12222

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