When you put your daughter to bed and she cries for the first few minutes she will usually calm down by snuggling a blanket, getting into a comfy position, drinking water out of a sippy cup, or doing some sort of personalized routine that could even involve playing with her hair or rubbing her ear.
Somewhere in there, in that time, your baby girl tells herself internally, in some way, that everything is ok, she can trust her world enough to let go and go on to sleep.
What your daughter…or son…is doing is “self-soothing”. It is an incredibly important skill. We learn to self-soothe every time we have to wait on something, every time something doesn’t go our way. We also learn self-soothing when our parents, care givers, or loved ones are kind to us, let us cry, have fun with us, and just in general love on us. In those moments we learn that life is trust worthy, that it is safe to let our guard down and engage in self care….just like that baby who calms down and drifts off to sleep. At some level, she trusts that it is safe enough to drift off to sleep.
Sometimes, for a variety of reasons, we don’t learn to self-sooth, at least not in healthy ways, so we pick up unhealthy ways of self-soothing.
We work…too much…in order to self-sooth via distraction.
We drink…too much…in order to numb or thoughts or emotions.
We use other people as our “beast of burden” and continuously throw our own struggles on the backs of other people (which is different than healthy interdependence or co-regulation).
Unhealthy ways of self-soothing lead to us feeling worse in the long run rather than better. They are dangerous to our health in a variety of ways.
Just like a baby putting him or herself to sleep we can find things to help us calm down. We can take walks on a regular basis to clear our minds and calm our anxiety (this one is one of my personal favorites). We can take deep breaths, read a book, drink a cup of tea. We can reach out to a friend or listen to some music.
And somewhere in there, in that moment, we tell ourselves that everything is going to be ok, that we can trust our world enough to let go and go on to sleep…to walk away from an argument for a while and come back to it later. Or, to be quiet long enough to hear our partner say what they need to say. Or, to let our son or daughter express their true thoughts without it feeling too threatening to our own emotions.
Self-soothing means knowing how to calm ourselves down. It is a combination of behaviors and self-talk. When we self-soothe we talk ourselves down in the heat/anxiety of the moment. I like to think of self-soothing as a form of self-parenting. We become a good parent to ourselves. Our self-talk sounds like a good a parent: “You’re going to be ok. Take a deep breath. This is going to pass.” David Schnarch, renowned relationship therapist, says: “When we can’t control (or parent) ourselves we try to control (parent) others.”
We are all on a journey in learning how to self-soothe. It is an ongoing journey. Self-soothing does not mean we don’t need another person. On the contrary, when we have the ability to self-soothe we are in a better position to call on the support of others AND be that support for them.