A long time ago, a friend of mine who worked with kids told me that babies don’t instinctively know how to soothe themselves in the moment. They need to learn how to self soothe.
She said that since babies haven’t learned how to process and express all of their emotions during the day when they are put down to sleep, they cry. Not necessarily because something is going wrong in the moment but because they are processing what happened during the day and have to learn to calm themselves down.
I haven’t done any research to see if science supports this idea. It would be easy enough to see if it was, in fact, true. But I love the idea so much, to find out it wasn’t true would be extremely disappointing because it feels so relevant in my own life.
The ability to understand and express our emotions is so important to learn at an early age. I’d like to believe I did, but I don’t always feel as adept as I’d like to. There have been times when I have felt like, if not a master of my emotions, then at least a fluent interpreter. One who was capable of understanding and patiently communicating them.
Other times less so. It is those moments where I have felt like my emotions controlled me. Being impatient, anxious, unbearably sad, the list is not short. There are examples from every year of my life. I speak often of my need to relearn lessons in order for them to stick. Making the same mistakes has become a familiar experience for me. Being at the whim of my emotions, feeling tossed about as though on a ship, is also familiar. I’d like to believe I become more emotionally fluent, but I’m not sure I do.
I have thought about the ways I tried to self soothe in the past. Up until my late 20s, so much of the way I dealt with frustration was by lashing out. I felt like a pendulum swinging from one side to the other, just trying to get clear of whatever painful feeling had overwhelmed me in the moment. The only salve was complete detachment. A trip to the other side of the spectrum.
Of course, this wasn’t a healthy kind of self-soothing. While I wasn’t some off the rails addict intentionally causing harm to myself, I also wasn’t making healthy choices. I was making choices to feel better as opposed to getting better. Self-soothing didn’t mean processing, it meant avoiding. Junk food, alcohol, dating, binge-watching shows, these are all things that have made me feel better in the past in moments, days or weeks. They were all a form of distraction.
At times, it has been difficult for me to sit with an emotion long enough to physiologically come out the other side of it. To feel rationality and a normal heart rate return, even if I was still in the middle of the same scenario. I often feel the need for clarity, though, just as often it means I am chasing a sense of calm, of peace.
And chasing peace is as ridiculous as it sounds.
Soothing without distracting is not easy work. It is just work. Not a fun kind of work. It is mental work. Staying in something long enough to understand it objectively. Grief, while terrible, has often felt easier to understand because I have experienced it enough to know that time lessens the burden of grief. It is not something I can necessarily impact. I can just hopefully feel a bit less sad each and every day.
Stress has been one of the harder feelings for me to cope with. While I’ve been able to work through stress, to exercise to lessens its effects, it still feels intractable to me at times. I had experienced stress in my life before of varying levels, but I was 30 before the effects of it became tied more to my existence, impacting my resting heart rate or my sleep patterns.
As I have invested more of myself in what I do, and subsequently defined myself more than I would like to by what I do, being able to self soothe has been difficult. Vacations, nights out, time with friends have all been pleasant distractions but ultimately they haven’t fundamentally changed the way I cope with my stress in the moment.
My fiancé and I went to Thailand a couple of years ago and it took me a full week to relax into the trip. To not feel so tense. To sleep restfully, or not keep my hands tensed by my sides. I still enjoyed every minute of the trip, but the resonance of my daily stress before the trip was obvious throughout it.
Self-soothing has become a challenge for me once again these days. My stressors are no greater than anybody else’s and most likely on par with what most people feel in their daily life, yet, I do not feel I have been particularly adept at coping. I have the support of a great partner and family, financial stability, a good therapist, and friends with whom I can share, but still, it feels like my ability to come down at the end of the day, to relax, to truly unwind, to self-soothe feels out of reach.
I spent a night at my sister’s this past weekend and got to spend time with my nephew. He is five months old. While we were there he woke up in the middle of the night. He wasn’t screaming or crying, he was just chatting. I’d like to believe he was processing what he had observed that day. Testing out new sounds, laughing at jokes he just understood. Twenty minutes later he fell back to sleep. Self soothed.
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