I was working with a couple who were going to become parents in the next few months. The clients had been with me in therapy as they worked through their marital concerns and wondered if they were ready to bring a baby into the world. During one of the sessions, the husband asked me, “What do you think is the most important quality we need to teach our to-be son/daughter that helps him/her take care of their well-being?”
I have been asked this question at various times over the last 16 years. However, this time, while we were doing online sessions, my answer was, “Teach your child that he or she has the capacity to self–soothe.” Self-soothing is a skill we all need, particularly in a world that’s constantly overwhelming us. In simple words, this is our ability to engage in a series of practices that calm us down, allow us to hold difficult feelings and pause as we navigate tricky situations.
In moments when we engage in the process of self-soothing, we choose to identify and acknowledge that we are feeling off-centre, possibly bombarded with strong, unpleasant feelings. Once we have done this, we can consciously dip into behaviours, thoughts and actions that allow us to find our equilibrium and also be kind to our own self. While you may or may not have heard of the term, my experience with clients tells me that everyone consciously or unconsciously engages in these rituals. Long before I discovered the term, I would use long, solitary walks as a way to comfort myself, and still do. At other times, having a hot cup of tea was enough to give me perspective when I found myself entangled in feelings.
Over the years, I have asked clients ‘What are some rituals or practices they engage in to comfort themselves?’ Here are some of the answers:
• A cold shower or a warm bath.
• Listening to music and sometimes singing.
• Knitting, crocheting, doodling or creating art with hands.
• Cooking and gardening.
• Writing down thoughts or journaling.
• Watching the sea, sitting in a park and being with nature.
• Going for walks and exercise
Self-soothing is a way of taking responsibility for our own mood states and choosing to self-regulate.
Clients often ask me how it is that their parents didn’t teach them about this. The reality is that they may not have known this could be taught. Much before I read about self-soothing, I recognised this while talking to my daughter. About four years old, she was crying when she returned from school. A child had spoken rudely and her tears wouldn’t stop. Comforting words didn’t help. Feeling helpless, I finally asked her, “What can you do that would help you feel better?” She looked up at me and said, “Maybe painting or eating noodles.” I smiled.
She went to her room to paint and soon felt better, enough to tell me what exactly had happened at school. While I always knew that clients find their own answers, in that moment I realised that self-soothing is possibly a big first step in this process and that children, not just adults, are capable of learning it. Now when I tell the same story to my eleven-year-old daughter, and she tells me ‘crying helps too and it’s self-soothing on some days’.
It may help to be mindful of our behaviours in the pursuit of soothing and recognise how some of these may be maladaptive. Some examples of this are consuming alcohol to sleep, binge-eating, even drugs. Behaviours that are a way of avoiding the problem, a quick fix, or those accompanied by guilt or a compulsive craving, don’t allow us to re-centre ourselves.
While social soothing has been encouraged in our culture, there are days when we don’t feel we have the strength or the courage to reach out to others. We sometimes want to stay with ourselves, in the moment, regroup our thoughts, feelings, and at those times adaptive behaviours that provide self-soothing are a good place to begin.
Ask yourself about the practices that feel like a warm hug to you and you will be surprised. Maybe self-soothing is a superpower we all have—and it’s time that we lean in to it.
Sonali Gupta is a Mumbai-based clinical psychologist. She is the author of the book Anxiety: Overcome It And Live Without Fear, and has a YouTube channel, Mental Health with Sonali.