Pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional.
If you grew up in a family where there was little nurturing, or unpredictable nurturing, especially during the first 18 months of life, you may have a difficult time self-soothing. Alternatively, if you were lucky enough to have had parents, or any caregiver, who was adept at calming you down with a hug and loving, kind words, you have taken in those behaviors and can claim them as your own. When life gets challenging, you know how to emotionally realign.
If it wasn’t merely the absence of loving interaction in your childhood, but the trauma of abuse or neglect, it can be extremely hard to imagine you deserve to feel good about yourself. You do. The past doesn’t have to be your future, no matter how long you have been feeling unworthy.
If you didn’t get loving reassurance when upset as an infant or child, you can still retrain your mind to quiet negative self-talk. Those internal diatribes often get triggered by a break-up, job loss, death, or bad diagnosis, and can easily activate anxiety, panic, or numbness.
Like anything else, the only way to get really good at self-soothing when you don’t have an inner template from infancy and childhood, is to practice giving yourself what you would ideally like from someone else. Learning self-calming techniques can be simple. The only way they get entrenched to the point you will actually use them in a crisis is if you practice them regularly, especially when life is not in turmoil.
Think of times when you have handled bad news. No matter how you dealt with them, you lived. No one says you have to navigate life’s stresses elegantly. Sometimes, just getting to the other side alive is good enough. So, please don’t trip yourself up by rating how you are dealing with a given situation. Give yourself credit for simply getting from one breath to the next.
While there are a plenitude of great ways to work with your thoughts from traditions in Rational-Emotive Behavior Therapy and Cognitive Behavior Therapy, there are times when you simply want to feel better immediately, without having to dispute whatever thoughts led to your disturbance. Having a cache of self-soothing techniques can be incredibly helpful.
Here are some I find especially good at calming the inner chaos:
First, remember these two truths:
All things end, the blissful and the miserable.
You can stand what you don’t like, unless you brainwash yourself into thinking otherwise.
In the Internal Family Systems model, we have a term called a “part attack.” It is when one part, let’s call it the “scaredy cat” takes over and floods you with anxiety. Of course, you could have other parts that inundate you with depression, guilt, worthlessness, or anger. Regardless of the specific emotion and the part involved, it usually feels very overwhelming. It can even seem immobilizing. When that happens, you can consciously call upon other parts inside you, like a resilient part, an inner loving parent, or any other part that helps you feel safe and heard. Let that part listen to the one causing the part attack. Hear all its concerns, validate them, and ask what would make it feel safe. As unusual as this technique may sound, it is incredibly soothing and effective.
Experiment with Jin Shin Jyutsu finger holds. They are remarkably simple and no one will know you are using them, so they can be used when you are disturbed in public. Here’s a link to get you started: http://jsj-holds.blogspot.com/search/label/attitudes (once there, scroll down the page for photos and more detailed information).
Check out the chapter on this site called Breathwork. It is full of techniques to help you switch from your sympathetic nervous system (fight, flight, freeze) to your parasympathetic nervous system (rest and digest).
Use a technique I call Notice & Name. With compassion and curiosity notice where in your body you feel a particular emotion. Now, do your best to describe it. You can start at the crown of your head and work down to your toes or from the soles of your feet moving up to the crown of your head. Pay attention to any areas that feel tight, twitchy, hot, cold, obstructed, itchy, or tense. See if there is pressure, pain, a particular shape, motion, texture, color, heaviness, lightness, buzzing, singing, humming, scents, emptiness, numbness, burning, etc. Once you describe it, just sit with it. You might ask what it would like from you, or what it is trying to tell you. (I know this also sounds a bit different, but it really helps take the focus away from intellectualizing to paying attention to the body.)
Try a mantra. You can use English words and phrases like the ones found on this site under: Affirmations, Manifesto for Emotional Self-Care, and It’s OK Sweetheart; or, you can try one of the Sanskrit mantras listed under: Mantras. By repeating thoughts that run counter to your internal dialogue, especially if it’s harsh, you can actually create new neural pathways. In time, these become so strong they will supersede the old, self-critical ones.
Do some yoga. Even if it is just one posture. Not only will it calm your nervous system, and make you physically strong and supple, it will also help you meet your emotional and psychological issues with more awareness and compassion. By holding postures that don’t always feel comfortable you build up your frustration tolerance, and gain a new appreciation for your inner fortitude.
Try a wonderful meditation called : “Soften, Soothe, and Allow” by Chris Germer. Here’s a link to the free downloadable version: http://www.mindfulselfcompassion.org/audio/SoftenSootheAllow.MP3
If that seems like too much effort, use the simplest technique of all:
As you inhale say: Breathing in I am breathing in.
As you exhale say: Breathing out I breathe out.
It is incredibly difficult to grow up in a family where you have been unseen, mistreated, or physically harmed and come out thinking you deserve joy. You do. You deserve every goodness the world has to offer. After all, you weren’t born believing you were unworthy. People and experiences had to teach you that. Just as you learned one way, you can learn new ways of being tender and compassionate to your sweet self. I know it’s a ton of work. The good news, as the French psychologist Émile Coué said years ago, is: Every day in every way you are getting better and better. These self-soothing techniques simply accelerate the process.
Copyright Nicole S. Urdang