I tend to be over powered by my uncomfortable feelings – anxiety, panic, depression. When I encounter an upsetting situation, particularly a form of conflict, I have trouble putting my mind at ease. I have trouble telling myself that I’m an ok person. That these emotions are ok. I have trouble comforting myself.
I want my husband or others to tell me I’m ok. I grasp for some validation – sometimes in awkward ways. I try to get others to tell me I’m likeable, I’m acceptable.
Sometimes I even do things to ensure people accept me. By anticipating what I think others want me to say or do, I stay in the “safe zone” so that I’ll be ok inside. That way I don’t have to face an anxiety-provoking situation. Because if I do I’m left adrift, swimming in these uncomfortable emotions that I have no idea what to do with.
You see, I never learned to self soothe. Whenever I was faced with distressing emotions as a child ~ anger or frustration ~ and acted out of that, I was promptly spanked so as to end the undesirable “behavior.” And so my brain did not develop the wiring that takes place as children are repeatedly soothed, comforted, listened to and walked through those uncomfortable feelings.
Dr. Laura Markham explains the process:
“When we get upset and are soothed as little ones, our neural wiring is built and repeatedly reinforced so that we become able to soothe ourselves. This is not just a psychological learning, but a physical one. The brain and nervous system take shape depending on our interaction with the environment. We learn to regulate ourselves emotionally in the context of our intimate relationships. So after our child cries in our arms and “shows us” her upset, we soothe her. That builds the neural wiring for her to soothe herself and restore herself to regulation.”
Soothing a child literally builds the wiring in the brain for the child to internalize that comfort and those responses and begin to soothe himself!
My husband didn’t learn to self-soothe either. While I plunge into depression he reacts with anger. It sure doesn’t do much for intimacy when you both are looking to the other to get the comfort that you need. We’ve discovered that first hand and now here we are, ten years into marriage, finally learning how to deal with our own emotions and soothe ourselves.
We’re finally “growing up.”
There are many myths and misunderstandings surrounding the idea of self-soothing. Some claim that it is learned in infancy through the process of “crying it out,” when in infant is left alone to cry himself to sleep. Brain research is showing the opposite is true. Like the idea of “crying it out” in infancy, others believe we learn to self-soothe when we are left alone to deal with our problems, or punished for them, like my friend who believes self control is learned through spanking.
Nothing could be further from the truth. The words of comfort we speak to our kids over and over again become an internal dialogue that literally becomes wired into the brain. Every time we comfort our children, we’re not only helping them right then, we’re helping build patterns that they will carry with them as they grow up – patterns that I myself am just now learning. What a gift we can give our children!
Remember the intense conversation about spanking I had with my friend? I saw her a few days later and went to give her a hug. She hugged me tightly back, as if holding on for dear life. Her eyes teared up. “I cried myself to sleep that night after our conversation. I just couldn’t bear the thought of losing you.” I knew that’s what happened before she even told me, that’s how well I know her. We’re a lot alike actually, which is part of why I treasure her friendship. We both deal with anxiety and depression, have often been shoulders to cry on for each other, ears to vent to, and always a safe place to share intimate struggles. All of that is what makes me love her. And that is why I knew she had cried herself to sleep. I knew because at any other point in my life I would have done the same thing. But this time, as my thoughts were spiralling out of control after that conflict, I realized that no one else what going to calm these anxieties except me. Yep, I’m learning to self-soothe. And I did it that night, maybe for the first time in my life.
Here’s a glimpse into my journal from the night after the conflict:
These were my fears:
“So I was just totally honest and spoke how I felt, and now I feel scared. I feel nervous that my friends will decide they don’t like me. That they will talk badly about me, that they will tell their husbands about the conversation and I will be portrayed as this extremely judgmental person. Rumors will go around about me and no one will like me anymore. I will have a strained relationship with the moms. More than that, though, I’m afraid they won’t like me anymore. That I’ll be rejected. That I will be misunderstood, or not accepted the way I am. I’m scared now that I’ve shown them a part of me that they don’t like. This is the anxiety I feel.”
Then I asked myself:
“Am I dependent on other’s validation to feel ok about myself? Tonight I shared who I am, I disclosed myself to my friends, and I was not validated. My opinion was not accepted, it was rejected. And now I don’t feel so great about myself. I feel a level of anxiety, of fear, of sadness, aloneness. Do I need that validation to feel ok about myself? Why? How do I soothe myself now? How do I take care of myself and get myself out of this slump. How do I stay who I am in relationship and still maintain the connection and closeness, without giving in to the pressure to conform. At points in the conversation I felt like I wanted to apologize, to apologize for thinking the way I think, feeling the way I feel, etc. I wanted to say forget it, I don’t mean it. But I didn’t let myself say that. Because it wasn’t true. And I’m trying to stay true to myself. If I said that I would just be trying to conform to make myself feel better, because I can’t handle being a separate individual in relationship. It feels uncomfortable because there is a chance I will be rejected.”
Then I expressed my fears of rejection to the Lord:
“But Lord, you don’t reject me, do you? What do you think about me? What do you think about that whole conversation? I know there were moments I blew it. I got too intense, I was even mean and unkind. That’s not o.k. I’m sorry. Do you still love me? Are you unhappy with me? Are you angry with me? Did I screw up? Please don’t reject me. Please don’t push me away.”
And then I spoke truth to myself:
“I know that He loves me. Just as I am. He sees me. He sees my heart, He knows me inside out and still loves me. Just as I am, mistakes and all. Passion, intensity and all. He knows me. You saw that whole conversation. I think you are happy with me. I know it wasn’t perfect, but Lord you know my heart. I’m sorry if I hurt your children. Please comfort them if they are feeling upset tonight. But if you want to highlight anything I said to change their minds, you could do that. It’s up to you.”
Then I made the connection to my marriage:
“I think that’s why I ask Scott all the time – Are you mad at me? What I’m really saying is Are you unhappy with me? Please don’t reject me. I think that’s what I’m trying to say – I’m disclosing myself to you and I really want your validation. I’m really afraid of your rejection. But I know I need to be strong in myself and stop asking him that and stand on my own two feet. So that I can share myself with him without expecting anything in return. Just because I want to show him who I am so he can love me. And if I do that our marriage will be so much stronger. Because we will be two whole people funcitoning separately, yet together. My feelings don’t have to be so dependent on what he thinks of me and my fear of his rejection.”
Phew! What an amazing process I went through that night. I woke up the next morning feeling absolutely incredible. David Schnarch, author of Passionate Marriage says,
“At some point you have to become a hero or heroine in your own eyes by doing something that requires you to self-validate.”
I kind of feel like I did that the night of the intense conversation. I leaped out and revealed more of my true self to my friends, even knowing that I wouldn’t be validated by them and I would be rejected. I knew that even before I spoke. But I thought, enough is enough. I have to be myself and risk rejection. So that’s what happened.
I walked away from that situation with a level of anxiety and fear of rejection that I had to master and validate myself through. And now I actually feel amazingly good about it! I think it was a huge step in my process of learning to self-soothe.
I know this is a pretty intense subject and a very revealing post. Do you have any thoughts about it? What do you think it means to self soothe?