“I have to tell you what my granddaughter did,” said my friend Jillene, who had just returned from a two-week trip to Washington, D.C. with her extended family. “We were all staying in the apartment together, and one morning, as we were getting ready to go visit a museum, I heard this mournful little voice from the other room saying, ‘I can’t go. I just can’t go.’”
Jillene went on to explain that the little voice was coming from her four-year-old granddaughter, Emry. “I thought she was talking to her mother, and that she didn’t want to go to the museum, but then my daughter Autumn joined me in the kitchen. ‘Who is Emry talking to?’ I asked. Autumn sighed and said, ‘Herself. In the mirror. She does this. Just wait, she’ll really work herself up.’”
As mother and grandmother listened, Emry’s voice became more distraught, and at the climax, they heard her throw herself onto the bed sobbing. “Is she really okay?” Jillene asked her daughter. “She doesn’t have to go to the museum if she doesn’t want to.”
A moment later, a sunny, happy Emry skipped into the kitchen. “Hi, Nana,” she sang brightly, giving her grandmother a hug. Autumn rolled her eyes.
“Isn’t that the funniest thing?” Jillene asked me. “Autumn says she does it all the time, but is just happy as can be afterward.”
Hearing Jillene’s story of Emry brought to mind a scene in the movie Broadcast News starring William Hurt and Holly Hunter. Hunter’s character, Jane Craig, is a high-powered network news producer. Each morning she locks her office door, unplugs the phone, and works up a good cry. It’s funny to watch, but a small part of me has always wondered if Jane wasn’t on to something.
It turns out that Emry and Hunter’s character are actually utilizing a helpful and healthful psychological tool called self-soothing. Psychologist Leon F. Seltzer, in a blog written for PsychologyToday.com, describes self-soothing as “how we administer emotional first-aid to ourselves.”
Often, when stressed, we engage our intellect to rid ourselves of emotional pain. But thinking ourselves to a better place is difficult. Self-soothing practices take a different approach. By focusing on activities that engage our senses and capture our full attention, we can move through our emotions. Seltzer describes self-soothing as a “kind of loving self-embrace when our nerves are frayed. A way to help ourselves feel better about whatever may have yanked our emotional chain.”
Although we don’t usually imagine that a four-year-old is carrying the weight of the world on her shoulders, a two-week trip to a big city, where everything is new and fast, can be overstimulating and stressful for a small child. By acting out her emotions in front of a mirror, Emry was validating that stress and discharging a great deal of accumulated anxiety. “In giving full vent to our negative feelings, we can begin to mollify them,” writes Seltzer.
Unfortunately, most of us are not as wise as Emry, and don’t responsibly attend to our stress and heightened emotions, often choosing self-destructive soothing methods such as face-planting ourselves into a quart of Moosetracks ice cream after a particularly hard day. But learning to self-soothe effectively is crucial to our well-being, not only for managing stress and emotional crisis, but for our own empowerment and sense of self. Seltzer writes that when we successfully self-soothe, “the encouraging message we give ourselves is that we have the resources to deal with whatever’s disturbing us. Feeling that we possess the emotional strength to quiet our temporarily jangled nerves, we don’t need to flee from the situation or ourselves. And being able to confront our vulnerability and persuade ourselves that the circumstance is not as worrisome as it might feel, reduces our anxiety and restores in us a sense of control.”
There are a number of positive self-soothing practices that can comfort in times of emotional distress. They fall into two categories: Those practices that help discharge our emotions such as punching a weight bag, singing along to the radio at top volume, journaling, or emoting in front of a mirror; and those that help distract us from our heightened emotions until they dissipate such as listening to relaxing music, working on a puzzle, digging in a garden, or taking a long walk.
But you don’t have to wait until you are stressed to start practicing your own self-soothing techniques. In fact, when you are in emotional crisis, your pain can block ideas about how to help yourself. Consider making a list of self-soothing practices that appeal to you, and commit yourself to engaging in at least one or two a day so the act of self-soothing becomes a habit. Not only will this help you be ready when an emotional emergency knocks at your door, but, as Jane Craig found, a daily dose of self-soothing might effectively manage stress.
The self-soothing possibilities are endless. In the novel Deafening by Frances Itani, the main character breaks chipped china against rocks when too much strife builds up in her life. Leon suggests spending time with a pet, looking at the stars, dancing, or yoga. Paint a wall, a canvas, or your nails. Knead bread until your arms feel like they are going to fall off, or make up a bed with fresh sheets and crawl in for a brief nap. Take a bath, or listen to a book-on-tape.
Self-soothing activities do not need to be time-consuming or schedule-altering. Many can be done in five minutes or less, and require no special equipment. The most important component of self-soothing practices is not what they are, but how much they help the person who engages in them. Self-soothing is about comforting, nurturing, and being kind to yourself.
As I write this, my oldest daughter wakes and wanders into my office. One look at her face and I know that she is off to a rocky start. “I’m having a hard day,” she wails. “My nose is running and I’m really hungry and I don’t know what to do.”
I give her a hug, and ask her to think of what helps her most when she is feeling all jumbled up inside. She leaves to go fix herself a piece of toast, and shortly afterward, I hear her shower running in the adjacent bathroom. Soon, along with the chorus of water, Emma is singing happily at the top of her lungs. She reappears later, squeaky clean and soothed of all her morning angst.
Seltzer writes that if “feeling threatened, rejected, powerless, out of control, or unloved, we can learn how to confront these distressing experiences more comfortably. By coming to deeply believe in ourselves (warts and all), we no long need to depend on anyone else to make us feel okay. We can validate our behaviors and soothe our feelings all by ourselves.”
Next time I see my friend Jillene, I am going to suggest that she buys Emry a full-length mirror for her bedroom. Hopefully, it would encourage Emry to keep her self-soothing practice going strong.