We all get upset from time to time. What do we do when this happens? If we expect someone else to make us feel better, then we’re using the wrong strategy. Self-soothing is a far better tactic because we get more reliable results, and, we don’t damage our relationships in the process.
Self-soothing is an essential life skill. But learning self-soothing is especially important for those of us trying to change harmful behavior. Pressuring, guilting, manipulating, or getting angry at others when they don’t adequately console us is really damaging to our relationships.
The downside of expecting others to reassure us
Maybe you’re thinking, “Wait – shouldn’t my loved one be there for me? Isn’t that the deal when we enter into a relationship?” Of course – that’s a big reason why we have those people in our lives! And, hopefully, we would do the same for them when they need someone to talk to.
But we cannot expect our partners or friends to be there every single time. That’s just not realistic. Sometimes they’re the one who upset us in the first place. Other times they’re too tired, stressed, or sad to help us. What’s more, we’re putting unrealistic expectations on them. How are they going to know exactly what we need?
Plus, having someone constantly hand us the responsibility to reassure their fears and bolster their mood is exhausting. If your roommate asks you to help with their laundry, you’d gladly lend a hand. But if they ask you to wash their clothes again and again, at some point you’re going to expect them to do it themselves!
By failing to manage our own emotions, we’re not only giving up the responsibility to look after ourselves, we’re setting ourselves up for disappointment. For our partners, we risk creating resentment, stress, fear, and ultimately, having them check out of the relationship. None of these are good long-term outcomes.
Why self-soothing is hard, but a better alternative
Still, soothing ourselves is hard work. Many of us never learned how—we weren’t taught it at home, and we certainly didn’t learn it in school. Instead, we’ve relied on others, and now it’s become our habitual response to feeling bad. Our minds find it far easier to ask loved ones do the “emotional labor” of cheering us rather than doing it ourselves.
It makes more sense to become adept at self-soothing. Knowing that we can rely on ourselves in moments of distress is empowering. No more disappointment, no more driving our loved ones away with piles of our emotional dirty laundry! And, it’s a skill that can be learned with the right practice.
The deeper truth about emotional soothing is that often, others can’t do it for us. Many of us who cause harm in our relationships are actually trying to get our loved ones to change negative beliefs we have about ourselves. We’re looking for proof that we’re important, valuable, and lovable. However, those aspects of our identity are questions only we can answer.
How to get better at self-soothing
The first step to getting better at self-soothing is to identify times when we’re trying to hand off that responsibility to others. Some of us explicitly ask our loved ones for support: “I’m really anxious right now and I need you to calm me down.” More often, we “act out” as if we shouldn’t even need to ask. Pouting, slamming doors, or snapping at someone are unhealthy and indirect ways we might be crying out for help with our own emotional turmoil.
As you begin to spot the ways in which you’re making your partner responsible for reassuring you, try applying some of the following self-soothing techniques. There are many to choose from and what works for one person might not work for another. So, try a few and have the ones that function well for you ready in your toolbox for when you need them.
It’s hard to believe that something so simple could be effective, but focusing on your breath can be a great self-soothing technique. When we’re in “thinking” mode, we can pile on resentment or shame from the past, or we worry about the future. Most of our uncomfortable, painful emotions occur in thinking mode.
Shifting our attention to our breath takes us out of thinking mode and into observing mode—a focus on the present moment. Those painful emotions drain away when we let go of the thoughts that are causing them. Try this guided meditation or check out the mindfulness exercise in Session 6 of our Guidebook.
Do something physical
Like the breathing exercise, physical activity and sensations have a similar effect of drawing us back to the present moment. Here are some examples:
- Patting or cuddling with a pet.
- Taking a walk outside.
- Curling up in bed, perhaps with a stuffed toy.
- Doing something tactile, like woodworking, gardening, or knitting, and noticing the feel of wood, soil, or yarn.
- Holding a precious object, like a locket, prayer cross, or crystal, and noticing how it looks and feels.
Note that all these activities involve our body and the sensations we feel through it.
Affirmations are a great tool for self-soothing and changing what the voice inside our heads is saying about us. Try the affirmations exercise in this post, where you write out your negative beliefs, then replace them with more positive alternatives.
Or, write out calming words and phrases that feel meaningful to you. Then, read them aloud when you need to comfort yourself. Here are some examples:
- I am resilient. I’ll find a way through this.
- My thoughts and emotions are not me. They are not permanent and do not define me.
- I will focus on today, one thing at a time.
- Everything is as it should be.
- I give myself permission to take a break.
- Toxic and negative thoughts are unhelpful. I’m letting go of them.
- Challenges are part of the journey.
- I am loved and worthy of love.
Grab a notebook and just write whatever pops into your head. Pour out all those things that are making you anxious or angry. Once you’re done writing (or your hand has cramped up, whichever comes first), close the book.
This is especially useful when those negative thoughts attack in the middle of the night. We’re not getting rid of them, but just putting them somewhere safe until we feel ready to tackle them. Often when we see them again in the light of day, they’re not as bad or scary as they seemed.
For a bonus point, try to identify what distorted thoughts you’re having, and write those down. Then, challenge them. Put each thought on trial. Argue with it, like two opposing lawyers in a courtroom:
- How are you seeing the situation?
- What else could be going on?
- How might someone else see it?
This works for tiny quibbles like “I’m annoyed that nobody thanked me for dinner” and huge self-doubts like “I’m not good enough.”
Give yourself compassion
Whether you’re upset about something that happened to you or something you’ve done, try imagining what you would tell yourself if you were a child. Or imagine what your best friend would tell you. How would they comfort you and help you see the way forward? You can be that mentor or friend to yourself.
Instead of circling around the same fears or beating ourselves up for our mistakes, we can learn to speak to ourselves with grace and compassion. There’s always a way forward. Treat yourself with kindness – even, and especially, when you’ve messed up.
Connect with God
Whenever we’re feeling upset or overwhelmed, God offers us comfort. One way we can receive his help is by reading the Bible. It contains his wisdom and guidance that helps us figure out tough situations and see things differently, from his perspective. Reading scripture can remind us of how he sees us—as his beloved son or daughter. Moreover, it contains his promises to provide and protect those who trust him.
Unlike our earthly friends and family, God never gets tired of hearing from us or helping us. Those who have developed a relationship with him can pray and receive a peace that is difficult to explain or understand. Give thanks for what you’re grateful for. Then, listen to what he has to say to you.
All these techniques will take time and practice to start working. That’s because we’re trying to replace deeply-rooted behaviors and thought patterns in our brains with new, healthier ones. Over time, our self-soothing habit gets easier and we don’t need to rely on our loved ones to make us feel better every time.