The Promise and Pitfalls of "Self-Soothing"
The other day, my tiny son tried something new - something I hadn't yet seen him do in his ~100 days of life.
I stuck him in his baby chair when he preferred to be held, and he began to cry. But instead of winding up to a full-blown wail as usual, he managed to stick a balled up fist into his own line of vision.
This novel sight provided a rudimentary form of entertainment, and he examined the fist thoughtfully. My son was therefore able to spend a few minutes waiting for me in relative peace instead of in shrill agony.
As pediatricians love to explain, behaviors like fist-examining and fist-sucking serve as the foundations of "self-soothing." In particular, we must learn to break free of the "fight or flight" dichotomy that so often descends on us (usually to no good effect).
Humans continue to devise strategies to make themselves feel better long past infancy. A thumb-sucking baby becomes a teddy-bear stroking kid, who becomes a hair-smoothing teenager, who becomes a hot-shower-taking or gym-hitting adult.
Sometimes the self-soothing process goes awry. Substance abuse issues, for instance, are often attempted self-soothing that's become destructive.
But as long as you're not a 40-year-old with a pacifier or a binge drinking habit, self-soothing is fine... right?
I used to think this, but I've changed my mind. Maturation doesn't just mean learning to take your own bad feelings away (instead of waiting for mommy to do it). Maturation *also* involves learning to withstand difficult emotions, when they can't or shouldn't be dispelled.
The line between apparent "self-soothing" and mere distraction is a fine one. We walk this tightrope every time we hit the gym or go out with a friend to shake a bout of fear, anxiety, or sadness.
Change can taste bittersweet. Indecision is traveling with an oversized load. Nostalgia hangs unbidden, like a warm but musty fog. Grief can eat you alive.
Do you live a better or worse human life when you decline to feel these, and all the other messy emotions on offer? Sometimes negative emotions are warranted and appropriate. Often, they aren't fixable anyways - and trying only makes things worse.
If you're still attempting to deal with every negative emotion like a 3-month old, it's time to ascend to a new developmental level.
A capacity to sit with bad feels, to expand and accommodate them, won't develop accidentally or overnight. It develops through deliberate practice.
First, you must learn to self-soothe constructively. Then, you learn *when not to*.