When Self-Care is Replaced by Self-Soothing

Well, I am officially (finally…to my impatient self) turning a corner, perhaps due to the reduced emotional demands of my job now that the semester is over. I have struggled emotionally, physically and spiritually since September, only occasionally making it clear to others that I was unraveling at the seams. My inner perfectionist, people-pleaser, and helper want to be strong, stoic, and helpful — to admit that I need help, that I feel angry, that I am disappointed, or worn out is difficult for me. But, I’m learning.

Two things have helped me turn the corner: 1) God (thank You!) and 2) “The Gifts of Imperfection”, a book by Brene Brown. When I finally put God back at the center of my life, things just started falling into place. And, when I started reading about imperfection, I realized I am worthy of love (including self-love) not if, not when, but right now.

Yesterday, when I was reading from that book the following caught my eye: “We know how to eat healthy. We also know how to make good choices with our money. We know how to take care of our emotional needs. We know all of this, yet…We are the most obese, medicated, addicted, and in-debt Americans EVER. Why?…because we don’t talk about the things that get in the way of doing what we know is best for us.” That last sentence stuck with me. Of course, I know how to take care of myself. So, what obstacles stood in my way of doing so?

In my case, it was the belief that it’s noble to help others, but I shouldn’t need help myself. Instead of acknowledging early on the intense demands of my job, my volunteerism, and my writing, and adding more self-care to my routine, I told myself, “I can handle this. I know how to take care of myself.”

I started self-soothing instead of self-caring. I put out fires, put metaphoric bandaids on personal crises. I ate more, over-exercised, drank more than ever before, took lots of walks, immersed myself in busyness, and isolated from God and church friends “because I don’t have the energy”. I’m realizing now that there’s a big difference between Self-Care (which is preventive) and Self-Soothing, which is reactive.

Healthy self-soothing has its place. Self-soothing allows me to take a deep breath when I’m overwhelmed with anxiety about a client but can’t walk out on a session. Self-soothing with a walk around campus helps me calm down when I’m angry and need time to think about how to express myself assertively. Self-soothing allows me to say to my partner, “I need a hug!”

However, even more important is self-care which comes from a place of self-compassion. It’s the idea that I am worth taking care of…right now. Some of my best self-care activities are things like journaling, blogging (when I do so in an authentic, vulnerable, and open way), mindfully walking at the park, and praying.

So, today I wonder whether others out there have thought about the difference between preventive self-care and reactive self-soothing. Share your thoughts with me! I’d love to hear from you.

Peace, joy, and health,

Megan

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