Maybe bad news does come in threes. Recently a friend of mine was diagnosed with breast cancer, another friend had an emergency C-section and the baby didn’t survive, and another friend is struggling with crystal meth.
When things fall apart how can we comfort and sooth ourselves?
It’s impossible to be an adult and not have things periodically fall apart. As a wise old friend of mine used to say, “No one’s life is shit-free.” You lose your job, your partner (both have happened to me) or someone close to you loses a child. How do you keep going?
Some people go into denial: pretending that everything is fine. I do not recommend this. While it’s common to feel overwhelmed and want to “put on a happy face” when things fall apart, it’s far healthier to let yourself feel numb, sad, angry or confused. Plus, putting on a happy face takes a lot of effort and – eventually – it’s not sustainable.
Clients sometimes tell me: “If I let myself feel what I’m really feeling, it will be too much.” In that case, imagine that your emotions are like toothpaste in a toothpaste tube. You don’t want to squeeze the whole tube out at once and feel that flood of emotions. So you squeeze out a little bit at a time: a little bit of sadness at your cancer diagnosis, a little bit of grief for your dead child, a little bit of anger about your problem with crystal meth.
And with each squeeze, you realize that your emotions will not kill you or destroy you. The part of our mind that I call “the self-saboteur” tells us: “If you let yourself feel this, you’ll lose it and go crazy.”
Not true: if you don’t let yourself begin to feel what’s going on inside you, you’re much more likely to lose it and feel crazy.
How can we sooth ourselves when things fall apart? Attachment theory says: if we are not “reflected” in a positive way by our caregivers the first 18 months of life, it will always be hard for us to comfort ourselves. We need to “internalize” the ability to self-sooth, and we get it by being soothed as a baby by secure, loving people who know how to do that.
Many of us – myself included – didn’t get that good stuff. So, are we doomed? Thankfully, no. We can learn self-soothing skills, but it takes some work. Here are some ways to sooth and calm yourself when the shit hits the fan:
Do things that calm you down: for me, it’s reading, listening to music, working in the garden, walking, playing with pets, talking with a (calm) friend. Discover what calms you down: make a list and – in times of chaos – do things on the list, at least one a day.
Be physically comfortable: staying in bed can help (for a few hours, anyway), so can a nice warm bath, going swimming, getting in a Jacuzzi/sauna, drinking coffee or tea, exercising, yoga and Pilates.
Tell yourself things that calm you down. When things suck, we usually make ourselves feel worse with self-talk like: “This will never get better” or “I’m hopeless.” Try saying these phrases out loud: see how they only make you feel worse? That’s not self-soothing. Instead, try phrases like: “True, I have breast cancer, but I’ll do everything I can to help myself, taking it one step at a time and letting my friends and partner love me and care for me.” See how much better it feels to say stuff like this? Or try: “I may have a drug problem now, but I can work through this and come out of it. I was clean and sober for many years, I can do it again.”
I don’t encourage you to lie to yourself; I do encourage you to find the most loving truths that you can and to repeat them to yourself.
And when it seems like everything is going downhill, try a phrase like: “Out of this awful experience will come something good, I know it.” Now that is a phrase that can bring you comfort no matter what personal hell you’re going through.
When things fall apart, you can comfort and sooth yourself. Try it and see.