The Fine Art of Self-Soothing

Posted On: 01.06.16


First of all, thank you. For reading my Monday post and for leaving such wonderful comments. It’s certainly been a murky time for me, but I feel both optimistic and strong and having your love and support (in addition to the love and support of my flesh-and-blood peeps) means a tremendous amount. More than you know.

Okay, so I’ve been thinking about the art of self-soothing. I remember back to when my girls were babies and there was a fair bit of talk about soothing, about how we need to teach our wee ones to learn to soothe themselves. This argument certainly came into play vis-a-vis the whole (torturous!) cry-it-out dilemma… Do we race to the crib every time our baby cries or do we let her cry it out? Do we soothe our progeny or let them soothe themselves? Does this ring a bell at all?

Anyway, time has passed and my girls are bigger – 9, 7, and almost 5 – but these questions still apply. Do we race to help our kids in moments of angst or frustration or sadness or do we hang back and let them suss it out themselves? I don’t pretend to know the answer to this, but my gut tells me that as parents, our job is to do a bit of both.

But what if we turn the lens on ourselves? What do we do to soothe ourselves? If I’ve learned anything at all, it’s that adulthood is tricky terrain. Things happen. Good things, but also hard things and the meaningful question becomes how we react to these things, how we become resilient, how we cope with struggle, with success? (I think handling good change can be as challenging as unfortunate change.)

A good friend texted me the other day and asked what I was reading. I told her that for the last few weeks, I’d been unable to focus enough to read a thing. But this past weekend I started reading again and the most gorgeous sense of calm came over me. I devoured that book (The Story of a New Name by Elena Ferrante) and started the next (Book Three). Also, I hadn’t been writing much at all. I figured it was the holidays anyway and that “time off” was fine and deserved, but then Monday I set my alarm and woke up early to write and the same thing happened – I felt so peaceful and positive. I texted something back to my friend: “I think reading and writing will get me through this.”

And I believe it. We all have (or perhaps should have) positive things we turn to, things we love, things that fill us and free us in uncertain times. For me, those things are books and stories, consumed and created (as well as silly/sweet snuggle time with my favorite people.) It’s different for all of us, I suppose. In my forthcoming novel The Ramblersmy three characters have different passions which they turn to as self-soothing strategies. In times of turmoil, Clio escapes to the Ramble in Central Park to spend time with her beloved birds. When life goes haywire, Smith uses her hands to clear spaces and create order from chaos. And when things fall apart for brooding Tate, he takes his camera outside for long walks to find and capture beauty, even in a broken world.

Maybe this is the trick. To find something that takes us outside of ourselves when we need it most, something that lets us breathe and just be.  


Did you cry it out with your children?

What do you turn to when life gets tricky or uncertain?

What are you reading?

Do you have a favorite bookstore? (One of mine is Book Culture, pictured above.)

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6 Comments for: "The Fine Art of Self-Soothing"
  1. I don’t have any of my own children, but I babysat often. I would usually do what the parents said, but it did vary. And I feel as if I agree with you – especially when it comes to students in the classroom as well. It is our job to do both, the hard part – I think – is knowing which one to do at which times.

    I find that reading helps me a lot. The other thing – and it still surprises me, although it shouldn’t – is how calm and centered I feel when I am consistently doing some yoga. I have a home practice and use Yoga with Adriene as a guide. She is amazing because instead of feeling like I need to reach for perfection – which I sometimes feel when I am reading about yoga or watching yoga videos/presentations, she makes yoga feel more accessible and real (for me anyways).

    And having people I can speak the truth to. I received some exciting news from two different friends and while so very excited for both of them, I am finding it hard to not compare and feel pangs of envy (and maybe some jealousy) as well. I texted this to a friend last night and she responded perfectly and it just made me feel a little less alone.

    And I think that is important to remember.

    A bit rambling today, but I know you don’t mind.

  2. Self-soothing. This has been on my mind a lot over the past few months. When my now 6 month old was born, I was a bit of a maniac about teaching him to self-soothe. At 3 months I let him cry it out for a few nights and it worked like a dream. He sleeps through the night beautifully and if he wakes up in the middle of the night he soothes himself. Except when he doesn’t. Some nights he just can’t put himself back to sleep and my husband, who is far more flexible with baby sleep than I am, said something that stuck with me. He said that sometimes we, as adults, can’t self soothe either. Sometimes we need a hug or a shoulder or an ear to listen to what is bothering us. Or a book or a movie, or something to help us calm down. Sometimes we just can’t do it by ourselves, so why should we expect a baby to be able to do it himself all the time.

    And he is so completely right. So I think I do a little bit of both now. Sometimes I hang back and let him do his thing. But sometimes I go in to his room, pick him up, and we rock and snuggle because that seems to be what he needs. And what I need. The trick is, as you said, knowing when to hang back and when to step forward, and sometimes I have no idea. But the most we can do is the best we can, and I’ve learned to be gentle with myself. I know I would t get it right every time, but I’m trying and I’m learning, and I think that’s the most important thing.

  3. Gale

    This post is so old-school ADR. I love it! And in the spirit of it, I will answer your questions in order. But first, I want to say that I’m glad you’re figuring out what works for you and embracing it. I always find your morning writing photos so serene. I can understand it helps you feel at the helm of your own ship.

    1. We did a modified cry-it-out. We made sure we let them learn how to fall asleep on their own. And beyond that it was a mix of comfort and cry.

    2. My biggest self-soothing tactic is walking. I think I could solve the world’s problems if I walked enough. It clears my mind and my heart in the most wonderful ways.

    3. I am reading three books right now: “A Tale of Two Cities” (for the first time), “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again” (my first Wallace), and “Garlic and Sapphires” (Ruth Reichl’s book about being the NYT restaurant critic). I’m excited about all three.

    4. Alas, I have little time to spend in bookstores. Instead, when I want to let myself get lost in a world of books, I go to my Amazon wish list page where I’ve cataloged everything I want to read and look lustingly at it.

  4. OK so I don’t remember if we let our kids cry it out? Does that mean I probably did? I was into parenting strategies then. As for soothing. It’s so tricky. I have had one of the worst years and both writing and working out (two previous outlets) fell by the wayside. It was a terrible cycle of feeling to down to “soothe” and then not receiving the benefits of potential soothing. I am so happy you are reading and writing and focusing and in my opinion writing things that “get me” in the 2 minutes I read them….I’ve recently returned to a little writing and a little exercise and it’s like meeting an old friend…when I make time for the meeting.
    I need more info about this 4am writing thing…

  5. Yes, we were a cry-it-out family. And this is an interesting topic to me, and a wise one . When I have the time and space to do it, I tend to get outside for a walk and to look at the sky or to sit in my bed with a book, those are both activities/places that soothe me. The bigger challenge (and it’s specifically relevant right now as I head into my annual work nightmare) is how to soothe myself in moments when those activities aren’t available. A minute of eyes-closed breathing? Hot tea? I’m working on it. xox

  6. I love this topic- and am focused on some self-soothing this weekend. I wonder how we can remind ourselves to make time for soothing before stuff happens? We cannot prevent many of the things that cause unrest, but I do know that I am better equipped to deal with the bumps and bruises when I’ve taken care of myself. And, what a good reminder, Aidan, that as parents we have tried to teach our children to do this- and don’t always do it for ourselves.

    We were a cry-it-out family and it worked! However, I practically had to be tied down to get through the crying- I couldn’t stand hearing my babies cry – then or now (that they are adults).

    I am going to invoke a few soothing rituals this weekend– reading, exercise, meditation and even TV! I am reading Me Before You and loving it! Next on my list is Julia Alvarez’s Before We Were Free for a school club – this book was on my list for years and I am glad I “have” to read it, finally. And, I am listening to Drew Barrymore’s Wildflower- loving that too!

    I love all bookstores- private and small or even chain. My all-time favorite is Tattered Cover in Denver, and my local NJ favorite is Words in Maplewood. And, I must add, I am grateful to work in a library, surrounded by books all day!

    Wishing you ease and comfort Aidan- I have been thinking of you especially after reading Monday’s post and thank you for your selfless sharing and inspiration!

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