Coping and self-soothing

I was surprised yesterday when sitting down to guide Fred to plan out his homework schedule he said, “I want to be calm before I do math, so I’m going to play piano first.” My thinking was to get the hardest homework over with first, but Fred chose to read and play music instead.

It made me think about how, when and if one learns to self-soothe. I grew up in a stressful household but also in a family that didn’t “talk.” It wasn’t part of our culture to discuss feelings and besides, my parents didn’t have time; they were so focused just on surviving. But it’s human instinct to find or create coping skills, however immature or ineffective they may be in the long run. As a child I spent a lot of time reading and daydreaming – activities that took me, at least mentally, far from where I was. My little brother and I, using our stuffed animals, created an entirely new family complete with its own history and life.

As an adult I often relied on a busy schedule. At one point I was active in a handful of volunteer activities and joined a gym on top of a full-time job. My mother remarked that it was as if I were trying to numb myself by keeping every minute of my life occupied. Maybe I was. Maybe I was afraid of what I’d feel if I had time to feel.

I’m so grateful for all of your support last week when I posted about my inertia. Since I wrote that post I’ve had a great week. It is pretty amazing how much things can fall into place once you make that first change. Since joining the gym I’ve looked forward to going back each day, and since decluttering the dining room I’ve moved on to the kitchen. I also began doing small things: getting out of my pajamas and putting in my contacts before work (I work from home and usually rush to start due to my clients’ time zone), eating breakfast before 9:30, drinking more water and less juice, leaving my laptop in a different room and on a different floor after 8:00 p.m., and noticing my tone around my family more and apologizing when I need to, even for small things. I didn’t notice all the ways I had not been taking care of myself until I started to do it.

I feel I need to do all those things first before I can think about the more commonly thought of self-soothers like massages and aromatherapy candles. I’ve done that, along with the scented shower gels and lotions, and now I know why they hadn’t worked for me; I hadn’t taken care of my body’s most basic needs first.

I’m not sure why I’ve been so neglectful of myself. There are, of course, those intense years of early motherhood when the last person on your list of priorities is yourself. Those are the years that you eat standing up, fold laundry and cook when you should be napping, and throw talcum powder in your hair instead of washing it. Those years have formed a habit. Except I think I was kind of negligent even before I became a parent. While I’d taught myself to escape as a child, I never learned to stay and feel better.

This week Fred had an unfortunate incident. It wasn’t good, but it wasn’t the end of the world. He locked himself in his closet, sobbing, “I just want to die!” It was a wake-up call because I saw myself in him. It was just a week ago that I had felt and cried the same thing to my husband. An article on suicidal thoughts says, “Often we don’t want to die; we just want the pain to end.” When you’ve never had a chance to properly face and process difficult emotions, they can easily become overwhelming…and crippling and threatening. And then eventually life itself becomes overwhelming, and even taking basic steps for self-care becomes difficult.

I know that my 9-year-old wasn’t literal about wanting to die, but I do know that he was feeling something more powerful than he could handle. He wanted to be anywhere except where he was at that moment. I know. I have been there…many times and over long years I have been there. I’ll make sure that Fred is never there alone, and that he knows he is stronger than anything bad he feels.

How do you cope or teach your children to cope with life’s more difficult moments?

26 thoughts on “Coping and self-soothing

  1. Oh Cecilia, I’m so glad you’re feeling better. I think that’s so true–we need to start taking care of ourselves before we can really acknowledge all the ways we hadn’t been taking care of ourselves. I’m so glad you’re on that path now. And I’m so impressed that Fred knows how to calm himself and is able to communicate that to you. That’s huge.

    Sending you a big hug, my friend. xox

    • Thank you so much, Kate! Once you take action, life really does feel much less overwhelming. It’s been interesting to see my son try and take care of himself…I’m learning from him!

  2. Great Post – Great Progress – thanks so much for sharing:) I discovered that my anger was coming from not dealing with my emotions, feelings and thoughts. Plus I am a perfectionist, worrier, stress myself out kind of person too. Talk about a explosive combination! I am now dealing and working through things in my life for a better and healthier me. I take a break by getting outside, reading and creatively writing; great outlets. Happy Thursday!

    • Yes – thank you for mentioning anger, Renee. As you have no doubt heard depression is often said to be anger turned inward (not that *you* are depressed – your words just reminded me of that expression). I suspect that so many of us can trace our bad reactions back to feelings of anger. It is important that you have all this awareness, and are working through it. I can definitely identify with those tendencies for perfectionism, worry, and stress! I imagine your blog must be helping as well (and helping many others) 🙂

  3. Wow, Cecilia, there is a lot in this post I can relate to. This line especially stopped me in my tracks: “While I’d taught myself to escape as a child, I never learned to stay and feel better.” I’ve had the same experiences as you, wondering why indulgences like spa trips never left me feeling better. It was only last year, really, that I started to recognize the unhealthy patterns in my life that left me feeling depleted most of the time. Here’s to you for recognizing the things you needed to change. I suspect that Fred will be one of the greatest beneficiaries.

    • I’m so glad you can relate, Kristen, as this is one of those “in-the-closet” type feelings I have. I feel comforted that you’ve experienced similar feelings. I remember how helpful it was to read one of your recent posts where you talked about yoga, meditation and drinking more water. I was actually inspired by your post. Let’s check in and see where we are in a half year! 🙂

  4. I’m so happy you’re feeling better, Cecilia! And kudos to you for helping Fred through his rough patches. We all have them, and it’s so much easier when parents are happy themselves. Fred’s a lucky boy to have you.

    • Thank you, Carolyn! I worry most that my son will take after me in my temperament, but fortunately so far he seems to have taken after his father (less brooding, more happy-go-lucky). But those crazy extremes – I guess that’s partly him being a kid, partly him having half my DNA 😉

  5. So glad to hear that you’ve been able to find some things that bring comfort and get yourself out of the old track and into a new, healthier one!

    I try to model healthy thinking for my children by telling aloud how I work through things. For example, I came home from a workshop and told my daughter about how nervous I’d been because I didn’t know anyone and how shy I was as lunch approached because I didn’t have anyone to eat with, and everyone else seemed to have a friend. I decided that being friendly was more important to me than the risk of rejection. I approached some ladies and asked to join them. I had a wonderful time. I made no connection to my daughter’s shyness when I told my story, and drew no conclusions as a moral for her to learn. I was just sharing a moment in my day. She could draw her own conclusions. Or not. When they are going through a tough time I just try to open their minds to see things from different perspectives. What you thought was an obstacle could be a detour to a better path. What you thought was the devastating end of a friendship could be the opportunity for new growth.

    For myself, I rely on solitude and sleep. I find those two factors are usually what is missing 🙂

    • Lee-Anne, I love that! Just sharing and talking, and not preaching or teaching or lecturing. A friend of mine with pre-teen kids told me recently that her kids connect best with her when she shares her own stories of tough times from her own teen years. I think it’s important for our kids to see us as humans just trying our best.

      Yes, time to recharge and especially sleep are so important! I have plenty of the former but need to work on the latter.

      Thanks always for your very thoughtful comments!

  6. I wish our children could learn from our experiences but unfortunately it doesn’t seem to work out that way. I’ve battled with depression all my life. During extremely low times i resorted to cutting. Then when I saw one of my daughters going through the same thing I made sure she knew I was there for her. It has been our close relationship that has helped my daughter. I believe she would be able to cope better if she would incorporate some of the knowledge that I acquired over the years.

    • Darlene, Thank you so much for sharing your words here. It seems that you are doing your best by staying close to your daughter and being there for her. I know that so many kids/teens struggle because no one around them – parents in particular – even understand what depression is or looks like, much less help them get through it. That would have been huge for me. If some adult could have just tried to see what was behind my anger and outbursts or my mood swings, I could’ve gotten help sooner instead of finally dragging myself to a therapist at 26. I imagine it is still so very hard even with your own experience, but you know more than most just having gone through depression. Sending good thoughts your way and to your daughter.

  7. I can completely relate to so much of this post. And last year we had a similar situation with our then 11 year old and those types of statements. It scared me, and like you, it was so reminiscent of the ways that I feel and think about things. Not suicidal but wanting to escape the pain and the tough moments. I’m not sure I really helped him cope that time. I had a meltdown right along side of him, but at the very least it was an eye opening experience that I hope to have learned from.

    • Thank you so much for relating, Heidi. It is so hard to see our children go through something painful like that and many times I cannot control my emotions in front of my son either. It’s a vicious cycle of bad feelings because then I will get mad at myself for not putting on a stronger face, so I understand. The only thing we can do is learn and maybe the next time we’ll do a little better, as you said.

  8. This is so hard to see, I know.

    My youngest is so much like me: feels everything. Music, photos, books…. so much. I have told him that we live inside out, and we have to watch what we do, who we are with, what we listen to , what we watch. No news, no radio, no unhappy music. So much, so much work to take care of ourselves. But I remember, the most difficult part about being this way while growing up was the secretiveness of it all, no one to share with. And the one time I did venture out of my soul and confide to my mother, she was not t he best in her reaction. I do realize it was her fear, her reaction to her husband’s suicide… but the way she reacted made me become even more withdrawn. Realizing it was scary to feel this way and to not let anyone know. He has you … that is a huge difference and a safety net. One idea a therapist gave me years ago was to write a letter to myself every time I went through a period like this, and then when the period had ended, go back and read the letter, to remind myself I survived. It wasn’t as catastrophic as I imagined. Next, she reminded me to tell myself this, “When things are bad, we think they’ll never end. When things are good, we think they’ll never last.” Same thing, different interpretation or prediction, of events. I love knowing you, Ceci.

    • I learned so much in your one paragraph here, Alexandra. You really hit it right on the nail – the secrecy is the poison. Yes, exactly like you I grew up not talking to anyone about anything I was going through. I sometimes wonder why I am exposing myself the way that I am on this blog (and I keep hearing my mother’s voice in my head, “You are not a real Chinese!” (because we just don’t open ourselves in our culture)) and your words reminded me. Yes, just being able to tell someone and not feel shamed is huge. I would say that it’s not even half the battle – it’s everything. When you can share and be validated and hear about others’ experiences then what more can you ask for? Because the world cannot guarantee a life free of pain or challenges.

      Your mother did the best she knew how. She was coping with unspeakable pain. It probably took every ounce of energy just to get through each hour… I am glad you have made peace with her and that you have opened your beautiful heart to us.

      I love the idea of the letter…I loved every word that you wrote here, Alexandra. Thank you so much.

  9. Our kids can teach us so much can’t they? That, and we learn so much from them too. In teaching, in trying to impart some of what we hope they would learn, we see ourselves and the world with new eyes. Like learning to be gentle with ourselves. I had been plagued by guilt for so long (and still often am) that I actually have to force myself to be okay with not being able to do as much as I like, to be okay to just treat myself to a quiet night with some mind-numbing TV (and not feel like I have to write a post when I can scarcely muster the energy to think, let alone write.)

    Good for you for getting to this place, Cecilia. You absolutely deserve it.

    • Thanks so much, Justine, for writing here and off-line as well.

      I’m not sure where we’ve learned to drive ourselves so hard. I know I didn’t feel this much guilt until I become a parent. You are juggling your writing work, motherhood, housework and a marriage. You absolutely need and deserve a break! You probably do more in one morning than the average person does in one day. Lately I’ve tried to give myself credit for getting even the smallest things done…I know that self-criticism is otherwise paralyzing.

  10. Yes, our early lives are definitely very similar. The fantasy worlds with toys, the feeling of wanting to die (but not really, just for the pain to end), not talking. Then being an adult and not looking after myself and keeping far too busy.

    I think you are very aware of your feelings and reasons for your behaviour and this is a good thing for your son. I think they do pick up on our pasts. Our past follows us around like a ghost. But hopefully if he can see you shrugging things off and laughing things off and believing you can cope, I think that will rub off on him too and make him stronger.

    It’s great that he likes to play the piano to relax. He has a good resource for himself there.

    • I’m glad you can relate, Denise. I definitely need to be more careful about the way I manage my stresses and emotions. I take this for granted, as my mom was very stoic. I guess I take after my father and can imagine what a bigger mess I’d be if my mother also couldn’t manage her emotions well. Thanks for your thoughtful comment.

  11. I am so glad that your new routine is working for you. Your words resonate, Cecilia. I experienced some of the same feelings you described when I worked in a high demand job. It all became too much and I took it out on my daughter and husband. Growing up, we were taught to never quit even when something wasn’t working for us. Even when all signs pointed to giving up this “dream” job, I kept on going. It took a few epiphanies from unlikely sources to make a change. I’ve never looked back.

    The lessons our children teach us everyday is something I relish and love. Everyday I am taught, again and again, how much learning I still need to do.

    • It’s really amazing how much wisdom our children have, isn’t it? Maybe it’s because they see life they way it ought to be seen, before their views and thoughts are tampered with by things like pride, vanity, insecurity, anxiety, etc.

      I’m glad too that you had made the courageous step to walk away from something that you were probably told all your life was important.

  12. November was a rough month for me, so I am just getting to read this gem. The line, “While I’d taught myself to escape as a child, I never learned to stay and feel better.” – That resonated. Staying, learning the tools to stay rather than escape has been something that I’ve struggled with as an adult, particularly as a mother of small children.

    I’m happy that your new routine is working for you and that you are coping. That’s what we all must do.

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