how to feel awesome [?]: self-soothing vs self-care

There was some helpful, interesting feedback on the last post, yoga, self-soothing, and feeling what ails you, about how we often use yoga and meditation to stay right where we are rather than to help us see and behave more clearly.

Giulia, an art historian, had two remarks. First, well, can’t we just have some fun? Second, some self-soothing is necessary and helpful.

Of course we can have fun. Holy linoleum. We need fun, and there’s definitely an element of fun in my classes. I don’t intend to be unnecessarily stern in my writing, it’s just that most of us have the fun part down. Fun is healing in and of itself.

And, yes, self-soothing is necessary and helpful. Absolutely. I did mention that: “Some soothing is important, good, necessary, healing…. But when is it too much? Spiritual bypassing? Avoiding the pain? This is tricky.” Giulia concurred. This is an especially difficult question.

Sarah, a yoga teacher in the final throes of her psych doctorate, gets at the same thing. She wrote that the post, “got me thinking about difference / overlap? between soothing and self-care.”

Self-care requires more discernment. Sometimes self-care is sitting down to work instead of going to the beach. And sometimes it’s going to the beach instead of staying at your desk. (How to know which is a question for later.) Self-soothing is more of an emergency practice. When the nervous system has been jolted into sympathetic response, known colloquially as freaking out, it’s time to soothe.

The problem is when we self-soothe for kicks, because it feels nice, or maybe it’s habit. Trauma survivors, and perhaps everyone, take refuge in fantasy, good and bad, quite a lot. Even to the point of living there. Yoga and meditation can be excellent tools to spot it and back off (as it’s so ingrained in our realities, it’s harder than you think). Or they can be tools of spiritual bypass, by trading one set of fantasies for another.

For example, instead of imagining that your teacher, about whom you know nothing, really, is a controlling, unspiritual bitch because she calls you out when you come to class late (frequently), you get spiritual and pretend that her comments do not affect you because we are all whole and one and you do not need her guidance or acceptance in the banal material realm. This is bullshit. You are not “healed,” and on some level, you know it.

A trauma survivor may go further and fantasize that the teacher doesn’t want him there, will invalidate his class card, ran into his sister on the street and talked mess about him, somehow knows his boss and…ad nauseum.

But then! When he is in a good mood (or the teacher is—the anxious are always sussing the Other’s mood in attempt to stay safe), she’s nurturing, informative, and generally awesome. His imagination spins wildly in this direction. Next thing you know, his wife is into polyamory, Teacher has revealed her unmanageable desire for him, unlike his wife she adores his poetry, and they’re off on an extended trip to…ad nauseum.

It is self-soothing on a rampage, and trauma survivors often live there, in the ups and downs of their imaginations. Here self-care is required. When a glimmer of reality breaks in, it’s back to the breath. But that comforting fantasy can be as difficult (more?) to abandon as nicotine for a smoker.

The breath is not quite as much fun. Not quite (yet) as soothing.

Back to lateness and the controlling teacher. If the breath is not breaking your fantasies open you could:

  • Observe how you feel when she calls you out and suss what’s going on there. Then leave it for later and come back to your breath.
  • Later, when you are alone, observe in retrospect how you feel. Go into your breath and feel. Yes, we know you don’t breathe sometimes, because if you breathe you will feel, and if you feel you will break. But now you are alone, and safe, so feel. Break if you want. You will come back.
  • Look very closely at the reasons you always show up late. Check yourself. (Please consult yoga etiquette 101 & yoga etiquette 201.) Are your excuses valid? Do you really believe them? No one else does, but worse, in seconds of stone cold honesty, you don’t either.
  • Actually have a conversation with her about it (this is the hard one) so that the issue is pulled out of your fantasy realm and down to earth.

You will learn that your teacher is nurturer and bitch, but for reasons you hadn’t fathomed, having nothing to do with you. It is an enormous load off, if you can let go of the fantasies. But those fantasies have protected you through unspeakable, unfeelable things. Soon you’re shocked to find that it’s the manic ones that are trouble. It’s easy to peer under the heavy trips, as we don’t (consciously) like them, but the happy fantasies brighten our day and give us hope. What are we without them? Underneath they are bolstered by the same terror, grief and rage that spin the negative. Stepping back, they are one and the same.

It is daunting, but also fascinating and human. Self-soothing allows us to calm our system, self-care allows us to slowly shift toward health. Though when to do which can be difficult to discern, when we check in, and we’re honest, we know very well.

2 Responses to “how to feel awesome [?]: self-soothing vs self-care”

  1. (0v0) says:

    Thank you for this.

    The way that you describe specific cases is so helpful. You really know how to teach in this area.

  2. Anastasia Kirtiklis says:

    Thanks, Owl. xo

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