Anxious? There, there…How We Learn to Soothe Ourselves

Charles Schwab, a sponsor for the PBS Newshour, looks out the window of a skyscraper and pronounces, “The one thing people don’t ever want to have to ask themselves is, ‘How did I end up here?’ ”  What a seductive advertising message.  You can plan and execute a desired life (financial), presumably with the help of Schwab.  But wait a moment, Mr. Schwab.  You totally leaves out the unpredictability of life, the definition of which some believe is what happens when you are making other plans.

At those times, faced with unpredictability or disaster, it helps to believe that everything will work out somehow. This hope can soothe us.  How do we learn to soothe ourselves?For babies, after mommy or daddy,  some use what is called a “transitional object.”  This is the blanket that becomes worn to threads, the stuffed animal, a substitute for the mother as the baby realizes he and mother are two separate people.  Over time, the growing child internalizes this separate mother, and one day, the beloved blanket is no longer necessary.  My grandson has for now his own soothing method.  He looks somber, uncertain, and then he puts two fingers in his mouth, always two.  Sometimes, he brings the wrist of his other hand to his upper lip, and lightly brushes the fabric of his sleeve back and forth.  Then, suddenly, the hands fall away, his face brightens, and he engages again.

Later in childhood, for some it is a parent or other adult who can communicate with confidence that you will be fine. This belief, like the soothing mother, can be internalized. A colleague of mine, nearing the end of her long career, was musing about escaping from Europe as a girl during WWII.  She remembered one lonely and scary moment, as she was looking across the North Sea, waiting to board the ship that would take her to America. The beauty of the light in the morning sky transcended her anxiety and soothed her. The capacity to soothe herself, she continued, has helped her throughout her satisfying yet complex life.  Sometimes it is the light or even the memory of light. Even now, through a window in her apartment that overlooks the tree-tops in Brooklyn, at certain times of the day, she sees a light in the sky that holds her.  But also, she says the memory of having passed through crises, having come out all right before, also soothes.

Charles Schwab is right that we need to plan, but we also need to develop the capacity to accept and endure what disrupts our plans, to soothe ourselves.