Comforting Ourselves: More than Self-Care…Self-Healing
By Cathryn Bond Doyle.
A flash of insight came to me last December (2001) as I sat with a married couple working hard to “own” their own stuff so they could love each other more deeply. The purpose of this article is to explain what happened, expand on the comparison between self-care and self-comfort and then to offer ways we can “Comfort Ourselves” with the hope that it triggers lots of “Ah Ha”s and insights for you.
I listened, as they got brutally honest with themselves and each other. In short, in the process of untangling events and feelings of the past few months, the young woman discovered that underneath her anger with her husband (for not doing certain things she wanted him to do) was jealous of his ex-wife and underneath that jealousy was a fear that she was going to lose him.
Going deeper, she was somewhat surprised to discover a belief that no matter how she looked or what she did, she was just not lovable. As she reflected on this newfound knowledge, she wept. It became clear to her that, at some level, she’d been hoping that her husband would be able to do enough and say enough to make her feel safe in the relationship, yet as they talked she also realized that no matter how many times he had indeed told her and showed her how much he loved her, she couldn’t and didn’t believe him.
She wanted him to make the fears go away by proving his love with this action or that behavior and she realized she’d been testing him as well. In that moment of awareness, she also realized that she had been blaming him for not giving her something that she wasn’t even giving herself. She was the only one who could give herself what she so desperately wanted…the ability to accept and believe that she was truly lovable and to believe that her husband really did love her.
As we sat there with this major league “Ah Ha” it was amazing and wonderful to watch the awareness’s, the feelings, the forgiveness and the compassion that flowed between the two of them. She apologized for all the times she’d been angry with him. She was so sorry for all the times she blamed him for her pain.
He apologized for not having compassion or patience for the pain she’d been experiencing. Fortunately, her husband was instantly supportive. His next reaction was visible relief. He explained he felt a wave of relief because he knew he was no longer going to have to feel the pressure of trying to overcome his wife’s inner insecurities. HE knew he loved her and was hopeful that now she would believe that. They both visibly relaxed and the love they shared was almost palpable.
For the next hour we talked about ways she could calm and nurture her own fears and how her constant self-assessment needed to shift from cruelly critical to comforting. As she talked, her voice softened and she said, in a somber moment of self-revelation, “Oh my gosh, I need to comfort myself.” As soon as she used the word “comfort” it felt like a huge light bulb went on inside me. I realized that self-comforting was quite different from the more commonly discussed practice of self-care.
We grabbed a dictionary and found the following:
To comfort (v) is “to soothe in time of grief or fear.”
To care (v) is “to be concerned or interested.”
We talked about how self-care deals with ways we can help ourselves and that self-comfort is more about ways we can heal ourselves. With all the talk about self-care and how it helps us, I realized that we need to add another option when under stress…the gift of self-comfort. There are clearly times for self-care and all the ways we can “do” things for ourselves. However in that one conversation, we had just discovered a place for self-comfort which seemed much more about new ways to “be” with (rather than “do” for) ourselves.
We know how to comfort others. It was profound to realize that we also have the ability to bestow our instinctive and powerful tender loving care on ourselves. We are now only a conscious choice away from this healing force. So, how do we know when to apply self-care versus self-comfort? Let’s look briefly at both approaches.
Self-Care: A Daily Choice
The concept of self-care has been around for a while and thankfully seems to be catching on as an integral part of a healthy life style. We’ve come a long way since Calgon (“Take me away in a bathtub”) and L’Oreal (“I’m worth it”) introduced the idea that it was OK to do things for ourselves. Most of us have mastered the art of doing for others. As we turn some of that expertise inward and do more and more for ourselves, we feel the positive impact and the people around us can see that we are less stressed and happier.
Our self-care strategies may take the form of a new schedule, a different distribution of chores, the introduction of new efficiency procedures or any number new or revised activities. It may also mean we have to have some heart-felt conversations with our friends and family. The value of self-care is widely accepted. The benefit of self-care is the genuine confidence generated as we realize we can count on ourselves. The good news is that those of us who have created new self-care solutions can attest to the fact that it’s almost always worth the effort and it gets easier and easier with practice. The thing about self-care is that it usually involves overt actions and often has impact on others. This is probably why self-care requires such courage.
Calling on the Power of Self-Comfort
One of the benefits of comforting ourselves is that it can be completely private, doesn’t require any outward action and no one even needs to know what we are doing. This makes it different from self-care and may make mastering the art of self-comfort more appealing to some. What does self-comforting look like? How can we comfort ourselves?
First, look at how we comfort others. When a child is hurt or scared, how do we comfort them? When a loved one faces a tragic event or is injured, what tone of voice do we use when talking to them? When someone is in great physical pain, where do we get all that patience and compassion? How about the tenderness we feel when we pick up a puppy or a baby when we know they have just been frightened?
In all of these situations we choose to open our “comfort valves” and let the love and gentleness flow through us. We are healing as we do this and at some level, we know that. The suggestion here is that we give ourselves permission to feel those feelings towards ourselves. Let’s decide, right here, right now, that we deserve the benefits of our own support. No one ever needs to know. Just make that choice from moment to moment.
Next, we can begin to monitor our self-talk. Look for opportunities to talk to ourselves silently in a gentle and calming voice. “Hey, everything is going to be OK. You are going to figure this out. You’re really a good person. You can do this.” Let’s talk to ourselves until we feel better. Sadly, some people even have trouble imagining this kind of self-talk. This may be a new skill: a skill worth every once of effort.
In the terrific book “Excuse Me: Your Life is Waiting.” by Lynn Grabhorn, she introduces the concept called “tender-talk.” I don’t know if she invented the term but reading her book brought it to my attention. She talks about how harsh most of us are with ourselves and how detrimental that is to our health, happiness and daily mood. So many of us have super-critical inner judges who lambaste us at the slightest thing. Well, let’s make the decision to fire any and all inner critics and decide to, as the dictionary says; “soothe ourselves in times of grief or fear.”
Another way we can comfort ourselves is by honoring our deepest feelings and giving ourselves what we need emotionally. Emotions are timeless. Experiences leave scars and wounds and distorted beliefs about ourselves. When something happens that triggers an uncomfortable feeling, rather than reacting outwardly, it would be self-comforting to take a few moments to figure out what is really going on so we can decide how to help ourselves.
It’s a time to get curious with ourselves just like we would if a child comes home crying and there’s no visible evidence of a cause for the tears. We launch right into comforting mode. Almost automatically we’d begin asking questions until we understand what’s happening. The loving comfort just seems to come naturally. Try this approach with yourself next time someone or something pushes one of your “hot buttons.”
In the session described at the beginning of this article, the wife realized she was continually telling herself that she had reasons to doubt her husband’s love and yet the truth was she didn’t believe she was lovable. That was a belief. Whose responsibility is it to change or heal that? It is, of course, the wife’s job. Once she realized that all the blaming and hurt and angry feelings were distractions to avoid her own painful wounding belief (that she felt unlovable), she went to work. She began talking, out loud, to that part of her who longed to believe she was lovable. It was powerful and touching to witness.
There are some good books out there about healing the inner child and healing wounds from the past. As we uncover the underlying beliefs we are holding about ourselves, many of these wounds can be healed by the conscious decision to have a new belief. As the wife began speaking gently, telling herself that she was lovable, (like she would have talked to a friend in the same situation), she began to feel better almost immediately.
After a month of this effort, she has discovered she is much more relaxed. She feels free of the anxiety of losing the focus of her love (husband, parents, friends) for the first time in her life. She has begun to source her own comfort through her actions and her positive, nurturing and private self-talk. Look how positively she has changed her future by having the persistence and courage to get to the bottom of their relationship stress.
You CAN comfort yourself.
There are two main keys to being successful at self-comfort: awareness and willingness. The next time anxiety, sadness, anger or fear creeps into your day, take a moment to stop and become aware of what you are saying to yourself. Lynn Grabhorn says talking out loud is much more effective so give that a try if the situation allows.
Once you’re aware of the negative thought or feeling causing you pain, switch into the mode of “What would I say to my dearest friend if she felt this way about herself?” Ever noticed how wise you are about other people’s issues? Ha! Be willing to shower the wisdom, compassion and tenderness that emerges on yourself and see how that feels. Get creative with yourself and try to pinpoint the source of your discomfort. Get clever and change whatever negative or hurtful belief you find into something positive and wonderful. If you can do this in the spirit of an experiment or an adventure it can be liberating and life changing.
Imagine how different your life would be if you truly believed you were beautiful?
How would your day be different if you felt completely safe and confident?
How great would it feel to decide that you are smart enough and good enough, just as you are today?
How would your love relationship change if you decided you looked great today, and that your body was good and getting better all the time?
What if every single time you made a mistake you responded like parents do when their kids are learning a new sport. “That’s OK Honey! Way to go! Good try! Don’t worry about it! You can do it!”
It sort of makes you chuckle just thinking about it, doesn’t it? The possible positive impact of comforting ourselves is that we could feel safe and supported, loved and valued 24/7. Just imagine that!
©2002 Cathryn Bond Doyle. All Rights Reserved.