Self-care vs. Self-soothing

“Take care of yourself.”

We say it to those we love, but do we say it to ourselves? And if we do, are we taking the true meaning of those words to heart? When I tell my husband to take care of himself before he goes out on a shift as a drug detective in a dangerous environment, I mean I want him to eat good food, remain alert and aware of his surroundings. I mean I want him to show up for himself and his squad. Every day, he is headed into a world full of risks, and he needs a body, mind, and soul fit to face it.

As a woman healing from trauma, I face similar circumstances. Heading into certain environments is risky -something as simple as an afternoon at the pool can be mentally exhausting for me as I phone my sponsor afterward to surrender the fact that I don’t accept my body. The holiday season can be risky -healing takes a back seat to the busy shopping, concerts, and family gatherings. I’m faced with situations that gnaw on parts of myself I’m trying to let go of: emotional eating, gossiping, negativity, compulsive shopping.

Before heading to a holiday party, I can look squarely at myself and say, “take care, Alicia. Take care tonight.”

Self-care is vital and important, but what does it look like… really?

I called my sponsor one day in the middle of a hard trauma trigger. My heart was pounding. I couldn’t think straight. I didn’t know what I needed, what I wanted.

“Alicia, have you eaten breakfast?” she asked. Breakfast? What did breakfast have to do with my trauma?

“No…”

“Eat two eggs and call me back,” she said.

I hung up the phone a little bit shocked. I didn’t know you could speak to others like that. As I stared at my black phone screen, a distinct thought seeped in:

She cares more about my healing than my comfort.

The truth of the statement sunk deeper and deeper as I cooked two eggs and ate them. I called her back afterward in a much better frame of mind.

“When we are hungry, angry, lonely, tired or stressed, we are more susceptible to triggers,” she said, “I call it HALT -hungry, angry, lonely, tired…”

In other words, “Take care of yourself.”

Self-care -taking care -can easily be confused with self-soothing. Oftentimes, I’ve fallen into the habit of self-soothing and calling it self-care. What I was really doing was living a life I needed to perpetually escape from to even handle. In my rock bottom, my emotional pain was so heavy I spent entire days simply escaping: sleeping, movies, cookie dough, cold cereal, oreos. I know that world is there for me -it can hold space for me anytime I choose it. As I pulled out of my rock bottom and began facing the outside world again, I became overly busy to avoid dealing with my emotional pain. I would busy myself numb, and the constant stream of stress in my life gave me purpose. When it became too heavy to bear, I’d go back to escaping through movies, sleeping, and cookie dough.

This has all been a very long, slow process for me, and now that I’m seven years into working my healing, one of my greatest desires is on building a life I don’t need to perpetually escape from. Seth Godin put it this way, “Instead of wondering when our next vacation is, we should set up a life we don’t need to escape from.”

How do I accomplish this?

By taking careful care of myself. I remind myself that I have everything I need within me, right now. I take time to connect with God, myself, and others. I eat wholesome, nourishing, healthy foods -sometimes a salad, sometimes a steak, sometimes a satisfying helping of my grandma’s signature desserts. I move my body in fresh air. I read good books. I stream good music. I laugh. I get intentional with my time. I mess up and take it in stride as part of everything I need in that moment. I let go of what I can’t control. I clean my side of the street and only then do I offer my services to my family and friends.

This is simple in theory and hard to apply, especially at first. Self-soothing is easy. Self-care isn’t always. But guess which one brings me more serenity? More peace? Self-care gives back ten-fold. Self-soothing doesn’t.

As we head into the holidays, we are heading into literal bad weather and figurative bad weather -risky situations that require us to be ready physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually. But the further I get into recovery, the more I’m learning, as Alfred Wainwright points out, there really isn’t such a thing as bad weather.

Self-care is the way I “suit-up” appropriately. With my own needs met, I’m better able to show up for myself and less susceptible to potential triggers. The world is less risky because I’m dressed for the weather: pool parties, blizzards, and everything in-between.

Self-soothing is the way I dress wounds that come from not being suited up, from not caring for myself, properly.

So I say to my fellow spouses out there fighting the good fight, “Suit up and take care of yourself.”

Tackle tasks you’ve been avoiding, make those hard phone calls, stretch, nourish, breathe, let go of what you can’t control, take care of what you can, and you will find serene freedom.

Alicia is a country girl out of Arizona who loves to write, cook, drink herbal tea and hire other people to clean her house.  She has many interests and dabbles in anything she can get her hands on, and her family is always along for the ride.  She’s been married for 12 years, has three children and more pets than she wants to admit.

She’s been working a 12-step program for almost 6 years, and has been working the SA Lifeline model with a sponsor for the last 3.

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