Two ideas have been swirling around in my brain this week: courage and self-soothing. How are they related? I've been thinking about courage as I watch my clients struggle through life's big dilemmas. Often there are no immediate or right answers, there's just the courage to sit with and explore difficult and complicated emotions. Answers usually come, but not until you've done the hard work. I define courage as walking towards what is hard and painful, when you really want to walk away or avoid. Maybe that's where self-soothing comes into play.
Last week, my 4 year old didn't want to go to school. She said her knee hurt. Historically when her leg hurts, it's because something or someone has upset her, and she wants to stay home where she feels secure and loved. My husband asked her why she didn't want to go to school. She said it was because her teacher told her to stop screaming and to stop sucking her thumb. The redirection on the screaming I can understand, but I had a very strong reaction to the teacher allegedly telling her to stop sucking her thumb.
Children can be intense, sensitive people. One of their life tasks is to learn (with the help of the adults around them) how to manage their feelings. One way my youngest manages her very big feelings is by sucking her thumb. This is her form of self-soothing. Why would anyone want to take that away from her? It's her coping strategy. It's her way of self-regulating. As she gets older, she will develop other age-appropriate strategies, but this works extremely well for her now. What I think is most important here, is that in difficult, emotionally-intense situations, she has found a way to comfort herself. When I told her that we would talk to her teacher, and that she can suck her thumb whenever she wants to, she angrily said that she will never suck her thumb at school again. Now that would be the real shame.
So I guess I'm saying is, that in order to manage life's difficulties, we need courage to face what is uncomfortable and ways to soothe ourselves when we feel overwhelmed. To paraphrase Daniel Siegel, M.D., our goal as adults is to move toward complexity, and to learn how to tolerate and manage the intense and often conflicting emotions that come with it. Those incapable of looking at those emotions are left with black and white, right and wrong type of thinking as well as limited problem-solving skills. If you can't see a situation from multiple, well-developed perspectives, your options are limited. It's a coping strategy that may inhibit your ability to grow and adjust, to life's ever-evolving demands.