Self-soothing is the exact opposite of other-soothing, or what most of us refer to as helping. Think of other-soothing as the flow of energy toward others and self-soothing is the flow of energy and nourishment toward the self. Too much outward flow and the person is off-balance. Too much inward flow and the person is not functional in the world. Neither, in too large a proportion, is a good thing.
As a stepmother, you most likely entered into an environment where the grieving of the lost family was not done. It was likely so palpable that any sane woman would do the natural thing and try to better the situation. Of course, that wasn’t possible. The process of grieving had to run it’s painful and difficult course. When considered in that light, it is really, really easy to get stuck in other-soothing.
I invite you to immediately let yourself off the hook of what you could and couldn’t accomplish by this point in your stepfamily. Let it go. Turn now, over here, and begin to create space to practice the strategies that you will need in order to find, develop, and keep your internal balance between other and self. You cannot simultaneously other-soothe and self-soothe. They are not compatible. Self-soothing is a quiet, personal, sometimes tear-inducing reflection that requires your brain, heart, solar plexus, and pelvic floor. You will need to make space for self-soothing in your thoughts, feelings, and actions.
You don’t need large spans of time to practice self-soothing. You can take advantage of being stopped at a traffic light. You can soothe yourself while pushing the cart through the grocery store or by shifting weight from one foot to the other in line at the post office. And, you can tune in to the rhythm of your walk while taking the dogs out. Read the following scenarios and see how these women managed.
Sue was exhausted. She worried about the kids constantly, most recently because they were struggling in school and didn’t seem to know how to study. When she mentioned her worries to her husband, he took her concerns as criticism of his parenting. But, Sue felt in a bind, the conversation pattern was very negative with her husband and she knew she would not be able to stop caring about how they did in school.
She decided to put some limits on her worry and developed Homework Hours. The kids had always asked for her help and she made herself available during hours that she determined. It took months to finally transition, but eventually the kids found a rhythm with the Homework Hour and to use their study time more productively. She hadn’t stopped helping completely, but the predictability of those hours took the pressure off for all of them.
She felt such a great sense of relief that the negativity about being the only one helping them dissipated. In the hours Sue freed up, she began to focus on herself.
Karen felt invaded. She wasn’t used to living in such intimate quarters with so many others. Her husband and his four children were so excited when she moved in that she wasn’t prepared for the backlash when the fun wore off. The younger kids were constantly barging in the bedroom and jumping in bed with their dad as if she wasn’t also there. The older girls routinely looked through her clothes, though they hadn’t actually taken anything. She wondered if it was just a matter of time.
Their home had plenty of rooms and everyone had a place, even if it was in a shared bedroom. But, Karen felt a deep and long yearning for a place to go away and let her thoughts be free. With the exception of the bathroom, there wasn’t a room like that.
One day, one of her friends mentioned the story Sealskin, Soulskin, in Women Who Run With The Wolves, by Clarissa Pinkola Estes. Dr. Estes advises that every woman should have her place to restore and replenish, otherwise she’d be in danger of drying out. Dr. Estes told the story of her grandmother in her rocking chair on the porch and when she was in that chair, no one dared disturb her. Karen read Sealskin, Soulskin and recognized all the ways she had let herself give until she dried up.
Karen borrowed her grandmother’s rocking chair from her mother and set it in a quiet place by the window in the guest room. First, she went there occasionally and shut the door and sat by the window. Gradually her family stopped getting upset that she wasn’t available and she began to take more regular time by the window. She settled into a routine of 15 minutes at the window every morning, even if she had to get up very early. This became a time to connect with herself and all the other women in her family, especially her grandmother, and she felt less dried out.
Angela was a new mom and a stepmom. Her husband’s sons were teens and fairly independent but they all struggled to get along. Her son and daughter were young and she was sleeping poorly and struggling with depression. She’d had no illusions that being a stepmother was a picnic, but she had thought they would feel themselves settling over time. She had hoped that as the boys got used to her they would understand that she cared about their well-being and back off of their aggressive responses to her every word and look.
No such luck. Angela felt a growing sense of dread when the school day ended and it was a day for her stepsons to come home to their house. She couldn’t just leave them to their own devices, since she had the younger children to care for and she never seemed to find a moment to herself. Her circumstances felt so bleak and she felt she had tried everything.
Finally, she realized that she needed to think of options that didn’t cost money, that didn’t require her to leave her home and that she could do at any time and any place. She was drawn to ideas such as a gratitude practice and sitting vigil as ways to ground herself and after a short internet search, she found a website that sent a daily gratitude message via email. From then onward, every evening after the younger kids were in bed, she left the older boys with their dad and retreated to the office where she shut the door and read her email or lay on the floor to let her mind and body relax. Each day, the one phrase was enough to help her remember that she had the power in herself to listen in and notice her life through a different lens. The ritual of reading the gratitude email every evening grew into a time of reflection and self-talk and the beginning of her education in self-soothing.
Her husband noticed that she slept better when she had her email time and that the next day always began on a better note when she woke rested. Smart man, he guarded her email time and made sure she remained undisturbed so she could take care of herself. Knowing he supported her fueled her sense of rightness with the world.
Ultimately, every one of us stepmothers needs to find a moment or a space or a time to get back to ourselves. Or, if that is still too difficult, a way to come home, back into our bodies and send the other voices out and away. For years, I retreated to the laundry room in the basement when the pressure built in our house. The tediously, relaxing and remarkably affinity-building action of folding shirts, blankets, towels, and jeans was repetitious enough and soothing enough that I always regained my footing. In my most troubled moments, I thought of folding the clothes as my act of love toward the kids and extended stepfamily. In reality, it was also an act of love toward myself.