Self Care, Self-Soothing, and Numbing
Did the title of this blog post make you cringe?
That’s not surprising. One of parenting’s biggest buzzwords recently is “self-care.” It’s everywhere, from professional marketing campaigns to social media accounts. The phrase has even made its way into everyday speech. How often have you justified a Netflix binge as self-care or seen a friend post a picture of a night out for drinks with #selfcare?
But have you heard of self-soothing? Or even numbing? While they may not be trending hashtags, it’s worth knowing about these terms. Oftentimes they are masquerading as self-care and could be working against you.
Here’s the difference between self-care, self-soothing, and numbing and why you should feel inspired to prioritize self-care.
Let’s begin by discussing what the least helpful (and potentially most harmful) of the group is. Numbing, in this context, is an attempt to separate from emotional pain or stress. In the moment, numbing relieves discomfort, but it does not address the root issue or concern. Scrolling on social media for hours on end or binging Netflix shows at the end of a stressful day are examples.
Rather than doing something about the build-up of feelings, we engage in an activity that cuts us off completely from our present selves. Someone might have a drink or escape in a book to take a break from reality. Even something considered healthy, like exercise, can be numbing when it’s done in an attempt to avoid experiencing an emotion or thinking of an issue.
The key aspect of numbing is that it’s done in a way to sever the connection between the present moment and high emotion without an attempt to reconnect.
This one is trickier to identify and commonly masked as self-care.
Self-soothing activities do just as the name implies -- they help calm difficult emotions and provide a distraction from stress. This is what we see on social media when people advocate for massages, yoga, travel, or spending time with friends as self-care. These activities are effective in helping us regulate our bodies for a temporary time.
So why is it not the same as self-care?
According to Barbara Riegel, PhD., co-director of The International Center for Self-Care Research, “self-care is far more complex” than self-soothing. “Self-soothing is good for stress and anxiety, but stress reduction is only one element of self-care.”
True self-care is an ongoing practice to address issues within ourselves when they come up as well as continue to stay in tune with our needs.
Where self-soothing gives us relief from stress, self-care replenishes reserves we can draw upon during times of stress.
The difference is a holistic view of what needs to be taken care of in the self.
Rather than just attending to what is crying out for attention then and there, we need to account for all aspects of ourselves. External circumstances can make an activity part of self-care for one person, and numbing for another.
To consider your plan, think of self-care as encompassing the following areas:
Physical: This area involves your physical body and most basic needs as well as your physical environment. Nutrition, exercise, pain management, chronic illness management, sleep, preventative well visits, and decluttering your desk are all examples of physical self-care.
Intellectual: Engaging in mentally stimulating activities is crucial to our overall health. To care for our intellectual selves, we can be curious, attempt to learn new things, solve puzzles, set boundaries around media consumption, and be creative.
Emotional: Emotional care involves being present for how we feel and recognizing what influences our emotions. We can then use coping mechanisms to regulate ourselves. Journaling, talking to a trusted friend or therapist, making space for happiness, and practicing self-compassion are all aspects of emotional self-care.
Spiritual: Separate from religion, spiritual self-care includes the practice of connecting to something greater than oneself. Being out in nature, connecting with a community, being inspired by art, attending church, or practicing meditation can all fit into the spiritual realm of care.
Professional: Everyone has different goals related to work. However, it is easy for professional responsibilities to be a source of stress rather than one of fulfillment. Setting up boundaries for yourself at work, reminding yourself of the aspects of work that you are grateful for, and taking on mentorship/mentoree opportunities are ways to consider self-care in the professional realm.
Personal: This domain includes social activities, connections to family, goals for your own growth/development, making time for play or hobbies, considering your future, and time for self-reflection on the present.
Remember that self-care is a practice that requires balance.
None of the above domains should come at the expense of the other. Consider the numbing example of exercising. While that would address the physical area of self-care, it would be canceled out if it came at the expense of your emotional health.
If self-care now seems harder than what is being discussed in most places online, that’s because it is. We are complicated beings with more involved in our care-taking than a manicure or shopping spree alone can meet.
Yet, there’s no need to feel overwhelmed.
Start by reviewing the areas of self-care and coming up with one action per domain. Try to achieve one action, once per day, for a whole week or even a month. Then, you can revise your actions and start refining a plan of self-care. You could even practice being mindful of your current methods of self-care.
Ask yourself: is this true self-care, or am I self-soothing or numbing?
Increasing awareness is a great step in the right direction. Be kind to yourself in this process. Spending more time thinking about your self-care is in itself self-care.
By Morgan Teachworth White