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Self-Care vs. Self-Soothing: What You Need To Know

Self-Care vs. Self-Soothing: What You Need To Know (A woman sits on a white chair in a brightly light room featuring plants and midcentury decor. she is hugging a small white dog on her lap.)

Self-Care vs. Self-Soothing: What You Need To Know

As we’ve discussed before, self-care is an important part of your wellness toolbox. Especially this year, when we’re in the middle of a global pandemic, a stressful election, and a social uprising, it’s important to figure out sustainable ways to care for ourselves that actually work. Self-care is often simplified down to ‘do what feels good’ or ‘treat yourself’, but those ideas aren’t always in line with what self-care is really about. That’s because people often confuse self-care and self-soothing. 

Self-care should make you feel better when you’re done.

You should feel filled up or rejuvenated in some way. Self-care is about taking care of yourself not only right now, but in the future. Self-care keeps you going. Even if it’s a task that is objectively boring, like refilling your prescriptions, you will still feel a sense of accomplishment for doing something proactive to tend to your health. By filling your prescriptions, you are taking care of yourself, even if it’s not fun to put on social media.  

Self-soothing, on the other hand, is more focused on feeling good right now.

Self-soothing is about finding comfort or distraction from what’s going on in the moment. There isn’t anything wrong with self-soothing or wanting to feel good in the moment, but self-soothing isn’t an exact replacement for self-care. Self-soothing gets you through the moment, whereas self-care is a longer-term strategy focused on helping you meet your needs. You can make self-soothing and self-care a regular part of your wellness practice, but make sure you’re using them in the right context and not completely substituting one for the other. 

Here are some examples of self-soothing behaviors:

  • Binge-watching TV
  • Eating your favorite meal
  • Treating yourself to a fancy coffee
  • Exercising or movement
  • Having an alcoholic beverage
  • Drug use
  • Making time for friends and family
  • Retail therapy
  • Cuddling up in a cozy blanket
  • Listening to music on the way to work 

Here are some examples of self-caring behaviors:

  • Exercising or movement 
  • Filling your prescriptions
  • Getting regular checkups
  • Eating nourishing foods
  • Staying hydrated
  • Going to therapy
  • Making time for friends and family
  • Setting up a budget
  • Practicing meditation or mindfulness regularly

As you can see, there are some items that appear on both lists. (Keep in mind that neither of these lists are exhaustive, of course!) That’s because sometimes an action can be self-care and sometimes it can be self-soothing.

The difference is the goal: are you doing this to feel better right now or are you doing it to contribute to feeling good in the future?

Self-care is not an exact science, since everyone is different. What is self-care to you might not be self-care to your best friend, and vice versa. Self-soothing is also very individualized – it is about what makes that person feel better.

Another important note is that sometimes the things you do to soothe yourself will make self-care harder. If an important part of your self-care routine is setting a budget to follow, but you soothe yourself by shopping when you’re upset, you might find that your go-to way to feel better is interfering with your ability to care for yourself. It’s okay if you find yourself needing to be soothed, but make sure that what you’re reaching for will actually make you feel better instead of making your life harder down the line.

Take some time to make a list of the ways you soothe yourself in the moment. What are your go-to self-soothing behaviors? Do any of them interfere with your self-care practice?

Self-soothing and self-care can both be valuable. In fact, they have both probably helped you out more times than you can count! Sometimes we just need to make ourselves feel better, or we experience a crisis (hello, 2020!) and we need cope however we can. Once we’re through the crisis, and have the mental and physical resources to deal with what’s going on, we can step back and make more room for self-care. 

Are you spending a lot of time self-soothing these days? You’re not alone. If you’re looking for support while you work out the balance between self-soothing and self-care, our clinicians can support you. 

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