Soothing during sadness when you have a history of emotional neglect
September 30, 2018 2:28 AM   Subscribe

Help me find healthy ways to cope with feeling sad when I have a history of emotional neglect

I really as struggle with sadness. When I'm sad, my impulse is to reach out and want someone (preferably a romantic partner) to cuddle me. Not only do I not have a romantic partner, I also have a really strong fear of rejection and a feeling of shame around admitting I am sad and asking for this soothing from anyone. I am like a cat that hides under a house when it's injured to protect itself and it makes me even sadder because I just want to be held or at least feel like someone might hold me and not use my sadness to hurt me or ridicule me later. I have a very hard time reaching out to people when I'm sad, tend to minimize or make jokes about my feelings and am not quite sure how best to soothe myself with these emotions either because the sadness kicks up my anxiety and shame. It's like this with friends too so I tend not to share my sadness with anyone, which is probably why none of them share theirs with me, which also makes me feel like my connections aren't as deep as those that others have.

Backstory: as a kid/teenager I would often cry at night (I was very unhappy, being bullied at school, depressed and anxious) and if my dad heard me crying he'd come in and yell at me for keeping him awake at night and threaten either to hit me or to send me to a psychiatrictric institution. My parents never modeled emotional regulation or vulnerability or talked about emotions (I also have never seen them hug) and still act as if feelings are stupid. (Example - one week after breaking up a 2 year relationship, i told my mum I was sad and she was like "why???")

As an adult I spent a year living in an emotionally abusive relationship where my bf would tell me that me feeling down was selfish/weak/an indication of my poor character etc and he really used any vulnerabilities of mine to push me down. I've done a lot of work to heal from that and have had better relationships since but still have this weird please sooth me/I can't let you see me like this dichotomy going on that makes being sad pretty distressing.

I'm already in therapy and bought the book Running on Empty so will start that, but I welcome any and all insight or suggestions you might have re navigating and healing this aspect of my life
posted by Chrysalis to Human Relations (14 answers total) 19 users marked this as a favorite
Response by poster: Ok it's not entirely true that noone shares their sadness with me, but they don't seem to be as much of a "mess" when they're sad as what I feel like, which is probably just my own panicky perception of what I'm like when I'm sad
posted by Chrysalis at 2:34 AM on September 30, 2018 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Also to add: in most of my romantic relationships I have been the caretaker. I want one where i am taken care of as much as they are.
posted by Chrysalis at 2:37 AM on September 30, 2018

I struggle with this a lot; something that I've seen recommended frequently is the practice of self-compassion -- there's research that shows it can be helpful. I'm definitely still working on that, but there's certainly a large component based on soothing yourself in times of distress.
posted by diffuse at 2:50 AM on September 30, 2018 [1 favorite]

I learned recently that we can actually stimulate oxytocin in ourselves with self touch. So it might not harm you to start there. Just a quick google found this article. I think for you the trick will be in being kind to yourself and remembering that you deserve it, it's not weak or sad to self soothe. Doing it for yourself in fact will help you to get what you need from others in the future. I absolutely went through a phase like this in my life, where I had never learned to self soothe and I sought it out from others. When there was nobody to help me, I just... didn't get it. And when I tried to do it for myself I felt both resentful and weirdly - embarrassed?

When I went through a similar time, I would ask myself - what do I wish someone else would do for me? Can I do it for myself? If the answer was yes, I would ask myself "why won't I do it for myself?". The answer was usually something like "I obviously don't deserve it," or "it's lame" or "it's weak" or "it just reminds me that I don't have anybody to do it for me". So -- I committed to not get stopped by those gates I'd set up in my mind and just do it. Things I found myself wishing someone would do for me that I just started doing for myself:

- Validating my feelings. "No wonder you feel so low, it's ok to feel this way."
- Asking myself what would make me feel better. "Are you hungry? Tired? Want to watch a low key movie or go for a nice walk? Maybe take a bath or have a nap?"
- Feeding myself nourishing and tasty food. Making myself a meal or taking myself out for a meal somewhere that before, for some reason, I wouldn't allow myself.
- Self touch. Literally hugging myself while watching a movie, or just resting my hands on my chest.

I will say that after I practiced this for a while, I felt much more confident in my ability to self soothe, and then I felt much more comfortable asking for it from people in my life. I no longer feel like this is missing in my life in any way. It starts with seeing that you deserve it and the benefits, and what works and does not work for you.

A perspective that really helped me on this journey was to focus on being a kind person. I practiced kindness on myself - seeing it as a way of practicing on myself to provide it for others really unlocked the purpose of it in my mind, and it got much easier. Maybe that will work for you, too.

You can get there!
posted by pazazygeek at 4:25 AM on September 30, 2018 [16 favorites]

Do you have any experience with cats or dogs? If you have a little bit of room in your budget and time, you might be the perfect person for a snuggly pet. Yes, you would be their caretaker, but pets are incredible at showing affection without judgement, and can be fantastic guides into being more emotionally open. Many pets are able to tell when their guardians are sad or worried and almost instinctively cuddle up to them or ask for physical affection. You can talk to them without fear of repercussion, and by soothing them you soothe yourself. You might talk about this with your therapist and see if they have any thoughts on the idea.
posted by Mizu at 4:29 AM on September 30, 2018 [1 favorite]

Tara Brach addresses this situation with a technique called RAIN...
Tara Brach on the RAIN of Self-Compassion

Being sad about being sad. I'm familiar with that. One thing that has helped me navigate depression and sadness has been to start an art practice. (for me it was painting) - I took the mental/ emotional energy I was using to reflect on myself and channel/ focus it on something more 'external' - educating myself, trying new techniques, going to events, talking to people, getting involved and engaged --- all did well to fill in and soothe those empty spaces, giving me something to look forward to. Doesn't have to be art, but some large project/ activity etc. that speaks to you and that you have complete control over. I hope you find your peace.
posted by mrmarley at 4:59 AM on September 30, 2018

Do your very best to stop beating yourself up. To distract yourself from persistent negative thought. Remind yourself that everybody has troubles and you literally have no idea what may be in someone's heart. A person who seems to have it together may have secrets and sorrow and fears, or not. You cannot know. Practice kindness to others and to yourself. this color looks great. My hair is great today. I held it together in that meeting. I got out of bed even though I feel so sad. Practice noticing anything not horrible What a beautiful day; look at the light filtering through those trees. That music is amazing. That dog is so cute, may I pet them?

Habits really help.
Go to bed at the same time every day, get up at the same time.
Take a walk every day; exercise is a huge help in managing depression and pretty much everything else.
The news is horrible, so maybe shut it off and read a book. Listen to non-toxic music, not sad songs or angry rap, music that makes you feel good. Dance music is good. Watch funny movies, listen to comedy - I recommend Whoopi Goldberg and Steve Martin, who are not unkind. Some comedians use meanness and that makes me feel worse.
Nature and sunshine are beneficial, so get outside if you can.

Take care of yourself. Get good nutrition - less sugar and white flour, more vegetables, whole grains, fruit, fiber.
Limit alcohol.
People tend be be low in Vitamin D and taking a supplement is low-risk; you have have to take a *lot* to overdo it. My doc and many others recommend it routinely.
Being low in Vitamin B12 can have subtle effects, especially low energy. I make sure I eat enough meat and eggs to get B12, and it's a big help for me, as I tend towards eating not that much meat.

What interests you? Go to the library and try different books and music. Check out classes at Adult Ed. What's happening on Meetup? Learn to knit. There are some awesome stitch-n-bitch groups; if you can't find one, start one. Getting active helps you feel in control of your life.

Consider if you are depressed, and if medication would help.
posted by theora55 at 8:42 AM on September 30, 2018 [1 favorite]

From the same website linked to by both diffuse and pazazygeek - Kristin Neff (whose site it is) has several meditations - I think it's the Self Compassion/Loving Kindness one that I particularly like.

Something else I've seen recommended is a weighted blanket, which can create the same feeling of comfort as a hug. They're not cheap, but if you've a little cash socked away that you could afford to put towards this, it might be worth a try. I've not yet tried it myself, so no recommendations I'm afraid.

These are both about self-soothing rather than the more complex stuff about relationships, which sounds more like it might be an issue for your therapist.
posted by penguin pie at 10:26 AM on September 30, 2018

I get some mileage out of my enormous stuffed koala: he's shaped like a normal bear, so I lie down using his "foot" as a pillow, and then his "hand" rests on the side of my head. I also like rubbing my face into his giant ears, and general hugs.

Grocery stores sometimes have large stuffed animals.

Less fancifully, foam rollers are a great way to create comforting sensation -- it's your body weight and movement massaging yourself. Head massagers (the ones that look like sauce whisks) are also great.
posted by batter_my_heart at 1:37 PM on September 30, 2018

As solely physical things go, I get some decent mileage out of soft microfleece things (blankets and pants) and hot tubs (my YMCA had one inside the women’s locker room so it was a particularly relaxing space).

I also bought a weighted blanket which I use and like but am generally underwhelmed by. What I liked much more was the two big (12.5-pound) bags of popcorn kernels I bought at a restaurant supply store - laying those on top of my torso or joints was more soothing than the blanket is because the weight is more concentrated. The bags I bought had pretty thick plastic but I’d keep an eye out for bugs, etc if you do this (I threw mine out when I moved out of state but they were fine for many months.)

But also none of these things were exactly magic, so don’t feel weird if they help but aren’t magic for you either.
posted by needs more cowbell at 5:16 PM on September 30, 2018 [1 favorite]

The mantra I use when I'm really feeling at a loss for how to cope is: Improve, Appreciate, Connect, Protect. Doing anything that fits into any one of those categories will shore you up, even if it isn't related to what's upsetting you. Improve anything: put on socks if your feet are cold, work a little on your knitting, wipe the countertops in your kitchen, move $5 from checking to savings. Appreciate anything: your cat's soft fur, how delicious grapes taste, how good your warm feet feel in those socks, the color of the sky. So on for connecting and protecting.

I hope this helps. I'm familiar with the struggle you have and know how tough it can be. Take care.
posted by Sublimity at 6:32 PM on September 30, 2018 [5 favorites]

I just bought an owl kigurumi (a baggy fleece onesie with a hood) and I am wearing it right now and it is the BEST THING. I was having a very sad morning and I feel a lot better.
posted by ananci at 1:39 PM on October 1, 2018

I'm basically you, except I've always been (sonically, physically) quiet about the suffering.

So sorry and I empathize strongly with your previous emotionally abusive relationship.

The flippant suggestion would be to think about asking your therapist for a prescription, or a referral to someone who can. But it's typically a long slog of trying out different medications at different dosages and sometimes doesn't pan out. Sometimes it does.

For the situation that you've presented, I think that you could benefit from getting some personal "wins." Build real confidence by achieving goals that require competence.

Or it may be the case that you just need to accept praise, not overthink things, and yes - accept praise and own it.

(Do own your mistakes when you make them too, though, but don't beat yourself up about it. Learn from it.)

I don't know what your work situation is, but gaining real respect for what you're demonstrably contributing can really help gain self confidence.

The sadness isn't going to go away, but you may feel better about yourself being able to acknowledge that you matter and that people you yourself respect depend and rely on you, and respect you back.
posted by porpoise at 8:07 PM on October 1, 2018

There's a phenomenon called "cuddle parties", which, despite perhaps seeming strange to you cognitively (it still does to me), might give you what you need. They are for non-sexual touch. Consent is strictly observed. I have not been to one, but have looked into them. Looking at the latitude and longitude in your profile and Googling that city, I see both a Facebook and Meetup group dedicated to cuddle parties in that city.

Separately, you may find 50 Ways to Soothe Yourself Without Food and 50 More Ways to Soothe Yourself Without Food to be useful for self-soothing ideas.

I'm not qualified to diagnose you as having post-traumatic stress disorder, but you may find the resources that people with that disorder use to be useful. It is very common for people with PTSD to have issues with self-soothing.

Finally, you may find the specific search phrase "adult self-soothing" on Google to be useful.

Best of luck.
posted by WCityMike at 1:57 PM on October 4, 2018 [2 favorites]

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