The Self in Three States
The number three. Blood, sweat, tears. Life, Liberty, pursuit of happiness. Location, location, location. The number three has long been held as powerful. The holy trinity. And now we return to the number three as we contemplate regulating our emotions through three states of being: threat, drive, and soothe. Self compassion, born of the soothe state, is recognizing our pain, then recognizing that our pain is universal and normal, then meeting our pain with kindness before alleviating it through intentional soothing. Many of us operate in a very different space though, and allow our inner critic to take over, leaving us wounded, and out of touch with our self compassion. In the search for a more complete understanding of self-compassion, let us start at the beginning.
When humans are born, if we are starved of nurturance and tenderness-even if we are fed, we die. Throughout history, the plight of babies abandoned to only the most basic needs suffer from what is known as failure to thrive due to lack of nurturance. Long ago studies of spider monkeys taught us that a baby monkey will starve to death cuddling a soft and comforting frame of a “mother” before seeking the food and drink offered by the cold hard wire frame “mother.” When we were babies we were clear and unabashed in our need for comfort, connection, and the solace of others to help us regulate our emotions. Babies even adapt crying to use the tone that gets you to dash to them when they are in need.
As we grow, some of us are taught to self soothe. We are taught to seek safety, take some time, relax, do things that calm and settle us. We feel safe reaching out to trusted others to find a nurturing hug, a warm meal, a welcome conversation. For others of us, these lessons get lost. An example I use in session recounts the experience of a child falling off the slide at a playground. In one scenario, the caregiver validates the child's experience, soothes the child, encourages the child to try again with some support to build confidence. In the other scenario, the caregiver simply tells the child to "man up" and go play. Lessons learned, lessons lost.
In other cases, the child is tasked with primarily caring for others. Sometimes as children, we are relegated to the role of caregiver. Maybe a parent had “the nerves” so your job was not to disrupt, or maybe they had unpredictable mood patterns, so your primary task was to avoid the land mines. Perhaps you "raised" the younger children. In these cases, it is very likely that you have not thought about self- compassion in a very, very long time. For some of us then, our compassion energy gets twisted into being a helper or rescuer, and our self-empathy gets siphoned off to others. And we help, and we rescue, and we resent and become embittered. And, love, that’s no way to live.
So, as you sit in quiet contemplation, I would like for you to consider these three primary states of being: threat, drive, and soothe. And ask yourself, how evenly dispersed are these states through your life. Here is an example: I feel the threat of not making rent. And, believe me, after living paycheck to paycheck for decades, this one is very familiar. So, due to that threat, I was driven to attend school and work two part time jobs. Guess what my “soothing” looked like? Yep. Margaritas and a lot of bratwursts. When we, my two other roommates (in a two bedroom, 3 room apartment) were without food, we’d call in others for a BBQ and ask each person to bring something. That was how we ate. Crafty, but not soothing. So, you see, my soothing was non-existent. Sure, I felt great, who didn’t love a party? But my mental health and ability to grow and heal took a real hit. I had no self soothing skills, so I often confused drive with sooth, until I just burned out.
Think of your own examples of threat and drive-then identify how you soothe yourself, and ask the question, do I?
Continued in the next post- ways to self soothe, and learn tools to be kinder to yourself.