No, in fact, there are NOT lots of ways to eat a Hershey’s chocolate kiss. There is only one way. If you eat it some other way, something is wrong with you.
You unwrap the foil. You crush the foil up in a tiny little ball, and then give serious thought to throwing it on the ground because something this tiny can hardly be litter. Then you put the chocolate whole on your tongue, close your mouth, and push it up tight to the palate. Then you suck on it while it melts.
Your eyes will dilate and glaze over. Endorphins will pour into your brainstem. It’s virtually erotic. The world is, for the moment, a beautiful place.
It’s very, very soothing.
One of the things that good parents do for babies, toddlers, and children is soothe them. We rock them. Suckle them. We coo at them. We pet them. Stroke their hair. Cuddle. We sing them lullabies. We say, “It was only a dream.” We explain how the pile of laundry in the closet only looks like a monster. But it’s laundry.
And that’s all great. But modern Early Childhood research also encourages us to remember to teach children to learn to soothe themselves. If the toddler falls in the back yard, we don’t always rush right over. We call out, “Oops. You okay? Hop up! Dust off! Oh, you’re very brave.”
Instead of trying to help them stop crying, we encourage and advocate for their tears: “Oh, big tears! Pour it out. Tears are so important.” And we do that because, when we need to cry, it’s soothing to cry.
Patients in therapy are often helped by a little remedial education in soothing themselves. Frankly, I often think that about me. It took me years to recognize that I tend to carry a low-grade anxiety inside myself, and years more to realize I could/should take responsibility for that and do something about it. That life would be better and more creative if I was less anxious.
I bite my nails and cuticles. It’s … unlovely. I fiddle incessantly with the silver chain around my neck, because the feel of the links between my fingers is soothing. But it makes me trade suave for fidgety.
One way to think about compulsive behavior/addiction is that addicts are people who are trying to sooth themselves. The biomechanics of smoking cigarettes are identical to suckling at a breast, the only difference being that after the soothing pull you inhale instead of swallow. Watch folks ‘pull’ on a martini glass. Watch them virtually invert a beer bottle and do their best impersonation of a suckling calf. Watch them insert a spoonful of Cold Stone Cremery ice cream into their mouths, turn the spoon over, and suck it off.
Smoking, drinking, eating, nail biting – can you say “oral satisfaction?”
Did you know that the light coming off of video gaming machines actually pulses, massaging the back of the eyeball in a way that the brain interprets as pleasurable and soothing? I’m not kidding. Next time you walk through a casino, really look at the faces staring into those monitors.
It’s no accident that modern addiction treatment programs include teaching self-soothing techniques.
One of the life skills possessed by high-functioning adults is the ability to self-soothe. They know how and when to rest, to cut themselves some slack. They light aromatic candles and lounge in bathtubs. They avail themselves to the disciplines of prayer or meditation. They become intentional about their breathing. They massage their palms, temples, or reflexology trigger points. They get lost in music. They participate in great sex with healthy partners. They rock themselves. Get a massage.
It’s no shame or embarrassment to need to be soothed. Modern life is frenetic, and filled with real threats and dangers. The trick is to find soothing techniques that are not socially/economically problematic, violations of our values or serious dangers to our health. Or all those things at once.
(Steven Kalas is a therapist, author and Episcopal priest. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.)