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What Does "Comforting" Mean?



Over the years, I've often received, and often enough given, the advice to "comfort your fearful child part." It has always sounded like good advice, but for some reason it has never seemed to be very successful, when I tried it myself.

I've had therapists ask me what I would do, to comfort a child. After some hesitation, I generally reply that I would hug the child and tell them that things will be okay. Yet, imagining situations where those things were done to me, either by others when I was a child, or by me internally towards myself in later years, those actions have always seemed somehow ineffectual. I never felt comforted.

That inability to comfort myself, and to feel much comfort from others, has always made me somewhat concerned. And an idea came to me recently about how that might have developed.

Some of the most stressful times of my life were when I was living in Africa as a child. It was a French-speaking country, and there were no English-language schools. So every morning was scary, and I was only eight. And every morning, my parents tried to comfort my brother and me.

The thing is, whether or not they succeeded, we still had to go, catch our ride to school, and get through the day somehow. So it often seemed as if the attempts at comforting didn't matter at all, because either way we still had to go, and at a preset time.

Sometimes we would feel sick, and during the first few months they let us stay home sometimes, but it eventually became clear that we always felt more sick on days when there was extra stress, like a test or something. After that, we had to go, despite our feelings, unless we actually had symptoms.

So, instead of being in a situation where my fears were soothed and I felt ready to meet whatever challenge there was, I had to put my fears away whether I was ready or not. The result was that instead of the child bravely facing the day, it was locked in its room, exiled, just so that some other part could do what was required.

The fear wasn't gone, just hidden. The child wasn't safe (after all, he was still riding along with the rest of me); he was just put away where his fears couldn't make things worse. And of course, once or twice the fears came out anyway, but the embarrassment and ultimate futility of such outbursts quickly put an end to them.

Eventually, it became routine to put the child away instead of even trying to comfort him. And then, it was easier not to let him out again in between.

And now I'm not even sure what "comfort" would be.


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I am sad for your child.

Chocolate and bed comfort me. And my therapist can be comforting sometimes. But otherwise this world isn't geared to comfort one, at least that is how it seems to me.

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I'm sorry for your child part too. :(

There are so many things that I find comforting now, but only very recently have I learned to allow myself to feel it. Maybe that is what is hardest? Knowing it's okay to accept comfort. In a way, you do have to put your guard down and get in touch with more vulnerable parts of yourself. Maybe awareness helps some. What softens feelings of pain or calms you when you feel distressed?

Take care Mark.

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Well, "effective" is something.

And you've read Frankl, I'm sure: who says it's a delusion?

I'd have a hard time telling people in a concentration camp that life has no meaning just because you know it's going to be short ...

I like Camus' take on the "absurdity": that you have to simultaneously hold that life is absurd and still live it to the fullest, because compromising in either direction is a loss.

All of which, of course, is far too adult for a hurting child.

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All of which, of course, is far too adult for a hurting child.

Yes. Fortunately, I won't have a child, so I won't bring here another person whom I would be unable to comfort... At least something positive...

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Well, I'm the wrong gender for childbearing, so mostly, I was talking about internal children. But of course, once you learn to comfort yourself, it becomes possible to offer that to others.

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I'm sorry for this topic. This blog isn't about me and I don't feel like continuing writing about me here. I won't delete my previous posts here, but I hope everybody will see them just as a babbling due to a certain temporary mood.

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Yes, many people dislike it and even refuse to read it, of course. But the author himself was very surprised how many people actually agreed with him (and let him know). So far, I haven't read it all, just ~1/3. I cannot really enjoy it as what he explains very laboriously seems pretty obvious to me. However, I'm quite curious about at least one point - if he wil address it and how. But I have no idea when I'll find out as I'm reading several books in parallel and this one doesn't have a high priority...

Oh; about me again...

Let's go back to comfort: I have a question:

What is your idea about comfort, then? I think I understand the impacts of your childhood experiences you've described, but... it seems to me, perhaps very superficially, that you associate comfort with help or change of the situation or attitude - because your parents did comfort you, they just didn't help you to change the situation you needed to face, neither they helped you to gain some "effective" ;) attitude so that you could face it without such feelings. So... to me it's like saying that comfort is good for nothing if not followed by something different than comfort. But when you seek some comfort now, don't you seek in fact this "something different"? I'm just asking because... I probably don't understand it well.

(Of course, it's also, again, related to me and my own questions. As; what's the proper use of comfort and how to learn not to abuse it? For instance: To me, eating, mainly sweets/chocolate/cakes, can be very "comforting" (or it's not the right word here, so I'm out of topic again??). But it's not a right (healthy) thing to do, in most cases! It's rather an abuse of my "sweet tooth" for "emotional purposes". And it actually doesn't help, just make me feel better for some short time (but that's what comfort is about most of the time, in my opinion). So, wouldn't it be better to admit that it's better not to comfort myself but to "do something" to change the situation or my attitude, so that comfort wouldn't be needed? Or I just should resist to my "animal" ("sweet tooth") urges and comfort myself in a more "civilized / rational / convenient / healthy" way? These are not questions for you, just a part of context provided to the previous paragraph; an illustration that I think that I often seek that "something different" and "comfort" is "just a pleasant thing happening smetimes in the meantime to allow me not to crash, or rather just not to fear crashing (as I probably wouldn't even without comfort)"...)

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How can you and I interact anywhere without it being somewhat "related" to you? If it's not related to you at all, why would you read it? That's why I never mind where conversations take us, any group of us; it's always (by definition) somewhere that we wanted to go ...

I didn't read much of what the philosopher wrote. It seems "anti-pragmatic" to me, wishing you weren't here when you are. How would they prove that it would have been in my self-interest never to have existed? I wouldn't have a self-interest if I didn't exist. Certainly there are good arguments for sustainable population, but this person is arguing for zero population.

The issue with comfort is very complex. You're saying that my parents did comfort me, they just didn't change the practical situation. But I see the kind of comforting that I mean as being more like communication: both sides have to be successful in order for us to call it communication. It doesn't matter how often one person says something, if the other person doesn't hear it or understand it, they still haven't communicated. So I still think it's valid to say that they didn't succeed in communicating a feeling of comfort to me, not as blame for them but just as a description of the outcome.

Also, it seems to me that if I had been comforted (as I define the word), the practical situation would have been changed, because I would be confronting it differently: with courage instead of fear. Of course, the physical world isn't changed directly by how I approach it, but I would submit that the outcome of that interaction frequently is. The same situation that easily defeats me when I'm afraid is brushed aside when I have courage. See, 'belief' and even 'faith' do have an effect, not a supernatural one maybe, but one that has power nonetheless, power to change the way a person approaches a problem. And a very difficult effect to measure in any scientific way ...

The fact is that as an adult, I am frequently avoidant. I expect failure, and limit my attempts accordingly. Even many things that I don't even believe that I will fail get delayed because I would prefer not to start them.

Or, a more routine example, the one that made me recall the feeling from childhood, is the way that I try to avoid getting up and going to work every day. Now, I know that's a fairly common feeling, but the thing that struck me is that, at some given point every day (when it gets to be "too late"), there's a sudden shift: my fear, and all attempts at delay, get stuffed away and I efficiently complete my preparations for work. Just like when the childhood attempts at comforting had to be discontinued, and we had to go anyway.

My picture is that the fearful child part at some point is forced into exile so that other parts can get going. Instead of reassuring the fearful part and turning him into a courageous ally.

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Just a comment to that book, before reading the rest of your post:

wishing you weren't here when you are

This is not what he says! He makes a very clear distinction between people already born - their lives are mostly worth living (it's up to them to decide, but the author doesn't say anyhting that would encourage anybody toward suicide!!!) - and the "putative people" (he doesn't use this expression) that would be born if somebody decided to bring them into life. He explains in a very long chapter why the difference matters a lot. His view is antinatalism, not something like "anti-living-ism" :).

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Thank you, Mark; I think now I understand it!

What I like probably the most, I don't know why, is this part:

if the other person doesn't hear it or understand it, they still haven't communicated. So I still think it's valid to say that they didn't succeed in communicating a feeling of comfort to me

And yes; I know that belief can be powerful, I wouldn't argue ;).

As you know, I'm avoidant, too, so now I wonder if it could be related to an, in principle, similar experience to the one you described. In my case, there were many fears and no comfort, because the fears were hidden from those who might have comforted me - I never revealed them. So, the principle is only partially different; the lack of attempts to comfort vs. unsuccessful attempts to comfort. Hm.

May I ask you; does it somehow help that you've realized this all? And do you think about it in the situation when, for instance, you try to get up in the morning? (I expect it doesn't offer a straightforward way to change, but it "should" somehow help, with adequate effort, after some time. (However, I know that knowing it won't change anything for me, even if you could describe precisely your way to change.))

It occurred to me now that what can comfort me is to comfort somebody else, most often my husband, of course. When I need to "be strong" and offer him what he needs more than me at the moment. Other times, he can comfort me very effectively, but I couldn't explain how precisely and I'm afraid that doing it could somehow spoil it for me.

I know you're focused on self-comforting here. But... were there ever any people who comforted you later in your life? Or it's irrelevant for the unconscious as this is something that needs to be experienced in childhood?


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What happens when you look at the fearful child part? Is that difficult or painful to do?

LaLa, I am also comforted when I comfort others, and especially so if they receive my comfort. Then there is comfort in the sharing as well. It helps me to connect with those aspects of myself and offer them because I feel those parts of me too when I give. Are you able to connect with the feeling parts of you, the vulnerable parts?

In order to self-comfort, one has to approach the parts that hurt, look at the pain, look at the vulnerability and touch the parts right there where it hurts. If you are accepting this from others, you'd have to be open to those parts, I would think.

Just offering the feeling side of this and my personal perspective (added here).

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Beth, to your question: Yes, I am, but not in all situations when it would be needed. However, I don't know where's the problem - what prevents it.

Mark: How can you and I interact anywhere without it being somewhat "related" to you? If it's not related to you at all, why would you read it? That's why I never mind where conversations take us, any group of us; it's always (by definition) somewhere that we wanted to go ..

Well, this all has seemed obvious to me, so I didn't know what to respond. But today I realized that the reason why I often don't like to write about myself in "others' threads / blogs" is that "those others" seem so far ahead of me that I don't have anything to offer by mentioning my own problems or struggles, related to the stage I'm in - so "early" (I mean "early stage of a long process") compared to the one discussed there. I've never achieved more that a tiny part of what "those others", including you, already have. (As an example unrelated to you, Mark: What useful could I offer in case if Beth, for instance, somehow struggled with dealing with inner pain, fear, or with time management?)

I don't write this as an argument against writing about myself, just as an explanation (possibly not the only one) of my frequent feelings about such writing.

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I think that the interactions themselves can be a learning experience. We're diverse and we can learn from one another. Sometimes I even learn things about myself as I'm writing about myself (:P), as if it is somehow easier to see when it is processed and written down.

LaLa, maybe you offer something by freely and openly being yourself? As for me, I don't always need answers or solutions the most. I enjoy sharing and feeling heard. That comforts me. (And I could symbolically relate that to attachment too. I have a lot in mind that I could write in response to your thread, LaLa, once my mind is free enough).

Maybe the trick is finding our own fearful child as teddy bear territory. Why is that sooo much harder for us? Makes me wonder how we can better instill this in children. Perhaps by example?

J told me once that "we're in everything we do" and I have remembered that. So I agree with what Mark wrote.

I like the subject of comfort. It evokes tender feelings and pinkness. :-)

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So the feeling is one of judgment of yourself? Because I certainly wouldn't say I'm anywhere "ahead" ... This whole post is about a place I feel behind.

What can you offer? Compassion. A shared pain. Support.

What we're here for, in other words. Though I often try to offer advice as well, that's not really the site's purpose. The real purpose is for people to feel heard.

The teddy bear is an interesting idea. I know I had them, but many of the memories are faded. As if the part of me that brings stuff to consciousness isn't the part that remembers the value of a teddy. {Yes, I know that's a prime reason to unblend from this part and seek that other one.}

{I seem to be working backwards.}

Beth, one of my difficulties with parts therapy, properly applied, is that I don't form a very strong visual image of my parts. At best, I can vaguely name patterns of feeling, response, behavior ... It's possible that it's not the ideal therapy medium for me, or it's possible that my conscious attitude resists it because it could be. I'm not sure yet.

How does it help to have the realizations that I've had so far? It gives me a loose end to pull on ... Somewhere to look, inside ... This isn't an experiment I can do in the outside world, and it isn't something that I can reason my way through. So, I need a starting point for imagination, then I need to let it take me places and see what it shows me.

Thank you all for your thoughts. There's a huge value just in collecting points of view. There are no invalid ones.

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I feel heard here a lot and it does help.

At best, I can vaguely name patterns of feeling, response, behavior ...

Could that be about having difficulty connecting with or allowing the feeling? I think you can look at it differently, too, if that fits better for you. Maybe self-connection helps?

Take care, Mark.

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Some thoughts I had:

When an adult comforts a child, there is some brainwashing going on, good brainwashing because the child lacks the ability to overcome the emotional difficulty, so the sound of the parents voice is very gentle and non threatening as it delivers the positive message, the physical size of the parent lends authority to the message, it is welcome and it sinks in and soothes the emotional state of the child.

With visualisation perhaps we can do that to ourselves, I think it is the sort of thing that would have to be done regularly.

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