This isn’t a new idea or concept by any means. But it seems like each generation discovers it a new. When we first learn what it means to be a part of the whole. For me and my family, it came a little later in life than is typical for this milestone.
In fact, it seems to be working in reverse. The younger generation guiding the more experienced. And this is by no means a judgement on those of us who are slow to learn. I myself am amongst those ranks. Also, life gets pretty weird sometimes and I totally understand the learning curve that us slow learners are on. So who am I to judge?
But what I’m finding, and the more I talk with those closest to me is, that most of the time when we’re too afraid to connect it’s due to the pain of not feeling heard or understood. Usually from when we were vulnerable enough to put our emotions on the line. And old relational wounding is most likely what’s holding us back. This was the case with my caregivers. And to some extent, still is.
I’ve recently been attempting to reconcile my connections with my childhood caregivers. It seems to be going considerably well given the circumstances our relationships were ruptured under. But it has taken a lot of pride swallowing on my part. To be able to come to a place where I’m able to let go the anger and listen to my caregivers’ stories. And there was a lot of anger. A subject for another post for sure.
But what I’m realizing is, the more I listen to my caregivers’ stories, is that they were/are dealing with some of the same issues I was/am dealing with. Only our situations were a bit different. It’s as though we have been handing down these traumatic experiences, from one generation to the next, like some curresed family heirloom. No bueno. So how do we break the cycle of feeling hurt, alone and fearful in our own family? By feeling heard and seen by one another.
Feeling Heard Ain’t So Easy
From my understanding, most of the people in my family are afraid to connect with one another because deep down, we’ve been made to feel as though we’re unlovable to some degree. Whether it’s from unreasonably high standards we were measured up against, or just plain neglect. We’ve let the fear of being rejected stop us from connecting with one another fully. To speak and be heard became something to be feared instead of embraced. And sadly, this is something I feel isn’t unique to my experience.
And the consequences? We’ve learned to hide ourselves and our emotions away. The risk of being hurt again too much to bear. So we lived in a cold, isolated existence from each other. As Tara Brach puts it, “longing to feel belonging” with one another again but to afraid to reach out.
One of the main ways my family has done this was by keeping most of our interactions at surface level. Also by speeding past and numbing out the discomfort of old relational wounding. Avoiding going deeper at any cost so as not to feel vulnerable around those who are in the habit of attacking vulnerability on sight because they feel it is a weakness.
This reminds me of one visit to my doctor’s office, where I described the anxiety attacks I was having as, “a weakness I just couldn’t live with anymore.” But that was how I was raised to view emotions as, weak. Especially being a man. Which meant in my family that, “weaker” emotions such as tenderness and caring, were feminine by nature and not something men should feel.
The Toxic Lessons We’re Taught About Vulnerability
My family was very much a product of the popular machismo culture that has been alive and well for many generations. Owning guns and drinking were prerequisites of the culture. And if you weren’t belittling those who didn’t fit in, you were considered weak and ineffectual. Vulnerability was a trait that was considered “childish”, or “feminine”, and power and control were the traits of a “real man”. A man who showed vulnerability in my family, especially around other men, were punished severely.
We were mean, with a childlike sense of cruelty. When someone was foolish enough to express an emotion that wasn’t approved of by our family dynamics, they were ridiculed and ostracized by both the men and women. In a misguided attempt to teach me what it means to be a man, when I was seven or eight years old, my uncle would come into my room at three in the morning, pulling me from a dead sleep, and verbally assault me. All the while he would be telling me how to be a man. I don’t remember the lessons from those visits as I’ve blocked them from my memory. But the effects have lasted a life’s time.
The backdrop to my abuse was, my family falling apart. The most independent family member had lost a battle with cancer and my parents were divorcing in the most hostile ways they were able to muster. And when I told my parent about the abuse, they turned their back on me without a word. With so much anger, hostility and trauma flowing so freely, it seemed insanity to open up to what was around, and in us at the time. So we ran from one another. Blocking all attempts to reach out or be comforted because connection at any level meant pain.
We also didn’t know how to be tender with, or comfort each other. This was another trait that was considered feminine. So the men never learned how to be tender with anybody, especially towards ourselves, and the women were so used to being verbally abused, but also inflicting abuse, that they as well forgot how to foster the seeds of tenderness and compassion. This was a cold and confusing place to call home. Especially since we were all still telling each other that we loved one another! Sometimes in the same breath as some freshly spit venom.
Everybody was paralyzed by fear and we all had forgotten how to connect in healthy ways. Aka, communicating. Being heard and seen fully by one another. So if you’re in this place of isolation, how do you begin to forge new, and strengthen what bonds are left to salvage? Open and honest communication. It all comes back to being and feeling heard.
Listening to Feel Heard
The journey to feel heard began for me when I started listening inwardly. I had followed in my family’s footsteps unwittingly and left my then wife for a woman who I felt heard and seen with. I hadn’t realized it at the time, but it wasn’t the love of another woman that would make me feel complete. What I was really looking for was a place I could feel safe enough to feel the child like vulnerability and tenderness that I was shamed for feeling as a man.
I say childlike not as a way to diminish the feelings of vulnerability and tenderness, only that they were still immature in myself. Feeling young as from when the trauma originally happened. These are human emotions. Not to be relegated to a gender or age bracket.
I learned how to listen to myself when I started taking care of my basic needs. I had begun meditating regularly, exercising consistently. Taking care of my nutritional needs as well as keeping my living space clean and organized. I practiced self-care regularly and stayed in touch with old friends while making new ones. And this, as they say, is where the magic happens.
Listening to My Friends = Listening to Myself
Learning to be present for my close friends as they recounted their days to me, or asked for my perspective on a situation was where I really understood what it means to be a part of something larger. To find the safety in the uncertainty of opening up to another and feeling closer because of it. Much in the same ways I was looking to feel safe with myself again. I wish that my doctors visit so long ago was the wake up call for me to start treating myself with more kindness. Even after my doctor told me “you’re being too hard on yourself”. An understatement for sure. But that lesson was still a ways off.
So when I started taking care of my surroundings and my physical needs, that’s when I began to understand that I had to listen to my own needs, physical and emotional, in much the ways I listen and attune to those closest to me. For example, if someone I care for isn’t feeling well, I check in with them regularly to see if they need anything. I do the same for myself as well. Rumi said it best with, “do you pay regular visits to yourself?”
Attuning to your Own Emotions Like an Old Friend
The same is true for myself and what my needs are. When an emotion arises, let’s say I’m feeling a bit fearful, I check to see where my feelings of fear are coming from. Is it situational? Is there someone or thing around me that is making me feel this way? Also, how I respond to this fear is equally as important as recognizing its presence.
Maybe the fear is brought up by being around a person who reminds me of someone who’s harmed me in the past. I recognize that I am in the present, and that I am now in charge of keeping myself safe. Also that the past is in the past. And if I need to, I can remove myself from the situation. There is great power in the ability to choose.
Responding to the fear without reacting to it is an important step to break from these cycles as well. Because we just don’t make good decisions when we’re afraid! And this takes some digging to come to understand with clarity, where your cycles start. For me, it’s usually when I’m around somebody that reminds me of someone from my past. Stay curious about when your cycles start, when the fear takes hold. You can learn a great deal from being open to what’s happening internally in the moment.
For me, the more I recognize what’s happening inside, my emotional states, the more I feel a sense of care towards myself. This is how I’ve been practicing love with myself. And no surprise, it’s similar to the ways I practice care with those close to me. It’s not always easy, but it is most definitely worth it : )
And Don’t Forget, Be Kind
What holds this all together is, you guessed it, being kind. When I remembered that conversation I had with my doctor about my anxiety, I shuttered a little bit. To recognize that I had been so far removed from the tenderness inside of me, made me feel as though I maybe wasn’t able to trust myself. I had become my own abuser in the ways that were modeled for me and that was a terrifying thought.
But I remembered all the work I’ve been putting in, and the ways that I am now listening to myself, and that brings me a sense of ease. Knowing that I’m capable of change is comforting also. It shows me that I’m willing and able to take care of myself in the ways that were never done for me. It’s a little scary at times, for sure. But it’s doable and worth it.
It’s when we treat ourselves with kindness that we’re able to open up and receive kindness. But it takes persistence. Especially if you were trained to view kindness as weakness and something to be avoided at all costs. It’s been quite the journey for me, that’s for sure. Just remember to take your time, and rest when you need to. It’s difficult work, opening up again emotionally when you’ve been shut down for so long. There’s no deadline or need to prove anything. Just do as much as you’re able to when you’re able.
I hope this has been helpful in some way. If you have stories about how you’ve come to listen inwardly, I’d love to hear about them in the comments section below. And as always, peace and thanks for reading : )