This is something I’ve struggled with for decades. In the family and environment I grew up in, you took what you wanted and any vulnerabilities you showed, were attacked relentlessly. Not a nurturing setting. It seemed that no matter what I did for my family, it was never enough. Nobody ever thanked anybody for the things we did for one another and when we did do something to help another out, we acted as though we were being asked too much of. In short, we acted like martyrs.
Actually, the term martyr was used liberally in our family. To think back on the ways we treated each other now makes me feel a little sick. Even the smallest need expressed was met with resentment in the cruelest sense of the word. Asking for anything from my family felt like you had just asked them to sacrifice what was most precious to them and in turn making you feel as though you couldn’t have wronged them in a more violating way. It was an intense and confusing experience to say the least.
So what does this have to do with being able to speak up for yourself? For me, it has a lot to do with the conditioning that was happening in the subtext of my familial relationships growing up. And this set against the backdrop of my trauma, has shaped the ways I’m able to ask for my needs to be met by others. Let me show you what I mean by starting from the beginning.
When Your Family Turns Their Back on You
When I was eight, my entire world changed. From what I remember, my family went from being a close knit group who spent holidays together and visiting with one another frequently, to having one of its strongest members die from skin cancer. Sending all its members scattered to the four winds. For me, my family turning their back on me happened in a most literal way.
About the time one of my family members was dying of skin cancer, another family member was pulling me from bed in the middle of the night to give me the most terrifying of talks on what it means to be a man. I have never been more frightened of anything in my entire life. From being completely alone, tiny and vulnerable, to being violently rent from a sound sleep and being yelled at in the dark by a drunk, towering, beast of a man, with no one to turn to for safety and no way to escape this fate. It was a lot to take in at eight. There’s an image that I keep that embodies this idea and feeling for me:
I’m not sure where the original image is from, but the artist definitely understands fear in its most primal sense.
When I told my main caregiver what was happening, even though I was under strict orders to keep my abuse a secret, my caregiver literally turned their back on me and never spoke about it again until I brought it up. And all this was happening while my parents were in the middle of a violent and petty divorce. Not to mention my family was falling apart due to the death of one of its most independent members. I literally had no where or one to turn to. So it was in this setting that I grew up, not being taught how to ask for what I needed most. Mainly security and a sense of belonging.
Not Being Able to Ask For Help = Making Poor Choices
So it was in this environment that my will was formed. I was mean, entitled, arrogant and bossy. And of course these were all just acts to protect myself against what I wanted most of all, which was to be loved and accepted. But we were all just running from ourselves and each other, because we were too scared of being vulnerable around those who were hurting us the most. So I ran.
I ran mostly by physically and emotionally disconnecting from those closest to me. I also drank too much alcohol and coffee to avoid my emotional world. Those who would cut me apart for showing what was considered, “signs of weakness” aka vulnerability. And one of those vulnerabilities was, relying on others for help.
I was unable to ask for help from anybody. Mostly because I thought I had to do it all by myself because I was a man and that’s what the men in my family were taught to do. This was also partly due to the arrogance I was taught by acting like a martyr every time somebody asked something of me. But mostly due to thinking that nobody should have to help me, by virtue of being a man. That I should be able to do it all on my own. And not only that, but do it perfectly. This is a scary place to be, also a very lonely one. And this was how I lived my life. Alone and scared to reach out to others.
I had sever social anxiety and the only way I could be around people was if I was drinking alcohol to dull the emotions or coffee to speed past them, with the occasional anti-anxiety med or Adderall tossed in for good measure. I’m making light, but the feelings of fear and anxiety were intense. The only way I was able to manage these feelings was by being medicated.
Fear of Connecting, to Ourselves and Others
And when there is this much fear and anxiety running around in our lives unchecked, it’s difficult to know who you can ask for help from while feeling safe enough doing it. Or to even know you can feel ways other than anxious and fearful around others and that others can help you in your healing process. This was where I had found myself decades after my initial trauma and the abuse I incurred from a life’s time worth of self-abuse and abuse from those closest to me.
So what did I do? To try and reconnect with the parts of myself and of those closest to me? The bridges that had been burned down so long ago, out of fear and spite of how we were treating each other and ourselves, had to be rebuilt. And this wasn’t easy.
I had to recognize that I was running from everyone and every feeling that had been accumulating in my life. I had almost no longstanding friendships to speak of, and left everyone that ever tried to build a loving connection with me. When I was thirty two, I left my then loving, beautiful and devoted wife, for a woman, girl really, 11 years my junior and living in the same, self destructive ways I was accustom to living from my early twenties.
And I did all this to avoid growing beyond the small, fearful life I was used to. The isolation and fear that I spent my time in, avoiding making loving connections with valued friends and family. The very relationships that make life worth living I was avoiding. So after the woman I left my ex-wife for left me, I was left with myself, to sort out the mess I had made.
Building Bridges That We’ve Already Burned: All is Not Lost
After I was left, I realized just how bad my situation was. I was alone, with absolutely zero understanding of how to live my life and no idea how to cultivate the resources I would need to get my life on track. However, even when things seem at their worst, there’s always hope.
I moved back in with my father and step-mom. One of the many relationships I had been running from. Here, I was able to start, what felt like a new life. The old me, the one who was mean, petty and condescending, was slowly eroding. More and more, I was no longer resembling that person. And probably more importantly, I didn’t want to be that person anymore.
I began listening to Tara Brach’s dharma talks constantly. I was looking for a soothing, friendly and inclusive voice. An antidote to the venom I had been struck with so many times, grown up through all those years of my childhood. I was reaching out to old friends. Starting up new conversations with those who used to be in my life and found that I had developed a real affection for these people and our relationships. Including my father and step-mom, going so far as to create family dinner Fridays. Not to mention, starting this blog which has helped to show me ways of re-parenting myself.
Before I had decided to change, I was mostly holding on to relationships out of fear for being alone and the feelings of rejection that came with that fear. So I did and acted, whatever and however I thought I should, in order to feel accepted. I wasn’t really focused on the quality of our relationships, because I was too preoccupied with how I thought the other person saw me. In short, I never learned how to speak my mind. How I truly felt or to ask for what I really needed from others. I just didn’t know how to listen inwardly. But I also wasn’t relating to my own emotions in an honest way. And if you can’t be honest with yourself, how can you begin to project that in relationship with others?
Getting in Touch With Yourself, Building the Bridge Inwardly
I started building the bridge to myself while I was with the woman who I had left my ex-wife for. I had finally felt safe enough, accepted enough, that I could begin to feel comfortable with myself. I owe a great debt of gratitude for the woman who helped me to wake up from the life I was living, even if they did end up leaving me.
It was there that I really learned how to build relationships. I started meditating regularly at that time. This was what allowed me to slow down enough to see how I was treating myself and how I felt about it. What I realized was, in a way I had become my own abuser by handing down the legacy of brutality that had been taught to me and using it on myself. This made me scared of myself and probably one of the reasons why I was so fearful and anxious all the time.
So I listened. I listened and I listened some more. There was a lot of fear I had been holing in that needed to be witnessed. There were nights where I didn’t think I’d be able to pull through to the next day. It was tough, that’s for sure. But I kept going. No matter what was coming up, I was able to sit with it and let it pass. Recognizing that what I was experiencing in the moment, wouldn’t last.
But it was hard to see outside of these feelings sometimes. This is what Tara Brach refers to as a “trance”. And she’s right. Because sometimes when you’re stuck in the middle of an emotion, it’s hard to see past what it is that you’re experiencing. But the more we train to stay when the difficult feelings arise, the better we’re able to see ourselves through to the other side of those feelings. The way out is through, as Trent Reznor so aptly put it.
Note to Self, Stop Running
So meditation is really where I learned to stop running. From myself and others. I was now building bridges instead of burning them, while learning how to listen inwardly to understand and ask how to nurture and care for myself, in the ways that hadn’t been shown to me in the past. This was quite a remarkable turn around from where I was.
I started re-parenting myself around the areas I had left neglected, as I had been neglected. I’m now focused on my career, my health by eating balanced, nutritious and mostly vegan meals. Big thanks to The Minimalist Baker for showing me how to cook for myself. I’m working out twice a week now. Shout out to Yoga With Adriene for her amazing library of free yoga videos. I’m saving and paying down debt while also planning for my retirement, which I hadn’t even given a second thought to in my early years. Another shout out to Dave Ramsey and his baby steps.
But most importantly, I’m now connecting in authentic ways with those I care about. I’m building the relationships now that I had been running from for so long because I was so scared of getting hurt again. What I now realize is, we all get hurt. You can’t avoid that. But do you run from the chance to feel loved and accepted because you’re too afraid of what happened in the past or what might happen? For me, I’ve realized that this is a waste of time.
So now that I’m able to listen inwardly, attune to my needs and to those of my friends and family, what’s next? For me it’s living and building the best possible life. For myself and those I surround myself with. Whatever their vision is of a better future, I want to be involved. And I want them involved in the better version of my future as well.
We all have our own trials to go through, our own challenges. But don’t let those stop you from becoming the best version of yourself. You’ve got a lot to give, don’t sell yourself short. Peace : ) and thanks for reading.