Neglecting your Needs is Not a Sign of Strength: What Happens When We Confuse Self-Sacrifice for Caring

For as long as I can remember, it’s been common practice for my family members to act as though any favor or deed, no matter how small, was an unconscionable burden to be born. I’ve said before on this blog, we used the term “martyr” liberally, and with harsh judgement. Anytime somebody did something that was in the vein of self-care, it was viewed as selfish and the person committing the act was made to feel as though they were inherently bad because of it.

From what I’m able tell, and since no one in our family ever spoke about how they were feeling, was that we felt resentment for other people doing for themselves. This is because we felt as though we were already giving everything we had to the other, so why would they need anything else. It makes sense in a way, but it is also monumentally unhealthy. And maybe also a sign of a codependent relationship.

And even though we were doing for one another, there was never a sense of feeling grateful for what was being done. It was almost always viewed as an obligation to be fulfilled and seldom were we happy to receive what was given. Looking back on it, the whole scenario seems so strange. Who wouldn’t be happy to have a loved one do something for them? Or the chance to make someone close to you happy?

Fear & Resentment in Our Relational Ties

From what I can tell, there was a fair amount of resentment tied into the experience of giving and receiving between us. And one thing is for certain, resentment will erode most all bonds in any relationship. So if we were all so unhappy with one another, on a consistent basis, then why were we still in the habit of doing for others?

I’m not entirely sure to be honest. But I’m going to take a few guesses at what our motivations were. Duty was a big one. We felt as though we had to because if we didn’t, our very belonging was in question. The fear of not belonging was quite possibly the one constant in all of our connections. There was a lot of validation happening, with rancorous overtones. We were willing to say pretty much anything if we thought it would make us look better than somebody else, no matter how mean spirited it was.

Also, self-righteousness was another trait that was in abundance. Making ourselves look good at the expense of somebody else was a lesson I learned very early on. In relation to how this frame of mind fits in with doing for each other, we always wanted to have something we could use to make the other person feel bad about themselves. Aka, emotional blackmail.

For example, “all the things I do for you and this is how you treat me?!” was very often the sentiment that was prevalent in our family. I’m not sure that we spoke those exact words often, but that was definitely the message being sent. No wonder there was so much resentment flowing so freely between us.

Why This Leads to Codependent Relationships

The ways we were treating our relational connections were unhealthy. One of the hallmarks of this way of being was by abandoning our needs altogether, to take care of those of another. We then expected the same in return from the other person. The reason for this was because we were never taught how to take care of ourselves.

It wasn’t until very recently that I even understood what self-care is. And even more recently since I’ve begun practicing it. But these were not values taught in my family. The values that were taught in their place were, the man takes care of the woman by making money and providing and the woman takes care of the domestic needs; feeding, clothing, cleaning… There was a whole host of life skills that as a man in my family, I was just never taught.

And anything outside of these constraints was considered to go against the natural order of what it means to be a family according to our unspoken rules. But really it was just a thin covering to veil the deep-seated fear of having to take responsibility for our own lives. The fear was of not being strong enough to live this life on our own. So we needed somebody else to do it for us.

This was true for me in the relationships that I chose to be in. I was usually with another who would make all the decisions in our “shared” decision making. I would complain about not having a voice in the relationship when we broke up, but I was secretly grateful that I didn’t have to accept that responsibility as my own. I was a coward in that regard. Life is most definitely not for the faint of heart. And what I’ve learned from my experience is, that there will almost always be someone to pick up those reigns for you in your stead.

So if we’re so used to neglecting ourselves for the sake of another, or because we just don’t want the responsibility of living our own lives, how do we take control of our lives again? For me, following the fear has been a helpful guide to understanding what I’ve been running from.

Self-Sacrifice: Pros & Cons

Self-sacrifice isn’t always a bad thing. If done with good intention and knowing how to recharge afterwards, it can be a rewarding experience. But done to often and without concern for your own emotional needs, it can leave you depleted, empty. The latter was what was most common in my family and led to unhealthy ways of relating to one another. The following are some of the lessons I’ve learned from the unhealthy ways we would sacrifice ourselves in the name of taking care of each other.

Emotional Blackmail

As I’ve said above, if somebody was doing something for somebody else in my family, there was usually a catch. This is where emotional blackmail enters the equation. We were constantly trying to feel better about ourselves by making the other person feel bad for who they are by either not doing or being enough and making sure they knew it. What we didn’t realize is, that this makes both parties feel worse and leads to feelings of resentment towards one another. Trying to control each other using guilt and fear only breeds more guilt and fear. No surprises here.

This is a difficult habit to break though. Because you have to feel through the fear of what’s keeping your need for control so strong and present. Finding and confronting that fear is what will set you free from the cycles of using fear and judgements to control and manipulate others. What triggered my fear was feeling as though I wasn’t worthy of somebody else’s time, love or efforts.

For me, love and acceptance was constantly being held just out of reach, over my head. So when I start to feel as though I’m not worthy of love and attention, fear sets in. This is where I need to reality check my thoughts and beliefs. Because the fear is usually coming from a very young place of feeling rejected and I will want to act in unhealthy ways in order to feel belonging.

Now I’m able to take stock of the caring and loving relationships I’ve built and fostered with those closest to me. I remind myself that I can choose to build and foster healthy relationships. Instead of relying on a set of caregivers to provide all my relational needs for me, as was the case when I was a child.

Wanting to Feel Superior by Doing More Than the Other

This was another way we held love back from each other. The more we did for one another, the more material we had to feel as though we were better than the other. Because we were being so “selfless” in our giving and not asking for anything in return. But we never realized that we were expecting something. The feeling of superiority over the other at the expense of somebody else feeling emotionally indebted to us. Because we never asked for reciprecasion, we just made the other feel as though their emotional needs were a burden we had to bear.

We did this, I believe, because we didn’t understand how to feel valued in relationships any other way. We didn’t even know how to relax without having three or four drinks first! Feeling valued in a relationship for who you are might as well have been a trig course while we were still trying to figure out basic addition. And again, fear was behind our motivations. If we stop doing for the other, we’ll no longer be needed and our self worth would then cease to exist.

This is a sad, but terrifying place to be. I know I felt alone, isolated and without support. It’s no wonder we used each other the ways that we did. We built our relationships on a common fear of one another, all the while trying to feel loved and accepted by the same people we feared! Confusing for sure. So how do we untangle this mess? This mass of confusion?

It starts with understanding our own self worth, absent of the judgements of others. Your value as a person is not contingent on somebody else’s good regard. When we understand this, then we can take a look at the relationships we’ve been keeping. How do those we keep closest make us feel about ourselves? Are they overly critical of us and others? When you speak about other people, is it usually negative? These are some clear indications that the relationship may need some tighter boundaries.

But you don’t have to completely abandon the relationship. It’s possible to take care of yourself while connecting with someone who is acting from a place of being judgemental due to a fear of being rejected. You just need to know when to step away from the relationship, to give yourself time to feel strong enough, to be confident enough in yourself again.

Because these cycles are easy to fall back into, it’s best to keep an eye on how you’re acting in the relationship while interacting with these types of people. So as not to pick up where you left off. But try not to close off completely to them. From my experience, when I was acting from a place of fear in my relationships, I didn’t even realize I had an effect on others. I was so concerned about how I was being seen, that I was self absorbed to the point of being oblivious to the hurtful things I was doing and saying.

This may also be the case with others who seem to be self absorbed as well. They just don’t know what they’re doing. And that doesn’t change the fact that what they do can still be hurtful. But it helps to know that it’s most likely not out of malicious intent. So if you have the patiences, try to stay open enough to be connected without draining yourself completely. And most likely you’re going to need to set the boundaries in these types of relationships. Because the other person is literally incapable of seeing how they are abusing yours.

And don’t forget, it’s not your job to “save” or “fix” the other person. Whether or not they change is up to them and is in no way within our control. The best we can do is lead by example and by setting and sticking to healthy relational boundaries. And always make sure that you’re taking care of yourself and respecting your own boundaries first. Otherwise we’re back at square one with giving too much of ourselves without reciprocation.

And Don’t Forget, be Kind : )

I know that for me, one of the traps I used to fall into was by belittling others so I could feel morally superior. And those that I surrounded myself with fell right in step with me. This is why if we’re looking to make the change from finding belonging by demeaning others to feeling inherent self worth, we need to be kind. To ourselves and others.

Being petty and judgemental were some of the main foundations of my former relationships. In order to make the shift, I needed to be conscious of how I was speaking about others and also what I was thinking about them as well. Because being needlessly negative is a habit that gets stronger the more it is practiced. And it takes a great deal of willpower to recognize this habit as it’s happening and change its course.

So when old patterns of negative thoughts do come up, don’t try to block them out. Recognize that they are there and reality check them. I’ve also been making it a point to pick out the positive I see in either people or situations. In hopes that the more I practice this habit, the stronger it will become. And this doesn’t mean I’m being nice to cover over the discomfort of the negative thoughts that do come up. This can turn into denial if left unchecked. Rather allow both negative and positive to coexist, but choose to practice the positive.

I hope this has been helpful in some way. Making positive changes in our life isn’t always easy. But if you’re looking, you can usually find help and support when you need it. I hope this has been both. And as always, peace, and thanks for reading : )

Image Credits: “Ritual Sacrifice of the Gummulate Tribe!” by Grizdave is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Waking From the Trance of Living a Subdued Life: Living Life With Direction

Last week, I wrote a lot about what it meant for me to feel a lack of being liked and feeling belonging. But also the ways that I woke from what Tara Brach calls, “the trance” of not feeling as though I belonged. I’d like to revisit the ways in which I woke from how I was living while trying to feel approved of, to how I felt comfortable with and approved of myself. All of which, finally leading to a place where I’m living my life with more direction.

There were a few different routes I took to finally feeling acceptance of where I am in life. Many of which I’ve written about in this blog. But they were important paths to waking from what I felt like I needed to do in order to feel loved. So let’s start with the area of my life that was holding me back in the most immediate way, my budget.

Buried in Debt? No Problem, You Got This

There is a specific memory that I reflect back on every once and awhile when I think about the amount of debt I was in. It’s of me, sitting in my bathrobe at my desk, cup of coffee on my left and looking at all the credit cards I had, on open tabs on my browser like I was watching a stock ticker. All the while I was wondering how much higher my credit score had to be in order for my credit limits to be increased.

I was also well on my way to amassing close to 100k in student loan debt, on top of the 25k I would eventually end up with on my credit cards. This was the height of me living on borrowed money. Not to mention a dangerous mindset to be in.

Now my routine is much different. I check my account balances to make sure I have enough money for the upcoming month’s budget. And now I look forward to paying off what’s left of my student loans instead of looking for ways to increase my debt limit. Usually a cup of green or herbal tea at my side : )

Choosing to pay off my debt is one of the best decisions I’ve ever made, and it’s taught me so many valuable life lessons. Such as how to live on a budget, how to save for my future, what it means to live within my means, how to set up an emergency fund… The list keeps going. But these are the important lessons that I and so many more of us just never learned while becoming adults.

Willpower and Responsibility

Getting intentional with your money has the power to help you in so many other areas of living a more responsible life than just the financial sector. Such as developing a stronger sense of responsibility. And it’s an overall good place to start if you’re looking for more direction in general. I’ve mentioned before on this blog that I’m following the Dave Ramsey steps to getting myself out of debt. I’m not as dedicated as some of his followers are, but there are definitely some parts of his plan that have been especially beneficial for me and my path. For example, learning willpower and self restraint through budgeting.

Paying off debt has freed up some of my income for other living expenses while teaching me how to exercise self-control over how I manage my money. Right now all my available funds are going towards my debt. But the difference between my 700$ monthly minimum payments now and the 950$ monthly payments I used to make, is the difference between whether or not I can afford groceries for the month. And that’s kind of a big deal!

Paying off my credit cards alone freed up 250$ worth of monthly payments I would have been paying to a credit card company were I still in debt. Not to mention all the compound interest I was accruing. That’s about the national average for a single persons grocery budget. The worst part of it all is, I don’t really have an idea of where all my money went. Most likely on alcohol and restaurants. But my standard of living hasn’t changed much since I’ve been free of credit card debt. Which leads me to the question: What’s the point of credit card debt in the first place?

Paying Off Debt: Side Hustle

One of the ways I’ve helped to cut down the amount of time I’ll be in debt is by picking up a second job. This has been a positive for me in my life in so many different ways.

My side hustle is at a homeless shelter for families. I work only six days a month, but it will reduced the over all time I’ll be in debt by about two years. I’ve also been able to write this blog, organize my budget and to-do list, research recipes and put together shopping lists, as well as other opportunities for my future. It’s also hopefully where I’ll get a letter of recommendation for grade school when I’m ready to go back, after helping me to pay back my current debt, while funding my future educational expenses. Win win.

And not to mention, it’s fun. I enjoy the time I spend with the residents. Watching their children run around the house and play games. The co-workers I’m getting to know. It’s all been a positive experience for the most part. That being said, it’s not all sunshine and daisies. There are some days that I just don’t have it in me. This is why it’s important work a little motivation into your routine.

What’s Your Motivation?

On the days when my alarm goes off at 5:35am, and I know I won’t see my bed until 11:30pm, I need a little more than the few cups of tea I drink in the morning to keep me on my feet. This is where small reminders I’ve built into my days have helped me to stay on task, stay motivated.

Photo Bombs

One way I do this is by having a few photos as rotating wallpaper on my phone, of the things I want for myself in life. The things I’m working towards. For example, I have a couple of photos of Adrienne from Yoga with Adrienne, to remind me that there are healthy ways of staying physically fit with support from positive mentors. I also have a few pictures of Dana from Minimalist Baker as well for much the same reasons as with Adrienne. A reminder to take care of my nutritional needs in a healthy, nourishing way.

There is also an artist’s rendition of an elf, drawing an arrow from his quiver and readying himself for a fight. This helps me to remember that it isn’t always going to be easy. Sometimes you need to prepare yourself for a fight. Not that I’m advocating for violence in anyway, but bringing a feeling of being emotionally tough, resilient, is important for times when you feel like you want to give up and quit. Warrior II in yoga is a great way for me to embody this feeling. Taking up space with focus and intention is empowering.

Pin It

I also receive notifications from Pinterest a few times a day with new recommendations for my boards. Here is where I keep photos of what I want my future to look like. I mostly have pictures of beautiful living spaces. The house I want to build when I’m ready for the next step in my life. This is a space where I can just look at something pretty, inspiring, without feeling the pressure of needing to get something accomplished immediately. It’ll take time, but I also need the time to plan.

It brings me a sense of ease while also gently reminding me of what I’m working towards. Not to mention it allows me a place to organize all of these ideas and inspiration. This, organizing, also has a calming effect on me. The same goes for cleaning as well. Any chance to bring order to something, especially when it is something beautiful, is something I hold close to me. Something special. Which brings me to what I’m doing all of this for.

Friends, the Ultimate Motivation

There are a few memories from my old life that I look back on with nostalgia. Most of them are of the times I spent with close friends, at their camp in Maine. The hours spent gathered around a camp fire, with nothing to do and nowhere to be. Feeling totally at ease in the moment with good friends and good conversation.

For me, this is the reason I’m so focused on living a life with more direction. So I can make more memories like these. My friends and those I hold close to me are my motivation. But this wasn’t always the case.

The lessons I was taught, both modeled and unspoken were, people will hurt you and they are not to be trusted. This was, and to some extent is, how my caregivers chose and choose to live their life. And I followed in their footsteps.

I was mean and cold to people to keep them at a distance. I needed to be right about people to avoid the uncertainty of possibly being rejected by them. So I pushed them away first. Now I do things much differently.

Reciprocating in Your Relationships

I’m now able to share more openly with those closest to me. My thoughts, feelings, ideas and interests. This is something that is so basic, but is avoided by so many, that it kind of blows my mind.

The ways I used to be in my friendships was one sided. They were on my terms usually and I always needed a buffer between us. Such as alcohol, or objectifying women. It was just too vulnerable to talk to my friends about how I was feeling. To be fair, I had a lot of trouble knowing what emotion I was feeling. But this was because everytime an emotion came near, I pushed it away. Just like the people in my life.

Now sharing with others isn’t a source of fear anymore. For example, my employer makes a brown bread that reminds me of the happier times in my childhood. It’s also a recipe from her great, great, great grandmother. I was able to share with her that I enjoyed the bread and wanted to try and replicated it. In case she wanted to keep the recipe in her family, I didn’t ask. But she gladly offered to share her recipe with me.

This is exactly the type of reciprocation I would have run from in the past. I would have been to proud to admit that they made something that exceeded my standards and what chance there was of bonding would have died there. Me feeling as though I was superior to others stopped me from making authentic connections with others. Not to mention it was just plain mean and arrogant.

Healthy Helping

The same friend I used to go to Maine with and sit around his camp fire while talking for hours, has recently been doing some renovations to his house. I’ve been pitching in when our schedules align and this has been another way of building healthy bonds. I say healthy helping, because the ways I used to help others was definitely detrimental to creating enduring relationships.

My former self would help someone in need, but there was always a catch. I would usually hold it over them as though I was so gracious to be helping. Teasing them for it later, only with cruel intentions.

Or I would passive aggressively harbor a grudge for feeling as though I was making such a great sacrifice for them. But these were the relational maps I was given as a child. I was usually made to feel as though any need I had was a great injustice and cross to be born by my caregivers. I’ve come to realize that this was largely due to my caregivers having zero boundaries.

Now that I understand what healthy boundaries look like, I’ve been able to make better decisions concerning how much of myself and my resources I’m able to give. For instance, when I’m helping my friend with his renovations, I’m enjoying the time we spend together, literally and figuratively building something of value and worth. And that feels great for a change : )

Sounding Board

It’s also nice to have some friends you know you can talk to about anything. Those friends that no matter the topic, are down to field a call from you. Whether it’s to complain about what’s current in your life, get some advice or a new perspective. These buddies are clutch. Like a Swiss army knife, down for whatever.

I have a couple of friends who fit this bill. I think what’s been so enriching about our relationship is, we’ve been forging our own paths together in many of the same areas of our lives where we lacked direction in the form of role models.

For example, there is one couple in particular that has been crucial in helping me, and each other, in learning how to handle finances responsibly. As we reach milestones or experience one of life’s lessons, we are a consistent source of support for one another as we continue to learn how to navigate these areas of our lives. If something happens, I know I can call them up and usually feel as though I’m being supported, like I’m not alone.

And that’s what it comes down to. Feeling support, loved and belonging. So finding the right balance of self-care, care for and support from others are the elements to what makes us strong enough to live our lives with more focus and direction. They allow us to be who we really are and that’s worth more than the some of its parts. I hope you’ve found this post helpful in some way, and as always, peace and thanks for reading : )

Image Credits: “Seek-Purpose-Painting” by Justin Masterson is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

Dating: Navigating the Ways We Connect Romantically

Dating. This is something that I have historically been, notoriously bad at. This always seemed a strange paradox to me, because I’ve always known that I want to be in a relationship, only I had no idea how to navigate them. I was completely clueless to when women had shown interest in me, and ended up clinging to unhealthy forms of relationships in my past. And a lot of how I’ve handled my relationships in my past, are ways that I’ve had modeled for me by those closest in to me and popular culture.

But what I’ve come to realize is, that most of how I had been handling relationships, and the role models that got me there, were monumentally unhealthy. In the following, I’ll be going over some of the lessons that I was taught while I was growing up, and how I’ve adapted or overcome from these unhealthy habits of connecting. So let’s jump in where it all started for me in the romantic world, with sex.

The Importance of Sex and Dating

This is a loaded topic, and one with many avenues to travers. I’ve written about this some in my post about porn and porn addiction. This is not an easy one for lots of folks, including myself. I’ve stopped using porn, almost a decade ago, but it is something that is ubiquitous in our culture. Something that I was introduced to at the age of eight and by my caregivers at that. This was way too early to be taught about sex to almost any degree, but in relation to romantic connection, I might as well have been taking a trig class in between recess, nap time and lunch. Out of my element.

To start, there was a lot of unhealthy messages being sent to me, and those around me at the time, involving the importance of sex and how it’s connected to belonging. And to be sure, this isn’t anything new. We seem to struggle with this a new each generation. This was the case in my family and one that was driven home countless times. From my grandmother being a model and ridiculing her children for not fitting the image or standard of beauty she felt as though she imbued, to her children handing down that ire to my generation.

Or the porn addiction that was also handed down generationally. Time and again, the message was that if you weren’t attractive or sexually desirable, you did not belong. This was the message I learned at the tender age of eight, along with a few others that I won’t go into detail about. But all roads lead to Rome so to speak; love and belonging hinged on whether or not someone wanted to have sex with you. When you are left with sex appeal as equal to belonging as your only map to navigate relationships with, then sex becomes the most important aspect of your relationships.

And this was how I navigated almost all of my relationships. If I wasn’t trying to get with some woman, I was talking about women to my friends in the most obscene ways. Nothing was off limits. Either that or I was comparing myself to those around me. Who was more attractive, is she more interested in my friend than me. And on top of that there was the porn addiction. Every relationship was somehow rooted in sex. This was unhealthy.

And that’s not to say that we can’t have a healthy relationship with sex. Sex is enjoyable, fun and a way to bring another level of intimacy to a relationship. And I don’t want to sound as though I’m proselytizing about how sex is to be feared in some way as inherently dirty or morally wrong. But the messages I was being sent as a child definitely carried that sense of hidden moral ambiguity with them by avoiding talking about it or doing it in clandestine ways. And if you’re using the moral compass of an eight year-old, things can look pretty black and white.

Fast forward to my romantic relationships in my twenties and thirties, and I was following in my family’s footsteps by objectifying women as sex objects and treating them with disrespect. It’s also worth mentioning that I didn’t hold onto many relationships. I was also terrified of being emotionally available with others. This goes hand in hand with objectifying women. Because if I didn’t see women as beings with emotions, I wouldn’t have to be open and vulnerable with them. This was something that took a long time to realize after thawing from my emotional freeze.

So sex really came to mean emotional detachment from my partners, the very people I was looking to belong with and to. These were the unhealthy lessons I was taught and carried with me in the ways I related to my relationships. So if objectifying women was the main way I used to detach emotionally, how did I make the U-turn to being emotionally available? There were a few things I did to open up emotionally again, and it started with acknowledging our shared humanity. First in myself and then in others.

Waking Up Into Our Emotions

The first step towards inhabiting my emotional world again was to recognize the ways I was leaving and what I was using to guard myself against them. For starters, objectifying women was the main barrier between me and cultivating intimacy with the women I was with. I had to first recognize that there was fear in me that I had been running from.

The fear for me stemmed from the time I was first abandoned by my family, and allowed to be abused by my caregivers. Once I confronted that fear, I was able to see others, mainly women, as people with emotional worlds all their own. Not as potential threats to my safety or belonging. I could then appreciate the nuances of their personalities instead of reducing them to one dimensional sex objects.

One of the ways I was perpetuating this belief was, as I said above, by using porn. When I stopped, my emotions were then more available to me. But there was a fair amount of work that needed to be done to untangle the mass of unprocessed feelings and emotions I had been covering over.

This is where meditation and yoga came into the picture. Through meditation, I was able to slow down my emotions enough to understand which emotions were which and why I was feeling them. And yoga taught me to stay when things got uncomfortable. If what you’re doing to avoid emotions amounts to pleasure seeking to dodge being uncomfortable, then there is most likely a backlog of difficult emotions to feel your way through. This is where the work lay.

If you are doing this work, and there is any amount of trauma or abuse, I recommend doing it with a professional counselor. And it’s sometimes wise to rely on medications. The message I was given was that real men muscle through tough emotions. This is dangerous and toxic. It’s okay to ask for and rely on help from others and medication when it’s wise to do so. The road can be difficult and scary at times, it’s best not to go it alone.

Emotional Intelligence and Cultivating Intimacy

Once I was able to slow down enough to feel my emotions, this was where I was able to cultivate emotional intelligence. I became fluid in the language of my emotions. This was what I had been missing in my relationships with the women I was with. If I wasn’t able to understand my own emotional states, there was no chance for me to understand what my partners were experiencing.

And there were many emotions to untangle. What was most striking about this process was, that feelings would arise all at once, and be bundled together and wrapped in fear and anxiety. A life’s time worth of unprocessed emotions, all surfacing at once. Demanding my attention and without an understanding of what they were trying to tell me. This was overwhelming.

The ways I used to manage my emotions was through coffee and alcohol. Speeding past or numbing them. But it wasn’t until I felt the full force of them by reducing the ways I was running from them, and by feeling their individual affect on me, that I was able to begin to develop intimacy with my emotional world. This also had the effect of making my emotional world less overwhelming. And subsequently less terrifying.

This is how we cultivate intimacy in our other relationships as well. By attuning to our emotional needs, we’re able to recognize the emotional needs of our partners and respond to them. Sounds simple, but it takes a lot of digging, listening and caring for what comes up. And staying with the difficult emotions is what’s so, well, difficult in the first place. So what makes this possible?

Resources for Emotional Growth

For me, I needed to feel safe and supported again. This was most difficult due to the ways that, first I was treated growing up, and second how I chose to live as a reaction to my upbringing.

I’ve mentioned before on this blog the abuse I endured but also the amount of neglect I also experienced as a child. This was where my distrust in others was cast, and what took the most work to overcome. Without the reassurance that you are being cared for, or at least your basic needs are being met, you feel as I did, that people are inherently selfish and dangerous on top of feeling all alone.

So being able to rely on others is something that flies in the face of logic and is also terrifying to even begin to think about. If you’ve been taught that those who are your caretakers are also your abusers, this becomes a problem when your supposed to rely on your ride or die (partner) for the most intimate support. If you’re unable to trust those who are closest to you, including yourself, how do you learn to rely on others and yourself?

Patiences, Forgiveness and Practice: We’re all Just Humans

Patiences is a difficult skill to hone. But if we don’t develop it, there’s a chance that we will react poorly to those whom we rely on. Especially when they make a mistake that hurts us in some way. Maybe it’s an off comment or a broken promise. We’re only human, it’s bound to happen once and a while. If it happens often enough, then maybe there needs to be another conversation about setting healthy boundaries. But it’s best to give the person the benefit of the doubt, especially if they’re your S.O.. And remember, they’re human and bound to make mistakes.

So we’ve accepted ourselves and others as imperfect. But does that make it any easier to weather the hurt feelings or little betrayals along the way? Sadly no. This is where cultivating patience is so important. In sitting with these difficult emotions, the ones I was talking about above that I would avoid by pleasure seeking, numbing or speeding past, I learned to accept them as, yes difficult, but also passing. They won’t last forever.

And once I got through the uncomfortable emotions and feelings of being hurt by my loved ones, it was easier to see what really matters. Not that I was hurt, but who the person is, how I feel about them, and what their intentions are. Most likely the times where my loved ones hurt me aren’t the norm. And when they do, that doesn’t take away any of the past feelings and experiences I’ve had about and with them that are filled with love. Also, their intentions weren’t most likely malicious.

So with patience comes understanding and forgiveness. And this is most important with the person you’re most intimate with. Your romantic partner. If you learn to trust one another’s intentions, then patience and forgiveness will come second nature. But if your trust has been breached in the past by those closest to you, patience and forgiveness also takes practice.

This was something I had to learn, am still learning, how to show up for myself when I need me most. Because I know if I’m willing to neglect my own needs, I’m going to have an unreasonably high expectation of others. When I don’t see them neglecting their own needs for the sake of “what’s important” to me, in the ways I would. And for the record, this is unhealthy. For example, I would often think people were lazy if they weren’t pushing themselves to exhaustion in the ways I would myself.

This is where practicing forgiving yourself is most important. Because neglect is a habit. It’s something that is learned. Either modeled for us or something we do to avoid the difficult parts of living our life and being connected. For me, I had to listen to myself when I as feeling off or overwhelmed. It wasn’t clear at first, the feelings of being neglected and abused, because they felt so normal. But the more I practiced listening inwardly to the feelings of being overwhelmed and of pushing myself too hard and ignoring my physical needs, the better I became at recognizing what I was going through and what I needed.

This type of understanding is something that can be used to attune to others’ needs. And these are the basic building blocks of intimacy in a romantic relationship as well. If your S.O. looks overwhelmed from a long day at work, recognizing what they are feeling and responding from a place of empathy, of “how can I help, I’m here for you”, is an essential way to build trust and intimacy. And if you’re not sure what to do, ask!

There are few things that can harm a relationship more, from my experience, than mind-reading. Feeling you know what the other person is going through without asking, and that you know how it “should” be handled, is arrogant. Also telling someone else how they are feeling is equally as damaging. I used to operate from this mindset and it was one of the ways I stopped listening to my partners and myself. It was also a way for me to stay disconnected from those closest to me including myself. If you’re not able to listen, you have no idea what the other person is experiencing.

Take The Risks

And finally, if you’ve learned to cultivate some or most of these skills, and you’re still willing to put your heart on the line, there’s nothing left to do than to get out there. Take the risk of being seen, heard and loved. It probably won’t be easy, especially if you’ve had your heart broken before. But it sure will be worth it. And you don’t have to be perfect to start. We often feel like, well I do anyways, that we need to be like Brad Pitt from “Fight Club” in order to be loved by someone else. The perfect body, the right living situation, the perfect career… The list goes on.

In case you still feel that way, I’m here to tell you, you don’t. Just be you, or the closest approximation to that you can ; ) Be honest and forgiving to yourself, and you’ll do just fine. Peace, and thanks for reading : )

Image Credits: “love-romantic-gift-present” by pixellaphoto is marked with CC0 1.0

Knowing When to Walk Away: What do You do When Your Boundaries are Being Violated

This is a difficult topic, especially for those who have very little understanding of what boundaries are. This is a place I knew well, and time after time I would find myself in situations where I, or somebody else was taking advantage of personal boundaries. If you’ve read my last post on “shoring up your personal boundaries“, you’ll know I’ve been in some pretty iffy situations.

This, and the last post, were inspired by a place I was recently employed at. The ways in which the employer has been treating his employees is something that, well inspired this post on self-care in regards to boundaries. I’ll be going over some red flags to look for if you feel your boundaries are being taken advantage of and also, a little on what you can do if your boundaries are being encroached upon. I’ll be focusing mostly on the workplace, but some of these examples can be applied to other contexts as well.

Red Flags

If you’re not used to being in relationships with healthy boundaries, it can be tricky to see the red flags that pop up when your boundaries are being violated. Some are fairly obvious. But it can be insidious in how subtly some use them to take advantage of others. Some examples are, emotional blackmail, criticism without constructive feedback, being unwilling to give clear and concise direction while communicating needs and using misinformation to misdirect from the issues that need focusing on. These tactics aren’t new, but they make unhealthy relationships. So let’s jump in with emotional blackmail.

Emotional Blackmail

Let me start out by saying that lying in and of itself is a clear indication that your boundaries are being taken advantage of. If you, or somebody you work with, or for, is in the habit of not telling the truth, then some serious attention needs to be given to what the circumstances are and why it’s happening. This happened to me most recently at a job I left not so long ago.

I was talked to by the owner of the small bakery I worked in, at the time, and written up for not mixing the starter on the scheduled time. This was something that I had brought to the owners attention, as I was willing to take full responsibility for my mistakes. But where the violation of boundaries took place was, the owner said he was writing me up for the second time I had forgotten to do this task. I was clearly being lied to, and when I pressed for the date of the original infraction, he was unable to remember the time.

He was unable to give me any detail as to when the first time it happened was, though made reference to my mistake often after he said I had. He was saying that I had done more than what was actually done and was using it to make me feel as though I should be concerned about my job security. This is where emotional blackmail comes into the equation. It seemed as though, from my perspective, that his goal in lying to me was to make me feel as though I was on thin ice in regards to my job security. By making reference to it often, he was attempting to capitalize on my feeling as though I’m not worthy of my job title, bakery manager at the time, or that I should be lucky at all to have a job.

Asides from this being a stressful environment to work in, it also is a way to manipulate those who work for you, to feel as though you are worth less than you actually are. This may lead to people working harder to feel as though they have to make up for feeling deficient in some way. Not asking for pay increases for standard of living or increased responsibilities. But most importantly, it also leads to resentment.

Everybody I worked with had something bad to say about the owner. There were an awful lot of hurt and abused feelings. Nobody was happy where they were and everybody made it plainly clear how they felt. Yet nobody would sit down and have the tough conversations around why. I attempted, but was met with arrogance, actually much in the same ways I used to act. It wasn’t unfamiliar, but that didn’t make it any less difficult to bear.

In these situations, it’s best to take the high road. Ask a lot of clarifying questions and try not to lose focus on what is at the heart of the situation. In my case, I wasn’t a bad person for making a mistake, it was only a mistake. Keep focus on the present and leave the past in the past. And most importantly, don’t let someone else attempt to define you by the mistakes you’ve made. We’re all only human, and humans make mistakes.

Criticism Without Feedback

Criticism without constructive feedback. This is a tough one for a lot of people, and rightly so. Without constructive feedback, criticism, especially if given often, is just another way to bully someone and create an unclear and unachievable standard. This was the case with my last employer. The owner was constantly finding fault with everything that everybody was doing, while being vocal about his opinions to everybody.

For example, there was one woman who I baked with who had been baking there for the better part of two decades. Before she worked there, she owned her own bakery. She was a good baker, and did her job well. But regardless of her baking prowess, the owner would often criticise her by calling her the “queen of steam”. If you don’t know, you use steam in the baking process by injecting the oven with water to create steam, right before you put the loaves in to bake. The steam gives the crust a shiny look to it while developing the crust. The owner was constantly implying that she was too heavy on the steam.

Later when he criticized my bake, I asked him some clarifying questions around what the standard should look like. He gave reference to the woman’s bake I mentioned above, saying it should look like hers. This was confusing because all I’ve ever heard him say about her bakes was how they weren’t good enough. So I was left with no direction on what he wanted from me, and only the feeling of not doing an adequate job, regardless of how good my bakes looked. And everyone that worked there that baked was an excellent baker, including myself. So there was no clear standard of what he expected from us. Only criticism.

Lack of Clear and Concise Direction

This was at the root of a lot of the miscommunication and confusion at my last place of employment. Information that was important for us to do our jobs in a timely manner was not provided. And there was no lack of us pursuing this information. It just wasn’t provided. For whatever reason, there was never any direct line of communication from what the owner wanted, and what we were supposed to do.

This also left us in the uncertain place of not knowing if we were doing the right thing. Or if we were ever meeting the expectations of the owner. We were always left in the uncertain purgatory of not knowing. This also breed a sense of distrust with those in charge. Without clear communication of needs, there was a lack of trust and we were left feeling unsupported. There would be changes made last minute and if the changes weren’t made, usually do to the needs not being communicated in a timely manner, than people would be reprimanded for not doing what was asked.

This lack of support also led to resentment on the part of the employees. There was an incredibly high rate of turnover, compared to other places I’ve been employed. There was a consistent rotation of managers before me and the one I took over for, left from the frustrations I’ve mentioned above. The lack of communication directly led to a lack of feeling supported which directly impacted the turnover rate of employees. Not to mention the amount of hurt feelings and emotions that were taken advantage of. All of which could have been avoided if there had been clear direction and support.

Misinformation and Misdirection

This can be an especially difficult boundary violation to navigate. While I was at the last place of my employment, as I’ve said above, I was written up for forgetting the starters and then lied to about forgetting it for the second time. In the same write up, as for mixing the starters late, it was also mentioned in the write up that my bakes didn’t meet their standard.

This came as a surprise, as I had no prior warning about the quality of my bakes. No body had ever brought to my attention that my bakes looked off in any way for the entire time I had worked there. There were also only two people present while I was being spoken with, but there were three supervisors on my write-up. One of which I wasn’t aware was my supervisor.

All of these “additions” to what was a matter of mixing a starter late had the effect of misdirecting focus from what the actual issue was. I was being written up for mixing the starter late which turned into being spoken to by three supervisors and the quality of my performance was being brought into question.

These should have been brought to my attention in separate conversations and also when they happened, not by surprise and in conjunction with one another. The experience left me uncertain as to what was expected of me, but also wondering, if it was so important, why was it being brought up so late? Especially since I, like most people I believe, want to do the best job they’re able to.

Using fear and misdirection to manipulate a person to work harder because they fear for their job security, leads to feelings of resentment and confusion. Resentment for the feeling of being in an environment where it’s unacceptable to make mistakes and confusion because the standards are constantly changing. There was no clear way to discuss what the issues actually were.

What Can We do About It?

With all of these abuses of boundaries taking place, it may be difficult to know what to do or how to act. With your attention being pulled in so many different directions, it can be difficult to know first, how you feel about it happening, and second what to do about it. For me, it helped to take it slowly. As I said above, I asked a lot of clarifying questions, gave them the benefit of my doubt and made sure to follow up with those who were the decision makers and give support to those I was able to who were looking for direction. Some are easier to do than others, but with some perseverance, it can be done.

Clarifying Questions

As I said above, clarifying questions goes so far into finding out what specific expectations are being asked of you. The more specific, direct and often your questions and communications, the less likely it will be that there are grey areas or feelings of uncertainty.

This may be difficult for a few reasons. First, if your supervisor is being evasive, than it can be tough to get a clear and direct answer from them. And second, if you’re shy or don’t like making waves, than asking questions can make you feel as though you are being a burden on those you need clarifying from. And nobody wants to burden the boss.

But this is where it is so important to be persistent. Asking the right questions and knowing precisely what’s expected of you will only help to improve things for everybody.

Give the Benefit of the Doubt

This one is tricky, because it involves a lot of trust where trust may have been abused in the past. But going into a situation thinking you are going to be taken advantage of leads to being guarded and unreceptive to change. And the situation may be that the person who is showing some of the red flags may be under a fair amount of stress. Life happens, and it’s best to be able to help out those who need it instead of being too quick to judge them as being neglectful or malicious in their actions.

It also helps to stay positive in these situations. Bringing an attitude of resentment to the issue won’t help to resolve the problem. It also takes a toll on your own well being. And in situations where your boundaries may be being violated, it’s important to take care of your needs and well being.

Following Up

Following up with your concerns and questions are still important aspects of meeting your needs, especially if you’re being avoided. This shows that you are invested in finding a resolution, but more importantly, sending the message that you are going to advocate for yourself and your teams needs.

This also helps to keep those who are in charge, accountable for their actions or inactions. This way, you’re taking care of your own needs by respecting yourself enough to advocate for your needs while also sending the message that you deserve respect and acknowledgement of your needs.

Giving Support

This one is important. Giving Support to those you are able to helps to provide a sense of working to achieve a shared goal. Teamwork. This is especially important when there isn’t support coming from where it should be coming from. As I’ve said above, a lack of support leads to resentment. And if we pass the buck along to those we work with, we only end up resenting one another. In this case, nobody feels taken care of. And if we can take care of each other along the way, it helps to make everyone feel a little better.

Conclusion

It’s not always easy, but if you’ve found yourself in a situation where your boundaries are being violated these steps should help you to navigate them with some confidence. And if you do everything you’re able to, and you still find that you are being taken advantage of, your best bet may be too leave the situation entirely. It’s what I did with my situation and it worked out for the best. But give it some serious thought and try not to let your emotions rule your actions.

My motto in my teen and early twenties was, “bridges are for burning”. This was due to feeling hurt by those closest to me. But it was an attitude that left me alone and without any support. Just because someone has taken advantage of you, doesn’t mean that they’re a bad person. Who knows what their history holds, and if it is anything like mine, I can relate. But also, being open to the idea that people can change, helps to soften the blow of your boundaries being violated. That doesn’t mean that you should allow them to be violated, but to take care of your needs, maybe by walking away from the situation, but not holding any anger or resentment towards those who hurt you while taking care of yourself.

I hope this has helped in some way. As always, peace : ) and thanks for reading.

Image Credits: Walking Away by Matt Henry photos is licensed under

      CC BY 2.0

Do I Know What My Boundaries Are? How to Tell if You’re Boundaries Need Shoring Up

Boundaries are another area I spend a lot of time on in this blog. The main reason being, if you were raised in a situation where boundaries were constantly being violated, then it can be difficult to know what is, and is not acceptable behavior. This was the case with my upbringing. I didn’t even know what a boundary was, and even worse, I confused a lack of boundaries for affection in some cases. This was a very unhealthy emotional place to inhabit.

Luckily I’ve learned a lot about what healthy boundaries are, and what they are not, but it took a lot of putting myself in some pretty iffy situations. Lessons that I could have probably learned in a much healthier fashion than how I had. But lessons learned nonetheless. In this post I’ll be talking about how to find where your boundaries lay, and also how to tell when they’re being encroached upon. These are difficult waters to navigate when you have no bearings in the way of role models. But there are ways of finding your bearings. It’s not impossible, but it is trying. And in trying times I like to remember the saying, “we were built for this”. Let’s find some healthy boundaries together : )

Where Are My Boundaries?

So as I said above, these can be tricky to find. If you’ve been immersed in a situation where a lack of boundaries were the norm, than knowing where you end and another begins isn’t always clear. Or maybe your boundaries were too rigid, too defined. This can also be as suffocating and a fearful place to be. Either way, if you’ve been left in one of these boats, you’re gonna need to find another vessel. Luckily there are places to find out what a healthy mix of boundaries looks like. Let’s take a look at being raised with no boundaries first. These can be, I feel, the most confusing.

No Boundaries:

Being raised with no boundaries can be a very confusing place to grow up while trying to navigate your young world. For me, no boundaries meant; being mean to others with callous disregard for their emotions, eating anything and everything I felt like when I felt like it, picking up vices like smoking and drinking at an early age (14) and knowing no restraint in these areas, using others and confusing a lack of boundaries for affection.

These are polarizing ways of being and were mostly caused by a lack of healthy role modeling of appropriate boundaries, also known as, neglect. I was mostly looking to feel loved by my neglectful caregivers by acting the ways that I watched them behave. My caregivers were mean and rancorous, so I was mean spirited and rancorous. It’s what I thought it meant to be grown up, mature. Later, when I realized that my role models were acting like Jim Morrison, I knew I had been mislead.

Being raised with no boundaries came with a feeling of desperation. The lack of connection for me was the cause of my desperation. My thoughts were consumed with what I could do to feel a sense of love and belonging with those around me, by doing things that were clearly disregarding my best interests. For example I stopped going to school at around age 16 and by then was drinking quite a bit as well. I never exercised and my diet wasn’t stellar either. And I did this all because I was looking for some way to belong to something that would give me a sense of comfort and security. Not realizing all the while how far I was straying from the habits I could have cultivated to create that sense of security and comfort for myself.

And the worst part of having no boundaries was, I confused a lack of boundaries for affection. I assumed that any chance for contact was good, seeing as how I never connected or bonded with my caregivers. I figured if I let them do what they wanted to me, the greater chance I would have of being loved by them. For me that meant they could say whatever they wanted to me, go through my personal belongings whenever they felt, invade my personal space on a whim and treat me as though I weren’t a person with basic needs and rights to personhood.

This set me up for failed relationships with the women I would later choose to be in my life and a lot of feeling as though I was never enough. That I needed someone to treat me poorly because I felt I wasn’t good enough to be in a healthy relationship, which left me feeling uneasy in relationships and lucky that a woman would even consider being with me. This perpetuated the cycles of poor boundaries and low self esteem and I acted in arrogant ways to cover over my feelings of inadequacy.

The end result was a lot of burned bridges and a staggering amount of unhealthy habits. I had no career prospects, had ended the most stable relationship I had been in for eight years on a whim, and had no idea what my future was going to look like. For all intents and purposes, I was one unfortunate event away from being homeless and completely without resources. I had made a life’s time worth of poor decisions and most all of them could be traced back to being raised with no boundaries or very rigid boundaries.

Rigid Boundaries:

Meanwhile, on the opposite end of the spectrum, my other caregivers had very rigid boundaries. There was no touching, we never talked about how we felt. There was never any conversations about who or how I was as a person. Preferences, likes and dislikes weren’t discussed. We never had any conversation that went deeper than the state of the weather and we barely saw each other as well. Any chances that we had to build a relationship was thoroughly crushed by the oppressive frigidity of the nature of our relationship.

These types of boundaries left me feeling as though I wasn’t good enough to be around. As though there was something wrong with me. Though nothing was ever explicitly stated, there was an uncomfortable air of feeling deeply wrong for some reason. Again, a sense of desperation set in as I tried to figure out why I was being rejected, only this time the rules had changed. I felt empty and as though I wasn’t good enough because there was a lack of trust on my caregivers part.

I had no idea that the lack of trust didn’t stem from me. Only that the rigidity, the stiffness of the boundaries made me feel as though, if I wasn’t behaving properly, or didn’t show the lack of emotion my caregiver displayed, than I wasn’t good enough.

Either way, I was being rejected again for some reason, but I had no idea what it was or what I was, or wasn’t doing. But I did know that some attention was better than no attention, so a lack of boundaries was more “nourishing” than being completely frozen out.

So in my youth I chose to emulate my caregivers that resembled Jim Morrison, and live a destructive lifestyle. I would later make the switch to becoming rigid in my boundaries, basing my values on how much I could sacrifice while thinking in black and white terms. But no matter which path I chose, I still didn’t feel belonging. This was where I came to realize just how unhealthy my boundaries and my relationships truly were. This is something I’m still coming to terms with. But I’ve picked up some resources along the way that have helped me to make some sense of my relationships. Let’s take a look at a few.

Finding the Balance:

I have a few photos on my phone that rotate and serve as my wallpaper. They are: two photos of dogs I want, a photo of yoga with Adriene, a photo of the Minimalist Baker, Tom Hanks, a picture of the bedroom I would one day like to build in my future home, and a photo of Tupac Shakur. The reason I bring up these photos is because they’ve come to represent a sense of balance in my life. Things that I’m aspiring to, and where I’ve come from.

The photos of the dogs helps to remind me of the possibility for companionship, unconditionally. I’ve never seen a dog look at a person and say, “I can’t wag my tail at you, you’re too ugly.” They are just little fluffballs of loving energy. This helps to remind me that no matter how rigid boundaries have been in the past, there are always sources of healthy connection and affection. I just need to find them and choose them.

The photo of Adrienne reminds me that there are people out there doing good work. They don’t have to sacrifice themselves to be liked or accepted and in fact are loved and accepted for pursuing something they love doing. They are also a source of positive energy and motivation. Also helping me to look out for my best interests in regards to decisions about my health. Yoga has taught me how to care for my physical self without pushing myself beyond what I’m capable of. Taking care of myself on the mat is a way for me to respect my boundaries around what I feel I should be accomplishing, when I feel my boundaries are too rigid. I.e. pushing myself beyond what I’m capable of achieving. I know that the purpose of my practice isn’t to push myself until I pass out. I’m there to listen to my body, and respond to its needs with care. Push my limits, while also listening to what my body is telling me.

The same is true of my photo of Dana from Minimalist Baker. She has seen me through some tough times, while helping me learn how to cook for and care for my nutritional needs while not sacrificing the flavors I love. I owe them a great deal and am constantly grateful for what they’ve taught me. Dana was the start of me understanding what healthy boundaries looked like in regards to food and nutrition and I eat a healthier diet thanks greatly to her.

Tom Hanks is there mostly for the roles he played in the movies I grew up watching. There was a time where he was the only responsible role model I had. I watched as he showed care for the people he was acting with and in a stable and responsible way. He was never abusive, mild in temperament and shared freely his emotional world. These roles showed me that it wasn’t unreasonable to have a reasonable expectation of a person. That it was normal and healthy to have healthy boundaries.

And growing up in a void of healthy role modeling meant that there was nobody to talk to. The T.V. was my closest family member and all this made for a very lonely upbringing. I was never really sure of what I was feeling, and the lack of connection was, looking back on it, criminal. I’m surprised that I made it as far as I did, and relatively unscathed. Relatively.

Which brings me to Tupac. Tupac is on my phone to remind me of where I came from. As the man said, “everybody and their lady got a little bit of thug in ’em”, me included. Which is funny because I was and still am mostly hippie : ) Tupac reminds me that when I feel those rigid boundaries begin to creep in, the ones that tell me I have to be as good as humanly possible or fear for my life the repercussions of some unknown authority, to ease up.

Everybody has a little rebellious streak in them, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. However, if you let that side take the reigns as I did, situations can get out of control quickly. But stifle it too much and you’ll become paralyzed by fear.

So whether you’ve had poorly defined boundaries, or too rigid boundaries, there are ways to find a new way of being that leaves you feeling as though you are in charge of your life, while also being able to let go a little. But it takes work. Boundaries unfortunately don’t build themselves. But with some dedication, and a few good role models, it’s possible.

So if you’re looking to shore up your boundaries, start by choosing some healthy role models. Are there people you are drawn to that seem to have a healthy grasp on their life? Start here. What are they doing that you admire, are drawn to? Do you have behaviours you are unhappy with, or wish you could change? These areas may be worth exploring a little more as well. Maybe find someone who has been in your shoes before. What are they doing, how have they changed?

I hope this has been helpful to you in some way. It isn’t an easy path, to nurture something that has been neglected for a long time, but it’s worth it in the end. Stay strong, and remember, you were built for this! Thanks for reading : ) peace.

Image Credits: “Blurring Boundaries” by Karthick R is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

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