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

The Power of Feeling Heard: Why Listening Matters

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 : )

Image Credits: “Listener Supported” by planeta is licensed under CC BY-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

I Want to Be Like Everybody Else, Or Do I: What It Means to Be You

This is a tough one for many and something I’ve wrestled with for a long time. Not to mention the unintended consequences it’s had in my relationships while I was in the throws of becoming me. I’d like to share with you my perspective and some of my experiences in coming to understand who I am and how I separated that from who I thought I was supposed to be. Like the Dead said so long ago, “what a long strange trip it’s been”. Let’s start this trip with who I thought I was supposed to be.

What Makes Me Likable?

My journey to personhood began long ago, about the time I started high-school. This was a strange time for me, but that seems to be the hallmark for that age bracket. This was also when and where I began to figure out who I was becoming and what my likes and dislikes are.

In the mid-nineties, when I entered the awkward age of adolescents, hippie culture was making a come back. Bands like Phish and The Grateful Dead were prevalent in the culture at the time and I took to them, culture and bands, pretty quickly. The sense of community, the colors and the attitudes all appealed to me. The music, too was something I had grown up with. I remember watching The Dead’s, “Touch of Grey” on VH1 often as a younger child. Its positive message, “I will get by” that’s sung in the chorus, spoke to me then and still does.

The clothing was something that I connected with as well. There was the tie-dye, which was colorful and unique, but also the comically large pants that were in style at the time. Some, including the pair I made, had panels of different colored material going up both the inner and outer seams. They also had 36 inch cuffs. Like I said, comically big! I had one pair that I must have worn for months straight. This must be where the term, “dirty hippy” comes from.

And even with all the drug and alcohol abuse that was happening in the culture, for me it was never about the drugs. I enjoyed the community and the diversity of colors most of all. It wasn’t until I was chastised one car ride long ago for not knowing who The Doors were, that I started down the path of drinking and doing drugs occasionally. As I’ve said before in my post on feeling unworthy of love, at the mere mention that Jim Morrison was more liked in my family than I was, I studied him to feel belonging to any degree. With family, with friends, whomever. I just wanted to belong

So I made choices in life the ways Jim would have. And the strange thing was, that even though I was doing the “right thing” according to my families unspoken rules, I was being punished for acting that way. But also like my family. Because we were all living like Jim Morrison to a lesser degree. So the more I tried to act and behave the ways that I thought I was supposed to, the ways my caregivers had, the more rejection I felt.

The reason, I’ve come to realize is, that we really didn’t like ourselves. This was a sad wake up call to be sure. But the silver lining is, that it wasn’t ourselves that we didn’t like. It was who we were pretending to be that we were uncertain of. All we really wanted to be was liked. Deep down there was this feeling of not being accepted by one another. So we had to do what others were doing to be and feel accepted. But we were just covering over what we truly are. For me, I’m coming to realize that there’s a great deal of strength and other positive traits beneath what I was trying to cover up for the sake of being loved by another.

So If I’m Likable, Why Don’t I Feel As Though I Am?

It took me a long time to realize this. And I had to do a lot of internal cleaning in order to get to a place where I could see the patterns of wanting to be accepted. From what I can tell and why I didn’t wake up sooner to realizing the reason I wasn’t feeling liked or belonging, was because I was so busy chasing the good times and searching for external validation from friends and family. I was blinded to who I was outside of the bars and drinking and the show I was putting on.

We were so busy avoiding ourselves by seeking others approval, that we didn’t realize that we weren’t taking care of our most basic needs for self esteem or feelings of self acceptance. We also didn’t have a connection with ourselves or one another to speak of. This extends to both family and friends. No shared responsibilities, no facing hardships together and coming out stronger in the end. It felt as though we were on our own, together, but alone. The foundation of our relationships were built on the times when we would drink to avoid the work of living our lives by connecting with one another in honesty and with kindness.

Though what is most disheartening is, we were intentionally mean to one another. This worked to erode what little connections we had. And feeling as though we had to do everything on our own was a given. Because asking for help was seen as a weakness. This lead to the term “martyr” being tossed around often and liberally. And we all made it well known that we resented feeling as though we had to do it all alone. This was not a healthy way to build strong and lasting connections. Or a way to feel liked or lovable. Not to mention how incredibly self-righteous and arrogant we all were.

So what held us together if we were so consistently mean to one another? What was it that made us likable enough to want to be around each other? We were so desperate to feel belonging, that we were grasping onto whatever form of acceptance we could find. One of my first apartments is a good example of the desperation to be accepted in action. When I moved in, I never actually had a conversation with my friends who were living in the apartment. I just moved in and we never talked about. And what I moved into wasn’t even a bedroom! It was a pass through from the kitchen to the living room.

And this is in no way a judgement on us at that time and place in our lives. I was so focused on surviving, not being homeless in my case, that I was clinging to whatever form of belonging I could find. Even if I had to force it from somebody. Along with survival, came a lack of caring how I was living. Surviving was priority one. And that’s not to say that we didn’t have some good times while we were together. But this was no way to live my best life by a long shot. And I wouldn’t wish the situation I was in on anybody else either.

Tara Brach describes this way of being as, in a trance. Which makes a lot of sense, because when you’re in the trance, or survival mode, it’s hard to see anything outside of how to survive. Kind of like tunnel vision. You have one focus because that’s all that matters.

Brene Brown’s research on hustling for approval is another apt way to describe how we were living. We were just so scared to be our vulnerable, emotional selves around each other, due to all the scarring from past relational wounds, that we numbed out all of our emotions. To scared to get close, but also to be alone. So fear and being numb by way of drinking, were the binding forces behind most of our connections. This is also what stopped us from feeling likable or belonging.

So if fear is what’s holding us back from feeling connected, how do we drop the fear and be our whole, vulnerable selves around each other? That’s the trick. You have to feel your way through it. Thaw out the numbness and feel the fear as it is. And unfortunately there aren’t any shortcuts or easy ways to do this. The way out is most definitely through. Feeling the uncertainty and vulnerability, the fear, all the emotions we’ve been avoiding in the first place. Allow them to all reside in us at once. This is how we begin to feel lovable again.

How to Feel Uncomfortable, Vulnerable and Uncertain: A Practical Guide

I’ll say it again, this is difficult work to do. As a friend of mine used to say, “it’s no easy” (thanks Melva : ), and she was right. After all, I was spending great amounts of energy and resources trying to avoid all of these feelings. I’ve been thinking about it some lately, and I believe I was avoiding them because, feeling unpleasant emotions, in a way, feels like a betrayal.

The uncertainty and fear were produced at the hands of my caregivers when I was abused and neglected. So there was that betrayal to come to understand. But also too, that I was capable of producing these difficult emotions, that had the effect of making me feel as though I was my own abuser in a way. That these emotions were inherently a part of my being. And that I could be scared, I could be fearfully uncertain. This is what lead to me trying to numb out these difficult emotions. Feeling as though I was betraying myself.

But as my therapist once told me, “you can’t just numb one emotion, if you do, you numb them all”. And she couldn’t have been more correct. When I was drinking large amounts of alcohol and caffeine, I only really felt two emotions. Either feeling totally relaxed, or riddled with fear and anxiety. There was no newaunce of emotional diversity. I was living very much in a, black and white emotional world. So How did I unthaw?

Something switched in me around the time I left my ex-wife. I had thought I fell in love with another woman. But what I was really recognizing were the similarities we shared and that she seemed to accept me unconditionally. Something I had been looking for since my parents abandoned me. I didn’t understand what I had had with my then wife, but I was emotionally stunted and unable of reciprocating love in an emotionally mature way.

But in all honesty, I don’t think that either woman I was involved with at the time, my then wife or the woman I left her for, was able to either. We all had our own version of what I was going through. The difference was, my choices affected three lives for the worse. Something I’m not proud of. But this was also when I began to live my own life by taking charge of what was happening in it.

I was so used to letting things happen to me, that I was leaving the job of living my life up to whomever would step in and take over the task. I had to wake from this trance of being completely submissive, to being intentional about what I was doing to move my life forward. Running was on of the first ways I was becoming intentionally incharge of my life. Along with meditation and listening to Tara Brach’s Dharma talks, I was beginning to understand that I was still very much a child in the ways I was living.

Okay, so as I said in the beginning of this article, I was definitely not able to get to everything in 2,000 words. Next week I’ll be posting more about the ways I’ve woken from the trance of living the subdued life and started living a life with more focus and direction. Until then, peace, and thanks for reading : )

Image Credits: “You’re Lovable & Worthy of Love” by edenpictures is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Being Grateful: How a Little Gratitude Can Help Change your Perspective

A common theme during the holidays is to be grateful for what we have. This is a great theme and frame of mind for sure. But as the gift giving part of the holidays is starting for some and wrapping up for others, it can be difficult to focus on what we have that brings us a sense of gratitude. We’re so consumed with what we have to get for others, beating the crowds and getting the right gifts, that being grateful takes a back seat to feeling obligated to buy and do for others.

And that’s not such a bad thing. Giving and receiving is a great way to connect. To make someone special know that they’re important to you is something to be grateful for in itself. But the fatigue of buying gifts for so many often times makes us lose track of that sense of gratitude.

It’s also tough to recognize that we may not be as grateful as we “should” be for what we have. This can be especially true for those of us who come from a place of privilege. “I should be more grateful”, or “I should be volunteering or donating more” may be ways that we should all over ourselves.

But if you already have a busy schedule, a load of obligations and other responsibilities to meet, is it realistic to hold ourselves to these impossible standards of giving more than we have? And are they prerequisite to feeling grateful? They help, but if you’re already pressed for time and resources, then beating yourself up for not doing more is something Tara Brach calls, the second arrow, and is something that will easily keep us feeling low.

The first arrow is feeling guilty about not doing enough. The second arrow is when you beat yourself up for feeling guilty. So much guilt and self deprivation is inconducive to keeping in a grateful frame of mind. So how do we cultivate gratitude? We need to remember first that it’s not always so easy.

Being Grateful, It Ain’t Always Easy

I work at a family shelter as a second job. I’m working there mostly to pay off student loans, but also because this is my preferred career path. The first response I get from people when I tell them I work at a family shelter is usually, “that must be gratifying work”.

For sure, it has its moments. But there’s much more heart break happening than there are feelings of being somehow righteous and grateful in my chosen career path. The people I work for have, and are, seeing some of the worst life has to offer. And they aren’t grateful all that often.

And that’s not too say they don’t have things to be grateful for, or a judgement of their disposition in any way. Only, that they are circumstances that need dealing with that are more pressing than the time allowed to take stock of what they are grateful for. When you’re on fire, it’s hard to take a moment to appreciate the times you weren’t on fire. Or when you’re not going to be.

And you don’t have to be homeless to get caught up in feeling a lack of gratitude. We all have times where we just feel overwhelmed with the amount of fires we’re putting out. Or maybe we’re going through a rough patch at work or at home. Whatever the reason, it’s okay to not always feel a sense of gratitude for what we have and where we are.

This doesn’t mean that we aren’t capable of feeling grateful, or that we’re not grateful at all. Only we need to make room for other emotions that may take up more space than we have room for both they and gratitude at the same time. For example, obligation takes up much of the same space that gratitude does for me. With so many obligations and demands to meet, it’s sometimes difficult to see out of the tunnel vision I get when I am in the midst of fulfilling my obligations.

A good example of this is, I work 60+ hours a week. When I work at the family shelter, I have more time to accomplish other tasks on my todo list. I’m grateful for the opportunity to be getting things done for myself, while budgeting my time efficiently and reaching my financial goals simultaneously. But the feelings of fatigue, tiredness and obligation, are most of the time greater than the feelings of gratitude. But my feelings of gratitude are still present, only muffled.

Practicing Gratitude

This is where practicing gratitude comes into the picture. Because when we practice the feelings of feeling grateful, they become stronger. And as I’ve said above, the other, more unpleasant feelings will still be present. The goal isn’t to get rid of these more difficult feelings, but to make the feelings of gratitude stronger than the unpleasant feelings. They can coexist simultaneously. As my therapist put it, when you try to not feel some emotions, you begin to numb them all. This is something I know a lot about and is a dangerous frame of mind to maintain for any length of time.

One way to practice gratitude is, the next time you feel grateful for something, pause and remember how you feel. This is something Tara Brach calls, turning a state into a trait. When we allow ourselves to really experience our states, and work to remember them, then it will be easier to find our way back to these ways of being. Think of it this way: we became anxious in the first place by worrying about everything all the time. Why would it be different for other, more positive states of mind?

So how do we make the switch from anxious based thinking to gratitude based thinking? There are a few ways we can help to cultivate this space for ourselves. I’ll share with you a few ways I practice this for myself, and maybe give you some inspiration to create your own space of gratitude for yourself.

Practicing Gratitude: A Practical Guide

One of the ways I practice gratitude, and probably the simplest way is to recognize it when it happens. We all have certain things we like. And throughout our day, chances are that we’ve built in some of these likes and tendencies, to bring a little joy to our day. Our job is to then recognize those moments and savor them.

It’s the Little Things

For example, I’m writing this article in my room, that is filled with things that bring me a sense of comfort and ease. I have an album I’ve recently discovered playing. I’m burning bee’s wax candles that naturally neutralise the air, purifying it from toxic chemicals (read here for more information on the benefits of burning bee’s wax candles). And I have a diffuser, diffusing the scent of jasmine into my room. And drinking a glass of iced peach herbal tea, lightly sweetened.

The effect is a very calming one. And every once and awhile, I’ll look up from my computer screen and just appreciate the ambiance I’ve created, to make my space just that much more inviting. It’s a similar state to when you go to your favorite restaurant and soak in the atmosphere along with the tastes and smells that make it your favorite place.

Achieving Goals

Another way I soak in these moments of gratitude is when I’m actively engaged in something that has a direct effect on a goal I’m trying to achieve. For example, I’m currently working towards paying off my student loans. Something I had no idea of what I was doing when I started the process of borrowing money for my education.

When I’m on my lenders website, making a payment, I do the math to see where my new balance will be after the payment is processed. I sometimes go on the site just to look at the progress I’m making. These moments of savoring my balance dropping and me getting closer to my goal, 350$ to 700$ at a time is something that also has a calming effect on me.

I can see myself working on improving my future, one payment at a time. It’s nothing huge, like pulling down a large salary, but knowing that all the extra hours I’m putting into work, and all the sacrifices I’m making in my budget to get me to a place that will allow me the freedom I’m seeking for my future, is worth all the while. Rumi put it best when he said, “what you seek, is also seeking you.” I believe that to be true.

Taking Care of Something

I have a lot of plants in the room I’m sitting in currently. Tending to their needs is also something that brings me a sense of gratitude. When I see that something that is under my direct care is flourishing, there’s a feeling of accomplishment in knowing that I was directly responsible for its well being by my actions.

For example, one of my dracaena plants wasn’t doing so well. Its leaves were browning at the tips and some had died off completely. My rubber tree was also under some duress. The leaves were turning yellow and falling off. In both cases, it had to do with either too much, or too little water.

For my dracaena, I placed it between two of my bee’s wax candles. This worked to suck all of the humidity out from around the plant. This was why the leaves were dying and browning at the tips. I moved the plant, and now mist it every once and a while the same way I do my fern.

My rubber tree was suffering from exactly the opposite reason that my dracaena was. I was over watering my tree, causing the leaves to yellow and fall off. So I switched the watering schedule for the tree. I’m still waiting the see the effects this will have, on both my plants, but actively attending to my plants needs, another living thing, is gratifying. Especially when the changes you make improve the overall health of the plant.

Speaking of improving our overall health, a lot of the plants I own have air purifying qualities that are beneficial for our living environment and our health as well. So if you’re looking to make your space a little greener, head over to my article above and get started on purifying the air in your space in a natural way : )

Take Care of your Body

This is an important aspect of gratitude as well. It’s amazing how much a little bit of exercise will help to prevent injuries and keep us in healthy working order. For example, I do yoga twice a week for about an hour each time. I do two, roughly half-hour sessions with Yoga with Adrienne. One is her core strengthening ritual, and the other is a thirty minute flow. And the other weekly session is an hour long restorative flow at a local yoga studio.

It’s kind of amazing how much difference I’ve seen in my day to day routines after only a few weeks of actively strengthening my core. My workouts are smoother, my strength has improved and I feel better about myself in general. The restorative practice is satisfying as well. There are some strength training elements to the practice, but deep stretching and taking it a little easier on my body has equally as beneficial results as strength training alone.

After both my strength training and restorative practices, I feel stronger, less stressed, more relaxed and also happier that I’m working towards keeping my body in shape to avoid physical injuries and other maladies that comes with inactivity. Also, savasana, after a difficult workout is one of the most relaxing things I’ve ever done. And it’s ease to develop a sense of gratitude during this final pose. As Adrienne puts it, “let the nutrients of your practice wash over your body”. I think what she means is, to me, soak in the gratitude you are cultivating with your yoga practice.

Bringing it All Together

Cultivating gratitude isn’t an easy task. Remember, try not to force it. When it comes to you, try and stay in the feeling and remember what it feels like. You can also tend to your spaces and routines to help facilitate it showing up more in your day to day. Actively work to surround yourself with the things that remind you to be grateful.

When other emotions come that make it difficult for you to feel and stay grateful, don’t push them away. Allow them the time and space they need to feel seen and heard. But try not to wallow in them.

Take care of yourself and of something else. Tending to our own, and others needs is conducive to cultivating states of gratitude. And it’s okay not to feel grateful all the time. Let it come and go, just remember to remember how it feels in your body and mind as it happens. Hopefully, with a little bit of practice, we can turn feeling gratitude into a recurring event. Peace, and thanks for reading : )

Image Credits: “gratitude and rust” by shannonkringen is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

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