Giving & Taking: When to Draw Boundaries Around How Much of Ourselves We Feel We Need to Give

Knowing how to draw boundaries around how much of ourselves we feel we need to be giving is a loaded topic for many. This was one of the chief concerns in my family growing up and something that, thanks to the help of my therapist, I recently got a much needed new perspective on. In this post, I’ll be going into the different aspects of giving and receiving in relationship, especially with those who are closest to us, and how giving too much of ourselves can put a strain on all of our relationships. Also, I’ll be adding a few tips at the end to help forge some new boundaries. Hopefully, we can break some of our old patterns and start a new.

Guilt & Feeling a Burden for Simply Being

In my family, doing for others was something that brought up a lot of resentment. It seemed that anytime something was needed of another, there was usually an accompanying, cutting comment that came with the chore. Regardless of how small the task, or if it was even difficult, whomever was asking was made to feel a burden to the other. It was second nature to us. It was our way of acknowledging that the other had a need or needed support.

But what made this so insidious was, that these comments started immediately upon entry into our family. Imagine being 5 years old and hearing the resentment in your parent’s voice as they responded to you after you asking them for something as simple as a snack. I was barely old enough to open the fridge, let alone make something to eat for myself! But whatever the request was, the reactions were the same. The roll of the eyes and incredulously, indignant sigh while they begrudgingly lifted themselves up to attend to whatever task was being asked of them.

The term martyr was used liberally around our household to describe someone who thought they were doing too much. Usually said with venom. As if to say, “you think you’re doing a lot! Take a stroll in my shoes!” And most of the time, the “martyr” was only setting a boundary around what they were willing to do. Even as I’m typing this post, I felt guilty about typing the words “willing to do”, in stead of, capable of doing. Because in our family, if you were able to do what was asked, it was expected of you to do what was asked. Your will didn’t even enter the equation. And this mentality, breeds resentment around something as simple and possibly joy inducing as giving. So why were we so venomous towards one another? If all we wanted was to feel accepted and loved? Because our self worth hinged on how much we were doing for one another.

Self Worth & Value

In my family, we definitely had a lack of self esteem. We were always so uncertain of how we stood in each others regard. We seldom received positive feedback or reinforcement, so we were usually looking to gain some social capital in the family. One of the ways we did this was by doing things for one another. However, we were all so self-conscious about how we were perceived by the other. And with no one being brave enough to tip our hands, to show our true feelings, that even when we did something from a sincere place, we wouldn’t know because we were always so guarded.

With all of this uncertainty, it’s no wonder why we were so resentful of each other! We inevitably drifted further and further apart from the thousand tiny wounds we inflicted on one another. Our surroundings grew cold and void of affection, with fear and resentment residing in their stead. As Melba would say, it was “no easy”.

What is most difficult about how we ended up, is that we were once close. I can remember large family gatherings where children, me being among them, would run wild while the family humming in the background preparing meals and watching games. It was nice, comforting. We felt connected and vital. And all it took to rent our family apart was to hide our emotions from one another in an attempt to feel more needed and loved by the other. All because we didn’t feel we had self worth apart from somebody else’s opinion of us. Or what we were capable of doing for them. That and a fair amount of shared family trauma. So if we were so hurt by one another and all we wanted was to feel appreciated, why did we not just say what we needed from each other? Why hold our feelings so close in? I believe this was for fear of being seen as weak.

Fear of Exposing Our Weaknesses

It blows my mind to think how unforgiving we were in my family. To think about how we viewed our vulnerabilities as weaknesses to be routed out makes me wince a little. And in our family, giving was seen as a strength. But only because we made it known how much of a burden we were taking on by giving ourselves so “selflessly” for the other’s benefit. This was how we turned asking for help, into a weakness. Something to be ashamed of. Or, at least that’s how I felt.

And of course, this is something that is perpetuated in the culture. With role-models such as Rambo, The Terminator, Taylor Durden, John Wayne… the list goes on. But with role-models like these, it’s hard to escape the message that strength is the absence of vulnerability. However misguided that message is.

And just because we pretended that we don’t have our vulnerabilities, doesn’t mean that they are not there. But we pretended and covered them over whenever they would inevitably show themselves. And for what? To cover up the fact that we felt flawed because we didn’t feel accepted or acceptable. By ourselves or by the other. So how do we break this cycle? How do we find the strength that isn’t based in how much of a burden we can take on by giving ourselves to the point of emotional burnout? I think some of the answer lay in how we take care of ourselves.

Learning to Give & Set Boundaries Around how Much We are Giving After Not Knowing How to Give

Setting boundaries around what we’re willing to give is tricky business. Saying no to a task or a need is tough enough when you truly want to be helpful. Add guilt or feeling like your worth hinges on whether or not you say okay and it’s paralyzing. I used to be in the camp of not doing anything for anybody. Of course, I could barely take care of my own needs, let alone help someone with theirs. But I was also taught this sort of, lived helplessness by those who were constantly doing for me.

So it was a double edged sword. I didn’t know how to do for myself due to those who were taking care of me never showing me how. Maybe they did this for fear of feeling less valuable if I was independent. Though when I asked for something, a need to be met, they made me feel as though I was a burden for asking. So when I struck out on my on, I had no life skills or self esteem from feeling like a burden for so long. I didn’t even know how to ask for the help I needed, for the life skills I didn’t know I didn’t have. It was a difficult first few years for sure.

I don’t like to think how long I floated along in life before I realized I was lacking these essential skills. But regardless, I came to a place where I now understand and appreciate giving and what others give to me. But, like with all of the other areas in my life, I needed to set some boundaries around what I gave.

When is it too Much?

When I woke from the trance I had been under, things began to change rapidly for me. For the first time in my life, I understood and appreciated the sacrifice that those supporting me were making on my behalf. It felt good, knowing that I have this support, but also as though I needed to express my gratitude more often. And for me, acts of service is one of my main love languages. So giving for me can quickly turn into spreading myself too thin.

I need to keep an eye on how much of my time I’m giving, so I don’t over commit myself. Because this will lead to me burning out. I mainly do this by keeping a to-do list in my bullet journal, with a calendar for the next three weeks opposite my list. This way, I can allocate tasks to days on my calendar and check in on my progress.

Also, I need to keep an eye on whether the other person even wants what I’m offering or doing for them. I’ve often times found myself thinking that I’m “helping” someone with a great idea I’ve had, only to realize that they were just fine with the way things were. This is an embarrassing situation to find yourself in, so it’s best to read the room before you jump in!

Have a Conversation

This seems like a no brainer, but talking to those who are closest to you is what’s most helpful in finding out what they need. It’s also a way for you to set the tone of the relationship. As a child, I was sent the message that communication in all its forms, especially around my needs, was dangerous. Dangerous in that simply asking for something, however small, threatened my very belonging to those who cared for me.

But by asking those who you are close with what they need or what you can do to make life easier for them, you’re sending the message that, as a friend of mine used to say, “I’m here, I care.” And something so simple as having the coffee ready for your partner in the mornings because they told you they don’t feel as though they have enough time in the mornings, sets the tone for a more stress free environment. It’s these small gestures, done with love that cultivates feelings of acceptance and appreciation.

And talking about our needs also brings with it feeling heard. Something that is in short supply from my experience. I know this to be true for me, that sometimes I feel so focused on my goals, or the task in front of me, that I forget that one of the simplest gifts we can be giving one another is our time and attention. To really listen to what someone is telling us and respond in authentic and caring ways. Never underestimate the power of feeling heard and seen.

Healthy Give & Take

With the holidays around the corner, there’s no better time to jump in and practice setting some boundaries around what we’re capable of giving to each other. If you’re anything like me, you like to go all out in the gift giving department. Maybe this year, take a step back. Take a look at what you’ve done in the past and how it’s made you feel. Do you dread the holidays? Does it feel as though you’re the one who who is consistently giving directions and planning events? Maybe do some more delegating this year. Take a look at you’re budget and try to stick to it better when purchasing gifts.

And while you’re reigning in your spending and the time you’re spending on various projects, don’t forget to take some time for yourself. Treat yourself to a bath during the week. Or a special meal. Something that will bring you sense of ease and peace. Because there’s no point in fostering a healthy and happy relationship, if you’re making yourself miserable in the process. Peace : ) & thanks for reading.

Image Credits: “Give, take ‘n share” by Funchye is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.

Contempt & Pride: Relationship Destroyers

I’ve been thinking about the quality of my relationships lately and have come to the conclusion that they need some work. Actually, I don’t have many relationships. This realization left me feeling angry and sad. While I was thinking about what the root of the problem was, pertaining to my lack of relationships, I’ve finally decided that contempt, pride and hyper critical judgements were the foundation of most of my old relationships. From romantic to friendships to familial, most shared contempt as being their foundational element.

The Root

What sparked this for me was a dream I had recently. In the dream I was at work, which shifted to a bus stop, as is apt to happen in dreams. I was sitting next to a friend of mine, actually I believe he was my only friend, when I turned to my right and my ex was suddenly sitting next to me. We cried together, for what we shared in the past and when I looked up, there was a throng of people between us. I asked if they were going home. They looked confused as if they knew what to say, but didn’t want to reveal it to me. Then they vanished.

I knew in my dream what my old partner wanted to say, but was to proud to admit their feelings of vulnerability. I understand that this is only a dream. And most likely my subconscious processing some old emotions. But this interaction played out a thousand times in our relationship and in our daily interactions. Both of us too proud to show our true emotions to one another for fear of being vulnerable with one another.

As to where I learned to hide my vulnerabilities from those closest to me, this was the type of relationship that I had modeled for me by my family when I was a child. The same was also the case with my ex. We were just too proud to be open with our emotions in one another’s presence. And this type of holding back, from my experience, breeds contempt.

Contempt Ends Relationships

My family members are experts in this way of being in relationship. I especially was adept at using contempt to cover over my vulnerability and to distance myself emotionally from those closest to me. But to be fair, we were so mean to one another, that it felt crazy to want to get close to anybody else. Especially after the damage we had already caused. Why would we want to go back for more of the same?

The result? We lived isolated lives with few, if any, friends we could rely on for emotional support. We had been so emotionally damaged by one another, that we were unable and unwilling to connect. Or to even know what a healthy relationship looked like. In this climate, it is nearly impossible for a relationship to grow. In fact, our family is just now starting to reconnect after decades of our fields being left fallow. And that’s only after doing a tremendous amount of work on ourselves.

So the next question I asked myself was, if we are looking to be loved by our family and friends, why are we so mean to one another? I believe that most of us are looking to feel a sense of belonging to something larger than just ourselves. Usually that type of belonging comes from our immediate family. So if we want to feel loved by each other, then why are we pushing each other away? For me, I think it has to do with survival.

Surviving Our Closest Relationships

What I remember growing up, more than any other type of connection was, a hyper critical environment. No matter what I was doing, it was never good enough and there was always some cutting remark to be made at my expense. How did I respond to this? By raising the standard so high, that nobody would be able to achieve it. Especially those judging me.

This was how I learned to put distance between me and those who were looking to hurt me. This was my way of surviving in a loveless, hostile environment. My reasoning being, if you couldn’t meet my standard, I could look down on you with contempt. That way I could feel superior than those I was judging, while keeping my distance. However, this did not work.

What happened in reaction to what I was doing was more of the same. They would in turn raised the bar even higher than I had. And I in turn would raise it again. All the while all of us looking down on each other with contempt. This was a viscous cycle that continued until someone would have the strength to break free and change the course of our trajectory.

Changing Course

As I’ve said above, this isn’t easy. When I decided I no longer wanted to live a life where I was cutting people out, I realized I had already cut almost everybody out of my life. This is where it got tough. To look back at all the relationships I had and look for what was salvageable. And there was a lot of wreckage.

As a testament to how I was living, there are many people who, to this day, refuse to talk to me. These include almost everybody I would have considered my close friends and romantic partners. But I take solace in knowing that the relationships weren’t 100% my responsibility and there for not completely my fault.

Taking Your Half

This is something my father says often when talking about blame in relationships. Take your half. Half the blame, half the resentment, half the contempt… Whatever negative feelings you’re experiencing, know that it isn’t entirely your fault.

I came to this realization a little late in the game. The realization I came to recently was, that every loving relationship that I had with somebody close, that had ended in some big way, the number one take away for me was, it was my fault. I was so used to being abandoned by those closest to me, that I just began to think that it was me who was worth leaving. This however is not the case.

The more I thought about the disintegration and breakdown of my major relationships, the more I recognized that there was a pattern in the people who were doing the breaking up. Sure, I played my part, but the other halves in my relationships were unwilling to take responsibility for their part in our breakdown.

We were unforgiving and intolerant of each other due to the thousand tiny cuts we endured, which breed contempt for one another. So when it came down to whether we were able to forgive each other, the answer was a resounding no. Or at least that’s what it seems like from my perspective. Because it was never my intention to leave any of these relationships. I was the one being left.

Forgiveness & Mending the Pain

Forgiveness is something that I am recently coming to understand as a virtue. Historically, forgiveness has not been something that I’ve ever practiced. I would hold people to their actions and misdeeds and use it against them to apply pain or make someone feel guilty. I did this because it was what was modeled for me, but also because, it’s all I knew.

All of my friends, family and partners had a zero tolerance policy when it came to making mistakes. We were expected to be more than human in our relationships. I think this has to do with how high we were setting the standards, in order to feel superior to those trying to get close to us. This left no margin for error and anything short of perfection was unacceptable.

This was most prevalent in my family growing up, but it also translated to my romantic relationships as well. In one relationship, something had happened to wake me from my emotional cocoon. From the numbness I was living under for two decades. While I was waking to these new emotions, I had no idea what was happening. For scope, imagine being 32 years old and feeling accepted and understood for the first time since you were 8 years old, after experiencing a life’s time worth of traumatic events.

Putting Forgiveness into Practice

I was terrified. Realizing I was living life in a state of numbness and waking into the full spectrum of my emotional world was overwhelming. This is where I had began to make some bad decisions. But when it came down to making a choice, when I confronted my then partner with what was happening to me and what she wanted to do, she chose to leave. Like everybody else before her. She chose to avoid confronting the real work that needed to be done. Later I would try to run to Maine to start a blueberry farm for her, but that’s another story all together.

And it’s important to note that this isn’t a soapbox for me to hop on some high moral ground. I made my share of mistakes, that’s for certain. And I’m not trying to say that my ex didn’t have a difficult decision to make. But when it came to practicing forgiveness, something she would say we needed to do often, she was unwilling to.

And again, I know that this isn’t easy work. It’s one thing to look back on what we have done and criticize ourselves for not doing the right thing with the luxury of time and perspective. But when we’re caught in the moment and the emotions are so big that we can’t see our way out of them, it’s not so easy to see things rationally. So how do we get to a place where we can practice forgiveness? Even if it’s been something we’ve been avoiding for a very long time? Practice.

Practice, Practice, Practice

I know what’s true for me, is that contempt came easy because it was what I practiced. Everyday, while I was interacting in my relationships, I was practicing distancing myself from others by feeling contempt for them. So the antidote to that? Practice forgiveness.

For me, I started by getting in touch with the people that I had lost contact with. This was no easy task. And I should say that I didn’t go into the reconnection with an air of needing to forgive the other. That in itself can be arrogant. My main intention was to open up to the other. To let them know that, as a friend of mine used to say, “I’m here, I care.” And also because we were friends once. I genuinely want my friends to be happy and successful.

Though my intentions are good, they weren’t always met with warm regards. One person that hurt me particularly badly responded with, “blow it out your ass.” Something I can laugh about now, but it still doesn’t stop me from worrying about them from time to time. Which brings me to another facet of practicing forgiveness, humility.

Being Humble

This wasn’t so easy for me to practice. I was over the top with my machismo attitude and posturing. I wanted to be seen as in charge and beyond reproach. This goes hand in hand with me setting the bar too high to be questioned about my own actions. This was also my way of distancing myself from others. But it did little in the way of making me a strong individual.

My past self would hold on to the smallest insults. Blowing them way out of proportion and find ways to retaliate to make the other person feel small. But this made me aggressive and petty. Also unable to truly withstand the little blows that life dealt me.

What practicing humility means for me is, sitting inside of the discomfort of somebody else’s hurtful comments without reacting emotionally. It’s here that I’m able to release these emotions and let them pass without looking for some way to bolster my hurt ego. From this calm place, it is easier to find forgiveness.

So my friends, here is where I leave you. If you’re like me and have more than a few relationships in critical condition, know that it’s not too late. You can still work to reconnect and salvage some of those friendships. You won’t save them all, but that’s okay too. Take what you can from the experience and know that there are more likeminded people out there to meet still. Good luck, peace & thanks for reading.

Image Credits: “Broken heart” by bored-now is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

Minimalist: Knowing When We Have Too Much of Something

I often wonder how to cut down on my consumption of products. I like the idea of being a minimalist, but this doesn’t show itself in practice. For example, I was sorting through my recipes recently, when I realized that I have a lot. About 260 recipes in all and that’s not including the recipe websites I have book marked! I only make a handful of these recipes regularly, seeing as how I’m on a budget until I pay off my student loans. The plan is, to start rotating in new recipes when I’m able to spend a little more money on my food budget. Because when I was buying whatever I wanted, to make my meals, I was spending upwards to $700 a month 0.o No bueno. But looking at all these recipes has me wondering, where is the limit? When have I amassed too much of something?

When is Enough Stuff, Enough

Amassing things is something I’m good at doing. I’m not alone, to be sure, but still, it leaves me feeling a little guilty. I love the feeling of a clean, well organized and open area. But most of the time this is not how my space looks. Some of this is not my fault. I currently live with my father and step-mother, who also have a habit of collecting things. And I don’t feel as though it is my place to dictate how things should be handled as far as the daily maintenance of the household and collection of stuffs is concerned.

I do however want to do my part to chip in and help keep our shared spaces clean and decluttered. This is something I’m really good at. This was a trait I picked up from my mother, who excels at all things cleaning. Though I must say, that she, like myself, can take it to the extreme. I think this is where the idea of wanting to be a minimalist comes into play. But in between my cleaning binges, I’m really good at collecting items that I have a plan for at some later point in the future.

Or, the things I need to sort through get put to the side because I need a chunk of time to execute my project. Time that I just don’t have. This is usually due to over committing myself to projects, or being too ambitious with my plans. In both cases, the result is the same. I keep putting off the projects I want to get done.

Sort Through Your Basement

An extreme example is, I’ve been putting off going through the stuff from my last apartment that has been taking up space in my basement for the better part of a decade. No bueno. There are some items I want to keep, but I feel that most of the things I own, I’m going to donate. And in my attempt to be as sustainable as possible, my plan is to list everything on a site like “Offer Up“.

This way I feel a little better about not dumping a pile of stuff in a landfill some where. But this also requires me to, take photos of all my stuff, create a sellers account, list items with descriptions, then keep an eye on my inbox for potential interested parties. This, with all of my other obligations and commitments, just seems a little too much.

However, in the spirit of being a minimalist, I DO want to do this as sustainably as possible. So where is the balance? How do I achieve my goals without killing myself in the process? And if you’re like I am, when you go, you go hard. I think the answer is in something that my father tells me all the time, but I was too busy doing to stop to listen.

Go Slow, One Thing at a Time & It’ll Get Done

This is some basic advice that I was just unwilling to accept. However, while I was growing up, I was often told I was lazy. I was already having a difficult time feeling belonging, so I thought that if I worked myself to death, then I’d gain the approval I was searching for. This, however, did not go as planned. I ended up pushing myself past my physical limits as well as setting my standards too high. In short, I was a mess.

Since moving in with my father, a part of me was resentful of how little he seemed to do during the day. He was retired, which in my mind and my upbringing dictated, that he has a whole day to be “productive”. Something my family valued more than most things. This was a lesson I was taught from an early age. Being productive meant gaining approval. But there are a few things that I’ve learned that aren’t healthy about this statement.

When I stopped to listen to my father, I learned that he had done the exact same thing that I was doing. Only he was going harder than I was. Sure, I was working six days a week at two jobs to pay off my loans. But my father was working seven days a week under more difficult conditions than I was. This was an eye opener.

At one point, he said he was rushing around waiting on three people at a time when he realized that he was making mistakes and feeling like no matter what he did, how hard he worked, he was never going to meet the mark. That’s when he decided that he was going to slow down and take it, “one person at a time, they will wait”. And it’s true. People will wait. So will our tasks. And this is where our actions meet the minimalist ideal. We just need to give ourselves the permission to slow down and feel uncomfortable that others are waiting on us. And extend this mentality to all our tasks. One thing at a time.

You are Not How Much You Produce

In my family, on my mother’s side, we are constantly on the go. In a state of perpetual motion. It’s kind of amazing to watch actually. For example, my mother knows how to pack a day so full, that there is no down time. Every moment is filled with some errand or project that needs doing. This usually translated into some sort of shopping trip or returning bought goods to stores. This is how I learned not to be a minimalist. By filling my down time with shopping trips and projects, labeling them as “being productive”.

The more we felt we needed to do, the more items we consumed. The tenants of being a minimalist weren’t even on my radar when I was taught these lessons. And they sure weren’t on my family’s either. But if we stopped for long enough to see what we were doing, why we were so focused on buying things to feel productive, we may have realized that we were really running from our fear of not being approved of. And in a way, by stopping long enough to see we are running from our emotions, we become task minimalists. Taking control of our time and relieving the stress that comes with a super busy day.

Relaxing in the Face of Rejection

If you’re seeking approval through you’re productivity, then you have to keep producing to feel approved of. This is not sustainable. But learning to relax in the aftermath of learning that you are not how much you produce, can feel overwhelming. This was/is something I struggle with. I often feel guilty if I’m not being productive for fear of being seen as lazy.

So the first step is to relax. Let go of your to-do list. This is at the heart of being a minimalist and this will look a little different for everybody. But I’ve come to know it as self-care. I recently read an article from The Good Trade that has labeled this type of relaxing as slow living. I agree with them in what the article lays out as a practice for being kinder to ourselves through going slow, though disagree that the term “self-care” has become “meaningless” according to their article. Either way, they have some great points.

Mostly about cutting out the things we’re over committing ourselves to. This falls in line with my minimalist ideal while, as the article says, freeing up time to pursue the things and hobbies that really matter to you. And this falls in line with my dad’s saying, “one thing at a time.” Letting go of the guilt, of feeling like you’re letting someone down by not being as productive as you feel you should be and take your time doing your tasks. The benefits? You’ll get more done, probably faster than if you’re trying to multitask and make fewer mistakes as well.

Boundaries With What We’re Planning & Reigning in Our Emotions

And once we learn how to slow down our impulse to produce and gage what’s truly important to us, we can start to embrace the minimalist ideals by decluttering some of the things we’ve been collecting. For me this means being able to step into my basement and get the urge of wanting to organize everything, all at once, under control. It’ll get done, one thing at a time.

I recently had another experience with wanting to plan out my future all at once when I was looking at the types of houses that are available for me to build. I was looking at photos of “pole barn houses”, as they are a more affordable option in building your own home.

Interior of a Pole Barn Home from: Taglevel.com

As I was looking at the photos and texting with a friend who is also in the same place as me in wanting their own home, I started to feel the excitement of the possibility of building my own home. It felt like a pent up energy, of wanting to accomplish something. As I was getting excited, I kept opening more browser tabs and before I knew it, I had ten open tabs and was looking on Pinterest while texting with my friend. I was working myself up, not realizing that I needed to slow my roll a little.

Then I stopped. I recognized how I was feeling at that moment, of being swept away in the emotion, and gave myself the permission to not have to figure it all out then and there. And it kind of felt as though I was being bullied by my emotions a bit. As though my emotions were in control of what I SHOULD be doing. This carried undertones of how my family used to handle their emotions. A legacy I do not want to carry with me into my future.

Be Patient & Know That it Takes Practice

That being said, it took a while for me to get to a place where I could be patient with my emotions. In the past I would react to my emotions almost immediately. This made for some uncomfortable situations. But allowing yourself the space between your initial emotional wave and the actions you take, you’ll find the emotions are easier to handle.

Slowing down helps with this process. I cut down on my caffeine intake drastically. This helps me to stay in my emotions while listening to another’s point of view. This is critical for people feeling as though they are feeling heard. Because if you don’t feel as though you are being heard, that’s when the emotions start flaring up.

And in the spirit of being a minimalist, the simpler the conversation, the more likely everybody will feel heard. This is how we stay open, slow down and take things one step at a time. There’s no need to rush to feel approved of. We’re already enough. Peace : ) & thanks for reading.

Image Credits: “A pile of stuff that wants to become a kitchen” by siepert is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.

More on Forgiveness: When We’re Our Own Worst Enemy

Forgiveness. This is not an easy topic. And if you’re anything like I am, nothing gets past your ruthlessly critical eye. Especially your own doings. This has been the case for me for a very long time. Something I’m just now learning to tamp down. But it took some doing to even recognize how unforgiving I was. Also, how the people I chose to surround myself with shared my sense of self righteousness. I cringe a little, thinking back on how I was acting with those around me following suit.

But things have changed for me for sure. I’ve given up many of the old beliefs that were holding me back. I’m no longer the “score keeper” I once was and I’m more willing now to let things go. But if we’re being honest, that was never my intention. My goal was to be kinder, not as mean or petty as I once was. But there in lies the catch. In trying to whip myself into shape, to be kinder, more forgiving, I was unwilling to forgive myself for the ways I was behaving. So I needed to learn to extend a little of that forgiveness inward, before I could be kind and forgiving outwardly.

Forgiveness Starts with Yourself

This is so rote, so cliché that it should be a no brainer. But I feel as though each family, or person has to learn this anew each generation. I know from my experience that forgiveness was something that was held just out of reach from me by my family. And to be fair, I don’t know that any of us felt as though we were even worthy of being forgiven. We carried with us such an air of feeling as though we weren’t enough, no matter what we were doing, that it just didn’t register that we could be forgiven.

Knowing What Forgiveness Feels Like

So instead of trying to practice a little forgiveness, we chose to cover over our unworthy feeling selves. We did this with our holier than thou attitudes. This however, did little in the way of making us feel better about ourselves.

As a result, we all had very low self esteem. We were lonely as well. Mostly because we were pushing everybody away but, also due to us feeling as though we were the only ones feeling that we didn’t deserve forgiveness or kindness. We were trying to be perfect to avoid the critical judgements of each other, while holding everyone to the impossible standards we had created for ourselves. This was a dangerous combination.

The result? Not to my complete lack of surprise, we didn’t know what forgiveness felt like. We were so busy holding it back from each other, that we held it back from ourselves a well. And in the process, forgotten what it had felt like. However there was, for me, a lot of free floating anxiety and fear. Mostly of not feeling accepted by others. Or feeling loved and belonging. Like I said, it was lonely.

Holding Back

What’s so strange about this experience was, that I could actually feel myself unwilling to let go. I could feel myself withholding love and forgiveness from myself. It feels like when you see a small child throwing a tantrum because they are told to stop doing something against their will. And that’s what made this feeling so difficult to manage. Because there was also a feeling of contempt for the part of me that was withholding forgiveness.

The part that I feel should have known better. The part that should know that I’m only hurting myself. But then how should I have known if it was the only way I knew how to relate to my ability to forgive? I wasn’t taught another way. So I continued to hold back my ability to forgive myself.

Realizing Something is Off

It wasn’t until very recently that I put the pieces together of what I was doing and the effect it was having on me. I noticed when I was speaking to someone about how unreasonable my standards are and how I didn’t want to go back to my old ways of being. Then she said something to me that made me physically feel well, cared for. She asked me, “have you forgiven yourself for the ways you used to be?”

The answer to that question was most definitely a NO. And to be asked that, to directly recognize that I was treating myself as unforgivable, a criminal, was eye opening. A feeling of being relaxed, full, washed over me from head to toe. As though I had been waiting for a person to ask me just that for a very long time.

And finally, I turned my attention to that place. The place that had been treated as though it were volatile. But I couldn’t have done this all at once and without a little prep work. The years of self-care I have been practicing, paved the road for me to be comfortable enough to open up as I did.

Listening to Ourselves & Taking Good Care

Here was where I was able to listen to myself with a different kind of focus. I had been listening inwardly for a while now as part of my self-care routine. But now I’m able to differentiate between the parts of me that need my attention. Now I’m able to respond with more patience and know what I need.

Now I know that the part of me that was holding back was doing so because my love and forgiveness have been so abused in the past. I am scared to be open and loving enough, to forgive. Because then I’ll be wide open to the ruthless critical judgements I’ve been so used to from the past. Including from myself.

The feelings of being turned on by those who are supposed to love me. Supposed to be there for me and show me care. I could be left again, as I had been so many times in the past.

Reparenting Our Wounded Parts

And it’s here where the work really begins. We need to guide those parts of us we had trained to turn their backs on us and others to show forgiveness and love again. Even in the face of inevitable pain. Our wounds will be opened again. That’s an unavoidable part of life. But it shouldn’t stop us from living and loving fully. This is the part I keep getting stuck on. And I’m sure I’m not alone.

It feels crazy to open up again after so much abuse. Abuse of trust mostly. And of not being able to rely on others to take care of us when we’re at our lowest. But it’s a part of being connected. For me, I had to open up slowly. I was so confused as to what trust and love meant, that I was guarded all the time. Not knowing when the other would finally turn on me. Because in my experience, it was a matter of when, not if.

So I started small. Really small. After I set up a safe and cozy place that I could use as a retreat, I started venturing out into what had been historically unsafe territory.

Sitting With Those Who Hurt Me

I moved in with my father after my last relationship ended. It was the best thing that could have happened for me at the time. I needed the time and space to put my life back together after the mess I had made of it. It was pretty bad. I alienated almost all of my friends, wound up about 115k in debt, with no plans for my future and no idea how to move myself forward in life. I was a drift.

But while I was licking my wounds, I was spending more time with those who had hurt and abandoned me in the past. I was spending time in physical proximity to them. Even if it was just watching T.V. together. For half hour increments, I was slowly getting used to the old feelings that were arising while just experiencing their nearness. And it was tough at times.

I remember dissociating a few times just sitting on the couch watching a show. This was how badly my trust and emotions had been abused. I felt unsafe in the safest possible environment. I’m in an affluent neighborhood, surrounded by (now) loving and caring parents, no concern for food or shelter, surrounded by a network of caring and loving support, financially stable and genuinely cared for. It couldn’t have been any safer for me.

But there were those parts of me that still remembered what the pain felt like. It was here that I needed to turn my listening ear towards.

Knowing When to Take Space for Yourself

And I needed to listen inwardly. I had no idea that there was an entire world inside of me that had gone unnoticed for as long as I can remember. Numbing it out with the drinking and the medication. The mean natured opinions I would dispense towards anybody who would listen. Anything I could use to quell my inner emotional world, I would use to numb.

So when I started practicing self-care, I begun to slowly learn that I could be kind enough to treat myself with respect. This was also a slow process and one that needed time and space apart from those around me. Because there’s a part of all of us, who wants to feel a part of something. Some belonging. But in the process of seeking that belonging externally, if we’re not strong enough in ourselves, we can drown out the inner voice that so desperately needs our caring and loving attention.

This is where taking space, along with practicing self-care, paid off. My safe and cozy place acted as a center for me to come home to. To feel at ease just being. The clean atmosphere, the ambient lighting and the refreshing scents, all coming together with gentle music playing, creating a sense of ease. Safety. It was here that I found a way to listen to myself. Slowly and with care.

Releasing the Expectations

This is also a place without expectations. A place where I can allow myself the space to explore what my needs are. To slow down and repair some of what has been damaged by the missteps of my past misguided self. A place to heal, and to quote a Peter Bjorn and John song, a place where “I am more me”.

Growing up I had nothing but expectation after expectation piled on top of me. First from my family but then by my peer group. It seemed a never ending stream of rules dispensed to hammer me into something that was acceptable to others. Not true to who I actually am.

And who I am is a sensitive man who feels deeply. I’m a hopeless romantic and lover of music that’s a little on the lighter side. I’ve been listening to Mree a lot lately. The antithesis of how I was raised to be “manly”. I do still appreciate some things from the past. But I wouldn’t say that they define me. And I feel that this is an important distinction to make.

Be More You

Because we all have a version of ourselves that is the truest form of ourself. I know I do. And I’m uncovering a little more of it everyday. It’s strange at times. Scary too. But there are also tender moments mixed in with crests of excitement. A journey worth the taking to be sure. But a journey that starts with letting ourselves be fully us and that starts with letting go of the past. Forgiving ourselves and moving forward.

So if you’ve been on the edge of letting go of the past, let this be your permission to let go. Forgive yourself and move on to the next challenge. There’s too many possibilities to explore that we won’t be able to if we’re dragging the past around with us. Don’t worry what others will think. They’ll come around or they won’t. What’s most important is, to be there for yourself. Peace : ) and thanks for reading.

Image Credits: “forgiveness” by cheerfulmonk is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.

Self Directed Guidance: It’s Not Always Easy

Guidance was something that I received very little of while growing up. And Much of the direction I did receive was either unhealthy or toxically Masculine. The emphasis in my family was more to the tune of dominance, not gentle or loving guidance. And I held to those lessons as law for a long time. They worked in our family for the most part. It was only when I stepped outside of my family dynamic, that I understood how dominance was not substitute for learning to work cohesively as a team. Not only that but also how destructive it could be.

And I feel as though I wasn’t the only one raised with these teachings. It feels like, from my perspective that, people for the most part are more inclusive and tolerant of one another in general. I also recognize that I live in a pretty liberal and progressive state. So my views may not be shared by most. But still, we’ve come a long way as a society in the past few generations alone. It’s not too far a stretch to recognize that we’re on an upswing as far as being more humanitarian goes.

And that’s what I’d like to talk about in this post. Focusing on the guidance that we may not have learned from our culture or families, but how we can cultivate the guidance we need to navigate our day to day lives. Keeping that sense of tolerance and inclusivity, keeping ourselves open to new experiences and people. Because it’s too easy to get caught up in the negativity that is happening around us. I know this from experience to be true. So let’s find some of that guidance we’ve been missing.

Guidance is Not Static, But Fluid

This is something I had trouble with when I first started looking to follow my values or other parameters I had set for myself. I took myself way too seriously and would not budge from the stances I took. I was unforgiving. A lesson that I learned early and would also learn to regret later in life. Unforgiving, unyielding, closeminded… All of these adjectives described my perspective in viewing my world.

And from this vantage point, it’s easy to feel as though your way is the only right way. And that everybody who isn’t following your lead is inept or inferior. This is an extreme example for sure, but it’s one that I know well because it was where I had set my standard. I needed to be better than others.

And what’s so strange about this was, I think I was doing it to be liked. Accepted. Of course I offended a lot of people acting this way, so I never did gain the belonging I so desperately was seeking. But what was so strange was, that I was completely blind to how offensive I was being. It didn’t even cross my mind that I was making enemies. My goal was to be right and seem as though I knew what I was doing.

Giving Up Being Right

For me, I had to let go the need to be right about whatever was on the table. Because needing to be right leads to aggression in communication. Expressing dominance over another who, as I viewed them, were “inferior”. This can lead to feelings of superiority, contempt, smugness and other relationship killing emotions if left unchecked. And most definitely severs connection.

What I decided to do instead of needing to be right was, listen. I say decided, because it was a choice I made. And not an easy one at that. In fact, I still struggle with it sometimes. Even the day I’m writing this article, I was in a meeting at work, hearing my coworker communicate disinformation in a vague manner. My first response was one of contempt.

But the more I listened to the conversation, the more I realized they were struggling with a difficult topic. They weren’t being willfully ignorant, they were expressing vulnerability in not knowing how to provide care for a certain situation. This is where I turned it around and started listening to the context behind the conversation.

Don’t Beat Yourself Up for Not Having The Guidance You Needed

And while I was listening to their conversation with a new perspective, the first thought that came to mind was, “man I’m being a jerk”. Insensitive maybe, but a jerk… I didn’t say these thoughts out loud and what’s more, these were the ways I was taught to be in relationship.

Most of all, I don’t want to turn that aggression inward after I’ve done so much work to notice and curb my aggression from judging others. So it’s important to remember to treat yourself with the same kindness and care as you would a dear friend. Because who are we to ourselves if not friends? And that’s not an easy task

For me, what helps is practicing kindness to myself. Especially when an emotion comes up, I inquire where it’s coming from, using soft and gentle guidance in asking what I need. Why is this emotion coming up now and how can I provide care for it? The part that’s most rewarding about this process is, the more often I practice this kindness inwardly, the easier and kinder I feel. It’s quite the change from my old ways of treating myself.

How You Treat Others is a Reflection of How You Treat Yourself

The ways I used to treat myself was with a sharp and demeaning criticism. Thinking back on it now, it seems counter intuitive. With all the ways I was practicing being critical of others while acting superior, you would think that I had a pretty high opinion of myself.

And outwardly that was what I was projecting for sure. But as I said above, I just wanted to feel belonging. So most of the ways I was acting were to gain approval from others. And when I didn’t measure up to my impossible standard, I tore myself down in the same ways I tore others down.

I also was surrounded by others who were just as judgmental as I was. So our relationships were founded on a never ending cycle of judging and being judged by one another. We were stuck in unhealthy relationship with no clear guidance on how to steer ourselves clear of the constant wounding we were inflicting.

So what’s the catalyst for change that we so desperately need to break free from this cycle? How do we make the change from judgmental critic to kind and attentive listener? For me, it started when I felt truly heard.

Feeling Heard is Healing

I used to work in the food industry. I did this because I didn’t have any guidance in searching for and fostering interests that would later bear fruit in the form of a career. So I did what was easy, which was working in a kitchen. These were some pretty tough environments. Physically demanding yes, but also relationally.

We were relentless in our insults towards one another. Arguments were the norm and usually fueled by inflated egos, lots of caffeine and uppers as well as alcohol. It was an unhealthy environment to say the least.

I later would switched from kitchens to bakeries, which were slightly less aggressive, but only physically. There was still the same amount of petty arguments and hatred that was present in the kitchens I worked in. So it was in this environment, that to my complete surprise, that I felt heard for the first time since I was a child.

Coming to Terms with Feeling Heard

And I wish I could say that I felt heard and everything was alright. But the truth is, things got a lot worse before they got better. I hadn’t felt heard in so long, that when I did, I was flooded with all of my neglected emotions. Ones I had been ignoring for decades and that I just hadn’t been given the guidance to know how to handle them with the care and sensitivity they needed.

At first, I felt elated. I couldn’t believe that somebody was paying attention to me. And what’s more is that they seemed to like me for who I was. This came as a shock, because as I said above, I surrounded myself with people who were just as critical and condescending as I was. To be liked without the judgments was a whole new experience for me.

Making Poor Choices While Learning How to be with My Emotions

So I ran towards that feeling. All I knew was that I didn’t want to let the source of that feeling get away. This was where my poor choices came into play. I hurt a lot of people in the process of running towards what felt good and ultimately was left by the person who made me feel heard. This was the last thing I wanted to happen.

But it gave me the chance to stop running long enough to feel what had been neglected for so long. I was able to learn to sit with the uncertainty, of not feeling belonging, not feeling lovable. And I was able to do it with Kindness.

This kindness was something that awoke in me after I had felt heard again. I was learning how to listen to myself and my needs and in turn, learning how to give myself the guidance I so desperately needed to manage my emotional world. These were the lessons that I was never taught. On how to listen, be kind and love myself.

Love is Something Given From the Inside Out

And it was from this place of feeling heard and listening that I could feel love. I needed to feel loved first, with somebody else, before I could know it intimately in myself. It was then that I was able to practice it with myself, by listening to my emotional needs with kindness and then practice that same love and listening to and with others.

But it is a practice. It’s something that you need to cultivate in order for it to become second nature, strong. And to cultivate love, you need to give yourself the boundaries and structure necessary, to give guidance to your emotions. Because love is strong, but if you let other emotions take hold, they will crowd out and smother the seeds of love.

It Helps to Find Others Willing to Listen

And none of this is possible without finding people who are willing to listen and mirror what you are wanting to cultivate. With my old friends, I was practicing contempt and judgment. Now I’m choosing friends based on how supportive they are. This took some getting used to as well. But it is worth the transition to feel a deeper connection than bonding over how attractive we found some woman. Or how much we drank the night before.

I have a photo on my desk of me with friends of mine. We’re at their wedding in a small town in Western Mass. They had just gotten married and we are pumping our fists in the air. These are the people I think about when I think of support, unconditional. They are kind and always willing to listen when I need an ear.

Friends like these are essential to helping give our emotions the guidance to be the best version of ourselves in a kind and loving way. And they’re out there. But you need to do some digging. So practice in yourself what you’re looking for in others and you will naturally attract those who will compliment you.

This can seem abstract too. When you talk about guidance and kindness as a “practice”. But it’s something that’s a felt sense once you understand what to do. So keep practicing! Don’t be discouraged if you still feel judgmental or are feeling unkind to yourself and those old feelings come bubbling up. As I said above, the more you practice kindness, the easier it becomes. Like second nature. Peace : ) thanks for reading.

Image Credits: “arrow” by alandberning is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.

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