Finding Belonging: Navigating Feeling Lonely For the Holidays

There has been a lot of talk lately about isolation and how it’s been affecting us as a global society. Being quarantined for such a long time has no doubt, taken its toll on peoples’ mental health. But what about those who were already isolating? Only not due to a virus outbreak. What if there are people whom are already quarantining, only to protect themselves from opening up emotionally to others? And not from a potentially deadly virus.

This was how I had been living for decades, not realizing what I had been doing. In this post, I’d like to take a look at what brought me to this place and what I’m doing about it now to help alleviate some of the pain of emotional isolation. Hopefully, helping both those who are too scared to open up emotionally, but also those dealing with pandemic isolation as well. So let’s jump right in with where it all began for me.

How the Past Shapes the Present

When I was young, things were pretty good. I had a best friend, support from family and interests I was developing. I was well on my way to a healthy version of person-hood. But things took a turn for the worse when I was about 8 years-old. My family fell apart and I lost my best friend, all at about the same time.

This is a difficult situation for anybody to handle, but when you’re 8 and emotionally abandoned, it’s nearly impossible to sort out and understand all the emotions tied into what’s happening to and around you. Also not to mention, to not take responsibility for what’s happening. Especially if the messages you were being sent were, as I was, “there’s something wrong with you, I know what it is, but I’m not going to tell you and I’m disappointed in you for it.”

These messages came from my family mostly.There was always a smug sense of knowing, of superiority that my caregivers carried about them. And when you’re a child just coming to understand how you affect the world you’re inhabiting, as I was, this is more than just a little confusing. I was second guessing my belonging, how I was seen by others and whether what I was doing made those I relied on and trusted, reject me. I was lonely, isolated and had absolutely no one to talk to, to help me to understand what I was experiencing. Fast forward to the pandemic and I had already experienced what others were coming to know well as a heartbreakingly lonely experience. Only for most, theirs was due to COVID-19.

And the older I got, the further apart my family drifted. To almost complete isolation. We never spoke to one another and when we did we didn’t have anything nice to say about anything or anyone. We were becoming less and less recognizable as a family, aka a group of people who love and support one another. It just wasn’t in us.

Okay, It’s Hit the Fan, Now What?

To watch something you felt loved and supported from fall apart, is no easy task. As I’ve said in earlier posts on this blog, I have very fond memories of my family as a youth. So getting used to the cold, emotionless, emptiness that was slowly growing in the place of where my love and support used to live was maddening. But it was also fact. No amount of wishing things were differently was going to make things change for the better. Especially around the holidays.

So I did what anybody in my situation would do. I had a breakdown. I left my wife for a woman I thought I loved, only to find myself rejected yet again. A pattern I later realized that I emulated from my family history. But it’s the best thing that could have happened for me at the time.

I realized I was living the embodiment of my family’s toxic ways of being, all the while running from what was healthiest for me. Which was to build lasting relationships based in mutual respect and love. Not on the image based and emotionally avoidant ways my family has been living.

I chose my ex-wife because she held strong opinions and knew what she wanted. These aren’t inherently bad qualities, only it left me without a voice in the relationship. But this was just what I was looking for. Someone to tell me how to live my life. And that’s exactly what I got from our relationship.

The woman I left my ex-wife for was more of the same. I was regressing in my emotional growth by choosing women who were obstinate, mildly self-absorbed, bullish, self-righteous and mean spirited. But if we’re being honest, I was exactly the same way. And I was also looking to avoid actually being a part of my relationships because it’s how I was hurt in the past.

So after my breakdown, I moved in with one of my childhood caregivers. This was a wakeup call In that most of the life events that I experienced, my caregiver had as well. Only I never knew because we never spoke. They were avoiding building a relationship with me in the same ways I was avoiding building relationships with them and at all.

So again, I was left alone and with little direction on how to move forward with and in my life. But luckily this time around, I had a few resources and some goals to work towards. These, in conjunction with one another, gave me the insight to help me move forward, and finally grow from the regressed, stagnant place I had been living from for so long.

What to Do When You Don’t Know What to Do

There’s a feeling I get when I go into a drug store or a thrift shop. It’s a feeling of knowing that I can probably get what I need from the place I’m in, but it maybe won’t match the ideal aesthetic of what I want. But there’s a potential that’s embedded in that feeling. What if I can make something of what I have. What can I do with where I’m at.

And that’s a good feeling. This was the feeling I got when I moved in with my caregiver after barely speaking for 26 years. We were finally in a position where we would be stuck in a place together, for better or for worse, and have to navigate our situation together. But it took a while. We had to get use to being around one another again. Get to know each other as the people we had become, with all of the life experiences we’ve accumulated. It was uncomfortable at times but we stuck it out and grew stronger because of it.

I started doing laundry every other week with one family member, which slowly allowed me to get to know them again. This is where I started to trust again. Then I suggested family dinner nights on Friday. Every Friday, one of us chooses a recipe and we all come together to cook. Dividing the tasks and enjoying the fruits of our labor, the conversations, the mistakes. It’s become a favorite night for all of us. Then I suggested just hanging out with one family member on Monday mornings when I wasn’t working.

Slowly, we were, are, learning how to be a family again. But no one of us could have done it alone. We all had to be willing to become a part of something bigger than just three people living in a household. We needed to be open to the idea of living in a home, foibles and all.

And this took a lot of work, for all of us, but on my part as well. I had to be open to being hurt again. So I could feel the vulnerability and the tenderness that comes with feeling connected. Because I will be hurt again. I’ll be let down by something somebody does or hurt when they leave me for the final time. But it’s worth remembering to open anyways. There’s a line from a Kings of Leon song, “The Immortals” that goes, “don’t forget to love, ‘fore you gone”. Something I feel as though a majority of us are too scared to do. And what I was running from for so long.

Tick List: Stay Connected

I have a list on my phone, next to my “Todo” list. This one is called, “Stay Connected”. It’s a list I wrote of my friends, the people I want to stay in touch with. What they’re up to and current plans I have with them. For someone like me, who has been isolated for the better part of three decades, this is an important aspect of my life for me to stay on top of. There’s a line from a song that goes, “being lonely is a habit, like drinking or taking drugs, I quit them both, but man was it rough” Jenny Lewis, Acid Tough.

And being lonely is both habit and rough. One of the reasons we may be isolating and why I was is, to protect ourselves. But it’s doing more harm to stay isolated than to take the risk and feel connected. This article from Tulane University explains how isolation can lead to anxiety, depression and heart disease. But do we really need scientific research to show us that we feel better after a talk with a close friend? Or the feeling of warmth while we’re cuddling with our S.O.? Sometimes we need only listen to the wisdom of our hearts to know what’s best for us, even if that wisdom is intertwined with fear.

Taking the Risk

I have a photo from “Man on Wire” on my desktop, where Philippe, the subject of the documentary, is on a high-wire between the tops of the two world trade center buildings in NYC. The photo is both terrifying and beautiful at the same time. This is what it feels like, for me, to risk feeling connected again after so much neglect and estrangement. It’s not safe, but necessary, to cross the void in order to feel loved and connection again.

So how do we begin to cross the void? Don’t look down! JK, but seriously, it takes a lot of feeling uncomfortable and swallowing a fair amount of pride in the process. For me, I had to recognize that I was actively withholding love from others. And what’s most surprising is, I didn’t even realize I was doing it. It became so engrained in my personality, in my defense against being hurt, I didn’t even realize it was happening. It was a lesson I learned from my family, who has been practicing it since I can remember. So to even wake up from this trance I was in, is a feat on to itself. But it’s doable. It just takes practice.

What practice looked like for me was, I had to find ways to make my environment comfortable for me to inhabit first. I started with my room. Filling it with plants, a diffuser and some candles. Things that imbue comfort for me. I then took some of that comfort and carried it into the next room I wanted to acclimate to. I started burning candles while I was learning to take care of my nutritional needs by way of cooking for myself while in the kitchen. I was then able to offer this peace I had found in myself to others. But the other aspect I needed was to learn how to be kind to myself first.

This took practice as well. I didn’t realize the ways I was beating myself up in most cases. Trying to reach that impossible standard to feel loved and accepted kept me from seeing a lot of the ways I was disconnecting from myself and how I was pushing myself too hard. But these were learned behaviors from my family. I was neglecting myself in the same ways my family neglected themselves.

For example, my family, for Thanksgiving, wasn’t going to buy a turkey for themselves because it was too expensive and too much food. I don’t eat meat, and they couldn’t eat a whole turkey with just the two of them. But they would buy it for another in a heartbeat if they were coming over for dinner.

These are the ways I had modeled for me in neglecting myself by way of neglecting what brings me joy, because I feel I need to settle for something lesser. This is due to not feeling as though I’m worth the effort, but if I’m always neglecting myself and sacrificing my happiness for no other reason than because I don’t want to spend the money or effort on myself, what kind of message am I sending to myself and others? That I’m not really worth or worthy of love. From myself or from others.

And my family members are good people. They’ve just been told time and again this unhealthy message of, sacrifice your happiness and joy in the name of being frugal, or for someone else’s sake. We never learned how to care for and love ourselves. But this is what I’ve been doing with my planned family dinners and time spent with family members again. Learning how to care for myself, as well as those closest to me. As a result, we’ve all come to trust and love each other a little more deeply because of it. It hasn’t been easy, but it is most definitely worth the while.

There’s a greater sense of ease around one another now. A place where uncertainty and distrust lay before. Something that wasn’t possible only a few years ago. It’s not perfect, but it’s fulfilling. And that’s good enough.

Begin With What You Have

So how do we make the U-turn from lonely and isolated to connected and loved? I’ve found that starting with where you are, and who you are with, is the best place to begin. But first, it’s important to assess your situation and whom is around you to make sure you’re taking care of yourself in as safe a way as possible. For example, if I was still living with the last woman I was staying with, I most likely wouldn’t have been able to grow in the ways I have. I just wasn’t in a safe and supportive environment and subsequently felt guarded and on edge. This was not an environment conducive to building trust.

Finding supportive friends is also fundamental to building trust and love as well. I’m so grateful for the countless hikes and conversations that have nurtured me when I most needed love and support from my friends and family that are closest to me. Time spent together was a soothing balm to the neglect and abandonment I experienced in my youth. And they are relationships I value more and more the more time I spend with them.

So if you’re in a similar situation to what I have experiences and are feeling lonely, find a relationship that feels like it has potential, even if it feels a little risky, and start there. Find a foothold in a shared common interest. For me and my family it was food and gardening. What do the people in your life value? Where does it intersect with where your interests lay? Explore these areas a little together. And remember, it doesn’t have to happen overnight.

Treat your relationships as you would something that is growing. Give them the time and space they need. The nutrients of your shared interests and what you discover along the way. Again, it won’t happen overnight, especially if there are hurt feelings to tend to. But be patient. Also, if you’re new to building healthy relationships, don’t be afraid to ask for help. I owe a great debt of gratitude to my therapist who has been a personal ally for me when I most needed them.

And also, don’t forget to have fun along the way! For me, I can get so wrapped up in thinking I need to constantly improve, be as healthy as possible, that I forget that I and those closest to me aren’t projects. We’re just people who want to connect, to be seen and heard.

The holidays can be lonely for some but they don’t have to be. If you are finding that you are in a similar situation, feeling a bit adrift and lonely, reach out to someone. Even if you haven’t spoken in years. You’d be surprised how many people I’ve contacted after years of not talking and fell right back into a rhythm of conversation again. Start where you are, with who you know. It’ll help, just be open to connecting and you’ll be part of the flow once again. Peace : ) and thanks for reading.

Image Credits: alone… by VinothChandar is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Dating: Navigating the Ways We Connect Romantically

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

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

The Importance of Sex and Dating

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Waking Up Into Our Emotions

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

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

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

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

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

Emotional Intelligence and Cultivating Intimacy

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

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

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

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

Resources for Emotional Growth

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Take The Risks

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

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

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