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.

Trauma, Blueberries & Recovery: How the Past Informs Who We Become

I’ve covered a lot of ground on this blog. Much of my personal history is written in the pages of this space. I’ve also experienced a lot of trauma. Only some of which I’ve talked about here. This post is a little different than my others, in that I’m going to talk about trauma and the effects it has on our ability to feel, give and receive love. As Jay-Z once said, “it’s a hard knock life”. And the longer I live, the more I see the damage we incur from these knocks. We’re all hurt to some degree and we all deserve a little compassion. So let’s take a look at some of my hurt and how I’ve dealt with it. Hopefully, others will find some comfort in knowing they’re not alone.

My Song

When I was young, my family life was pretty good. My mother’s father was my best friend. We would sit in his den, watching baseball games together on the weekends when I was very young. We lived in the poor part of a very wealthy town, that makes most well-to-do suburbs look a little shabby. And I had a family that was supportive and seemingly loving.

That being said, there was violence happening in our family as well. The men in my family were prone to yelling at whomever wasn’t listening to them, while throwing breakables at walls to punctuate their rage. Also there was a lot of physical corrections being made in the form of spankings that were carried out with enthusiasm and zeal. And if the men in my family were terrifying, the women were just as scary.

Words were their weapons. As well as condescending judgements and withholding love. Also, setting a standard so high in order to gain their regard, that no matter what I did, I would never add up. Not to mention the emotional neglect. And this was the cycle. We were constantly hurting one another and not realizing the damage we were doing because we were so shut off from our emotions that we could barely feel anything. This was trauma inducing to say the least.

The Trauma

By the time I was halfway through my eighth year, things in my family began to fall apart. My aunt had developed an aggressive form of skin cancer that ravaged her body. My mother was the one who took charge and aided my dying family member by taking care of her through the worst of her struggles. I can remember watching my mother stick metal spoons in my aunts mouth to depress her tongue, while my aunt was having grand mal seizures. She had a mouth full of jagged teeth due to this practice. They did this because it was believed that the person having the seizure would swallow their tongue. Medicine has thankfully come a long way.

It was around this time that the fighting between my parents began to escalate. There was more yelling, more cutting words and more dinner ware being shattered. This happened until they finally called it quits. But by that time, my mother had been taking my sibling and I to the neighboring state, most times at 1 AM, after my mother got off from work, to comfort my deceased aunt’s family. This was where my abuse began.

Nighttime Visits

After having witnessed my aunt lose her violent battle with cancer, wasting away to a ghost of her former self, my family fell apart. I was spending more time with my deceased aunt’s family in an unfamiliar setting, away from all my friends and family, save for my mother. But that was about to change.

I don’t remember when these visits started, but at some point during the summer, my uncle had taken to coming into the room where I was sleeping in the dead of night, 2-3 AM, and pulling me from bed. I would later develop an obsession with vampires because of these visits. Usually he would yell at me while drunk, about what it means to be a man like a drill Sargant. I was living in constant state of fear for my life, not knowing how to keep myself safe. The first of many times he did this, he poured water on my groin and then violently rent me from my bed. He then punished me for “wetting” the bed. Making me clean up “my mess”. I have never felt terror like the night I was looking at myself in the bathroom mirror, not knowing what to do or where to go.

This painting sums up how I felt after my family divided while incurring all of the violence and trauma I was going through. Figure with Meat, Francis Bacon “Figure with Meat” by lluisribesmateu1969 is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0.

Later, I told my mother what was happening, taking a chance after being given strict instructions not to tell her by my uncle during his drunken rages. But when I told her, she turned her back on me and walked away. It was at this point that I was left completely on my own with zero support. I was eight and had experienced events that some people, thankfully never experience, and others that were usually spread out over a life’s time. And I experienced them all within six months and with no one to take care of me or to support me, at eight years of age. This is where my emotions left me. Frozen to keep me safe. It would take decades for me to feel safe enough to open to these emotions again, to defrost.

Living with the Trauma

As I aged, I would experience more traumas at the hands of my family. Only now I was old enough to start taking matters into my own hands. I stopped going to school by the time I was 14. My family life was deteriorating rapidly as well. My step-father was abusive and addicted to pornography as well as drinking too much. Something my entire family did and did well.

And, the apple did not fall far from the tree. By the time I was 15, I was drinking and staying out all hour, also addicted to pornography and looking to have a good time. Of course, this was what I was telling myself. But I was really terrified to go back to my house because I would most likely be abused. Either physically or psychologically and the neglect was a given.

By the time I turned nineteen, I got the boot from my house because I wasn’t going to college. I had stopped going to school by the time I was 14 because I was unable to be around others without feeling tremendous amounts of fear and anxiety. But by some miracle I was expected to go to college and do well. So I got my first apartment with two friends that were in similar situations and was on my own.

On My Own with Friends

Our first apartment wasn’t too bad. But we were living on our own, with zero life skills. I remember one of the first nights at the apartment, I came home from work and the fridge was completely filled with 40s. There was no food. Only beer and videogames. And that’s how it was most nights. We drank to manage our anxiety and fear. The only tools we had to navigate our out-of-control lives. We would eventually get the boot from that apartment inside of a year living there. Our neighbors, as it turned out, were selling heroin. So clearly, in the mind of my landlady, we were selling heroin as well.

We moved from that house to a temporary house that was going to be torn down in a few months time after we moved in. It was better to live there than to be homeless, so we moved in. This was the apartment that I lost my childhood friend to drugs. He didn’t die, but he was spending more and more time with his drug dealer than with his other friends. He moved out into the garage and started cutting ties with us. After that we became strangers to each other. Not an easy thing to experience, and only one of the many friends I would lose along the way. But what made this so difficult was, he was the only friend I had that was support from before my childhood trauma began. Losing him was a big blow.

After that apartment, we moved into an apartment that was too small for us, so I squatted in the entre way. Again, better that than to be homeless. That apartment was dirty. We had trash drifts in areas of the apartment that were up to our knees. I later upgraded to a bedroom when a roommate moved out, but that was still hard living. Another friend of ours moved into the entre way. Again, much like our first place, it was filled with booze and videogames. We also lived across the street from a bar that we frequented. This did not help in the drinking department.

Moving Up, Sort of

From there I moved again a few times, but by this time I had met my now ex-wife. We worked in adolescent group homes. Me at the one for boys and my ex in the one for girls. I was still emotionally numb from the undealt with traumas I had incurred when I was eight, but I somehow stumbled my way into a relationship that was somewhat stable.

I was still drinking regularly, about 100 pounds over weight and still viewed women as sex objects. I’m not sure how I managed to find someone to be with, because I had zero luck when it came to relationships. But we were together for about eight years.

Unfortunately, things still looked the same for me. I was in a state of stasis. Unchanged from the ways I had been living from the time I had been abused as a child. I was just coasting along, unable to appreciate what I had due to me being so numb from my early childhood and family trauma. So when I started waking from my emotional cocoon, things took a surprising turn.

Waking Up into My Emotions

Oddly enough, it was somebody that I worked with that started me down the path of waking up emotionally. I can’t explain why it happened with her, but there was a combination of feeling heard, with an empathic understanding and willingness to be vulnerable around me that made me feel awake around her. Also feeling safe with my current partner gave me the stability to open emotionally again. I was so used to being told how to feel and what was going to happen for me, that this was something completely new. There was a possibility present that I had never felt before.

So I started spending more time with this woman, in hopes to gain some of that emotion that was missing from my life. Looking back I would have done things differently, but I didn’t stand a chance. I was eight years old again with her, dealing with 24 years of trauma that had been piling up at my doorstep. To say I was in over my head is an understatement.

I realize now that what I was experiencing was finding a friend, friendship. Someone who had been through some of what I had been through and understood. She had her own list of trauma that she was dealing with. The term, “real recognize real and you lookin familiar” describes some of what I was feeling for the first time in a quarter century. But these feelings were all new to me and I was just tying to stay afloat.

My ex did all the right things however. She got us into couples therapy and desperately tried to find out what was happening with me. The only thing I knew was that I was feeling again for the first time since I was a child. I didn’t know what I was feeling, but I was feeling again. And finally, after I had come to a place that was relatively still waters for what I was experiencing, in one night heavy with tension, I stood in the kitchen with my ex and asked her if she wanted to try to make our relationship work.

I had no idea what was happening to me, but something inside of me knew that I needed to give our relationship another shot. But she was unwilling. She said that I had had an emotional affair with the other woman. And that, she couldn’t forgive. I didn’t know what emotions were, let alone know them enough to have an affair. So we parted ways that night. And it’s important to say I don’t blame my ex for leaving. For all I was experiencing, she was dealing with her own struggles. No one was struggling more than the other.

After the Separation

I lived with the woman who helped me to wake into my emotions for a while. It was a good time for me. I stopped drinking, started exercising regularly, meditating and started thinking about my future, all for the first time in my life. I didn’t feel like I was drifting anymore. But not too long into the relationship she told me to leave. She couldn’t handle the weight of the guilt of how I ended my relationship with my ex. So I moved in with family, something I had been running from since I was eight.

I was working a series of part time jobs after moving in with my family. And I was starting over at the ground floor, looking to build myself back up. I started dissociating, which is a way for me to protect myself from the feelings that were too trauma packed to feel all at once. How I discovered I was dissociating was, I had crashed two cars on my way to work in the morning. One into a suburban fence, and the other on I-95. The only thing I remember about the accidents is suddenly coming to and walking around the flipped car on the side of the highway or crashed into a fence. I’m lucky to be alive and that I didn’t hurt anybody in the process. This was jarring.

Also, shortly after I moved in with my father and step-mother, I went into a manic state two times and tried to run to Maine to start a blueberry farm to win back my ex-wife. I thought that this was a reasonable reaction to feeling the loss of my former relationship. Again, I was eight years old, standing on the landing after my mother turned her back on me after telling her about my abuse. I felt completely alone and unsafe. If it wasn’t for an old roommate of mine who happened to be driving by me while I was running, I don’t like to think what would have happened to me. Again, lucky to be alive. Thanks Jon.

It was here that I was feeling the full force of my unfelt trauma from my childhood. I was looking for something safe, running from what was too difficult to feel. But they say the way out is through. So I stayed. I stayed in what was more than uncomfortable. Staying with what was traumatic. With family, with my feelings and most importantly, with myself. It was here that I really learned how to heal from what had been a life’s time worth of neglected and abused emotions. No easy feat.

Continuing to Heal

I’m now in a much healthier place than I’ve ever been. I’m still exercising regularly, meditating as well. And I’m eating healthfully and am at my ideal weight for the first time since I was a child. I have boundaries for the first time and am building new relationships built on mutual trust and communication. It feels really good knowing that I have my future in focus after a life’s time worth of running from my past. Knowing I’m here for myself, and as a friend of mine says, “I’m here, I care” to my emotional world, makes me feel like a whole new me.

The trauma I’ve experienced in my past is only a story now. Not something that makes regular visits. The support I have from the community I’ve built around me is also world class. I can’t say enough good things about the people who have stood by and support me through some of the most challenging times in my life. And none of this was easy.

If you’re dealing with trauma and the effects of trauma, at any stage of your life, know that you are not alone. I’ve found the help of my therapist to be the guiding light out of my darkest times. Because as Tara Brach says, “we were wounded in relationship, so we heal in relationship”. This talk from Tara Brach, Buddhist psychologist, was pivotal for me learning how to navigate my emotions again. If you’ve experienced trauma, please take a look at it and seek help. There are good people out there doing good work.

Reflections on the Past

These are only a sampling of the trauma I’ve endured. I’d also like to say I’m not seeking sympathy, only sharing what I’ve experienced in hopes it may aid somebody else in their journey. Because life gets weird. And without each other’s help, we can be overtaken by the difficulties we encounter. So take heart and know that you are strong enough for this life that was given to you.

Also, I’d like to take the time to apologize for how I treated all of the people I hurt in the past. If you are reading this and I’ve injured you to some degree, know that I am truly sorry. My past is no excuse for treating people the ways that I had. And for this, I am truly sorry.

If you’re looking for someone to talk to about what you’ve been through in the past, this article from The Good Trade goes over some online therapy sites that can help in your journey. So dear reader, this is where I leave you. Thank you for reading and if you have any comments or questions, I’d love to hear about them down below. You’re the best and as always, Peace & thanks for reading.

Image Credits: “Plant in dried cracked mud” by Aproximando Ciência e Pessoas is licensed under CC BY 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.

Disagreement and Belonging: Fear of Being Unloved

In the environment I grew up in, when you had a disagreement with someone, it was taken personally. It was difficult to have your own opinions in my family. For some reason, our opinions had to be right. And more to the point, others had to agree with us and our opinions. There was so much fear around not being seen as being right, that it dominated all of our interactions. That’s what I’d like to take a look at in this post. About how our feelings of belonging are connected to the ways we feel we have to act during a disagreement in order to feel loved.

What’s Between Us and Feeling Loved?

In my past experience, disagreements were usually events filled with all sorts of negative emotions. Resentment being one, along with anger and feeling hurt. No wonder we didn’t want to be wrong. Who would if it constantly brought up these difficult emotions. But there in lies the problem: we’re not always right. Nor do I want to be. Where would the spontaneity be, the fun and the surprise?

But when you see being right as the gateway to your belonging, that’s when we begin to grasp at what will help us feel a sense of that belonging. Because in our situation, we took it personally when we had a disagreement. There was no middle ground or conceding to the other. We were thinking in black and white terms. Feeling as though we had to be right and the other had to be wrong.

And what followed was a false sense of security. Of feeling righteous in our rightness while the other was left to lick their wounds. So with all this adversity, we kept each other at a distance. We were either ashamed of our feeling wounded by being wrong, or wanted to bask in our rightness while the other felt inferior. This was no bueno for sure.

Being Wounded by Disagreement Meant Feeling Unloved

And this was where we learned to feel unlovable. The constant wounding and retreat from each other left us all fearful. Unwilling and scared to connect to one another because we had no healthy ways of doing so. We would numb our feelings with alcohol while we were together, but we were still tearing everybody around us down. And the numbing would only work for so long as we were drinking. We would eventually have to confront the wounds we had inflicted and had endured during our connecting and disagreements.

We only got together on the holidays, because we were too afraid to feel the hurtful ways of connecting that were inevitable when we got together. An extreme example of this is when I was kicked out of my house at 19. There was no one disagreement that triggered my expulsion, but I believe this was a direct result of us being too frightened of coming to terms with all the damage we had done to one another through the years. All the wounds from our traumatic ways of disagreement with each other were left to fester. And we just weren’t strong enough to feel the hurt that had been building.

This Lead to Isolation and Numbing Our Pain

As I’ve said above, we isolated from one another. Then we numbed the pain of feeling lonely. Instead of trying to reach out and understand each other’s pain, we drank because it was easy. Looking back now, there was nothing easy about all the pain we were trying to cover over. Managing that amount of hurt was a fulltime job. And we were constantly feeling exhausted and overwhelmed by the task.

But we kept going because it was all we knew. We never learned the language of our own, or each other’s emotional experiences. It was a place we were unwilling to go because it was too raw.

So we spent a lot of our time hiding from one another. But as the old adage says, the way out is most definitely through. Through the wounds unattended, the fear of betrayal, the insecurity from disagreement and ridicule it inevitably brought. There were loads of reasons to hide. But what takes true strength and courage is to sit with the fear. Feel what we were unwilling to feel. It’s then that, as Mark Twain put it, and I’m paraphrasing, that we resist the fear, master the fear.

Learning to Master Our Fear

This is something that takes a lot of strength to accomplish. And it isn’t usually a one shot. It takes lots of practice and patience. But also, and arguably most importantly, to know that you’ll come out the other side of your fear intact.

Because when you’re caught in the grip of fear, it often times feels a though that’s all there is and all that will ever be. No wonder we and so many like us choose to numb the emotion. If you’re stuck in fear and the people who are supposed to guide you out of it are the ones abusing you, then you would grasp at anything that made you feel better in the moment. Regardless of how dangerous or self destructive it may be.

Recognizing You’re Stuck & Covering Over Your Fear

And that’s where we were, for sure. In fact, everything we were doing was something that was designed to make us feel more alone, more hurt. From acting superior to the other for a quick ego boost. To the caffeine to keep us going in the morning and alcohol at night. All our ways of coping with our fear, the ways we tried to manage it, were all unsustainable.

So in order for me to recognize that we were stuck in the grip of an unhealthy fear management cycle, I had to take some time apart. And make some decisions that would have important consequences, changing my life’s trajectory.

Hard Lessons Learned

While I was in the grip of my own fear, I had set up my life as I had been shown to. Modeled for me by my family. Tearing others down to build myself up and looking for all sorts of unsustainable ways of feeling belonging. And what’s strange about this way of being is, that I surrounded myself with people who were also practicing these unsustainable ways of being in relationship.

You would think that there wasn’t enough room for all the inflated egos. But we struck a strange balance between tearing each other down and building ourselves up. It was as though we were taking turns, on a rotation. We needed the other around to tear down, so we endured being torn down ourselves. It was definitely unhealthy and maybe a little co-dependent.

A disagreement turned into attacks on our character. Which turned into a running “joke”. Everywhere you turned, there was another person waiting to say something snarky. Belittle you in some way. And these were the people I called friends.

Turning the Tables

What woke me from the fear was when I thought I fell in love with a woman. In fact, I didn’t know what I was feeling. I had been so numb from a life’s time worth of covering over hurt emotions, that I didn’t know what I was feeling at any given time. Until I became infatuated with a woman.

When we were in the infancy of our relationship, the woman I was infatuated with made some devastating decisions while drinking. After which we talked about quitting drinking together. So I gave up alcohol for her, and she me. For a while.

I gave up drinking to numb my feelings. And still to this day only have the occasional drink. She however was unable to commit to the same level of dedication that I had committed to. We started fighting more and in the end we broke up over something that was not inconsequential, but blown out of proportion, to detract from the ways I was asking her to stay faithful to me by not drinking. One disagreement lead to another and by the time I realized what had happened, I was being asked to leave.

Waking Up is Difficult

And yeah, it was difficult. But I’m better, stronger now for going through it. I’m building better relationships now because of it. And yeah, those relationships have there ups and downs. There are times I worry about those I work with, because I think they’re pushing themselves too hard. Or feeling like they need to get everything perfect. But I’m experiencing the relationships in the present, without hiding behind some method to alter how I feel.

A disagreement will still come up now and again. But what’s different between now and the old ways I used to view disagreement is, that I no longer feel that I’m not valued for feeling or thinking about something differently. And what’s really incredible is, I’m now able to admit when I’m wrong. Or that somebody has an idea that would work better than my own. Something I never would have thought possible only a few years ago!

Disagreement is Healthy

And finally, in case no one ever told you as I was never told, disagreement is healthy. We don’t have to agree all the time in order to get along. And agreeing is definitely not prerequisite to belonging or feeling loved.

If you were brought up in a similar situation to mine, it may be worth your while to examine your relationships. Do you feel worse about yourself after a disagreement often? Are you afraid to disagree with those who are closest? If so, why? Do you feel ashamed of being wrong or have you been shamed for being wrong. These are unhealthy ways of disagreeing.

Try taking some space from the relationships that make you feel shameful. Instead, practice being open to being wrong. Without shame or judgement, just let the idea that you are wrong at times, be. And when it comes up in your daily interactions, own it. Acknowledge that you were wrong and if applicable, thank the person for pointing it out. If you’re anything like me, it will be a difficult task at first. But for me, it got easier the more often I practiced it.

So good luck reader. As I’ve said, admitting you’re wrong and owning it can be no easy task if it’s historically gotten in the way of your feeling belonging and loveable. But know that this isn’t the case. There are people out there that are willing to build healthy relationships while still being able to tolerate a disagreement now and again. And who knows, maybe even making the relationship a little stronger in the process. Peace 🙂 and thanks for reading.

Related Reading: How to Own a Mistake

Image Credits: “Disagreement” by mikecogh is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.

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