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

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

What Makes Me Likable?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Being Grateful, It Ain’t Always Easy

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

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

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

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

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

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

Practicing Gratitude

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

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

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

Practicing Gratitude: A Practical Guide

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

It’s the Little Things

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

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

Achieving Goals

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

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

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

Taking Care of Something

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

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

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

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

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

Take Care of your Body

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

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

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

Bringing it All Together

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

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

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

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

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

Paying your Bills: How Being Buried in Student Loans Can Help You Get a Handle on Your Financial Life

I’m in debt. I’ve talked about my debt before on this blog, but with the COVID-19 student loan forbearance ending at the end of this year, I’ve decided it was time to take the deeper dive into finding out what my best options are for repayment. And I was a little surprised with what I found out. I’ll be going over some of the specifics about my situation, but also what I’ve discovered along the way as I’m researching what my best options are. It seems like a lot, when you’re staring out the deep hole you’ve dug for yourself, but there’s hope. And it’s totally doable. You just need a plan, a positive attitude and a little help : )

What Did I Borrow?

If you’re like me, you borrowed a lot of money during the hight of the student loan lending frenzy. I ended up with close to 85k in student loan debt that I am in the middle of paying back. And I went to an in state school! I was completely clueless when it came to getting my degree. I had no idea what I was doing, what I wanted to do, or what I was even good at. I stopped going to highschool at age 16, but thought I was supposed to go to college to get a degree so I could get a job. So that’s what I did.

I started in community college when I was 19. This was a poor choice given the circumstances I was in. I was past the age of being a dependent on my caregivers and one of them told me to go to school, so that’s what I did. I failed by way of not going to classes, and subsequently was given the boot from my childhood home. I was 19, and as good as homeless. Years later, when I asked my caregiver why they kicked me out with no guidance and with such callous disregard, they responded with, “it’s what happened to me”.

So, with that in my rearview, I drifted around for the next five years in a haze of alcohol, seedy apartments and questionable life events (but some good stories, like the time “one” of the Allman Brothers was at my apartment telling stores), until a friend of mine got me a job at a residential program for at risk adolescent boys. This is when I decided to go back to school, only this time for social work. I wanted to help people who were in similar situations to my own. But I still had no idea what I was doing when it came to navigating the educational system. This is when I started taking out loans.

I would later switch my career focus two more times. First to architecture, but stopped that pursuit in it’s tracks when they said I would be working 80 hour plus weeks for the rest of my life. And second to journalism. This is where I received most of my education and also where I racked up most of my student loan debt.

And I did so with enthusiasm. I didn’t look for grants or scholarships, but this wasn’t surprising as I had no guidance, nor was I seeking any or knew how to ask. I was again adrift, in a financial world where I would soon be in way over my head.

It took me close to nine years to finish my degree. And when I was done, I had close to 85k in student loans and 20k in credit card debt. This was a tough pill to swallow. I fumbled my way into just over 100k in debt, with little to show for it and no idea how I was going to dig myself out of the hole I had worked so hard to get into.

Okay I Give, How do I Get Out Of This Mess?

This, in conjunction with a few other realizations, left me in one of the darkest places I’ve been in my life. This was where I decided to make some needed changes in my habits and the ways I was living my life.

This is around the time I found Dave Ramsey. Here was finally where I found the guidances I needed to take hold of my financial house. This was also a difficult place to be, because growing up my caregivers were consumed with everything finance. Though they never imparted any wisdom to me about how to handle this aspect of my life. I had to stumbled upon Dave Ramsey in my mid thirties by chance before I really began to take charge of my finances.

This was demoralizing. Mostly because I didn’t feel as though I could ask anybody in my life for help or advice. Money was such a sore spot for my entire family growing up, that I felt as though it was off limits to talk about. I spent so much time not thinking about money due to the unspoken lessons I was taught, about how money was something to be feared, that I completely neglected my financial future. This was a difficult and terrifying realization to come to as well. I wrote about this some in my blog post about what to do when you’re starting to retire at forty.

But this is also where I learned that I needed to take the reigns for myself. Because I was the only one in control of my future. This doesn’t mean that I can’t ask for help when necessary. Which is and was the case considering how little I knew/know about how to handle finances. But I couldn’t wait any longer. I knew I had to do something about my future, regardless of how I had been neglected by my caregivers.

As I said above, I started when I found Dave Ramsey and his baby steps, but it took discipline and patience to follow through with the plan. I had been so used to buying whatever I wanted whenever I wanted that when it came time to exercise self control, I was at a complete loss. But there were a few things that helped to fortify my self-restraint.

How Being Vegan, Running, Meditation and Yoga Helped Me Pay My Debt Faster

Of all the changes I made in my life and my habits, going vegan was probably the most effective. I needed to learn how to cook using different ingredients while also making substitutions for staples I was in the habit of using when I ate animal products.

I also had to batch cook for the weeks ahead due to my busy schedule. This taught me how to put a shopping list together by choosing recipes and making a list by shopping from my pantry first. This was just another way to budget, only using food instead of money. But also if I didn’t cook, I had to eat pasta with Earth balance for dinner. I didn’t always want to cook, but I needed to eat, so I did.

Running was another great way to cultivate a sense of discipline. Throwing shoes on and pounding out the miles week after week helped me to build a resilience while also helping me to find a rhythm.

For me, when running mid level milage, the first few miles of a run are the most difficult. It’s kind of like waking up in the morning. You’re a little tired, it takes some time to get your muscles warmed up and head around what your body’s doing. But once you’ve settled into the motion and movements of your body, the miles start to drop away with an ease that’s hard to describe.

It’s similar to when you’re paying off debt. The first few months take some adjusting to. But once you find your rhythm, and recognize that the discomfort of your sacrifices to your new budget won’t last forever, you find that same rhythm.

Meditation and Yoga help in sort of the same ways but from different perspectives or directions. With yoga, learning to be still when you are in the midst of a difficult pose and sensation. And meditation when difficult thoughts and emotions arise, being still and present with what’s difficult builds resilience.

This is the same sort of resilience you need when you’re paying down a sizeable debt. For me it was important to sit with the discomfort of just how much money I owed. About 85k total in student loans alone. If that doesn’t put a seed of fear in your belly you’re either wealthy or in shock. Learning to sit and stay with what’s difficult, while coming up with and exciting a plan is what is most important when faced with a challenge of this size. Now let’s focus on some of the specifics of my loans and what I’ve found to be most useful.

Logistics of Paying Off Bigger Numbers

I have federal loans but when I first took out my loans I had both federal and private. About 9k in private and 76k in federal. I don’t remember exactly what the beginnings of my loan repayments looked like. I was in and out of school for 9 years, so my actual repayment date didn’t start until my mid-thirties. And probably for the best, I wasn’t in the habit of paying my bills regularly or at all before then.

Most of my bills I defaulted on with most likely the intention of never repaying them at all. But I had to start somewhere, and where I started was in my mid-thirties, under a pile of debt. I used the snowball method to start. This basically means paying the minimums on all your debt, but using all other available income to pay off your smallest debt first. For me this was all my credit cards that totaled 2-5k small debts. All together around 14k. Then it was on to my private student loans of about 9k total.

Some systems suggest you pay the highest interest rate percent first. Luckily my credit cards were all high interest and my loans much lower. So when I got to my private student loan, with about a 7% interest rate and my federal at a 6%, I put all available funds towards the private. My federal loans were in deferment, so I didn’t have to start paying them back until later. And with my private loans in the past, I could finally focus on the big one. My federal loans.

When I started paying off these loans, they were in deferment. This means that you don’t have to make any payments on your loan for a specific amount of time for different circumstances. I believe the time available for deferment is 3 years, but check with your lender to make certain yours aren’t different. But what I hadn’t realized was that when my bill came due, I would be making close to 1k payments monthly. I was not making much at the time and definitely wouldn’t have been able to afford these payments. So I defaulted to my default. I planned on defaulting on my loans because it just seemed like too much.

But after I had done all the difficult work of paying off my other loans, I realized I didn’t want to head down the same road I had been traveling for so long. I needed to take control of my financses for my future. So I began looking into what my options were for paying down my student loans.

I Have a Plan… Sort of. Now What?

My plan was to just throw money at my debt until it started to dwindle. But was that really my best option? As it turned out, yes. As we all know, COVID hit about a year and a half ago and since then there have been a lot of layoffs. As a way to ease some of the financial burden of student loan borrowers, the government put all loans on deferment without accrued interest. This has been a Godsend for those laid-off, but for folks like me, making payments interest free has been game changing. With all of my payments going towards principle, my debt is shrinking faster than expected. I’ve paid off close to 25k in principle since the COVID-19 forbearance began.

But I was still concerned with the amount of interest I was being charged. 6% seemed like a high number for such a large loan. So I started looking at private loans to see if I could get a better rate. Turns out, I can. My rate would drop from 6% on my federal loans to almost 3% in a private one. Seems like a good deal. But when I ran the numbers, this only decreased my overall amount owed in interest by 1k over the life of the loan. Not even half a months payment. So I decided to stay in the loan with the higher interest rate.

I should also mention that I plan on paying my loan off in two years, so the interest doesn’t make that much of an impact. But if I choose a more traditional route, of say paying over ten years, I would be accruing up to 17k in interest alone. Then I would look into a loan with a lower rate. But another aspect to consider when thinking about switching lenders is, the benefits of federal loans far out weighs those of their private counterparts.

As we’ve seen with COVID-19, federal loans went into a period of deferment. Something that private loans did not do. Also, if you fail to pay a federal loan on time, you have considerably more time before your loans go into default. I’ve read up to 240 days, and you still have time to pay and be in good standing with your loan. With private lenders, it’s only 30 days and that’s it, default. You also have the option, with federal loans, to pay in an income driven repayment plan. This adjusts your payment to a percentage of you discretionary income. This is not an option with private loans.

Also, you are able to consolidate your loans with a federal lender. This takes all the small loans you’ve taken out each semester and consolidated them into one loan with one payment.

With so many benefits attached to holding loans with the fed., it just didn’t make sense to switch to a private lender. I may be paying 1k more over the life of the loan than if I was with a lower interest, private loan, but peace of mind with the terms of my loan is worth more to me that a little under half a months loan payment. And when I’m doubt, ask.

If you have questions about your loan, contact you bank. Hey, even ask if they’ll lower your interest rate. Through my lender, if you’re enrolled in auto payments, they reduce your interest rate by a quarter of a percent.

And if you’re like me, you like to go hard. For me it’s do as much as humanly possible to pay off my loan in as short a period of time as possible. Don’t forget to practice a little self-care along the way. For me it’s a foot soak once and a while and a ten-pack at my local yoga studio for 175$. It’s good and healthy to take tests along the way. The road can be hard and long, don’t forget to take care of yourself. So incase no one told you, it’s okay to take a break every now and again : )

I hope this has helped in some way. Student loans can be daunting to take in, especially all at once. But don’t be deterred! Talk to your lender often and whenever you have a question, regardless of how silly it seems. They want you to be successful. So, if you have a ton of student loan debt, come up with a plan and have patients. You’ll get out of it, it just takes a little resilience. Peace, and thanks for reading : )

Image credits: “The Big IOU” by brent flanders is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Feeling Lost: What to Do When You’re Feeling a Little Homeless

This is something I’ve recently come to terms with and something that has deep roots in my personal history. I don’t need to go over the details of how I came to this realization, but my life experiences and my personal history paved the way for my realization, and I know I’m not alone. Here I’ll be sharing my experiences in hopes that it will help to light the way back for anyone who feels the same.

This began for me at an early age. I wrote about it some in my post on “Why am I Pushing Myself so Hard“, about the trauma I experienced and the sense of loss and feeling Lost. I was eight when things began to fall apart for me. My family had turned their backs on me collectively, leaving me to fend for myself at very early an age.

This is where feeling lost, without a home began to take shape for me. I didn’t feel welcomed or loved by anyone close to me from that day on. Without a place where you feel welcome, a sense of belonging, then you can feel as though you really don’t have a place to call home. I didn’t have the words for it at such an early age, but this was how I felt. Homeless and without a sense of belonging.

Okay, so bad things happen, I’ve come to terms with that. Once you’ve made the decision to accept the difficult things that have happened to you, then you can start to find ways to not only make up for the ways you’ve reacted to those situation or experiences, but also to heal from and move forward in your life.

The Buddha said it best when talking about anger and resentment, “holding onto anger is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die”. This is so true from my experience. I was holding onto a lot of anger and resentment, as well as blame and pain also. But all it did for me was helped me to cultivate a great sense of self-righteousness and unhealthy habits. These were not the best tools to go through life with.

One of my mantras in my early twenties was, “bridges are for burning”. As you’ve probably guessed, things did not go well for me with this mentality. I found myself alone, with few friends and no real connections to anyone. There were reasons for it beyond my understanding, but as the saying goes, “you don’t know what you don’t know”. And I definitely did not know. The journey was almost always trying, and difficult to say the least. But there are other ways of being and different tools we can use, to navigate life with.

Feeling More at Home

The tools I’m referring to are much like resources, in that they help to bring a sense of comfort and ease, direction to a chaotic life. I’ll share with you some of the tools I’ve cultivated, to help bring me a sense of direction and a feeling of being at home.

Yoga

I’ve been practicing yoga regularly for maybe five years. Yoga has helped to bring me back into my body, after dissociating from it for such a long time due to the abuse and neglect. I could comfortably be in my body while feeling difficult sensations that brought dis-ease. And there were a lot of difficult, uneasy moments for sure. But the longer you stay, the better you become at being comfortable in the sensation.

I was dissociated for a long time, so it took a lot of staying in order to feel as though I were comfortable just taking up space. If you have difficulty staying in and cultivating ease in the moment, yoga may be the key to helping you be more present.

Meditation

This one was helpful in many ways. First, it helped me to listen inwardly. There was a whole world happening inside of me that I was completely oblivious to. Tara Brach makes reference to a saying in the meditation community that’s rung a bell with me. The saying goes, “sit, stay, heal”. I like this saying because, as with yoga, the longer you stay with the difficult thoughts and emotions that arise, the easier it becomes to navigate them.

And as a friend of mine Jon said, when talking about a mutual friend who feels like they’re in a cycle of ups and downs, “what they don’t understand is, that feelings become easier to manage the more you allow yourself to feel them”. For me, I don’t think it would have been possible to separate the voice that was beating me up, from the voice of reason and better judgement. This was also difficult, and took time, but it’s doable.

Cooking

Cooking has been a source of grounding for me. The smells while the onion and garlic are frying, the steam that rises from the pots of boiling liquid. It all comes together to make a house feel more like a home. I batch cook, but also have one night a week where I cook a self-care dinner. Here is where I take my time and enjoy the process of watching it all come together. Sure it’s nice to order out every once and awhile, but the process of everything coming together holds a real sense of feeling connected to the act of nourishing yourself.

Friends and Family

Friends and family are important too. If it’s only you doing these things, it can feel lonely, and the point of these tools is to feel a greater sense of belonging and connection. Sure, first to yourself, but then to others as well. I’ve recently begun cooking with my family one night a week. This is a chance for us to connect, get to know each other a little better each time, and brings a sense of collaboration, of working on something together. Also, food tastes better when you have people to share it with.

But the bonds are what is most important when we get together for our family night. For me, I never had the bonding that I should have received when I was younger. So building something new, even though it’s a little late, has helped to fill some of that void that had been left inside of me from an early age. It also has a similar feeling as to when we gather for holidays and special occasions. It’s nice to have something special to look forward to.

We share bits of wisdom we’ve collected along the way, stories from our past, and in the process, we build that sense of belonging. That sense of being a family. And this is where feeling at home really begins to take shape. The stores and the shared sense of experience is where feeling those bonds lie. These are the moments we take with us into our lives and help to bring us a feeling of homecoming.

Writing

Writing for me has been a way to explore the ideas, thoughts and feelings I’ve had about my past, present and future. This blog has helped me to go through some of the parts of my life that I had been too scared to look at before.

Journaling as well has been an incredible resource. It has been a place where I can plan what my future looks like by writing down plans I have and things I want to accomplish. It’s a place to visit the past in a safe way by writing down my thoughts and feels about what I’ve experienced. And also a way to stay in the present. By writing down my budget, todo list, and other day to day things that need my attention while I’m living my life. I’ve written about it before in this blog, but if you haven’t yet, check out bullet journalling. This is a unique way to bring the various threads of your life together in one place.

Finding Time to Relax

This is an important one. For me, I have so many things, responsibilities and people to catch up with, that finding time for myself is in short supply. I usually find some time in the evenings. Before I go to bed, to relax a little I burn some candles, listen to some music, read a book and sip a cup of herbal tea to help unwind from the day. Feeling at ease, or like you have some time where you can feel relaxed is so important to our general health and mental well-being. Yet it’s something that we overlook or it’s the first thing to get tossed out when we have loads of responsibility to manage.

If you’re feeling overwhelmed, here is a perfect time to order something out, watch something mindless and just be with yourself or another and just be. We put so much weight on ourselves to accomplish so much, that we never really stop to ask ourselves, “why”? Taking the time you need to feel your best also shows you that you respect yourself and your time but also brings a sense of self-worth to it as well. And a little bit of care goes a long way.

Make a plan to relax a little everyday. Maybe there’s a park you enjoy that you can go to when you take a lunch break. Or do as I do and take an hour or so before you go to bed and set up a calming routine to help decompress from the day. Tailor it to your own needs and likes and make it a place you enjoy coming home to.

It’s Your Life, Go Live It

And I feel like this gets overlooked so often that it’s kind of amazing to me. We get so wrapped up in wanting to do as much as we’re able to, for others and what we think we need in life, that we forget to take the time to slow down and find out not only what we need, but what we want and how to best feel comfortable in our own bodies and minds.

What are some of your long term goals? Things that you want for yourself that will bring you a sense of joy and happiness. Is traveling a passion of yours? Write down a plan to visit some place you’ve wanted to go to. Even if you never make it, the act of planning can really bring a sense of curiosity and excitement, of finding new places to explore. As Adrienne says, from Yoga With Adrienne, “find what feels good”, and do that. Because life becomes a chore when it is filled with a bunch of checkboxes of things we need to accomplish. There’s more to life than what’s on your todo list.

And when you begin to tend to these areas of your life that may have been neglected for a long time, here is where the sense of direction comes together. You now have a sense of what your working towards, not just working yourself to the death. So find the things that bring you peace. They will help to make you feel more at home with yourself and with others. What are your resources, your go tos for taking care of yourself? I’d love to hear about them in the comments below. Peace, and thanks for reading : )

Image Credits: “lost (perdu)” by PATRICE OUELLET is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

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