Living Space: How Our Built Environment Affects Our Emotional State

I’m currently searching for an apartment. I also work part-time for a family shelter. Anyone who’s in the middle of an apartment hunt right now has probably felt the sting of pricing going up. Way up. It’s estimated that the median cost of rent for housing has gone up between 12-17% since 2020. That’s a huge increase, considering that the previous increases were roughly .6% a year.

From my experience working at the shelter, the environment you’re steeped in has a great affect on a persons emotional state. For families experiencing homelessness, the term itself brings up images of destitute individuals in unwashed clothes living in tents in the woods. So if you add unkempt surroundings to an already loaded label of being homeless, this makes for a sad way of feeling about who you are and your circumstances.

I’ve lived in a variety of houses and apartments, but none of them ever really felt like a true home. I’d like to explore a little what it is that makes a house, a home for me and maybe it’ll resonate with a few others out there, too.

First Living Experiences

The places I grew up in, in my childhood were first an apartment, and second a single family house. The apartment was on the top floor of our building and I have some fond memories of that apartment. I was also very young, so my memories aren’t that crisp. The house I later moved to was the one where many of my childhood memories were made and therefore remember with more clarity.

There were good memories, such as family gatherings and being taken to soccer games as a child. But there were also difficult ones, like the time we spent nursing a family member while she lay dying in our living room. Or the void I was left in, not seeing my caregivers for what felt like weeks at a time. This was a cold place and one filled with traumatic memories that nobody would want to revisit.

The environment in both were clean, only in the first apartment was much more cozy, felt warmer. The house however, was a cold place, sterile feeling. Clean, but without the warmth of the connection and love that makes a house, feel like a home.

The Difference Between Clean and Sterile

I was made to clean as a child, do chores. This was something I hated doing at the time, but what kid doesn’t. Though I’m glad I had the experience of keeping something up and living in a cared for environment. And it felt as though the house was always in the process of being cleaned in some form or another.

Laundry was constantly being done, there was a fair amount of cooking happening as well. But there were also times where this felt like a little too much. As though we were cleaning to cover something up. Everything had to be in its right place, no exceptions. In recent years, I’ve been in one of my childhood caregiver’s home and the kitchen was so clean that it felt as though you could preform surgery in it.

This was mildly unsettling and reminded me of a sterile environment, a place that can’t sustain life. And I feel like this is the difference between a house and a home. A home is a place where mistakes are made, people come together in their difference and accept one another as we are. Imperfect. And it’s about the people. And incase you haven’t learned this yet, people are messy creatures. Hence the phrase, “life happens”.

So if we’re constantly rejecting the messy aspects of our lives, then we’re also rejecting the parts of ourselves that are equally as messy. This is no bueno. And that’s what it felt like while I was living in my caregiver’s home. Until I got kicked out.

On My Own, Now What?

When I was 19, I was kicked out of my childhood house. A little background on my situation, I had stopped going to school when I was fifteen, had no life goals or direction, all the role models in my life had abused and neglected me and I was roaming the streets in my town looking to get messed up in some way. Thinking back now, this brings up feelings of fear and terror in me. But then I was just surviving. And on top of that, I had no one to show me how to take care of myself. I was pretty much already on my own.

So when I got the boot from my caregivers, this was only the official decree stating that I was definitely now, on my own, not wanted. In recent years, when I asked my caregiver why they kicked me out at such a young age, they said, “it happened to me.” This is what I mean when I say we were handing down a legacy of trauma and abuse to one another. And I was scared. So, I talked to two friends and a few weeks later we were living together in our first apartment. And for three nineteen year-olds, we kept the apartment pretty clean.

I remember sleeping on the couch, in the living room of my first apartment, the first night we moved in, with one of my new roommates sleeping on the floor next to me. I was feeling excited and terrified about my circumstances all at once. Uncertainty was pervasive, and I had no idea what to do next. Unfortunately for me, this was the theme of most of my living situations throughout my life.

I moved from that apartment, and in with another childhood caregiver of mine briefly, then to an apartment with one of my previous roommates. Only this time, I just moved into their entry way and didn’t ask if I could stay there. I cringe a little thinking about this now, but I felt one step away from being homeless. And again, survival took precedence. And that apartment was so dirty that it should have been condemned. How we felt about ourselves was definitely reflected in our surroundings.

Even when I was married, my feelings of drifting were still pervasive. The apartment we lived in felt comfortable, felt a good expression of our personalities and cleaner than the others I had lived in, but it didn’t feel like home. I was still reliving the patterns of my past, while avoiding the responsibility of being my own man. My now ex-wife was looking for someone who was just along for the ride. I was looking for some guidance in the form of someone making all the decisions I needed made for me, and she was looking to tell someone what to do.

So with all of these past experiences of what feels like drifting through life, what’s changed? How have I taken the reigns of my life, and as my boss says, “get behind the wheel and drive my own life bus”? It starts with recognizing where you are and where you’d like to be. Also, what you want out of life.

Lessons On Life Some Of Us Never Get

There were quite a few lessons I never received before I was kicked out of my house. One being how to budget. Another being how to care for my nutritional needs… The list goes on. But I feel the most important lesson I missed out on was, where I’d like to be and who I wanted to be as I matured.

My caregivers were too concerned with how others saw them to be their own people. This left me with almost no role models to show me how to be confident in who I was, but more importantly, foster me as I was cultivating and exploring my interests, likes and dislikes. I was hustling for my caregivers approval, only they never felt approved of. So in-turn, they didn’t know how to approve of others, or nurture my budding interests.

These basic feelings of not measuring up were pervasive in my family, and ones that were handed down through the generations. We just didn’t know how to break the cycle of looking for approval from others instead of looking for acceptance of ourselves. For my caregivers, this manifested in cleaning to the point of being sterile, but also in buying things we didn’t need.

We were constantly shopping in our family. I remember vividly in one of my apartments, looking through the Pottery Barn catalogue, at my Pottery Barn desk, circling the things that I wanted in my dwelling, while I was sleeping on a futon mattress without a bed frame. Another thing I never learned how to do was to prioritize my need. I got caught up in the same trap of trying to curate a personality by the things I bought and surrounded myself with. It was a sad and lonely place to be. But it was also all I knew and had modeled for me growing up.

It wasn’t until much later that I realized that no matter what I bought, it wasn’t going to bring me a sense of a sustained happiness. I could look how I wanted to look, play the right part, but that’s not what would bring me a deep sense of joy or satisfaction. In fact, I’m still looking for that sense of joy and happiness. I know that I’m much less anxious now that I’ve let the ideas that my surroundings have to fit the image portrayed in the pages of a catalogue. And think a big part of the puzzle is spending time with those who support and love me.

Cleaning Cabinets Even When They’re Going To Be Torn Down

As I’ve said above, I work at a family shelter part-time as direct care. This means I help the guests with their daily needs, such as doing laundry for them or getting them food items they may need. But between fulfilling my duties, there is a lot of down time. So it wasn’t too long ago that I decided to take on some projects that needed some love and attention around the house.

I started in the kitchen and for good reason, it was a mess. The cabinets had what looked like years of grease and grime rubbed into every crevasse across their surfaces. And if you opened them, they weren’t in much better shape.

The only way I can describe them is that it looked as though an animal had been nesting in them. There were packages torn open with their contents strewn about the shelves. There were piles of things in no particular order or reason. It was a mess. So I started by scraping and scrubbing the cabinet exteriors.

There was so much caked on grease that I was using a butter knife to clean it off the way you would use a putty knife to scrape off excess plaster from a wall. It reminded me of one of my first apartments, the one I moved into without asking. But the more I cleaned, the more the guests began to take notice.

They made comments about how hard I was working and how good the cabinets looked. It was nice to receive the compliment, but what I’m sure felt better was that someone was taking the time to care for the place where they cooked their meals. Later on, while I was cleaning the cabinets, my boss came over and told me we were going to tear down the cabinets in a few weeks due to a kitchen renovation, so I didn’t need to put so much effort into something that was going to be torn down anyway. But I continued cleaning all the same.

Mostly because I was almost done, and the cabinet really started to look good. But also because and more importantly, the guests were taking pride in their newly cleaned environment. The place they came to live because they were “homeless”, started to take on a new feeling. A feeling of being cared for, paid attention to. And later when I stocked the cabinet with the food from our pantry the way you would see the shelves stocked in a grocery, they started cooking and using the resources that were there for them to use in the first place. Only in a cleaner environment.

And these are the differences that a clean, inviting environment can imbue in a person living in them. A sense of pride in the place they call home. It really is amazing what a little love and attention can do for our surroundings. And if you think about it, it’s happening all around us. This is the reason why shows like “Fixer Upper” were so popular. They show what’s possible by simply taking care of the things that have been neglected.

Where is this true in your life? Instead of going out and buying something new to fill a need for change, is there something that is maybe right in front of you that could use a little TLC? I’ve almost stopped buying new things completely and have thrifted most of my major purchases in recent years. I still have the desk from Pottery Barn, but it’s now probably 15 years old and I’ll be keeping it for years to come. And most importantly, it doesn’t define my personality anymore. I am more than the desk I own, but rather now it’s an extension of my personality.

So take some time and take stock of the things you bring into your life. Ask yourself, “why do I like this so much?” Is it because it’s pleasing to you and adds comfort to your life? Or is it something you’re trying to build a life style or self image around? Because that maybe the difference between you finding things that fit your personality and finding personality by buying things. Peace and thanks for reading : )

Image Credits: “Dirty kitchen sink from a condo in Palm Springs” by Eco Bear Biohazard Cleaning Co. is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

Sexual Boundaries: What Happens When There’s No One To Give You Guidance

This is a tricky topic to navigate. There are a lot of people with very strong beliefs on what is right/wrong and there are even more people unwilling to talk about the topic at all. Neither, from my experience, are very helpful when it comes to figuring out what are healthy boundaries to maintain. I’m not an expert on the topic, but I have been around some pretty unhealthy environments pertaining to sexuality.

I’d like to talk about some of my experiences and what I’ve learned from them while trying to sort through these situations and my emotions surrounding them. It isn’t easy, and it is definitely strange at times, but it doesn’t have to be a source of anxiety. In fact, sex is something that can be fun, and if handled with respect, something that adds to our quality of life.

Unhealthy Lessons From The Past

In the environment I was raised in, there were very few boundaries around sex. However the one boundary we did keep was, that no one should ever talk about it. This was confusing to sort out as a child. Especially when the number one message being sent to me was, your self worth is mostly determined by how attractive you look. And being attractive was directly correlated to sex appeal in this environment and under these rules I was raised under.

There were a mind blowing amount of critical judgements being made about our appearances as well. It seemed to be the only thing that had any value. But what was even more confusing was, being surrounded by sex, via the act itself, pornography, sexual devices and contraceptives, and without any explanation as to the role these things have in our lives.

I was just left to figure it out on my own, with ample unspoken and unhealthy messages to guide me. And it took me a long time to begin to understand how these messages would manifest in my life through my actions, and what healthier versions of these lessons are. The following are just a few areas that manifested in my life where I was left to fend for myself when trying to make sense of this new sexuality I was coming to understand.

Pornography

This was something that had entered my life at a very early age. It was also something that I was surrounded by and that was endorsed by my caregivers from the start. For whatever reason, people back in the eighties and nineties had huge collections of pornography laying around their houses. I remember vividly that it was a staple in one of my caregivers bathrooms as a child.

The first, and one of the only times my caregivers ever spoke about the subject, was to tell me not to make the pages stick together. I couldn’t have been more than 8 at the time and I had no idea what they were talking about. I was just excited about this new discovery. But what young boy wouldn’t be?

From then on, there was a pretty consistent stream of being surrounded by pornography in one shape or form. As I’ve said above, there were large collections of all sorts. From devices and magazines, computer files full of paraphernalia… The list goes on. And since nobody was talking about this massively unhealthy relationship we all had developed to sex, I was left to navigate this terrane all my own with exception of the examples I had modeled for me.

I remember vividly, one of my caregivers, upon me walking downstairs in the mornings, covering himself with his robe with a guilty expedience in front of the computer and then turning it off. Not to mention the giant collections of digital and physical pornography they had. This happened for years. The poor role modeling and everybody being too embarrassed to talk about it left me wondering, “what am I doing wrong?” Not realizing how unhealthy the environment I was in, was.

So when I was old enough and on my own, I was mildly surprised to find out that I had picked up right where my caregivers had left off. I was embodying the ways in which my caregivers were living, mostly because I was looking for someone to tell me why I didn’t feel as though I was loved and belonged even though I was doing the same things they were.

Love & Sex Are Not The Same

The more I thought about it, the more this made sense to me. If the only thing that ever really mattered to my caregivers was looking attractive, and the only things I knew about their emotional lives were from the large caches of riske materials they had squirreled away, than the way to feel loved and belonging, according to this dynamic anyways, was to be obsessed with pleasure seeking behaviors. So that’s what I did until something inside of me changed.

I hadn’t realized that love and sex weren’t the same thing. From my previous lessons, I thought the more attractive you were, the more loved you would be. At the time, and for a long period of my life, my role model was Brad Pitt’s character from Fight Club. I wanted to look like he looked, act like he acted and pretty much, be him. I thought that this was the way to be accepted and loved. Looking good naked was what I thought the foundation of a “healthy” relationship was built on because it was the measure against which I was judged.

When Things Change

But this all changed for me one day when I found someone who I felt accepted me as I was, and where I truly felt a sense of belonging. Not because I looked good naked, not because I met some unreasonable standard, but for simply being me.

This was earth shattering. I had no idea what to do with these new emotions I was experiencing. I was scared of feeling accepted because every sense of belonging I had in the past was hinged on me fitting a certain criteria. But I also wanted to cling on to this newly found sense of unconditional acceptance for fear that I would never experience something like it again.

My newly found sense of belonging was the catalyst for what drove me and my now ex-wife apart. When I told her what was happening with me, the weight of her feeling betrayed was too much for the relationship to bear as it was. I can understand where she was coming from because we both had similar outlooks on acceptance at the time. But the change that was taking place in me hadn’t fully actualized yet. I was willing to work through what I was experiencing but unfortunately, she wasn’t willing to do the same.

Left on My Own Again

After I attempted to communicate what was happening with me, and falling short of feeling understood, I was left on my own again. I jumped into a relationship almost immediately with a person who was more of a match with the former ways I had been living, but not for the new ways of being I was cultivating. So this relationship ended, but it was for the best.

I was still coming to understand the relationships I had with my emotional self and how I was cultivating a sense of belonging to and with the other people in my life. Only this time I was learning to leave behind the old lessons from my past.

Wanting to be Fit, Not Look Good Naked

This was a huge stumbling block for me. As I’ve said, so much emphasis was placed on how good I looked by my caregivers that I thought as though looking sexually attractive was the only way to feel loved and belonging. So I became vegan because I read that eating a plant based diet would help me maintain a low body fat percentage.

It took a long time for me to even admit that that was why I had made such a drastic change in my life style. I was telling myself I was doing it for the animals mostly. But when it came down to it, the messages from my past were too strong for me to just let go and be free and clear.

Now I have a different outlook on my eating habits. I eat vegetarian when I’m out due to it being difficult to eat vegan most places, but cook mostly vegan for myself. I’m doing it for a combination of reasons that I feel is more honest to me. The reasons now are: for the environment, for my health and for animal well-fair.

The environment is in dire need of our love and attention, and the less we support big agriculture, the better off our planet will be. This article from the BBC explains that a 5th of the worlds total carbon emissions are created by the meat and dairy industry. That’s a big piece of our planet’s health.

And my health is just as important as the planets health, as is all individuals. Before I made the change in my diet, I weight 240lbs and was drinking more than half of my daily calories. I now weigh about 180lbs and feel much better overall. I have more stamina and am able to exercise with greater ease leaving me feeling healthier. It also helps that I quit smoking cigarettes in my mid-twenties and drinking large amounts of alcohol in my early thirties.

And finally, yes I am concerned about the well-being of the animals on this planet. I have a hard time stepping on insects, let alone knowing that animals are literally being slaughtered for my meals. But also knowing that not eating meat and dairy naturally leads to lower levels of unhealthy fats and cholesterol, as well as being healthier for the planets carbon emissions is reason enough for me to make the change from wanting to look good naked to being a part of the solution to the health problems of our selves and our planet.

Stronger Alone Means Stronger Together

And all this work that I’m doing for myself is something that ultimately will make me a stronger person. I’m learning to accept myself where I am, so I can make changes towards a healthier, stronger version of myself. Because when my belonging hinged on how attractive somebody else found me to be, I was putting all of my self worth in the hands of the beholder. This is why I felt as though I had no agency in my life, and didn’t feel a sense of belonging. Because my worth was not something I had a say in.

Instead, I had to find a person that found me sexually attractive, then do whatever it was that they wanted of me in order to hope to feel a sense of being loved and feeling belonging. This, as Melba would say, was no bueno.

Now that I’m feeling and looking healthier, and for healthier reasons than to get laid or to feel loved, I’m stronger for it. And it’s the practice of this mindset that is helping me to stay grounded in what matters most. And that is to feel strong in my self-worth by taking the best care I’m able, of myself, to lead the healthiest and happiest version of myself. Aka, living my best life.

And it’s once I’ve learned to live from this place of intrinsic self-worth, that I’ll be able to be in a healthy relationship with another. As my boss likes to say, “I need to be a better one before I can be a two”. It’s also helpful to remember that it’s a practice and that it isn’t always going to be an easy one.

There are definitely times where I just don’t feel strong enough to carry the load I have. But it’s in these times that we need to be gentle with ourselves. I know from my experience that my self worth was attached to somebody else’s perception of me for so long, that I forgot I even had a say in how I felt about myself. But once I started practicing the self-care and giving myself the love I needed, it became easier and easier to feel into these states and the load was easier to carry. But I had to ease my way in, little by little.

As I’ve said above, it isn’t always easy sorting out how we feel about ourselves from how others project onto us their expectations. But with some practice, we can begin to sort out what is ours, from what is expected of us. And along the way we may even pick up the tools to find those who will accept us for who we are, instead of who they want us to be. So don’t give up! You are much stronger than you give yourself credit for 🙂 Peace, and thanks for reading 🙂

Image Credits: “Melissa Adret, Model” by Melissa A. N. (Model) is licensed under CC BY 2.0.Copy text

Your Self Worth Is Not Determined By How Much You Do For Others or How You Are Perceived: Why Listening Matters

This is a difficult lesson for a lot of people, including myself. And how well we learn it depends on a lot of varying factors. From how we were treated in our early childhood to the ways we see how we’re able to effect our surroundings and make changes in our lives. If handled poorly, we can be paralyzed by fear for not adding up to our learned expectations. And these standards or expectations can sometimes feel impossible to meet.

Childhood’s What Makes You

For me in my childhood, I was told this message on a regular basis. There was a constant stream of criticism and negative judgements and a finite amount of praise or positive reinforcement. In fact, I only ever remember receiving one compliment from one of my caregivers in my childhood and it was based on how attractive my calves were. This did not make for a caring or warm, nurturing environment.

I was however, told how lazy I was regularly and regardless of whether or not I was doing what was asked of me. A task that usually took the form of a chore of some sort. And to add insult to injury, I wasn’t shown or taught how to do the tasks that I was being called lazy for not doing correctly, with any amount of patience or thoughtful guidance. It was just expected that I should know how to do the task and do it perfect. This is the definition of an impossible standard.

So with all these negative messages and impossible standards I was being pummeled with and measured against, how did I find my way out of the trap of beating myself up for never feeling enough? Short answer, I didn’t for a long time. I continued to abuse myself and others in the same ways I was abused.

Living Under Unachievable Expectations

These dangerously unreasonable expectations I was raised with, followed me throughout my life. I was using the insanity producing sentiment of, “is that all you are capable of?” to pass judgement on everything that not only I was doing, but of those who were close to me as well. I almost always had a condescending attitude towards what others were doing and nothing anybody did was ever good enough.

What I feel was most confusing about these impossible expectations I held and those holding me to them was, that there was nothing backing them. They had no foundation, but I held on to them with conviction. Never questioning why I was measuring everything/body up in this way. But I was holding onto this way of being while being gripped with a sense of fear that if I didn’t meet my own impossible standards, I would be abandoned again as I had felt I was in my childhood.

And the more I thought about it, the more I realized that my caregivers were acting under this same convictions of feeling unworthy of feeling belonging. For no other reason than because we were withholding our acceptance of one another from each other. We were keeping the very thing we wanted from ourselves by holding it back from those we were judging so harshly.

This is probably what is meant by we have the keys to our own prison. But if the keys are so buried under the rubble of our unreasonable standards, how do we even know what to look for? We need a guide, or a role model in the first place to begin the search for our own release from out of our prisons of unreasonable expectations and critical judgements.

Waking Up From The Unachievable

This is no easy task. I was so inundated with the ideas of perfection that were floating around in my head that the unachievable seemed reasonable. And this is a dangerous head space to inhabit. I was acting mean, entitled and made sure everybody within hearing range knew what my thoughts on the matter, whatever it was, were.

I was so entrenched in my unsustainable beliefs, that it took an act of God to wake me from them. This act came in the form of a woman. I met, and thought I fell in love with a woman who made me change my entire way of being. The relationship didn’t start out in a way that was romantic, or even healthy. But she taught me a few lessons that were essential to me changing the person I used to be. The most important one being how to forgive.

Learning to Forgive and Accept What Is

As I’ve said, we didn’t start out on the best note, but we were infatuated with one another. For me, the term, “real recognize real and you looking familiar”-Jay-Z, resonates with me because it describes the feeling of recognizing the same type of hurt in the other and knowing how to care for it. This, I’m convinced, is what was happening with us. We would have been much better as friends, but the alure of helping each other to heal from our similar wounds was much too strong to let our relationship just be casual.

So we stayed together. And again, we were tested every step of the way. Some things happened that I won’t go into detail about, but they were comprised of what usually bring most relationships to a bitter end without any chance for reconciliation. And I was asked to move past them in the first month of our relationship.

This wasn’t easy, but I was willing to come to terms with them, confront them and heal from them. Even giving up things I loved for her sake, hoping to make it a little easier for her to bear the cost of her actions. But all my efforts were for not as she continued to spiral down. Again, not easy to watch.

But I don’t for a second regret the changes and sacrifices I made on her behalf, mostly because they ended up making me a better person in the end. And for that, I am grateful to her. But forgiveness was easy when I felt heard and seen for the first time since I was a child. Real recognize real has a powerful effect on those who’ve been neglected, and it was just the remedy I was looking for from feeling as though I was never adding up.

Real Recognize Real, Or, Stellar Communication

The ability for me to learn how to forgive myself and others, for not meeting my impossible standards and just about every other infraction, perceived or real, came down to how well I felt as though I was being heard and seen and then reciprocating to that. And feeling heard and seen really comes down to how well we communicate with one another.

So the lesson I learned in that relationship was, that for me, communication and feeling heard and seen were most important to feeling enough. This may seem like a no brainer, but for the chronically neglected, this set off all sorts of lightbulbs. The ability to be recognized in my emotions and having someone react to them in real time was what had been missing from my emotional world for what felt like my entire life.

It felt so comforting to be held in a space of feeling heard instead of the feelings of not adding up to the others expectations, that I would do just about anything to hold onto that feeling. This is what made forgiveness so easy for me. This space of feeling heard and seen allowed me the courage to overcome the feelings of hurt and sense of being done wrong and not adding up. And it’s from here that I was willing and able to build a healthy relationship.

These were the tools I was missing, was never taught by my caregivers in my youth. No wonder my relationships all failed in the past. But I also learned from our relationship that, just because I was ready to communicate open and honestly with my partner, didn’t also mean that she was ready to. So in the end, our relationship failed. Though this time not for lack of me trying to make it work.

Finding the Right Person Being Willing to Do the Difficult Work of Communicating

As I’ve said above, it can’t just be one person doing the work of communicating. If this is the case, there will most likely come with it a feeling of unrest, of not feeling heard and not quite knowing why. This was how I felt when I was unable to communicate my feelings to my partners. And in my case, I chose partners who were outspoken and knew exactly what they wanted. They wanted somebody who would come along for the ride while they made the decisions and I was looking for someone to do the work of living my life for me.

It seemed like a win win, but this type of control over another usually leaves one person feeling as though they have no control over their life and as though they aren’t doing enough to feel loved. For me, I was feeling listless and left wanting more. More out of my life, out of my relationships, more belonging. I was drinking a lot to numb the dis-ease of these feelings of lacking and feeling isolated. This was a lonely place to be.

So now that I know what was lacking from my past relationships, what’s changed? How does what I know now change the ways I see and choose my relationships in the present? For starters, I’m more aware of the people around me and their ability to listen to what I have to say.

Listening to Feel Heard

A partners ability to listen to feel a sense of being enough is now at the top of my list of desirable attributes. Before I was looking for one thing only, and that’s how good looking my partner was. This seemed to be the only thing that mattered to me, but looking back now it was the number one value that all of my caregivers could agree on. You could do terrible things to others, but as long as you were attractive, it was okay.

Only, this type of foundation in a relationship leads to connections based on superficialities that do not last. It also breeds resentment from my experience. There is a feeling of distance between each other that translates into the question, am I enough? This is because our emotional worlds are usually left unattended, uncared for by our partners and probably ourselves. And if you don’t feel heard or seen in a relationship, then you have what I’ve described above. Something that is based on control over the other and feeling as though you have to do more or be more to feel loved. The sentiment in this type of relationship being, I have what you want and you’d better do as I say or or fit my idea of you or I’ll take it away.

But if we listen to each other, attune to each other’s need, then we begin to build true intimacy. Feeling heard brings with it a sense of feeling loved and belonging. So being heard and listening to one another is a way to feeling belonging to each other. Finally feeling enough for the other person. The sentiment in this type of relationship being, I hear you and I’m here for you. This is how we build connections that are strong and lasting. Not withholding love from the other to feel belonging, but giving love to be open to receive love.

Giving Love to Feel Enough

So in the search for healthy relationships, we don’t have to push ourselves to give as much as humanly possible to feel loved and accepted. This is a trap that we get caught in usually because we already don’t feel as though we’re enough as we are, in order to feel loved. Instead of focusing on what we can do for others to feel loved, instead focus on how do we accept ourselves and others as we are. Then we’ll be driven to do for ourselves and others, only not from a place as Brene Brown so aptly puts it as, “hustling for approval”, but because we want what’s best for ourselves and our loved ones.

So if you feel as though you’re not adding up in some way, or have to do more in order to feel loved and belong to and with another, slow down and take a look at why you feel this way. Question what you’re believing about yourself and your belonging. You may just find that you’re already enough. Peace : ) and thanks for reading.

Image Credits: “Impossible standards just make life difficult. #fortunecookie” by dziner is marked with CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

Asking For What You Need: When You Can’t Find the Words Or Were Never Taught How to Speak Up For Yourself

This is something I’ve struggled with for decades. In the family and environment I grew up in, you took what you wanted and any vulnerabilities you showed, were attacked relentlessly. Not a nurturing setting. It seemed that no matter what I did for my family, it was never enough. Nobody ever thanked anybody for the things we did for one another and when we did do something to help another out, we acted as though we were being asked too much of. In short, we acted like martyrs.

Actually, the term martyr was used liberally in our family. To think back on the ways we treated each other now makes me feel a little sick. Even the smallest need expressed was met with resentment in the cruelest sense of the word. Asking for anything from my family felt like you had just asked them to sacrifice what was most precious to them and in turn making you feel as though you couldn’t have wronged them in a more violating way. It was an intense and confusing experience to say the least.

So what does this have to do with being able to speak up for yourself? For me, it has a lot to do with the conditioning that was happening in the subtext of my familial relationships growing up. And this set against the backdrop of my trauma, has shaped the ways I’m able to ask for my needs to be met by others. Let me show you what I mean by starting from the beginning.

When Your Family Turns Their Back on You

When I was eight, my entire world changed. From what I remember, my family went from being a close knit group who spent holidays together and visiting with one another frequently, to having one of its strongest members die from skin cancer. Sending all its members scattered to the four winds. For me, my family turning their back on me happened in a most literal way.

About the time one of my family members was dying of skin cancer, another family member was pulling me from bed in the middle of the night to give me the most terrifying of talks on what it means to be a man. I have never been more frightened of anything in my entire life. From being completely alone, tiny and vulnerable, to being violently rent from a sound sleep and being yelled at in the dark by a drunk, towering, beast of a man, with no one to turn to for safety and no way to escape this fate. It was a lot to take in at eight. There’s an image that I keep that embodies this idea and feeling for me:

I’m not sure where the original image is from, but the artist definitely understands fear in its most primal sense.

When I told my main caregiver what was happening, even though I was under strict orders to keep my abuse a secret, my caregiver literally turned their back on me and never spoke about it again until I brought it up. And all this was happening while my parents were in the middle of a violent and petty divorce. Not to mention my family was falling apart due to the death of one of its most independent members. I literally had no where or one to turn to. So it was in this setting that I grew up, not being taught how to ask for what I needed most. Mainly security and a sense of belonging.

Not Being Able to Ask For Help = Making Poor Choices

So it was in this environment that my will was formed. I was mean, entitled, arrogant and bossy. And of course these were all just acts to protect myself against what I wanted most of all, which was to be loved and accepted. But we were all just running from ourselves and each other, because we were too scared of being vulnerable around those who were hurting us the most. So I ran.

I ran mostly by physically and emotionally disconnecting from those closest to me. I also drank too much alcohol and coffee to avoid my emotional world. Those who would cut me apart for showing what was considered, “signs of weakness” aka vulnerability. And one of those vulnerabilities was, relying on others for help.

I was unable to ask for help from anybody. Mostly because I thought I had to do it all by myself because I was a man and that’s what the men in my family were taught to do. This was also partly due to the arrogance I was taught by acting like a martyr every time somebody asked something of me. But mostly due to thinking that nobody should have to help me, by virtue of being a man. That I should be able to do it all on my own. And not only that, but do it perfectly. This is a scary place to be, also a very lonely one. And this was how I lived my life. Alone and scared to reach out to others.

I had sever social anxiety and the only way I could be around people was if I was drinking alcohol to dull the emotions or coffee to speed past them, with the occasional anti-anxiety med or Adderall tossed in for good measure. I’m making light, but the feelings of fear and anxiety were intense. The only way I was able to manage these feelings was by being medicated.

Fear of Connecting, to Ourselves and Others

And when there is this much fear and anxiety running around in our lives unchecked, it’s difficult to know who you can ask for help from while feeling safe enough doing it. Or to even know you can feel ways other than anxious and fearful around others and that others can help you in your healing process. This was where I had found myself decades after my initial trauma and the abuse I incurred from a life’s time worth of self-abuse and abuse from those closest to me.

So what did I do? To try and reconnect with the parts of myself and of those closest to me? The bridges that had been burned down so long ago, out of fear and spite of how we were treating each other and ourselves, had to be rebuilt. And this wasn’t easy.

I had to recognize that I was running from everyone and every feeling that had been accumulating in my life. I had almost no longstanding friendships to speak of, and left everyone that ever tried to build a loving connection with me. When I was thirty two, I left my then loving, beautiful and devoted wife, for a woman, girl really, 11 years my junior and living in the same, self destructive ways I was accustom to living from my early twenties.

And I did all this to avoid growing beyond the small, fearful life I was used to. The isolation and fear that I spent my time in, avoiding making loving connections with valued friends and family. The very relationships that make life worth living I was avoiding. So after the woman I left my ex-wife for left me, I was left with myself, to sort out the mess I had made.

Building Bridges That We’ve Already Burned: All is Not Lost

After I was left, I realized just how bad my situation was. I was alone, with absolutely zero understanding of how to live my life and no idea how to cultivate the resources I would need to get my life on track. However, even when things seem at their worst, there’s always hope.

I moved back in with my father and step-mom. One of the many relationships I had been running from. Here, I was able to start, what felt like a new life. The old me, the one who was mean, petty and condescending, was slowly eroding. More and more, I was no longer resembling that person. And probably more importantly, I didn’t want to be that person anymore.

I began listening to Tara Brach’s dharma talks constantly. I was looking for a soothing, friendly and inclusive voice. An antidote to the venom I had been struck with so many times, grown up through all those years of my childhood. I was reaching out to old friends. Starting up new conversations with those who used to be in my life and found that I had developed a real affection for these people and our relationships. Including my father and step-mom, going so far as to create family dinner Fridays. Not to mention, starting this blog which has helped to show me ways of re-parenting myself.

Before I had decided to change, I was mostly holding on to relationships out of fear for being alone and the feelings of rejection that came with that fear. So I did and acted, whatever and however I thought I should, in order to feel accepted. I wasn’t really focused on the quality of our relationships, because I was too preoccupied with how I thought the other person saw me. In short, I never learned how to speak my mind. How I truly felt or to ask for what I really needed from others. I just didn’t know how to listen inwardly. But I also wasn’t relating to my own emotions in an honest way. And if you can’t be honest with yourself, how can you begin to project that in relationship with others?

Getting in Touch With Yourself, Building the Bridge Inwardly

I started building the bridge to myself while I was with the woman who I had left my ex-wife for. I had finally felt safe enough, accepted enough, that I could begin to feel comfortable with myself. I owe a great debt of gratitude for the woman who helped me to wake up from the life I was living, even if they did end up leaving me.

It was there that I really learned how to build relationships. I started meditating regularly at that time. This was what allowed me to slow down enough to see how I was treating myself and how I felt about it. What I realized was, in a way I had become my own abuser by handing down the legacy of brutality that had been taught to me and using it on myself. This made me scared of myself and probably one of the reasons why I was so fearful and anxious all the time.

So I listened. I listened and I listened some more. There was a lot of fear I had been holing in that needed to be witnessed. There were nights where I didn’t think I’d be able to pull through to the next day. It was tough, that’s for sure. But I kept going. No matter what was coming up, I was able to sit with it and let it pass. Recognizing that what I was experiencing in the moment, wouldn’t last.

But it was hard to see outside of these feelings sometimes. This is what Tara Brach refers to as a “trance”. And she’s right. Because sometimes when you’re stuck in the middle of an emotion, it’s hard to see past what it is that you’re experiencing. But the more we train to stay when the difficult feelings arise, the better we’re able to see ourselves through to the other side of those feelings. The way out is through, as Trent Reznor so aptly put it.

Note to Self, Stop Running

So meditation is really where I learned to stop running. From myself and others. I was now building bridges instead of burning them, while learning how to listen inwardly to understand and ask how to nurture and care for myself, in the ways that hadn’t been shown to me in the past. This was quite a remarkable turn around from where I was.

I started re-parenting myself around the areas I had left neglected, as I had been neglected. I’m now focused on my career, my health by eating balanced, nutritious and mostly vegan meals. Big thanks to The Minimalist Baker for showing me how to cook for myself. I’m working out twice a week now. Shout out to Yoga With Adriene for her amazing library of free yoga videos. I’m saving and paying down debt while also planning for my retirement, which I hadn’t even given a second thought to in my early years. Another shout out to Dave Ramsey and his baby steps.

But most importantly, I’m now connecting in authentic ways with those I care about. I’m building the relationships now that I had been running from for so long because I was so scared of getting hurt again. What I now realize is, we all get hurt. You can’t avoid that. But do you run from the chance to feel loved and accepted because you’re too afraid of what happened in the past or what might happen? For me, I’ve realized that this is a waste of time.

The Future!

So now that I’m able to listen inwardly, attune to my needs and to those of my friends and family, what’s next? For me it’s living and building the best possible life. For myself and those I surround myself with. Whatever their vision is of a better future, I want to be involved. And I want them involved in the better version of my future as well.

We all have our own trials to go through, our own challenges. But don’t let those stop you from becoming the best version of yourself. You’ve got a lot to give, don’t sell yourself short. Peace : ) and thanks for reading.

Image Credits: “Finding the words – 320/365” by tranchis is marked with CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.

Healthy Sex Life, Healthy Relationship: How You Relate to Sex Matters

I was at my workplace a few days ago when I noticed an attractive woman enter the store. My first thoughts were, “man, she’s beautiful”. Thinking back on this now, I’m amazed at how different my reactions and intentions are from what they used to be. Before I would judge the attractiveness of a woman by her body and how she looked. Now I notice more subtle characteristics of women and their personality is a large part of the whole.

This isn’t to say that I don’t find other aspects of women attractive. Such as their looks and how in shape they are. But they are for much different reasons now and a much smaller part of the equation.

Sex was All I Could Think About

In my youth, it seemed that all I was focused on was sex. The question “how do I find a hottie to bang?” was one I asked myself often. And full discloser, I did not have much game. And to be fair, I was raised in a family that held sexual desirability as their number one value. We used sex as a way to be liked and a way to gage how much we were valued. If you couldn’t find someone to have sex with, then you were doing something wrong.

This was the message that I was receiving, not only in my family but also everywhere I went. Sex was all anybody I hung out with seemed to talk about. Whenever I was with my friends, we would objectify women to some degree. Whether it was whom my friend was cheating on his girlfriend with, or what “chick” I wanted to “bang”, we had always viewed women as objects, prizes to be had.

This was not a healthy way to be in relationship. Pornography was also something that was ubiquitous in all of my relationships. From contraceptives being left on the backs of toilets in my childhood home, to the enormous pornography collections of my caregivers, to my later pornography habits, sex was the number one way we all were relating to ourselves and how we judged each other.

When Looking Good is Priority One

One of my caregivers went so far as to offer me money to lose weight. I was overweight as a teenager and had no self restraint when it came to how I fed myself. Of course, they were feeding me. So instead of being taught a healthy relationship to what I was eating, I was being bribed to learn how to for myself. These were confusing messages I was receiving. Especially as a child trying to establish my own set of values and seeing my caregivers practiced values directly in contradiction to what they said they desired.

So my health goals all revolved around how I could look good naked. Again, an unhealthy way to relate to my nourishing myself. And as unhealthy as it was to be a guide for my eating habits, it was even worse of a guide for how I valued myself and my partner in my relationships.

I put looking attractive as more important than being kind or loving. The kinds of relationships I was trying to cultivate were those based on how attractive we were and how others found me and my partner desirable. And I was constantly judging other women as more or less attractive to my then current partner.

Women had been treated as sex objects for so long in my family, mostly by the women in my family, that when it came time for me to find and develop a relationship all my own, I looked for a partner with impossibly high standards and who was critically minded. Together, between the two of us, nothing ever measured up to our standards.

Unhealthy Values = Unhealthy Communication

When you’re as concerned about how you look to others as we were, for me more so physically and my partner more ideologically, you are afraid of being seen as anything but perfect. It felt as though every expectation was being picked apart and analyzed by each other. “Am I adding up?” was my constant concern. But I was also to proud to admit I was scared that I wasn’t enough in the eyes of my partner.

I was acting as though I was beyond reproach, but really was scared of what anybody thought of me. So instead of being vulnerable, taking the risk and being open and honest with my partner about how I felt I wasn’t good enough to be with, I ran.

I thought I developed feelings for another woman and ran to be by her side. What I was really recognizing was that, the other woman was just as judgmental as my partner and I were, but they were enthusiastic about being with me. I couldn’t see this at the time, but even with my being blinded to what was happening to me and my inability to communicate, I still offered to work through our issues with my then, current partner.

Understandably, she declined and ultimately left me. And this all stemmed from us being unable to share our emotions and perspectives of what was happening in our relationship because we were too scared to show each other our vulnerabilities. Our fear was that they (our vulnerabilities) would be abused as they had in us before by those we trusted.

And I can’t help but to feel that if my number one value wasn’t based on how attractive I or my partner was, then maybe I would have been able to see them, my partner, as a person instead of an abject. Also myself as a person instead of an object. We would have been able to have conversations about other values and feelings. Like our vulnerabilities and fears of trusting others for the times they were abused in the past. All of these “difficult” conversations could have lead to tighter bonds and wiser decision making. I may even still be married.

But the sad fact is, we just weren’t ready for that level of intimacy and trust. The ability to release control of how others saw us. As if we had control of that to begin with. Instead we all just ended up hurt and me alone.

Okay I Know My Values are Askew, Now What?

I figured this out after I had already done some serious damage to a majority of my relationships. This however, wasn’t the worst thing that could have happened to me. After I had been left for the second time for wanting to change the trajectory of my life, I ended up at my father’s house.

Here I was challenged to face some of those fears around being vulnerable in the presence of those who left and abused me. I’ve said before on this blog, if it wasn’t for this chance to rebuild a relationship I had been running from my entire life, I most likely would have ended up homeless.

So I started the work of cleaning up the mess I had made of my life. And the mess was formidable indeed. One of the places I began was, to start treating individuals with the respect I thought they deserved.

People as People, Not Objects

This was difficult for me because as I’ve said above, all of my role models, and I mean ALL, objectified women as sex objects and men as calloused and in charge. I had to identify the unhealthy habits I was practicing without realizing it and make a conscious effort to change what I was unconsciously doing.

One of the habits I identified to change was, I didn’t make eye contact with women I met. I was usually making a judgement on how attractive I thought they were by staring at their bodies. In my youth, I once entered my workplace and objectified the woman at the counter to my then friend by making rude gestures only to realize that it was my sister I was objectifying. This is something I’m not proud of, but that’s how I chose to live my life.

Now, I keep my eyes at face level. The person I’m interacting with deserves my attention and more importantly, my respect. I find that with a more concerted effort to pay attention to the person by not judging them, it’s easier to talk with them and I feel less pressure and as though I’m being judged.

And this is not an easy habit to break if you’re used to objectifying women the way that I had been. I find that I subconsciously want to search out different body parts or not make eye contact at all. But if repetition created my habit, it’s repetition that will break it.

Learning to Communicate How I Feel and Ask How Others Are Feeling, Not Just Acting a Part

Being able to acknowledge people as people and not objects has helped me in other areas as well. I’m more able to have open and honest conversations with people. Especially those close to me, instead of trying to be seen as someone who is likeable. I’m also able to own my mistakes now because I’m not afraid of looking less than perfect.

For example, the woman I currently work for is an excellent role model of someone who values honest communication over being seen as in control, or an authority. As a result, because of her values and because I’m able to see her as a person with value, I’m not afraid to talk about my mistakes and learn how to improve through them. This was something that was seen as a weakness in my family while I was growing up.

I’m also more confident in who I am as well. When I have a disagreement with someone, I now know how I feel about what’s happening, how I’m being treated by the other or how the other person feels. I used to fear being disliked and would do or say just about anything to feel belonging. Or I had no control over my anger and let it fly without restraint. Also something I was told was the mark of a man.

I had an argument with my father not to long ago that could have ended poorly had I chose to react the ways I used to when confronted with conflict. Instead of freezing him out after he reacted in a way that he later regretted, I was able to stand in my body and feel the full force of his anger while acknowledging that how he was reacting was not a reflection of who I am, how he sees me or makes me any less of who I already am.

I felt confident in myself, that I could take care of myself and stand up for myself at the same time. I felt as though I had an inner strength by standing up for myself instead of folding to the other person’s wishes or acting in a petty way. We were able to resolve our argument while acknowledging how we each felt. We both felt heard and that felt good.

I Thought There Was Going to Be More Talk About Sex?

So how does this all tie into a better sex life? These aren’t just disparate parts working independently of each other. So much of how we see one another and how we talk to each other forms the bonds that holds our relationships together. If you are constantly objectifying women as sex objects, including your partner, as I was, eventually they become one dimensional. And inevitably we will search out others to fill the need for novelty. This leads to an unhealthy relationship and sexlife.

But if we choose to view our partners, and people in general as multi-dimensional, then we begin to build more intimate bonds that will last beyond when we get bored with the one aspect of the person we decide to fetishize. This leads to feeling and being heard, understood and ultimately loved. And yes, when sex isn’t the sole focus of our interests, it becomes more enjoyable when you do indulge in it : ) It’s something to look forward to as opposed to what we hinge our value on.

And what brings this all together is, practice. It’s not always easy and in fact, it’s sometimes down right hard. But keep after it and it will pay off. There’s so much to discover about those closest to us that it would be a shame to ignore focus only on one aspect. Peace, and thanks for reading : )

Image Credits: “Romance & Sex Life of the Date” by Thomas Hawk is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

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