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.

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

Living Your Life: Relationships, Romantic

Here’s another topic that I was completely in the dark about. Along with friendships, romance and intimacy were so far from my definition of what a healthy relationship is that I’m amazed I was able to find anybody at all to share my time and experiences with. But as I was taught to develop friendships via poor role modeling, something I went over in my last post, the same rubric was also true of my romantic relationships. Only instead of looking the part by being popular or in charge, I was taught that sex appeal was the most important attribute and way to be valued in a relationship. This was unhealthy, though at the time I didn’t know any better or any other way of being in relationship.

So I chased this impossible standard that was laid out for me. Looking back at how I saw myself in my relationships, I’m not even sure what it was that I was seeking. I had an unrealistic image of what I thought I should be, and no real guide or understanding of how to get to where I thought I should be. And most of the time I think I was just chasing a feeling. Comfortably numb, as Pink Floyd aptly described it.

And if I wasn’t getting the connection and intimacy that are available in healthy relationships, does that mean my partners were also void of these experiences? Or was it a one sided phenomenon? I don’t know the answers to these questions, but my former wife told me before we split up that she had felt safe with me. I felt unsafe most of the time so maybe it was a one sided experience. What I do know for sure is that I had problems feeling intimate and close in relationships, especially with romantic partners.

And I suppose some of this understanding comes from a question of perspective. What does intimacy mean to different people? One popular dating app I am currently using has this as a question for matching purposes, “does intimacy mean sex”. For me, the answer is definitely no, though, that’s what it has meant in the past. It’s an aspect of intimacy for sure, but the way the question is worded suggests you can only be intimate with those you are having sex with. And that seems too close to confusing sex for love to me. Especially being raised by people who’s number one value was sex appeal. This feels much like the environment for conditional love.

So what did I do to over come these doubts blocking me from feeling intimate in my relationships? It took a lot of feeling uncomfortable in my relationships and trust that I would eventually feel a sense of comfort and ease in them. It wasn’t easy, and it’s something I’m still working on. But it’s also something that I can feel myself getting stronger in, and have seen noticable differences in my moods and relationships.

I started by first, reaching out. This may seem obvious for those who have healthy relationships, but for those who have been in abusive or conditional ones, it can be a daunting task to open up to another human, not knowing what to expect. I’m currently using a couple of dating apps, and one way I’ve been reaching out is through sending messages to people I feel I would match well with.

Just the act of letting someone know you are interested is the first and most important step. The environment I grew up in was a very cold one at times. We learned to hold back our emotions and feelings of affection for one another, almost as a way to punish or keep the other person wanting what they can’t have by making it seem as though our regard was unobtainable. But the older I get, the more I realize that this is most likely due to being too scared to open up and be our emotional and vulnerable selves around one another. The feelings of being unlovable were too painful to expose to one another so we hid our feelings and felt ashamed of who we were seen as.

And these were the types of romantic relationships I sought. Where sex appeal was the most important attribute and a relationship that I didn’t have to be responsible for. Either for myself or for my partner. I wasn’t looking out for my partner because I felt as though I had to be constantly guarded to protect myself. I’d later find out that I was hyper vigilant due to the trauma I experienced in my childhood, but while I was experiencing it, I had no idea what it was that I was experiencing. Only that everybody was a potential threat, especially those closest to me, like my partner.

And that’s not to say that there weren’t times where I felt intimate. But these times were not a priority to me in my relationships. I was mostly seeking pleasure, the way I would drink to numb feelings that were too raw. These are the same ways in which I viewed relationships because it was what was shown to me. To switch this way of viewing relationships, as something I used to give me pleasure, I began to accept the people in my life, myself included, for who they are.

Now I no longer look to fit an image of how I think my life should look in order to live up to some comparison, to how I think others will most likely accept me. I’m making decisions based on who I feel I am. But this takes some digging to get to. There were a lot of different voices from my past trying to strong arm me into believing I wasn’t good enough just being me. And even worse were the voices of my past abusers telling me their projected images of who they thought I was. This mostly came in the form of toxically masculine standards and the ideas of what it means to be a man.

And of course, I took these messages into my relationships. Trying to live up to the pre-approved standards that were laid out for me to adopt as my own. But they didn’t work. And more importantly, they didn’t suit who I was. I thought I needed to be loud, in charge and have strong opinions. To be in control of every situation and never show weakness. I needed to be hard in order to be the “man” I thought I was supposed to be.

But of course, this lead to me being largely unable to feel my emotions. This is ultimately what lead to me being unable to understand and seek out qualities of intimacy and tenderness in my relationships. And this was the major reason my relationships ultimately failed. I was incapable of responding to my own, and my partners emotional needs with tenderness through the emotional walls I had built to keep others out.

Now that I’ve learned from my past mistakes, I’m viewing looking for a partner in a different light. My values shifted. Instead of looking for a woman whom is attractive and has sex appeal, I’m looking for someone who is loving and caring first. That doesn’t mean that I don’t want to be physically attracted to the woman I eventually fall in love with, only that the quality and ability for us to connect in a loving way is more important than how she looks in a pair of underwear.

One of the habits I’ve been doing to change the ways in which I think of and view relationships is, I’ve created a values list. This is a list of attributes in a partner that I value. Some examples are, loving, caring, kind, beautiful, loyal, creative, adventurous, sexy. Notice that being attractive is still on the list, only this time it isn’t the foundation of what I’m looking for in a partner. Being loving, caring and kind precede beauty. But attraction is still important in a match. Only now I have a healthier perspective of where it is as a priority.

As I’ve said above, I’ve been on a few dating sites and have developed a few habits around when and how often I use them. I’ve recently listened to a podcast called “Deeply Human” where the first episode was on dating. The host of the podcast was interviewing a doctor who studied the process of making decisions. He said that if we are given too many decisions, then we have a difficult time keeping choices in perspective. We tend to take the best qualities of each potential match, and compare them to who we are looking at. The result being, that the more potential matches we look at, the more likely they are to not add up to the conglomerate ideal we’ve mashed together from disparate parts.

With this in mind, I’ve begun to pair down the amount of potential matches I’m looking at in a given session. The doctor on the podcast suggests to only look at between five and eight potential matches. I’ve also limited myself to messaging only three potential matches at a time. This way I’m reaching out while also giving each match the attention they deserve without feeling overwhelmed.

And it makes sense to put some boundaries around this area of my life as well. I know that if bring an unreasonable amount of intensity to dating, then I’ll end up feeling desperate and as though I’ll never find someone to be with. And this is a very scary and vulnerable place to be. So slowing down helps to keep my values and priorities in focus while I’m looking for a partner. Win, win.

It also helps with self confidence as well. The more profiles you read, the more you can’t help but to compare yourself to those your looking to match with. It’s kind of like the social media effect, where you are constantly comparing yourself to the very best of what your friends are posting and maybe feeling as though you’re coming up short.

The same goes for dating apps. Everybody wants to show the most amazing aspects of their personality, lifestyle and careers. If we look at the positive self projections of others for long enough, we may feel like we’re not good enough for them, not adding up. And we all have our things, nobody’s perfect. Slowing down is also good for keeping some much needed perspective in an environment where everybody is trying to sell their best selves.

These are the habits that I’ve come to cultivate while looking for a partner. I’m sure it’ll look a little different for everybody, but it’s good to have some foundation, to know what your looking for and so hopefully, when you do meet the one that’s right for you, you’ll recognize them for who they are. And one last bit of advice, be persistent. The road may not be easy, but I believe there’s someone out there for everybody. Peace : ) good luck and thanks for reading.

Image Credits: “Dates?” by .::RMT::. is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

Alone: Being Resilient While You’re with Yourself

Being alone isn’t easy. Take away the distractions that we often pump into our day to day and it’s nearly impossible. People expend a lot of effort to get away from the life they find right here. This is what Tara Brach calls “the unlived life”. And it’s aptly named, because this is the life that is usually filled with concern, worry or anxiety. All emotions that nobody really wants to be around.

What happens if I disagree with my employer, or boss at work? What happens when I feel differently than what most people feel as being “normal”, or status quo? These are some difficult questions, and ones that come with a host of feelings, all revolving around feeling excluded or alone in your experience or emotions. These are vulnerable places to be.

And this is where we have a choice. A lot of people, including my past self, choose to run from these places inside ourselves. It’s easier to do what is expected of us in order to keep the order of the existing established rules. Even if this order, and sometimes, especially if the order is dysfunctional. Because those that are keeping the order sometimes need the added validation of their existing situation, of running from their vulnerability, to feel as though they are doing what is best, all in the name of avoiding their unlived life. I.e. the vulnerability of the difficult emotions of uncertain and unanswered questions.

And, all of this isn’t easy. That’s why it’s being run from in the first place! If it were easy, I’d imagine we’d all have many more healthy relationships and the world would be filled with a lot less conflict. But the truth is that we live in a world that is fraught with these types of relationships. And on top of the vulnerability, these habits and ways of being can sometimes be difficult to see, making them even more insidious as the root cause of much of our anxiety around varying relationships.

When you are stuck in the middle of the uneasy feelings, i.e. perceived expectations or mind reading, established relational roles or pigeonholing, most often it is difficult to see past the immediate dis-ease of feeling vulnerable, alone and uncomfortable, and instead we stay the course of what has been historically accepted, avoidance. In other words, the path is clear to follow, but it’s not always the healthiest path.

And this intricate dance, this confusing maze of expectations mixed with emotions and perceived expectations, can be the cause of much miscommunication. From my experience, when you expect a person to behave, act or take on/conform to certain unspoken standards, this is where people feel as though they are never adding up to another’s expectations, or just plane don’t feel enough. And a life’s time worth of feeling as though you’re not adding up is a lonely place to be.

So if we are constantly trying to live up to somebody else’s standards, and we feel as though we’re coming up short, how do we break the cycle of handing the responsibility of living our own lives to others by trying to live up to what they expect of us? I found, for myself anyways, that setting goals and owning my feelings are paramount to taking the leading role in living my own life.

I was so used to deferring the responsibility of the choices that needed to be made during the course of my days to somebody else, that it just became second nature. And there are no shortage of people that are willing to take up that role if you let them. So I first had to recognize what it was that I was running from, in order to take up the reigns of my life again. And this takes patients.

Patients first with you’re emotional experiences and second with finding the ways to best take care of yourself and your emotional needs. If this is something you’ve been leaving for someone else to manage than it is going to be a steep learning curve for sure.

For me, I had left that job for the person I was in relationship with. I had learned this from my caregivers, so I actively sought out this relationship dynamic. And as I’ve said above, there was no shortage of people looking to live my life for me. It wasn’t until I had ended these relationships that I was left with the unsettling truth that I needed to show up for, and live my own life. This was a shock for sure, because it was a dynamic that I was almost completely unaware of until I was left with myself.

I had to make all the decisions for myself, by myself. Everything from grocery shopping and cooking to budgeting, exercise and work decisions. All were left to my better judgements. It was scary and overwhelming at first. I remember feeling as though I couldn’t possibly take on the entire task of living my life all at once. But what I found made the biggest impact, which helped me to make these decisions without being overwhelmed by the scope of them was, patients, and taking things one step at a time.

Taking things slowly was important to learn. To recognize that I didn’t need to do it all at once, that I could take each task on slowly and deliberately. This helped me to not only make healthier choices, but I also had a clearer presence of mind while making the decisions. So I was also making better choices.

And also learning how to be patient with the emotional experiences as they were happening. Knowing when that little voice that pops up, the one that tells you that you need to act immediately, or else! And how to let that voice have its piece, but also not responding from that voice by being patient enough for the feeling of urgency to wear off, in order to then respond from a place that is more calm and able to see the situation from a more clear perspective.

And instead of feeling stressed out and as though you are frantically looking for answers to a situation by yourself, patients with ourselves allows us the time and space necessary to feel comfortable with the connectic feelings of urgency and uncertainty, while also allowing us to take a responsible and grounded approach to taking care of any situation that needs our attention.

For me, one of the ways this has played out in my recent past is in my professional life. I’m currently in the middle of picking up a new role and responsibilities at a new place of employment. I went in for a shift, and it was unlike the experience I was used to in a similar role at a different agency in the past. My first reaction, instinct was to walk away from the role. I thought that “this is unacceptable” and I was unwilling to compromise. This was, for me, the voice of urgency telling me I was in a situation that wasn’t safe.

But I decided to give the issue some more thought. I talked it over with a trusted friend, and came up with some thoughtful and direct questions that would communicate what my concerns were and how I was feeling about everything I was experiencing. But I had to do it on my own. Sure, I got some advice and guidance from a friend, but it was a new perspective that I gained. I still had to go inward and explore what I was feeling about the situation I was getting myself into.

What are my thoughts and feelings about what I’m about to do or plan on doing, and how am I going to address and attune to my feelings. This is where resilience is cultivated. Because essentially, these are the places where you meet your fears, feel them and find out what they are telling you, and then make some decisions about how you’re going to accept the fear, but move through it anyway to a place where you are confident in your ability to progress.

And like most ambitions in life, it’s not always easy. In my taking on a new role in a new position, I had some fears about the role, some concerns about how things are, and how I was used to them being in the past. I then had to be patient with my initial response which was to walk away from it out of fear. And then feel the fear and understand what I was trying to tell myself by exploring why I was uncomfortable. Once I explored my concerns, I then came up with a plan to take care of and attune to my feelings so they didn’t grow unchecked and take control of my actions.

Another step to this process is, being present with the discomfort of the feelings that are arising when I’m exploring and encountering new situations that provoke fear and uncertainty. Because if it wasn’t for the ability to stay with the feelings, especially the uncomfortable ones, then you would be constantly running from the situations that provoke these emotions. Keeping yourself in a comfort zone where you are unable to grow.

And this is how we learn to navigate our fears and anxieties, while moving forward with our lives in a positive direction. Staying flexible enough to face each new feeling that rises to meet us, but also holding our ground and knowing that we are enough to meet and grow through these new situations. Again, not always an easy task, but there’s something to be said for overcoming a challenge.

These are the decisions that we need to take care of, that come into our lives that we all have to face on our own. As I’ve said above, I used to defer this part of self-care and life responsibility to others. I can remember vividly Living with an ex-partner, in an apartment they had found, working at a job I wasn’t very happy with and going to school for something I wasn’t really sure I wanted to do. I had no idea what I was doing in life, but regardless, I just kept on going being propped up by those around me.

And it’s not as though I’m not grateful for those who helped me along the way. But I wasn’t allowing myself to come to terms with where I was in life by surrounding myself with those who were happy to be in a position of caretaking for me. And this is where we had been trapped in an unhealthy cycle of relationship. Me by not facing the emotions I was running from because I thought the responsibility of living my own life was too much, and my partner who was more than happy to tell me what to do and how to be for her own reasons.

And when the relationship finally ended, it came as a surprise to all parties. We were all finally forced to confront what it was that we were avoiding, but what came as the biggest surprise, to me anyway, was that I realized I was strong enough to change.

At the time, it was the affection of another that woke me up, to realizing that I had the ability and strength to face my own fears, but where it really took shape was when I told my partner about my feelings. How someone else’s affections had woken my emotions, something that had been dormant since the trauma, and that I was willing to work on what was right here, the relationship in the unhealthy form it had taken.

Ultimately my partner had said she was unwilling to work on our relationship. I don’t blame her for ending the relationship, only knowing that she, like me, was running from the difficult work of understanding the whole relationship, including the places of fear, vulnerability and uncertainty makes me sad for what we could have been if we had faced those emotions together. But first we need to do the inner work, to know what we are bringing into the relationship.

So if you have found yourself in a similar situation, or know this one well as a place you keep returning to, take heart. Resilience is possible as long as you are patient with yourself and stick around while you’re going through and sorting the difficult emotions. Feeling alone while you are sorting through these emotions is common. But it’s something we all have to face eventually and it also helps to know that you are not the first.

Many have come before you and have done the difficult work of coming to terms with their fears, vulnerabilities and anxieties. And it doesn’t last forever. It may take some time coming to a place of understanding these feelings, but we all get there eventually. I hope this has been of some help to you, and as always, peace, and thanks for reading : )

Image Credits: “Niagara Falls Peaceful Solitude” by ***Bud*** is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

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