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.
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 🙂