Earnest Hemmingway, Reality TV & Partying

I had a dream a few nights ago and in that dream I was contemplating the Earnest Hemmingway Novels I’ve read. In my twenties, I went through a Hemmingway phase where I read a good portion of his works. I’ve also recently come to the conclusion, that I’m not now, nor ever was, a fan of his writing. I was trying to remember what it was that got me into reading him and I think it stems from him being popular with my friend group. For context, we were also watching a lot of Woody Allen movies. But the conclusion I’ve come to about Earnest is, that he was perpetuating and embodying the tenants of toxic masculinity.

Toxic Masculinity as a Lifestyle

The more I think about it, the clearer it becomes. Hemmingway was travelling around with his buddies, drinking too much and getting into fights. He wrote about war, fishing, bull-fighting, death, extreme independence and romantic encounters, topics saturated with masculinity. All of these topics and themes resonated with the type of man I thought I needed to be, at that junction in my life. But what I hadn’t taken into account was, how these personifications of masculinity were causing me to ignore the person I actually was.

I had been strong-arming my personality into a box that just didn’t fit me. Mostly because this was how I was taught to be a man. But maybe more importantly, because I wanted to be loved and accepted by those around me. What makes this so sad is, that there was always a low hum of anxiety, just beneath the façade of my masculine veneer. I was scared of the anger I was harboring, but also I was scared of myself.

The macho attitude I was displaying, along with my unforgiving personality, turned me into, the types of people who’ve abused me in the past. In short, I turned into my abusers. This was where my anxiety was coming from. One wrong move and I was likely to be cut off from everyone and thing I knew and loved.

Reality TV & Partying

The insights I gleaned from my dream was, that the ways that Hemmingway was living, with the drinking, the partying and all the drama that’s attached, was a lot like what reality TV has become. The only difference is, they had slightly different social norms in his time.

For example, I imagine that displaying your masculinity was what was popular at the time. So for Hemmingway, running with the bulls was probably a way for him to show off how manly he was. If you filmed it and formatted the trip into a half hour or hour show, throw in a little drama and you’d have a pretty good reality TV show.

And for the most part, minus the extravagant trips, this was what was playing out in my family. Something I’ll go into more detail later on this post. The men were putting on the façade of being ultra masculine, and shutting off our emotions in the process. While the women were looking to feel connection or taken care of and seen. But they were too scared to open up emotionally to the angry and abusive men, who had already severed emotional ties with the women. This was because this is what we thought the women wanted.

Why I was Living this Way

The more I think about it, the more miserable I was. Sure, I had some good times. But I was usually drunk, or having fun at the expense of somebody else. The rest of the time I was mostly worried about being around other people. Unable to relax or feel a part of what was going on around me. Worried I wasn’t who I should be. It was isolating and strange. So why was I living this way?

From what I can tell now, looking back in hind-sight, I was trying to be a-part of the culture I was steeped in. Being a product of the 80’s, I was definitely taught that men were tough, violent and in charge. These were their most prized attributes. These qualities however, were not how I wanted to act or be in the world. They were used in my past to raise me and I remember all too well the fear and isolation they created. The last thing I wanted to do was to perpetuate what had happened to me. But it seemed to be what was expected of me as a man. So I acted that way in an attempt to feel a part of the culture and people surrounding me. And it worked for a while.

Being My Own Person

But as I said above, it was fear and anxiety producing. Being and acting the ways my abusers had, went against the vision of how I wanted to live my life. I did not want or need the extreme independence and lack of connection with others that had been modeled for me. I wanted to love and be loved by those closest to me. But this was impossible while I was living the toxically masculine life.

So in order to be the person I felt I was and the one who was being stifled, I had to give up the image of what I was taught a man should be. And this was no easy task.

Getting in Touch with My “Feminine” Side

I found myself criticizing myself for being too “feminine”. Or not looking the stoic, powerfully in charge personality I was taught a man should be. The unyielding, unforgiving, authority figure who was prone to violent outbursts, was something that was modeled for me time and again. But the forgiving and accepting person I was trying to embody, I was taught were the traits of women.

Though it was never specifically taught to me that genders had inherent traits, culturally it was something that was reinforced. In my family, the women, just like the men, were petty and mean most of the time. But we still subscribed to the beliefs that women were soft, vulnerable and caretakers of the men. While men were hard, in charge and were not allowed to show vulnerability.

I’m not totally sure where this mentality came from. In my parents generation, the man was still supposed to be head of the household. The bread winner and the person calling the shots. And the women were supposed to take care of the family and the men.

Old Ways of Navigating Relationships Leads to Stifled Ways of Being

From this dynamic, I observed a lot of unhealthy forms of self expression. The men in my family were angry most of the time. Often around how the household was being run. While the women were expressing themselves through what they could buy.

What was and is so frustrating about watching this dynamic play out is, we are so much more than the one or two roles we play in our closest relationships. When we’re reduced to a stereotype, we lose dimensions of our personality. This can lead to resentment. Also, taking out our pent up anger, due to limiting our personalities, on others in our relationships. This was the root of a lot of discord in my family.

This was due to dynamics in play such as, men weren’t allowed to be vulnerable. And women weren’t allowed to take charge or question the man’s authority. For me as a man in my family, this meant taking on too much responsibility for others and feeling overwhelmed, without knowing when to take a break and care for myself. From what I saw with the women in my family was, that they were frustrated with feeling powerless. So they acted in petty and spiteful ways to take out their frustrations on those they felt powerless to.

How We Handled Stifling Our Emotions

But in order for the men in my family to bury their vulnerabilities and for women to cover over their frustrations, we drank. This was the easiest way to not have to feel what we were so afraid to express. Of course, nothing about what we were experiencing was easy. But we’d rather drown our problems than take a hard look at what was causing them.

How I Retain My Masculinity While Showing My Vulnerabilities

This was a difficult lesson, with a steep leaning curve. It had been taught and reinforced, so many times in my family, the lesson that men were not ever vulnerable, that the wall I had built around my emotions was almost impenetrable. Luckily for me, with the aid of a friend I awoke into my emotions. But the path was most definitely a rough one.

When I began letting my emotions in again, I had the emotional intelligence of an eight year-old. This was around the time my abuse started. So my emotions had been frozen for little over two decades. I remember clearly that when I started to feel my emotions again, they would all come flooding in at once. And they were all intense. I didn’t know what emotion I was feeling at any given time, because I was never shown how to give names to my emotions and let them be without trying to stifle them.

But the longer I stayed with my emotions, the less intense they became. When I first started feeling them, it was as though they were all bundled together, like a knot of live wires. And every time I tried to untangle them, I would get a shock. But the more I untangle them, the clearer it became which emotion was which. Even though I was vulnerable to the shock of feeling the once overwhelming emotion. I’m now able to feel emotions that were much too powerful for me to experience before. And I believe what has helped me the most has been, support from friends and family and meditation.

Support from Family, Friends & the Greater Community

The support I received from family and friends was pivotal. Knowing that I could just be me, without the toxic masculinity and still feel accepted, was what allowed me to discover who I was. And not only allowed, but accepted and loved for who I was becoming. This was what gave me the courage to drop the masculinity armoring and allow me to let the emotions in.

But it’s been a slow process. And one I’m still learning how to adjust to. I had a life’s time worth of lessons on toxic masculinity to unlearn. And I had none of the resources with which to unlearn them. I went searching for them in earnest and many of the resources I’ve picked up along the way are listed here in this blog.

Sites such as The Good Trade have done so much good in helping me to get in touch with the more sensitive aspects of my personality. They have a wealth of articles that give advice on how to navigate emotions and emotionally charged situation.

Tara Brach was another great teacher that I found along the way. Her talks helped me to understand that I wasn’t alone in what I was going through. Hearing others’ stories have helped to give me a sense of hope. Hearing that someone else has been through what I’m going through and hearing how they managed the experience, has been a huge source of relief and sense of community for me.

Meditation

And finally, meditation has helped me to stay in my body while my emotions are coming over me. This may seem like something insignificant, but every time an emotion came on that was over whelming, I ran from it by dissociating. I ran so often, that when I finally sat down to sort through them all, they had become the mass of tangled, live wires I described above.

Sitting and learning to handle a single emotion and separate them from the unsorted emotions has been invaluable to understanding my emotions. Also how to handle them with care. And the longer I stay, the easier it becomes.

Final Thoughts on Masculinity

If you’re in the same boat that I was in, and I imagine that it’s not all too uncommon, don’t worry. It’s difficult to feel the pressures from our families and friends, and not to mention from society and culturally as well. A place where masculinity is given a much higher value than it can be worth. So if you’re feeling a little uneasy about how you’re seen by others, maybe it’s worth your time to investigate where these feelings are coming from and what you’re doing that makes you uncomfortable.

Are you doing something that you don’t really like doing because it’s what’s expected of you? Maybe there’s a trend you’re apart of, that you got involved with to feel some belonging. If you examine these places and you find that you aren’t enjoying them as much as you feel you would like to, it may be worth asking yourself if doing them is a true expression of your personality. Here is where you can find where your true passions lay. And being masculine isn’t a bad thing. But when it gets in the way of who we truly are, then we may need to explore why we’re holding on to it so tight. Peace & thanks for reading : )

Image Credits: “Charging Bull, Wall Street” by carlossg is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.

Just Relax: Easier Said Than Done

Being able to relax doesn’t come naturally for everybody. For me, it was a lesson that took a while, and one I’m still coming to terms with. In the past few years, I’ve been pushing myself beyond what my limits are. I feel this was in reaction to the ways I used to live and be treated. By seeking external approval now, to validate who I am. That I’m worth something by my work.

I used to be sedentary. I over consumed, just about everything and watched enough T.V. for a family of four. This was a direct result of my upbringing. While I was growing up, I wasn’t taught the value of keeping an active lifestyle. I didn’t have many interests and what’s more, no one to help me discover and foster healthy and active hobbies.

I was left alone for what felt like days at a time. And it seemed as though I had nothing but T.V. and videogames to occupy myself with. There was a short stint where my stepfather tried to get me into lacrosse. But it never took. I had never heard of the sport before my freshman year in high school, when he signed me up for it. And I was terrible at it as well. I had no one to practice with and my stepfather wasn’t available or lost interest. So it was a short lived experience. Nor one that built confidence in my abilities as an athlete.

Being Active to Prove Myself

The most active I remember being in high school was playing frisbee and hacky-sack in the courtyard. The “slacker sports” as we used to refer to them. We were cultivating a life of being sedentary. My friends and I had no goals to aspire to, nor guidance from healthy role-models to show us how to set and obtain goals, had we made any.

We were just drifting through life aimlessly. But we didn’t know any better. For me, and I’m sure for most of the people I hung out with, I was called lazy and put down verbally for most of my youth. I had nothing to aspire to, because I had no one show me how to aspire to something. Only consistent negative reinforcement from my role models. In case you are wondering, this was not a great parenting strategy.

Staying Busy to Overachieve

Though, I imagine my parents had been raised under more harsh, critical familial expectations. I knew my grandparents well. And they were not the happy, go lucky type. They were intense in all aspects of the word. My grandfather once yelled at me without restraint, when I was maybe 5, for forgetting to tell my father to bring a screwdriver to their house. Restraint and temperance were not words in my grandfather’s vocabulary.

My grandmother was image obsessed and cold. She had a standard that nobody could live up to. Considering, I had it pretty easy growing up. But the legacy of impossible standards that our family handed down through the generations, left us all feeling as though we had to work double, and triple time in order to gain any form of approval. This directly impacted our ability to relax. Mostly for fear that what ever small amount of belonging we felt, would be pulled out from under us, for taking some much needed rest if we did relax.

So we kept ourselves busy. We stayed busy to gain approval so we could feel belonging. But we always felt as though we had to keep producing, in order to cull what little approval we could from those that were keeping it so well guarded. This is an exhausting way of being. And one that does not lead to a sustainable way of feeling approved of. And it also leaves us little, if any, time to relax.

Sorting Out Integral Support From External Validation

With all of our hustling for approval, we never left ourselves with the time to take care of our basic needs. Let alone allowing ourselves the time to relax or enjoy what we do for ourselves. And if our tendency is to seek external forms of approval, then we’ll always be hustling for that approval. In order to break the cycle of seeking external validation, we need to validate ourselves first, for who we are.

This can feel like a strange reversal. Especially if you were brought up, as I was, constantly chasing the feelings of approval from those who held it just out of reach. But learning that you can approve of yourself while having that approval be an integral part of who you are, is empowering. And this may look a little different for everybody. As I’ve found approval is something that is a personal experience.

Self Approval

This, like most things, is a practice. I wish I could tell you that it will just magically appear one day and you’ll be solid in your sense of feeling adequate. But even still, it’s something that’s obtainable. It just takes work. For me, I’m still finding the ways in which I approve of myself. Two big parts of feeling self-approval for me lay in two areas: First in feeling accomplished and second, taking care of myself.

Withholding Accomplishment

Accomplishment was something that I had not really felt until very recently. I have vague memories of the felt sense of accomplishing as a child. But since, the standards were set so high, and for so long, that I just forgot what it felt like. This makes me sad to think of now. But this was just the norm for our family. And what makes this so tragic is, this was the foundation on which we built our connections.

We wanted to feel better than the person who was struggling with the standards we had set for them, when inevitably, they would fail to meet those standards. But this just left everybody feeling frustrated and angry. Sure, we felt superior for a while, but that feeling of superiority only carried us so far. Before long, we would have to accept that we pushed everybody close to us, away. Leaving us feeling all alone.

Feeling Accomplished to Feel More Content, Relaxed

Thinking on when I feel most accomplished now, and nothing comes to mind. But the feeling is present, however vague. And the more I dwell on the feeling, the more I recognize where in my life, and what I do, that brings that feeling with it. For example, when I think of No Labels Living, I think about all the time and effort I’ve put into crafting these posts. Turning my feelings and experiences, into pages of, what I hope are, helpful advice.

And when I think about cooking for myself, the food I make for the weeks ahead in an attempt to allow me the time to get after other goals that need attention in my life. I think about the rows of freshly cooked meals in Mason jars that contain my week’s nourishment and feel a sense of accomplishment.

Taking Care of Myself & My Needs

Taking care of myself, in a way, brings its own sense of accomplishment. In the example above, when I cook for myself, I feel a deep sense of pride and accomplishment for taking care of my nutritional needs. I’m making the food I love that nourishes my body. And this is a whole other felt sense of accomplishment. Like pride, mixed with care and doing for myself. Which in turn translates to time for me to relax.

Or like promising that I’ll take a bath at the end of a long work day. Knowing that I’m taking care of my emotional and physical needs, brings with it a sense of accomplishment and way to relax. Knowing that I’m caring for myself in a way that aids me in becoming the healthiest version of myself is gratifying.

Relaxation is Free

There’s a big industry focused around making money from peoples’ inability to relax. I’m not saying that you shouldn’t splurge on yourself once and a while. Especially if it’s something that you enjoy. But try to make doing, or enjoying your treat an event, where you can really savor it. But also keep in mind that the ability to relax is innate in all of us. Not achieved by something we purchase.

For example, I feel so much more relaxed soaking in a warm bath, than I do out at a restaurant. And you don’t have to go to a spa in order to feel as though you’re getting the spa treatment. I’ve been in the habit of burning candles and using an essential oil diffuser to create a more relaxed atmosphere nightly. If this is something that helps you to feel more relaxed, try creating your own spa experience at home. Add a few Epsom salts to your bath water. Maybe some essential oils as well. Add a few candles to the mix and you have something people spend good money on.

Other Ways to Relax That Won’t Cost You Anything

Exercise

Exercise is a great start if you’re looking for ways to sooth your nerves. My go to for exercise now is yoga. It’s low impact on your body, which after running for years is a nice break. And whether you are new to yoga or a seasoned pro, YWA has a ton of free videos on her site. Check her out here, or head over to my Community page for a link to her site and other resources for relaxing.

While we’re on the topic, taking a walk in your favorite stretch of woods will do wonders for your level of calm. Maybe you’re more of an ocean person? Walking by the beach is also soothing in ways that few other activities are. Being out in green space helps to reduce anxiety levels and has a calming effect. So the more you can be out in nature, the more you will be able to relax.

Cooking

This is something I especially enjoy. There is something about being in the kitchen, where so many elements come together. And with the right atmosphere, brings with it a sense of joy, ease and excitement. Burning a scented candle while slowly bring together the ingredients for each recipe is soothing to me. I know I’m nourishing myself with the tasty and healthy foods I’m making, but also engaging my senses with the colors of the fresh veg and the smells from the simmering sauces.

It’s a treat and one that reminds me of the times when I used to cook in a restaurant. It was a small take-out place where the lines would be out the door most nights. We made Mexican food with an Indian/Asian twist. The results were phenomenal and wildly popular in the city where we were.

My nights on the sauté station were most memorable. I had ten burners going full throttle with a line of slips piling up as the night got steadily busier. From the dimly lighted atmosphere complimented by flashes of ignited cooking oil, to the slow jazz playing in the background, it was a busy, yet soothing experience. And something I carry with me into my current cooking experiences. Only this time with fewer items to make : )

Journaling, Reading & Listening to Music

Journaling, listening to music and reading are a few other ways I’ve learned to sooth my nervous system. For example, today I spent most of my day reading about New England’s history while listening to old sea shanties, to really get me in the mood. It was like being transported to another time and place and all while feeling completely at ease.

Journaling is something that has been invaluable for me as well. I bullet journal, so planning out my weeks and organizing my household is something that brings me a great sense of feeling relaxed. Knowing I’m taking care of the parts of my life that need my attention allows me to move on with my day without wondering, “am I forgetting about something”. Being organized is a gift to those who feel they’ve been stretched too thin.

Winding Down

These are some of the ways that I relax, and some of the benefits I garner from feeling relaxed. If you have any go to ways of decompressing, I’d love to hear about them in the comments section below. It’s so easy to get wound up during the course of the day. And it’s even easier to open a bottle or smoke something to take your mind off of your accumulated burdens. But there are healthier ways of being at ease in your body that don’t need the aid of something other than a calm night, cup of herbal tea and maybe a hot bath. So take a load off and get into something more comfortable. You deserve it. Peace, & thanks for reading : )

Image Credits: “Relaxing feet – 20100417 – IMG_3171.jpg” by Dhammika Heenpella / CWSSIP Images of Sri Lanka is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0.

Creating a Safe & Calm Place

I was reading a book a while ago. It was about reparenting and in one of the chapters, it suggested creating a safe space. A place where you can go in your mind to feel safe, at ease. I’ve done work like this before, but what I realized was, that I didn’t have one. Everywhere I went, I felt as though I had to preform, never make a mistake. Always be at my best, preforming or feeling as though I was a guest. There was never a feeling of fostering ease to any of the places I could feel relaxed in. So I decided to change that.

Creating a Safe, Calm & Cozy Space for Yourself

After reading the chapter in the book, I scanned my life for what seemed like the safest place to be. And to my surprise, it was my bedroom. I wondered why this was the case, as I’m not particularly fond of the room. But for me, it checks all the right boxes.

It’s cozy. I have a few well placed textiles and trinkets, lending it a sense of my personality. It’s well lighted, as in it has all the right ambient lighting I enjoy. A few candles, some Christmas string lights and a diffuser that also has a low light function. The aforementioned diffuser that has any number of my favorite scents diffusing. It’s clean, comfortable and not too crowded. AKA, jut right for relaxing.

The Elements of Cozy

So this is where I started. I went about creating the place that would bring me the feelings of comfort and safety. But first, I needed to define what this meant for me. When I first started out on my journey to cozy, my safe and calm place was a section of the A.T. on Mt Killington, VT. There was a shelter I stayed in that had stunning views draped in mists and vibrantly green ferns and moss. Here was definitely a high point in my hiking in and around New England.

Section of the A.T. on Mt. Killington VT

But all I have of this place is a photo I seldom look at. Though I’ve made some plans to have this photo printed and framed to keep in my new safe and cozy space, it isn’t something that I can easily call on or see myself in and a part of. Something I feel is an important part of feeling safe. And that’s where my planning began. How do I want my safe and cozy place to look. What are the elements of safe and cozy.

Elements of Safe & Cozy: Aesthetics

I appreciate good design and always have. Often I’ll find myself on Pinterest, picking out the the element of the house I someday want to build. I also spent a semester in architecture school pursuing design, when I thought that was a viable career path for myself. Design is something that has always been important to me. Especially with my surroundings.

So in my safe and cozy space, I want it to look a certain way. Inviting. A place that would make me feel more at ease just by virtue of being in and around it. To this end I’ve collected a few things that give it a sense of comfort for me. One example is of an afghan my grandmother knitted more than 30 years ago. It’s multi colored and comfy and made from “granny Squares”. Also my space is surrounded with small trinkets that brings me joy.

A skull painted with colorful chilies I picked up in Mexico. A mug with my first initial on it with a sphere of petrified wood resting on top. Pieces of driftwood I’ve collected and a jar of sea glass that was gifted to me. And some Tibetan prayer flags hang from my wall, making my space more me, more cozy.

Elements of Safe & Cozy: Plants

I also have a verity of green little friends that adorn my room. I started collecting jade plants about eight years ago and was inspired by a friend who had a jade plant that he was in awe of. You can propagate these plants fairly simply from cuttings and I was seeing a lot of jade plants in the places I would visit day to day. One at the library, one at an insurance agency I would walk by. So I started collecting clippings from them.

I also went in search of air purifying plants that I could bring into my environment that would give it a boost of fresh, purified air. Snake plants soon joined the party, aloes and ferns as well.

The plants in general have helped to keep my room a bit more humid. But due to the latest additions, my ferns, I’ve been running a humidifier on a low level to keep the environment more suited to my plants. This helps to keep the atmosphere a little more comfortable for humans as well. Especially in the winter months. It also helps to make the room feel more alive. Something lush and inviting. The way a greenhouse feels in the early spring; fresh and green.

Elements of Safe & Cozy: Lighting

As I’ve said above, lighting is something that is of particular importance to me. I’m not entirely sure what it is about a perfectly lighted room. It could be the soft way the light welcomes you to whatever task you are encapsulated in. Like sipping a cup of herbal tea by candle light. Or how a set of old Christmas string lights lend a sense of interest to something ordinary. Like the bright green chair and bamboo shelf that holds my ferns, all draped in a set of string lights.

Candles are something that have been important to me since I was in my early teens. They lend a softness to the room and have a timeless feel to them. I burn beeswax candles now due to their ability to clean the air of negatively charged ions. But the soft flickering light definitely invites an atmosphere of cozy and safe.

Also in the book on creating a safe space, they suggested watching a video of a fireplace online. I was skeptical at first, but decided to give it a go and was surprised at how relaxing it was. The sound of the crackling wood, mixed with the ambient flickering of the flames was calming. Cozy.

Elements of Safe & Cozy: Scent

This is another important aspect of my surroundings feeling safe and comfortable. I used to burn incense. A lot of incense. I started when I was in high school. Thinking back, living next to Salem MA, The Witch City, was a big influence in my incense burning ways. I also had a girlfriend in high school who loved burning Nag Champa and I used to wear a lot of patchouli oil as well. Dirty hippy, check.

I don’t burn incense so much anymore, but I do use an oil diffuser to create a relaxing atmosphere when I’m ready to wind down. I have a few favorite scents that I keep on hand. Geranium, citronella, lavender, jasmine… There are more to be sure, but these are on pretty heavy rotation. Being surrounded by a comforting scent is a kin to being emersed in a hot bath. And for me, sometimes leaves me just as refreshed.

There’s also something elemental about steeping your environment in a smell that brings you peace. For me, it’s like the feeling of smelling a campfire on your clothes. It’s a reminder that pops up when you’re not expecting it that lulls you into a sense of feeling at ease. A soothing surprise. Something I’m sure we could all use a bit more of.

Elements of Safe & Cozy: Victuals

For me, there are few things that bring up the atmosphere of cozy as a cup of herbal tea and a well cooked meal. Maybe a glass of lemonade : ) There’s something about the tea itself, where it comes from and how it’s processed that makes the experience not only soothing, by sipping the freshly brewed cup, but also interesting. An experience.

I often brew a cup of tea before bed and relax for a while before sleep. For example, a few days ago I brewed a cup of watermelon, lime, basil and cracked pepper tea. It tasted like a quiet summer evening and is quickly becoming one of my favorite teas.

Also I’ve come to enjoy a special self-care meal at the end of my week. It’s a way for me to show myself that, I’m taking care of my nutritional needs and I’m doing it by carefully selecting meals that I know I’ll enjoy. And the entire process is relaxing. From prepping and preparing the meal to when I partake. Usually surrounded by candles, my diffuser and the other elements, the word wellness is manifest for me.

Elements of Safe & Cozy: Cleanliness

And there’s one element that brings the entire package together for me. Clean surroundings. When I say clean, I mean free of dirt, but also clutter. Organized, but not so much so that it feels sterile. The plants and their earthiness helps to give the environment a sense of clean but naturally so. Balance.

Being organized for me is something that makes me feel at ease, but it’s not something that came easily. My family cleaned a lot when I was younger. We still do and are good at it. But in my twenties I had gotten to the point of not caring for myself or my environment. One of my first apartments was so bad that it had trash drifts!

But even when I was living in this environment, I still took pleasure on the days I would clean every aspect of that apartment. I’m sure my roommates appreciated it too. But living in an orderly space lends to it a sense knowing what to expect. Things have a home which makes me feel more at home. It also makes me feel less apt to get up and clean. Which I enjoy, but I also value my down time as well.

Finding Your Elements

I believe this is what the Danes are referring to when they practice Hygge. And it is something that is important and often times overlooked. Or in my case, the 20 something version of myself would have had some machismo outlook on the idea of “pampering myself” thinking I was being “self-indulgent”. I was also raised on action movies where the mark of being a man was based on how brutally you could sacrifice yourself for the greater good. No bueno.

We need these places. Places where we can feel safe, comfortable and without reserve. Living as though you’re constantly on edge and stressed, asides from having health consequences, also pulls the joy out of life. If you don’t have a safe and calm place to go to, then we’re really free floating in place where fear and anxiety can come to visit at will. And finding your place, one that brings you peace and safety is important to keep these feelings at bay.

So make your space. Find your own elements and tailor it to your liking. Maybe you find peace and ease while you’re on your yoga mat. Or maybe there’s a spot in a park or forest that you’re drawn to. Whatever your elements are and wherever your space is, make sure you take the time to steep yourself in them. Because they will bring you peace.

And there is also something gratifying about building these spaces yourself. As I’m typing, I’m sitting in my room with all of the above mentioned elements, including some others as well. Such as music (which could be a post all its own) and I’m definitely feeling relaxed, cozy and safe. And I bring this place with me wherever I go.

Take Your Place With You

For example, while I was at work today I was imagining relaxing at the end of the day and enjoying doing my tasks in my peaceful setting. Just the idea of being in my cozy space brought me a sense of calm in the moments of dis-ease that came during the day. And this is the benefit of creating this space, because you are also creating a little peace of mind as well.

So if you’ve struggled in the past with relaxing or feeling safe, start your own safe, calm and cozy space. Start small if you have to, but keep going back to it. Because eventually, when you take the effort to care for yourself, you will learn to trust in yourself. And when you trust yourself, then you can learn to feel safe and love yourself : ) Take good care, peace & thanks for reading : )

Image Credits: “Misty Mountain” by Shek Graham is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0.

Withholding Love: Growing Up Unlovable

This is a difficult subject for me. Love was something that was withheld and doled out with condition. I’ve written about this before, but I’ve recently had an experience that reminded me that no matter what I was taught as a child, withholding love now is a conscious effort on my part. I’d like to explore some of the emotions surrounding this experience a bit and how I’m working to turn my habits around to be more inclusive of love and the people who I give and receive love and support from and to. Let’s jump in at the beginning.

Making the Choice to Withhold Love

This is something I remember very clearly. I couldn’t have been more than 6-7. I was laying in bed, wrestling with some thoughts when I made the decision to hold back. Hold back my caring and affection. It was a stubborn, sort of obstinate defiance. The type where you see a child reacting disagreeably to something their parent is forcing on them.

With arms folded and a stern frown sagging on their face, this was how I felt. I no doubt learned this behavior from my role models. But I remember the night I decided to emulate that emotional state in myself. And the thing is, I still do this to some degree. Even decades later.

Even now, when I have interactions with people who rub me the wrong way, I get that same stubborn sense of, “no! I’m not letting you in.” And it’s not as though I’m not allowing myself to disagree, or even dislike what a person is doing. I’m deciding that the person who is offending me gets a hard “no” when it comes to letting them get close to me.

Predictable Results, Feeling Lonely Not Love

And, no surprises here, this leads to feeling very lonely. Especially when you practice this often. For me, it also led to acting smug, feeling superior, being unforgiving and petty as well. A cornucopian of difficult emotions, leading to feelings of isolation. So with so much detriment to the choice to withhold love, why do we, did I, continue to choose to do so? For me it was out of fear.

The Armoring

I believe this is what people mean by the phrase, “letting down your armor”. From my experience, I know that I just wanted to feel loved and a sense of belonging. I was afraid of opening up to those who could love me because I had been so hurt by those who I had let in in the past. Also, the fear of having the love I was receiving being given on condition, was another frightening prospect.

There are only so many times you can be wounded by those who are supposed to love you, who then leave you alone with your wounding, without support, before you decide to shut everybody out completely. And I suppose that this is where I decided to shut others out. Put up the armoring and use smug, petty judgements and an unforgiving frame of mind to keep others at bay. This isn’t ideal.

Nor is it conducive to healthy and lasting relationships. And I think that the longer I had this armoring up, the more I was losing touch with my emotions. If you practice hardening yourself against emotions of love, kindness and empathy, and your ability to forgive, it stands to reason that you will eventually lose your ability to recognize them in yourself.

Finding Yourself and Your Love Again

So if it’s practice that gets us to a place of losing our compassionate and loving, feeling selves, then it is practice that hones these attributes as well. But before we can start practicing these traits again, we first need to feel safe doing so. This was the case for me and luckily I had some help during this process.

Being Bold Enough to Learn to Trust

For me, my trust had been abused so many times, in such odd and disturbing ways, that I needed not only to recognize that I could rely on people for support, but also learn that people were not objects to be used and disposed of. These were difficult lessons.

I had learned to use people in much the same way I used alcohol: that’s to say that I was only around them for the good times. If they, in anyway caused me the slightest bit of discomfort, I was out of there so quickly it would have surely made their heads spin. Unfortunately, most of those closest to me were the same way. So when things got very bad for me, I found myself almost completely alone. Save for the few true friends and family that decided to stand by me. Which to this day shocks me, because I was a poor friend. And that’s being generous.

Role-Modeling Destructive Behavior

But this was also how I saw my role models act. Gathering to drink and be rowdy while spitting venom at everybody and anybody. I was torn down so many times at the hands of my, “supports”, during the “good times” that I had no idea what it meant to be caring, loving and supportive. Or what a good time, really was. And worse yet, when I saw genuine love and support from others, I viewed it as weakness of character. Something to be made fun of and ridiculed, rooted out of myself. Like a Hallmark movie, too campy and unrealistic for the real world. Full disclosure, I now sometimes watch and enjoy Hallmark movies : )

And this was how I lived my life until my early thirties. Unloving and unforgiving. This was the reason I had so few healthy, lasting relationships. So what changed for me? How did I make the change from untrusting and unforgiving to trusting and able to give and receive love? It happened slowly and took practice.

Role Modeling Loving and Trusting Behavior

After I had been abandoned by someone who said they would always be there for me, I had to rely on family who had abandoned me in the past. This was no easy task. I had given up just about every way I had used to cope with my emotions and was putting myself in the lion’s den. A place that was decidedly unsafe for me to be.

Trust started to come slowly. One way I was learning to trust again was, we were polite to each other to the point of being almost cold to one another. This was a complete 180 from the family of my youth who had no boundaries in regards to personal space.

As an example, my family would search through all of my personal possessions and space as though I wasn’t allowed to have a separate sense of self. This left me feeling suspicious of how genuine the people who were around me were. Being polite helped me to realize that I was safe enough in myself and surroundings to be at ease. And the more we were polite, the more I learned I could trust these people I was sharing space with.

Finding Love Again

It was from this shared space of mutual respect and trust, that I found the courage to feel compassion for those who had left me in the past. They became more real to me. They were no longer the person who did me wrong so long ago. We were in the present, building a new foundation for a healthier relationship that started with being polite and kind to each other.

I could now feel compassion, concern and care for these people. This was not something entirely new, but it was something that was difficult to allow to be. To be with the vulnerability and uncertainty of relying on them again. Hoping that the same would not happen all over again.

But also finding forgiveness. For the ways I had been treated, so I could move forward and build the healthier, new versions of the relationships I so desired. This was no easy as well. But it was in these moments of mutual vulnerability that we all learned to open up, if not slowly and a tiny bit at a time, to each other. This is how we learned to love and support each other again.

Family Dinner Fridays

A great example of this is, after I had spent some time getting used to my new surroundings and starting to feel comfortable again around others, I suggested starting family dinner Fridays. A day where we rotate who chooses a recipe to cook and we all pitch in and help to make the meal together. My family has a love of food, so this seemed like a natural place to start.

And it was during these dinners that we learned to work together. Ask what the other needed, help the other with their task. We learned to divide and delegate the tasks and share the responsibility of our jobs. We also learned how to communicate with each other.

Not only in asking what we needed from one another, as far as tasks being done. But also to ask for clarification from one another. “What do you mean when you say…”, something we were just too proud to ask each other in the past. If you’ve read my post on “disagreement and belonging”, you’ll know we had trouble admitting we didn’t know something, even when it was impossible to know what the other was thinking without being able to read minds. Because we didn’t want to be seen as weak.

Seeing Communication as a Weakness

And this is really what it came down to. We saw communicating with one another as a weakness, because we wanted to be right and seen as superior. All because we wanted to feel belonging. But we were really just cutting each other off from one another with our lack of communication because we didn’t want to be hurt. Something that happened again and again with malicious intent. I believe this is where we stopped communicating, everything really. And this is where I learned how to hold back my love from the other.

“Love is Stronger Than Pride” – Sade

But the need to connect is strong in us. Because we need to connect, to feel loved and belonging. So we keep trying, even if it feels like we’re fumbling our way through our relationships. That’s definitely what it feels like for me sometimes.

And the desire to want healthier ways of connecting is the first step in connecting in healthier ways. I believe that we all have it in us to be together in healthy, reciprocal ways. Ways where we feel heard, respected and most important, loved.

And it is that desire to be loved that is stronger than the ways we choose to disconnect from each other. As Sade so eloquently put it so many years ago, “love is stronger than pride”. The pride that keeps us from sharing and communicating our love with one another. So if you’re looking to make stronger connections and share love more freely, know that it’s not too late to open up and share your loving self. I hope this helps in some way. Peace, thanks for reading : )

Image Credits: “Heart” by Pandalia_YUE is licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0.

Self Directed Guidance: It’s Not Always Easy

Guidance was something that I received very little of while growing up. And Much of the direction I did receive was either unhealthy or toxically Masculine. The emphasis in my family was more to the tune of dominance, not gentle or loving guidance. And I held to those lessons as law for a long time. They worked in our family for the most part. It was only when I stepped outside of my family dynamic, that I understood how dominance was not substitute for learning to work cohesively as a team. Not only that but also how destructive it could be.

And I feel as though I wasn’t the only one raised with these teachings. It feels like, from my perspective that, people for the most part are more inclusive and tolerant of one another in general. I also recognize that I live in a pretty liberal and progressive state. So my views may not be shared by most. But still, we’ve come a long way as a society in the past few generations alone. It’s not too far a stretch to recognize that we’re on an upswing as far as being more humanitarian goes.

And that’s what I’d like to talk about in this post. Focusing on the guidance that we may not have learned from our culture or families, but how we can cultivate the guidance we need to navigate our day to day lives. Keeping that sense of tolerance and inclusivity, keeping ourselves open to new experiences and people. Because it’s too easy to get caught up in the negativity that is happening around us. I know this from experience to be true. So let’s find some of that guidance we’ve been missing.

Guidance is Not Static, But Fluid

This is something I had trouble with when I first started looking to follow my values or other parameters I had set for myself. I took myself way too seriously and would not budge from the stances I took. I was unforgiving. A lesson that I learned early and would also learn to regret later in life. Unforgiving, unyielding, closeminded… All of these adjectives described my perspective in viewing my world.

And from this vantage point, it’s easy to feel as though your way is the only right way. And that everybody who isn’t following your lead is inept or inferior. This is an extreme example for sure, but it’s one that I know well because it was where I had set my standard. I needed to be better than others.

And what’s so strange about this was, I think I was doing it to be liked. Accepted. Of course I offended a lot of people acting this way, so I never did gain the belonging I so desperately was seeking. But what was so strange was, that I was completely blind to how offensive I was being. It didn’t even cross my mind that I was making enemies. My goal was to be right and seem as though I knew what I was doing.

Giving Up Being Right

For me, I had to let go the need to be right about whatever was on the table. Because needing to be right leads to aggression in communication. Expressing dominance over another who, as I viewed them, were “inferior”. This can lead to feelings of superiority, contempt, smugness and other relationship killing emotions if left unchecked. And most definitely severs connection.

What I decided to do instead of needing to be right was, listen. I say decided, because it was a choice I made. And not an easy one at that. In fact, I still struggle with it sometimes. Even the day I’m writing this article, I was in a meeting at work, hearing my coworker communicate disinformation in a vague manner. My first response was one of contempt.

But the more I listened to the conversation, the more I realized they were struggling with a difficult topic. They weren’t being willfully ignorant, they were expressing vulnerability in not knowing how to provide care for a certain situation. This is where I turned it around and started listening to the context behind the conversation.

Don’t Beat Yourself Up for Not Having The Guidance You Needed

And while I was listening to their conversation with a new perspective, the first thought that came to mind was, “man I’m being a jerk”. Insensitive maybe, but a jerk… I didn’t say these thoughts out loud and what’s more, these were the ways I was taught to be in relationship.

Most of all, I don’t want to turn that aggression inward after I’ve done so much work to notice and curb my aggression from judging others. So it’s important to remember to treat yourself with the same kindness and care as you would a dear friend. Because who are we to ourselves if not friends? And that’s not an easy task

For me, what helps is practicing kindness to myself. Especially when an emotion comes up, I inquire where it’s coming from, using soft and gentle guidance in asking what I need. Why is this emotion coming up now and how can I provide care for it? The part that’s most rewarding about this process is, the more often I practice this kindness inwardly, the easier and kinder I feel. It’s quite the change from my old ways of treating myself.

How You Treat Others is a Reflection of How You Treat Yourself

The ways I used to treat myself was with a sharp and demeaning criticism. Thinking back on it now, it seems counter intuitive. With all the ways I was practicing being critical of others while acting superior, you would think that I had a pretty high opinion of myself.

And outwardly that was what I was projecting for sure. But as I said above, I just wanted to feel belonging. So most of the ways I was acting were to gain approval from others. And when I didn’t measure up to my impossible standard, I tore myself down in the same ways I tore others down.

I also was surrounded by others who were just as judgmental as I was. So our relationships were founded on a never ending cycle of judging and being judged by one another. We were stuck in unhealthy relationship with no clear guidance on how to steer ourselves clear of the constant wounding we were inflicting.

So what’s the catalyst for change that we so desperately need to break free from this cycle? How do we make the change from judgmental critic to kind and attentive listener? For me, it started when I felt truly heard.

Feeling Heard is Healing

I used to work in the food industry. I did this because I didn’t have any guidance in searching for and fostering interests that would later bear fruit in the form of a career. So I did what was easy, which was working in a kitchen. These were some pretty tough environments. Physically demanding yes, but also relationally.

We were relentless in our insults towards one another. Arguments were the norm and usually fueled by inflated egos, lots of caffeine and uppers as well as alcohol. It was an unhealthy environment to say the least.

I later would switched from kitchens to bakeries, which were slightly less aggressive, but only physically. There was still the same amount of petty arguments and hatred that was present in the kitchens I worked in. So it was in this environment, that to my complete surprise, that I felt heard for the first time since I was a child.

Coming to Terms with Feeling Heard

And I wish I could say that I felt heard and everything was alright. But the truth is, things got a lot worse before they got better. I hadn’t felt heard in so long, that when I did, I was flooded with all of my neglected emotions. Ones I had been ignoring for decades and that I just hadn’t been given the guidance to know how to handle them with the care and sensitivity they needed.

At first, I felt elated. I couldn’t believe that somebody was paying attention to me. And what’s more is that they seemed to like me for who I was. This came as a shock, because as I said above, I surrounded myself with people who were just as critical and condescending as I was. To be liked without the judgments was a whole new experience for me.

Making Poor Choices While Learning How to be with My Emotions

So I ran towards that feeling. All I knew was that I didn’t want to let the source of that feeling get away. This was where my poor choices came into play. I hurt a lot of people in the process of running towards what felt good and ultimately was left by the person who made me feel heard. This was the last thing I wanted to happen.

But it gave me the chance to stop running long enough to feel what had been neglected for so long. I was able to learn to sit with the uncertainty, of not feeling belonging, not feeling lovable. And I was able to do it with Kindness.

This kindness was something that awoke in me after I had felt heard again. I was learning how to listen to myself and my needs and in turn, learning how to give myself the guidance I so desperately needed to manage my emotional world. These were the lessons that I was never taught. On how to listen, be kind and love myself.

Love is Something Given From the Inside Out

And it was from this place of feeling heard and listening that I could feel love. I needed to feel loved first, with somebody else, before I could know it intimately in myself. It was then that I was able to practice it with myself, by listening to my emotional needs with kindness and then practice that same love and listening to and with others.

But it is a practice. It’s something that you need to cultivate in order for it to become second nature, strong. And to cultivate love, you need to give yourself the boundaries and structure necessary, to give guidance to your emotions. Because love is strong, but if you let other emotions take hold, they will crowd out and smother the seeds of love.

It Helps to Find Others Willing to Listen

And none of this is possible without finding people who are willing to listen and mirror what you are wanting to cultivate. With my old friends, I was practicing contempt and judgment. Now I’m choosing friends based on how supportive they are. This took some getting used to as well. But it is worth the transition to feel a deeper connection than bonding over how attractive we found some woman. Or how much we drank the night before.

I have a photo on my desk of me with friends of mine. We’re at their wedding in a small town in Western Mass. They had just gotten married and we are pumping our fists in the air. These are the people I think about when I think of support, unconditional. They are kind and always willing to listen when I need an ear.

Friends like these are essential to helping give our emotions the guidance to be the best version of ourselves in a kind and loving way. And they’re out there. But you need to do some digging. So practice in yourself what you’re looking for in others and you will naturally attract those who will compliment you.

This can seem abstract too. When you talk about guidance and kindness as a “practice”. But it’s something that’s a felt sense once you understand what to do. So keep practicing! Don’t be discouraged if you still feel judgmental or are feeling unkind to yourself and those old feelings come bubbling up. As I said above, the more you practice kindness, the easier it becomes. Like second nature. Peace : ) thanks for reading.

Image Credits: “arrow” by alandberning is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.

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