Women’s Rights: What They Mean For a Man Raised With Less Than Accepting Values

I’ve written a lot about toxic masculinity on this blog, but I haven’t spoken about women’s rights very much. This is mostly due to me feeling as a man, that it isn’t really my place to speak my opinion on the subject. But with the recent ruling of Roe vs. Wade being overturned, I feel that it’s important for me to show that there are men who support women’s reproductive rights. Especially in this polarized culture we’ve been entrenched in. So on that note, I hope to move the cause forward if only to show support for those in need of some. Let’s take a look at where some of the values I was raised under were forged.

Women’s Lib, Stuck in the 50’s

This was where most of the lessons I learned as a child took root. About three decades before I was born. In my family and in the popular culture at large, women were mostly viewed as sex objects. Everything from TV shows to work place culture. It was most definitely a man’s world and women were objects to be won or used according to what the man’s need was.

My family held to these values with fervor. My grandmother was a model in the fifties and took to the culture with a sense of pride. It also seemed to be what she developed her identity around as well as raising her four daughters in the same vein. Women’s rights weren’t even on their radar when making choices about themselves and their families’ future.

The women in my family, instead, spent a lot of time shopping. Mostly for clothes, but I feel it was more of a way to bond. Over a shared experience. I’m not saying that they were shallow or trying to speak negatively about their characters. Shopping can be fun, but it was something that we took to the extreme. It came to define us as who we were. Consumers. And that’s how we avoided the ways we were ignoring the unbalanced power dynamics that were playing out in our family’s culture and the culture at large.

Why This Type of Neglect is Dangerous

And it was a shame that they chose shopping as one of their main outlets of self expression. Because the women in my family were and are smart and talented people. My mother is a talented artist, though never pursued her interest in the subject. In a way, it felt as though, from my perspective that, they were holding back an important aspect of their self expression by buying into the norms of forfeiting their women’s rights. All in the name of feeling comfortable or safe.

I was raised and surrounded by mostly women in my childhood. This, I feel, gives me a unique perspective on what the culture was, in my family anyway, around how women viewed and interacted with their worlds. I also feel as though I received a fair amount of traumatic abuse at the hands of the men in my family. Another area where I’m able to relate with women maybe a little bit better than most men.

I received two very polarizing views of the world through my family. There was the toxically masculine side where drinking scotch and beer to hide your emotions, while objectifying women as sex objects was the norm. And on the other side, there was Friedan’s model of the Feminine Mystique. Where women had sharp tongues to gain what little control they could wrestle away from the men, while drinking equally as much to cover over the pain of not feeling heard.

And that’s the reason why this type of neglect is so dangerous. It takes away the voice that the women in my family, could use to speak up for their rights. When you place your power in someone else’s hands, you then become concerned with how to get it back. Not realizing that you have had it all along. So now that we’ve found ourselves in this position of skewed power, how do we bring some balance back to the social equation?

Bringing Balance to Women’s Rights

From my perspective, a few different issues need to be addressed in order to create a more fair situation for women. Firstly, men need to be more comfortable with women as independent individuals, and second, woman need to collectively work towards breaking the stereotypes and shed more light on the ideas that certain roles aren’t only a woman’s duty. I.e., child rearing, taking care of the household needs and being less career focused. These are already outdated views, but how do we take what’s already happening and make it more the norm?

Men and Their Views Matter

This is a difficult aspect of this problem, because men have been traditionally in the position of power. And if most men were treated as I was by my family, were women were forced to use manipulations to gain a sense of power, than the men raised in these environments would have a less than ideal view of the women in their lives. This was what I experienced growing up and the lens I used to view the relationship in my life for a long time.

I’ve said many times before, that women were viewed as an object to be had in the culture I was raised in. Personhood and women’s rights weren’t even taken into consideration. I know that for me, I had to first come to see women as people all their own. With personalities, hopes and dreams. And this was difficult, because I had experienced a fair amount of abuse from the women in my family.

But what I needed to realize was, that the pettiness and manipulations weren’t traits of women exclusively. But that of people in a position of being oppressed. If somebody feels as though they have no say in their life, than they will naturally do what they’re able to, in order to gain some control of their situation. And this was a strange place for me to be as a white male. Because I felt as though I had no power or control over my own life.

Feeling Powerless to Change What Is

This seems counter intuitive, but being raised by women who felt they needed to manipulate in order to gain a sense of power back for themselves, left me feeling powerless. What made this so confusing was, that being a white male, I was told time and time again that I was in charge. Though never feeling I actually was.

All the bravado and over-the-top machismo attitude I put on were all for show. It felt as though I had no control over the elements of my life and that the important decisions were being made for me. I had no idea what I wanted to do for a living because I had no guidance to help me to find my path. So I went to college way to early, racking up a ton of debt for a degree I am barely using. I was married to a woman who I sought out to tell me how to live my life. As my mother had before her. And all the misguided steps along the way were learned from family that were in a constant power struggle, looking for their own sense of agency.

And I’ve seen close to the same situation play out with other men as well. We were looking for someone to live our lives for us. Instead of finding a partner to share our lives with. And with everybody feeling so powerless, nobody was feeling as though they could live a more fulfilling life. It always hinged on the other person.

Perspective Change

For me, I needed to realize that I was my own person first. The one in charge of making my own life decisions was me and my partner was not a replacement for my mother. I didn’t need a strong female voice to tell me who to be. I was already me. Regardless of what I was told to believe. But I needed to spend some time on my own in order to know this as truth for myself. I needed to get some practice in making decisions that made a difference in my life, to help me to move forward and realize my agency. This helped me to realize I was the other half of the equation in the relationships I had previously been in.

And this was how I broke from the ways I had been viewing women and their roles. By breaking the cycle of unhealthy relationships that had been modeled for me and that I was reliving. This helped me to see women as more whole, independent beings. But this wasn’t easy. And if more men are going to wake from the idea that women’s rights aren’t important, we are going to need more positive male role models to guide us. As well as healthy female role models who’ve come to know their own power in a healthy way.

Women And Their Power

And for women looking for women’s rights to be more equitable, they may want to find the same conflict of gender specific roles they’ve been tethered to and come to know them as human roles, not defined by gender. For the women in my family, this meant knowing that they are more than what they can provide for their family. That they are more than how attractive they are and their personalities are worth being explored and developed.

Finding Support and Breaking Old Ties

This means finding out and addressing the issues that the individual woman is wrestling with. The fashion and beauty industries are two big entities that have been telling women their value hinges on how attractive they look. This is just an example of old messaging that maybe still effecting some women’s actions on a daily basis.

They as well may want to feel and know that they are in charge of their own lives and have a say in what happens to them. This comes, I believe, with finding like minded people. Men and women to support and collaborate on making the world we live in a more fair and just one. Finding male partners who are an equal part of the child rearing process is one example. Also knowing that a woman’s career is just as important as a man’s. Finding work that matters to you and that you can make a change for the better, is a motivating aspect in life as well.

And knowing that all things domestic, do not fall under the category of a woman’s duty. This means finding a partner whose view of domestic duties goes beyond the scope of what they were in the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s.

Women’s Rights Matters

And it’s from here that we can really understand that women have so much more to offer than what we’ve been telling them they are capable of. All the women I know have something unique and beneficial to offer the world around them. But it starts with us. I know this may be a bit difficult to hear coming from a white male’s perspective. After all, I’m part of the group that have been repressing women for a very long time. But I truly believe that women not only should have a say in what happens to them, but must in order to be happy and fulfilled.

With that in mind, I’m mostly speaking to the men who are reading. All I ask is that you take a look at the views you’ve had cultivated for you. Specifically on gender roles and gender stereotypes. Are they hurting women? Do they make you feel as though you lack something? That you’re less of a man if you don’t live up to them? If so, these are the areas we need to work on to be more fair and just. I hope this has been of some help. It’s not easy looking at ourselves and seeing the work that needs to be done. But it’s possible and know that you are not alone. Peace : ) and thanks for reading.

Image Credits: “women’s rights #blackprotest #czarnyprotest” by gregor.zukowski is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0.

Isolation and Being a Man Shouldn’t Go Hand In Hand

The Man Standard

I spoke about this some in last weeks post, about what it means to be a man. My experience, while growing up in the eighties, was a very polarizing one. Views and mindsets were on the verge of changing to be more inclusive, but there was still a stronghold of intolerance that shaded everything a stark black and white.

The lessons I gleaned from the opinions modeled for me were, men acted one way and women acted another. There were no shared emotional experiences or characteristics. In my family, men were hard, in charge, responsible for everything and got what they wanted, when they wanted it and could resort to force to get it if the other did not comply.

Women on the other hand were objects to be won, raised the children, had no responsibilities, said and did cruel and cutting things with impunity as long as they did whatever the man wanted from them. Spoiler alert, this did not end well for anybody involved.

Why is that so? Because this way of being bred an awful lot of resentment. And if it’s one thing I’ve learned it’s that resentment is corrosive to relationships. I say corrosive because it seemed as though every action was being judged and criticized while every intention was called into question. And at the heart of this resentment was the limiting ideals of who could feel what or could be who they were, aka a human being with emotions, outside of the polarized views of the expected roles of who men and women should be.

This, was, crazy making. I’ve talked about my abuse before on this blog. An experience that shaped my future interactions with people, making me meek and timid around others. My timid nature was the subject of a lot of ridicule among my caregivers. I was called “sensitive”, which under the regime of my family, was a trait that men simply didn’t have.

It didn’t matter to them that I was traumatized at an early age and habitually abused and neglected. The reasoning being, if I were a real man, I should be able to handle it and do it on my own. This was/is an unreasonable expectation of anyone, especially from an eight year-old. But I soldiered on under these expectations, not realizing the damage they were imparting.

Doing It On Our Own

I’m not sure where this standard originated, but it’s one that’s been alive and well for a very long time. From my experience, asking for help was akin to showing vulnerability. And vulnerability was seen and preyed upon as a weakness. In my family anyway, if you showed that you weren’t able to handle something on your own or asked for help in anyway, the other person would show a deep sense of resentment.

Mostly because we all already felt like we were stretching ourselves to thin. So the burden of one more request was sharply felt in the form of resentment. But also because we never thanked anybody, or showed gratitude for anything anybody ever did. We definitely had a martyr complex and did not hesitate to proudly display this to others.

So instead of normalizing relying on and asking for help from others, I was taught that this was an act of aggression. One of disrespecting the other’s time and resources. In reality, I was just too scared to ask for help and to feel the scorn of any would be aid. But since fear was another emotion that men weren’t supposed to feel, I pretended that I was better than asking for help. This was how I tricked myself into believing that asking for help was for the weak.

Weakness Ain’t So Weak

But this wasn’t something that was unique to my family. This was a cultural phenomenon. For example, most all of the Rambo movies were about just this. One man fighting against all odds to make right the situation. Also, Arnold Schwarzenegger from “The Predator”, was another solo male role-model. Doing it all on their own without any help and leaving a wake of destruction wherever they went.

When I was young and felt like I could take on the world, these were definitely two dangerous role-models for me to have. Learning that having to rely on others is a form of weakness, is no way to navigate challenges that come up in the day to day. But this was the playbook I was given. And one I jumped at the chance to emulate. Everybody I looked up to was doing it, why couldn’t, shouldn’t I?

What I hadn’t realized at the time was, that most of the male role-models in my life were scared to death of some sort of version of coming up short. Whether it was due to social pressures, pressures from their loved ones, societal expectations… The list goes on. But instead of owning these limitations as “unreasonable expectations”, the men in my life chose to fake it till they made it. Only, there wasn’t anywhere to go. This however translated to a lot of drinking, belittling others and an awful lot of machismo bravado. And all of it designed to show how independent and manly they were, not realizing they were seeking somebody else’s approval. This did not work in their favor.

Most of the relationships in my family failed in one way or another. Family gatherings became strained events, where we would all inevitably drink too much and talk about those closest to us in demeaning ways. There was an awful lot of hurt feelings and bruised egos as well. And everybody was too scared of one another to share how they actually felt and what was on their mind. It was a suffocating environment to grow up in.

Making The Change: From Man-Up to Cool-Down

When I was in high-school, as I said above, I was meek. I was quiet and timid but also outspoken in other ways. I did not go to classes, and made a few enemies along the way. One of them was a bully, but no ordinary one. Once, when I was confronted and cornered by this bully in the hallway during a class we were both skipping, she punched me in the eye while here two oafish friends held me in place. I had a black eye for a few weeks and on top of that, I had to tell everybody that a girl beat me up.

This was tough for my 15 year-old ego at the time. Especially growing up in the culture I had. If it was one thing that men didn’t do, it was get beat up by a woman. One of my caregivers even came to my defense and said, “what were you supposed to do, you’re not supposed to hit a woman.” There’s a lot of thing that aren’t right about this statement. Among them being, nobody asking why I was getting beat up in school instead of going to classes. But they were too ashamed of my “sensitive” nature to ask the important questions and set things right.

So asides from being taught that it wasn’t okay to be “sensitive”, how did I find a way to take better care of myself even with the years of harmful lessons I was taught? It started with embracing my sensitive nature and calling it for what it was, me being a man having emotions.

Emotional Experiences: From Traumatic Fear to Just Plain Afraid In a Good Way

The road I took wasn’t a straight forward path. There were a lot of twist and turns and quite a few ignored emotions that needed to be felt. When I started “driving my own life bus” as my boss likes to say, I had to swallow my pride and admit that I had made a mess of the life I was living. Not asking for help from anybody left me alone and with few options as far as how to move myself forward.

I moved back in with family members and had to learn how to be a part of a family again, only this time in a healthy way. And this was difficult. The more I was around my family, the more old emotions were coming up that I had been running from. This was when I began dissociating. I would feel an intense emotion come on, and my mind and body just wouldn’t be able to handle it. So I checked out. People have described it as there being nothing behind my eyes, empty. That was the traumatic fear I was unable to fully feel.

But the longer I stayed with the feelings, meeting my edge and softening, the more I could embody them without dissociating. This took a lot of work in the way of, self-care, learning to be able to trust others, accepting support from others and trusting myself that I wasn’t going to carry on the legacy of the lessons that were taught to me.

Practice Makes Perfect: Wait, Maybe That’s an Unreasonable Standard

And what made this work possible, was a whole lot of practice. My default settings were to rely on the harmful lessons of my caregivers past. I had to consciously work to recognize when a situation would arise where I was operating under old, unhealthy ways of being and willfully work to change the course of my old teachings.

A great example of this is the ways I used to view women. As I said above, I was taught that women were objects to be won. This also meant that they were only to be seen as objects and their purpose was to fulfill desire. This meant sexual desire in my family. So my default teaching was, when I saw a woman, I immediately put her in one of two categories: attractive or unattractive. In my family, this was the extent of a woman’s value.

I hadn’t realized how demeaning this was because I wasn’t really driving my own life bus. I was acting on auto pilot, mostly for fear of being rejected by the people who where teaching me these unhealthy lessons in the first place.

So I first had to recognize that these views I held were unhealthy. This came with getting to know the women I was already relying on in my day to day relationships as first; people with emotional worlds all their own, and second as smart, funny, caring and loving individuals. To my surprise, they were fun and loving people with loads of personality and lots to contribute to just about every area of life. This is a bit of hyperbole, as I’ve always had a respect for women.

But treating them as equals was something that went against my initial teachings and something I had to actively recognize, when I was judging them solely on their appearance. Because how can you really see someone as equal if you decide their worth boils down to how hot they look in an outfit or naked?

So I was relying on the aid of these women to teach me how unhealthy my views and lessons learned were, by them being amazing and strong women. I was also recognizing the judgements I was making that were popping up in my mind as they were happening, while also challenging them in the moment.

This was tough, I’m not gonna lie. And I can see how some would choose to bury their heads in the sand and pretend it doesn’t need their attention. But the quality of my relationships has grown exponentially with these women and I’ve learned so much just by being around them. For example, my boss is an amazing woman who’s, started her own business after leaving a successful career in finance where she traveled around the world while raising a family. She’s like an unstoppable machine and I’m pretty sure who Merion-Webster had in mind when they defined the word and phrase, “capable” and “excels in every area.”

I could go on and I want to take this opportunity to thank all the women, especially those who go unrecognized, for putting up with people who I used to resemble for as long as you have without killing us. You are much stronger than we’ve ever given you credit for being : ) Thanks.

So the new lessons I’m choosing to live by are, men don’t have to go it alone. There are loads of people that are more than willing to lend a hand, women being among some of the the most capable. And asking for help is not equivalent to weakness. If you’ve found yourself in a situation similar to mine, know that you are not alone. It takes some work to break free, but it is most definitely worth it. I’ll leave you with a song that’s given me strength on my journey. Peace 🙂 and thanks for reading.

Strength, Courage and Wisdom. India Arie

Image Credits: “Lonely Man” by Nickeeth Lopez is marked with CC BY-NC 2.0.

Am I A “Real Man”? Or, How to Know When You Need to Flex on Some Turkeys : )

I was walking to a local shop not to long ago, to attempt to pick up my phone from being repaired after it stopped holding a charge. While I was on my why to the train station, I noticed a flock of wild turkeys bobbing around, looking for grubs to snack on. I thought that it was nice that I’ve been seeing more wildlife in the area, turkeys and rabbits being among them. So, with that in mind, I continued on my path towards the train station.

About a minute after passing the turkeys, I turned around for some reason only to notice that two of the turkeys had begun following me. I figured it was mating season, and I must have infringed on their territory. So I continued walking thinking they’d soon get bored and quit the chase. This however did not happen.

The turkeys got more aggressive, getting closer to me while pecking in the air in my direction. I turned around to face them, walking backwards while swinging my backpack at them in an attempt to shoo them, only to find that this was not helpful. While this was happening, a passerby drove up behind them and started honking the horn at them. This did not deter the turkeys. They raged on in my direction with an arrogant indignation of my presence.

The girl in the front seat of the car couldn’t have been more than 13 years-old, and was laughing hysterically. And trust me when I say, the humor was not lost on me : )

It was in this moment of levity, that my savior came. It was a little Yorkie Terrier guided by a man in his thirties. The man was explaining how waiving my bag was only making the turkeys more bold, while a dog one fourth the size of one of the birds, chased them into the nearby woods. It was a site to see, for sure and if I had my phone I would have definitely taken a video for documentation.

Is That What a Man’s Supposed to be Like?

Being chased by turkeys got me thinking, “how should I have handled this situation” and “does being chased by turkeys make me less of a man?” The conclusions I’ve come to are, no and let me tell you why.

My Role Models Growing Up

In the time and place I grew up, being a man was usually paired with gratuitous violence and a black and white way to choose and practice your morals and values. Characters like Rambo and Arnold Schwarzenegger from “The Predator” embodied these behaviors, that men were supposed to emulate in order to be a man. That was the unwavering standard of what makes a man, a man.

And needless to say, these were unreasonable. But to an eight year-old, they make perfect sense. Through the eyes of a child, there is most definitely evil in the world and it needs to be smote by a muscle bound savior. Most likely fighting against all odds to save the day for the masses, or a woman. The dangerous part of this message is that, we were all led to believe that deep down, we (real men) are the good guys and we could use whatever means necessary to achieve the end goal of, fighting for the greater good.

This is, from my understanding, the way we rationalize using violence to achieve our goals. But as I see it, this use of violence is a form of letting our emotions take the wheel and control our actions. I could have charged the turkeys and released my anger and frustrations on them for trying to chase me and do them harm in the process. And I have a few people in my life that would have told me that a “real man” would have drop kicked those turkeys into the next zip-code. But would I be more of a man for doing that? No. Losing control of our emotional states is more a trait of immaturity. More child like.

And of course, this reaction takes root in the male role models we had in our childhoods. Professional wrestling was a huge proponent of this type of machismo attitude also. All the posturing and flexing, mixed with the bravado worked to normalize the use of violence to alleviate the discomfort of feeling unsafe. Because at the core of conflict is that somebody, something or animals in my case, are threatening my safety. Perceived or physical.

So if I’m right, most aggression is really a way to avoid the difficult emotions of feeling unsafe, or not in control of our safety and surroundings. So how do we make the shift from feeling unsafe and acting from our fear based emotions to a more stable emotional place? I think it starts with practice and a little help from some healthier role models. Let me tell you how I’ve been practicing this.

My Role Models Now

I have a few photos on my phone’s wallpaper that rotate at random. They are, Dana Schultz from Minimalist Baker, Adriene Mishler from Yoga With Adriene, 2 Pac, Tom Hanks, Damon Albarn from Blur, Tara Brach, Mark Twain, Rumi, D’ Angelo the R&B artist and Tommy Caldwell and Alex Honnold the rock climbers. As well as a few photos of things I’d like to have or achieve.

Adriene, Dana and Damon are there to remind me to keep at it, whatever it is. They are so prolific as artists, writers and doers and give me inspiration to keep writing or stay on top of my yoga practice or do my best in my work. Whatever it is I’m doing, when I see their photos, I’m reminded to try a little harder.

Tom and Tara are on there to show me that I don’t have to be so hard all the time. The lessons I learned growing up, the ones that told me I had to be calloused and unfeeling as a man just aren’t true. Tom, especially his role in “Sleepless in Seattle”, illustrates the vulnerability we all have. And not that it’s only a female trait, but a humane one. Tara reminds me to be patient and also to nurture myself along the way. All ways of being that I was taught weren’t a man’s job.

Mark, Rumi, Tommy and Alex are there because they are great at what they do/did. And what made them great was their persistence, resilience and dedication. When I see them, I know that if I work hard enough, I’ll accomplish my goals. Anything’s possible. “Courage is mastery of fear, resistance to fear, not absence of it” – Mark Twain.

D’ Angelo made the list to remind me that as a man, it’s okay to show emotions deeply. To feel deeply and to be seen. I was taught that men didn’t have emotions other than anger. And even though we showed anger freely, we were shamed for showing it. Of course we were relating to it in reactionary ways. This was unhealthy. I now recognize the full spectrum of my emotions as they happen and wait before I respond. Giving myself a little more leeway.

And 2-Pac made the list because “everybody and their lady got a little bit o thug in em.” I sometimes need to be reminded that it’s okay to break the rules sometimes. We’re not perfect and that’s okay.

So with these new role models, I’m rebuilding a new version of myself. One that is strong and flexible. Loyal and dedicated. Feels deeply and is not ashamed of it. Not afraid to take some risks, but also knows how to be soft when I need to be. Especially with myself. I’m building a better man, from the new resources I’ve been collecting. And it’s not easy.

The Road Is Most Definitely Difficult

There are definitely times that I want to give in to the feelings of being overwhelmed, or fatigue. As an old co-worker of mine used to say, the days when you “just don’t wanna.” Thanks Chris. But it’s worth remembering that feelings are fleeting. They never last.

There are times like today, when I wake up at 6:30am to work in a bakery/restaurant and then go directly to my second job at a family shelter, where on top of my professional duties, I also plan my personal responsibilities for the upcoming week. After 16 hours of working straight, I am definitely ready to do absolutely nothing.

And it may be easier to take the road I once did. Where I would work minimal hours and spend the rest of my time playing videogames and drinking. Chasing pleasure rather than building the connections and experiences that would persist and bring me joy in a sustainable way. But the “easier” way of living brought with it a consistent sense of fear and anxiety. Not to mention I had almost no close friends to share my time with. I was alone and I had no idea that it was connected to the ways I was isolating from everyone.

Isolation is yet another lesson I learned on how to be a man by my caregivers and culture. Something I’ll be exploring some more in next weeks post. There’s something deceptively comforting in thinking you can do it all alone. Though impossible to actually accomplish, we still try. This is mostly due to, I believe, being told and shown we can by the culture. Being afraid to ask for help because it means you aren’t in control was another lesson on manhood I received in my childhood.

But avoiding connection was all connected to running from the fear of being hurt in relationships. We all get hurt by one another eventually. It’s only a matter of time really. But we need one another. Because being connected and sharing experiences are what makes life worth living. We can’t do that on our own.

So When Is It Okay To Flex On Some Turkeys?

This is by no means an exhaustive list on the many pitfalls we face when measuring ourselves up against the standards of what it means to be a man. These are only my perspectives of the lessons I’ve had impressed on me and what I’ve learned from them. But know that if you have some fears or questions on what it means to be a man, you are not alone.

It’s hard to come to the conclusion of what being a man means to us on an individual level. And what it means to you may not be what it means for me. But we’re all on the same journey together. And sometimes our paths do cross and we walk for a little while together. Hopefully my experiences have helped you in some way understand your experience a little better.

And I think the answer lies in something that Adriene from “Yoga With Adriene” says often, “find what feels good”. Only I’d add, in a sustainable way. Peace : ) and thanks for reading. Oh yeah, if you found that you’re being chased by turkeys, the common wisdom is to show dominance by waving your arms wildly while shouting and slowly walking towards them. Also having a dog on a leash helps as well. One more reason to own a dog : )

Image Credits: “I had to inch my way past this gang of local hooligans to get out of my driveway this morning. #lifeinthesuburbs #morningcommute” by Lorianne DiSabato is marked with CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

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

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

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

Sex was All I Could Think About

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

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

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

When Looking Good is Priority One

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

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

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

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

Unhealthy Values = Unhealthy Communication

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

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

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

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

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

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

Okay I Know My Values are Askew, Now What?

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

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

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

People as People, Not Objects

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pushing Yourself Too Hard and Self Abuse: Where’s the Line Between Being Tough and Being Abusive?

Ahh, more lessons from the toxically masculine eighties. And everybody had a good time… When I was a child in the eighties, there was a hyper focus on what the roles of men and women were. These were crazy and polarizing times. What I was taught about how to be a man is pretty much summed up by Arnold Schwarzenegger’s character from “The Predator”.

In summation, this meant that they (men) were always in charge and used force to stay in control. They frequently displayed a lack of forgiveness, especially towards those who were considered to be weaker (accept women and sometimes children), and displayed proudly their anger in destructive ways. I.e. by breaking things in the heat of an argument to show dominance of the situation.

I’m sure that all men weren’t like this, but the popular culture I was raised in valued and glorified this type of gender role assignment. I was often called sensitive as a child because I displayed a range of emotion that was greater than that of anger and confidence. Being scared as a man, regardless of age was unacceptable. And I was scared often due to the amount of abuse I was experiencing at the hands of my loved ones.

I’d like to talk about what some of the expectations were for me, growing up as a man, and the impact they made on me in my life. There was a lot of reparenting I had to engage in, due to the toxic lessons I was subjected to. And I know I’m not alone.

So if you’ve been measuring yourself to an impossibly masculine standard of self-reliance to the point of not being able to ask for help, or your emotional arsenal consists mainly of indignant rage, then keep reading. We maybe able to help one another by practicing another skill that most men from my generation were taught was too feminine for men to experience. That of listening and attuning to our feelings, and hopefully find some ways to heal ourselves in the process.

Are We Being Tough or Abusive? Where do you Draw the Line?

Resilience is a word that’s tossed around a lot these days. I struggled with what this word meant for a long time. As a man, I was taught that we were supposed to be tough, able to handle anything. Resilience was an unspoken part of that package. But what I’m finding out now is, the difference between being emotionally resilient and how I was taught to be “tough” by covering over difficult emotions.

When I was taught how to be tough, there wasn’t really much of a lesson plan. There was a lot of bravado, posturing and ways we covered over our emotions. The latter usually took form via drinking, pleasure seeking by abusing pornography and dissociating from them by pushing them off onto women and denying we had them in the first place. We were neither tough nor resilient. We had run from our emotions to the point of denial, and numbed them out when we were too tired to run.

What we were doing was a form of abuse to ourselves. By disconnecting from ourselves so thoroughly, we had completely ignored our own needs for emotional attunement. To ourselves and from others. Being tough has come to mean something else completely from how I was raised to imagine it.

Resilient Not Tough: Words Matter

So if what I was taught about being tough was all pomp and priss, then where did that leave me when it came to face my emotions? When they all came rushing in at once? It wasn’t ideal, that’s for sure. When the fear and insecurities came flooding in, it left me feeling overwhelmed and filled with anxiety. I had no tools, relationships or resources that I had been cultivating because I was relying on avoidance as my only coping skill. And in case you don’t know, you can’t avoid your emotions forever.

This is when I started searching for better ways to manage my neglected emotional world. Meditation was one that came in particularly handy. There’s a phrase I learned while listening to Tara Brach’s Dharma talks about meditation. It goes, “sit, stay, heal.” This is sound and straight forward advice. As I’m writing this, Kings of Leon are singing in the background, “ride out the wave”, which has a similar sentiment. Both suggest that you need to feel through it, in order to heal through it. This is also what is possibly meant by facing your fears.

And that’s the trick, that there is no trick. You just need to feel the fear, feel the insecurity, feel the sadness in order to come to be stronger for it. But that’s a difficult task for a lot of us struggling to deal with our difficult emotions. A friend of mine once told me that the more you feel your emotions, the easier it gets. And he’s right. It isn’t easy at first, but necessary if you want to live a life free from avoidant and possibly addictive behaviors.

Too often we get caught up in wanting to feel better in the moment. For me, I would drink lots of caffeine to alter my emotional state. Or alcohol if it was after work. Looking at pornography was another way of pleasure seeking for the moment. Not to mention something that was, along with going to strip clubs and objectifying women, the mark of a “true man” as taught to me by my caregivers.

Of course I didn’t realize I was covering over my difficult emotions. I was doing what was taught to me and what felt natural. So when I started feeling them without an aid, they were most definitely overwhelming. But my friend was right. The more I feel my emotions without the aid of something, the less intense they become. It’s amazing what a little practice can accomplish.

So what feels like abuse, subjecting yourself to staying in the difficult emotions, is actually the way to build resilience. And this isn’t to say that relying on medication isn’t wise if we’re dealing with very intense emotions. It’s when we self medicate by abusing medications or other drugs and activities to avoid our emotions that we run into trouble. And when in doubt, ask a professional such as a therapist or counsellor.

When Pride is Confused for Being Tough

Muscling through difficult situations as though we need to face them all on our own is nothing short of foolish pride. This was a characteristic that was found in abundance in my family. We were all too proud to ask for help. This usually meant we were in over our heads. But for us, it was seen as a sign of weakness to ask for help. So we muscled through by avoiding the difficult emotions in the moment and actively sought to numb or speed pass them in lou of finding support. This is abusive behavior.

I think what we were avoiding the most was the ridicule we would receive if we asked for support. We would be seen as weak. And weakness was active sought after and used as a means to do harm to each other in the cruelest ways we could muster. I feel that this was a way to release some of the pain and resentment we were holding in from past battles. But one thing is for certain, for me it was not safe to be seen as weak by those closest to me.

This is where pride became our main line of defence against each other. It was the one way we were able to keep ourselves as safe as possible in an environment that was consistently steeped in hazards. There was no safe place to turn, including inwardly. So we dissociated from ourselves and one another in order to survive the thousands of tiny wounds we were constantly inflicting.

I think what perpetuated this way of being in relationship with each other was, the fear of being cut down the way we watched those closest to us cut others down. It is a cycle that we repeatedly engage in, in order to keep the temporary illusion of safety in an otherwise treacherous environment. And it takes willpower and strength to break this habit.

Disengaging From the Patterns of Abuse

This ain’t easy, to put it mildly. In order to break free from the patterns of abuse, of giving and receiving it, we have to be the first to show our “weaknesses” or vulnerabilities. This is a scary proposition. As I’ve said above, my family was trained to maliciously attack any sign of “weakness”, as defined by our family’s unspoken rules and roles. So putting yourself in a place where you know you will be abused takes courage. Especially since your intention will be not to attack once you’ve been torn apart.

And the worst part is, there is no guarantee that the relationship will be salvaged once you put yourself on the line. If you’re ready to be done with the cycles of abuse, but the other isn’t, then you’ll be left wounded and alone. This is where it’s important to have supports already in place. So if things don’t end up working out, or progress is slow, then you’ll be able to find comfort in knowing somebody else is there for you.

Setting Boundaries

This was something I experienced a few years ago when I attempted to reconnect with somebody from my past. We met at a local Whole Foods to get lunch and catch up. When we sat down to talk, I noticed that we were slipping into old patterns of behavior.

The person I was with was used to more hostile interactions. The ways we use to interact was by making small, cutting remarks mixed in with the normal flow of conversation. Essentially being mean for no reason. When I recognized that this was happening, I knew I needed to give the relationship more time. So I ended our meeting early and took some time before reaching out to them again.

It wasn’t easy, but it was well worth the effort in order to properly care for myself in the relationship and establish a new standard of how I want to be, and will be treated. But it’s not enough to just cut ties and run. We need to tell the other person what we’re doing and why. Otherwise disengaging can be taken as an act of passive aggressive punishment. Withholding love without a proper explanation can feel to the other person like a cold place. Leaving them to wonder why you aren’t talking anymore.

Finding Support

And while you’re working on your relationships by setting healthy boundaries, it’s good to have people who know what you’re going through. People who can offer some advice, some insight or maybe just an ear to listen. It’s also helpful for these people to be practicing healthy boundaries themselves. This can be difficult if you are just beginning the journey of learning how to cultivate healthy relationships.

A therapist is a great place to start when looking to expand your support network. They can offer unbiased insight into how you can go about establishing these new rules you want to set in your relationships. They can also suggest other healthy resources that will aid you along the way. They can be a healing ally and guide, as you sort out the unattended areas of your life.

Friends are also invaluable during this process. I have one friend that I know I can count on for just about anything. To field a phone call about a hairy situation, get some logical advice about practical matters or text about something that’s happening in real time. I’ve talked to a few friends for their perspective of this post topic alone.

It’s also nice to feel the support of someone who knows you and what you’ve been through. To feel seen and recognized. This is especially powerful if you’ve been emotionally neglected. If this is the case, the act of attempting to connect with others can bring up emotions of anxiety and fear. By having friends and other supports, the feelings aren’t as strong as they would be if you were facing them alone.

Being Tough Means Finding Support

And finally, if you’ve been closing yourself and your emotions off from others, you become weaker in the process. It’s not healthy to be isolated from your surroundings for too long. We need one another to be the best versions of ourselves. Staying connected and growing stronger in those connections, that’s what being tough really means.

So if you’ve been told that being tough means grinning and bearing it, or rub some dirt in your wound, you’ve been mislead. Caring for ourselves by knowing our emotional limits and checking in with how we’re feeling is our true strength. This and the support of others is where we’ll be able to stop the cycles of abuse and become the healthiest versions of ourselves. Peace : ) and thanks for reading.

Image Credits: “Tired” by Geoff LMV is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

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