Affirmations: More than Positive Self Talk

“Affirmations? Really?” That used to be how and what I thought about them. Of course my introduction to them was from the Saturday Night Live character, Stuart Smalley, and his daily affirmation, “I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and doggonit, people like me.” This scathing introduction to the world of self-help was just the type of fuel an adolescent me needed to make fun of those willing to look for something that would make them stronger, more resilient. Of course I was thirteen and knew everything at the time, so I should probably cut my younger self some slack ;]

All joking aside, I’ve come to see affirmations in a much different light as when I was a teenager, and have been using them as a way to help create a sense of stability. To build confidence and help give myself the guidance I so desperately needed in my childhood. Of course I had to swallow a little bit of pride first. If you’ve read my post on toxic masculinity, you’ll know I was brought up to believe that things like affirmations were for the ineffectual, the weak.

According to my family, I was a man at eight years old after my parents divorced. I became “the Man of the house”, or so I was told by almost every male role model. Almost as a way of consoling me, as if to say “buck up son, no time to be upset, you have new responsibilities to get after”. Looking back this all seems ridiculous, but when I was eight, it felt like the weight of the world was on my shoulders.

From my younger perspective, men took what they wanted and were the embodiment of confidence and strength. If there was a problem, the man would take care of it using sheer force. There was no need to account for feelings, or even others points of view. So from this mindset, affirmations weren’t something a man needed because he already imbued strength and confidence by virtue of being a man. They were a given.

I even came to live life to my family’s standard of what it means to be a man in the ways that made my family comfortable. Something I’ve created an affirmation around to combat this sense of toxic masculinity that was handed down to me. But it was hollow. I pushed everyone away with cutting criticisms and needed to numb the feelings I had been ignoring in order to be who I thought I should be, according to how I saw those closest to me behave. It was anxiety producing and most of the time I was filled with fear.

And all this fear that was growing unchecked, was fueled by pride and bravado. I was perpetually putting down others to make myself seem more confident, more capable than I actually was. The nature of my thoughts were negative and born from insecurity. And I was practicing them constantly. The more I practiced them, the deeper I sunk into the hollowness I was creating around me. There’s a Modest Mouse album I used to listen to often, and its name embodies this sentiment for me, “Building Nothing out of Something”.

And that’s what it felt like for sure. After I had burned all my bridges, I was left completely alone, with only my negative thoughts to keep me company. That was about six years ago, and since then I’ve been rebuilding, well, just about every aspect of my life. From relationships to people, to food, and maybe most importantly, to myself. I had to find a way to replace that constant negative self talk and doubt that had become my M.O. for so long. That’s when I began using positive affirmations.

I think the idea took root while I was taking a psychology course at a local community college. My professor, Gerry, was an upbeat woman in her early sixties, who spoke a lot about positive psychology. This branch of psychology focuses on the individuals strengths, to live a fuller, happier life with more meaning. Affirmations, for me, are a way to focus on these, the positive qualities of my life. The areas that help me effect change in my world.

But there was a lot of unchecked emotional baggage I needed to go through (that I’m still going through), in order to know what aspects of my life to focus on and how I was relating to my emotional experiences of them, so I could give my affirmations direction.

I mainly focus on the ways that I’ve experienced trauma and how unsafe I feel around others. As well as the loneliness of the neglect and verbal abuse I experienced in my childhood. I’ve been doing this work with the help of a therapist, who has been an invaluable resource for me on my journey, and if there’s one bit of advice I can give, it is do not go this alone.

There are many times where I need the guidance of someone who knows about the path I’m on. And if you were left with caregivers like mine, you may not have many healthy lessons to reflect back on. This is exactly where outsourcing some healthier new views on how to handle experiences in the present, that may bring up old ways of reacting to emotions that may help you to see them from a more positive, strength based perspective. This can make the difference between establishing a healthy, lasting change, or opening an old wound that you may not be capable of processing alone at the time.

And it’s after the work of understanding how we react to our emotions and experiences is done, that we’re then able to forge affirmations that can help us to facilitate change. Mine are a work in process, and alter slightly as I come to understand how I react to the maladaptive lessons I’ve learned to use over the years, to navigate my emotional states.

It’s only now that I’m learning that my emotions aren’t anything to be ashamed of, no matter how I was shamed for having them as a child. It took decades of repeated reinforcement of the maladaptive lessons I was taught on how to be with my emotions that got me to where I am today, so I wasn’t totally surprised to find out that it takes lots of practice to reinforce the more positive perspectives I wish to embody. A little frustrating for sure, but not surprising.

And this is where it gets difficult. We have to navigate the result of years of negative reinforcement, while introducing the positive aspects of how we want to interact with our emotions. It can be tricky to figure out on your own. Especially if there has been a lot of verbal abuse. This is where persistence is key to making a lasting, positive change and the aid of someone who can help to steer you back on the path when inevitably you veer off.

One way I’ve veered from the path, many times, is when I’m caught in the grip of some irrational fear that I know stems from my abuse in some way. When the fear sets in, usually in the form of negative thinking, my mind insists on believing the horrible thoughts that are running through my head. This usually leads to more fear and anxiety. It’s then that a part of my affirmations will come to mind, like a firm place to hold on to. Some stability. But it’s because of how persistently I practice positive self-talk that I’m able to create the space necessary to gain a clear perspective when I’m in the thick of these difficult emotions.

And I cannot stress enough that it takes practice. The more often you say and focus on the positive, the more often your mind will default to it when thoughts and circumstances pop up, as they do in day to day life events. For example if you’re insecure about meeting new people, or being judged, the more often we say to ourselves, “it’s okay to be me, just as I am,” the more likely we are to remember this sentiment when we are in a situation where we are being introduced to someone for the first time.

I say mine once a day, and sometimes, if a part of them comes to mind, I scan my circumstances to see if it’s tied to an old belief in how I’m relating to it and my current situation. If so, I’ll remind myself of the positive ways I want to relate to my thoughts and emotions in the here and now. Then sometimes I’ll repeat the whole of my affirmations, just for a little extra boost of confidence. This usually helps to subside any of whatever anxiety and fear may be present.

And it’s not always easy. To be completely honest, sometimes it just plain sucks. But it never lasts very long and it subsides much quicker now than it ever has. And the more often I practice them, the better and more confident I feel about myself while being able to endure the difficult emotions and finding my footing onto more stable ground.

Practicing affirmations probably isn’t in style. I’m not sure how people would react to me if I told them I regularly give myself pep talks to build confidence and generally feel better about myself. But maybe that’s part of what helps to build the courage we’re seeking. Doing something that isn’t in line with what others see as “tough” or “strong”, but striking out on our own and finding what helps to make us feel stronger, more courageous.

I know it seems clicie, but it’s true, finding the strength in ourselves first, is how we come to feel stronger. It’s not out there, in someone or something else, but right here. All we’re really doing when we use affirmations is reminding ourselves of what’s already right here. The frase namaste comes to mind, the divine in me, recognizes the divine in you. The “divine” is what we’re “recognizing” when we decide to reinforce the search for the strength in ourselves by focusing on the positive in us by using specific affirmations in the ways we feel we are lacking in confidence. Or seeing the positive in ourselves. It’s already right here, we just have to recognize that it’s here.

Using affirmations can be a good foundation to find the personal strength needed to build, or as it was in my case, rebuild the basics of healthy relationships with others, healthy self-image and how we care for ourselves. It takes work, and it can be tough at times. But learning to use the tools of positive self-talk has the ability to strengthen every other aspect of our lives. From who we choose to surround ourselves with, to where we feel we deserve to live or work and how we care for ourselves. If you haven’t thought about it, or are on the fence about them, it may be worth your time to give it some serious thought. Because the nature of your thoughts holds the power to shape your world. Thanks for reading, peace :]

Image Credits: “Ben Eine – The Strangest Week : Smiley Faces / Acid House Faces – Hackney Road / Diss Street, London E2” by bobaliciouslondon is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Selling Image, Selling Belonging

There’s a store nearby that sells all things home related; bedding, mugs, kitchen wares and furniture. And, as part of my evening routine I’ve been in the habit of burning candles. I find they set a relaxing tone with their ambient light and they help to ease some of the stress from the day. So off I went, to said local store, in search of some candles.

As I was looking through the candles on the shelf, opening them up to see if their scent was something I’d enjoy, I came to one that had “Namaste” written in playful cursive across the front. I enjoyed the scent so I picked it up and walked to the check-out line. I was feeling a little off buying the candle for some reason but couldn’t place why. The message seemed to be in line with my meditation practice and my yoga practice, so it wasn’t the phrase. If anything the word should have brought me some peace of mind.

I bought the candle, brought it home, unwrapped it, and left it on my shelf next to some plants. I looked at it again and still found I had some aversion to the lettering and the word. It vaguely reminded me of something my sister would purchase. It was white, floral scented, then I understood what was bothering me about it.

The candle itself was fine, it was what it was trying to sell me that bothered me so much. The image of what it feels like to have the divine in me, recognize the divine in you, that had me feeling a bit off. I was being sold a gender specific version of how the world should be viewed according to the ethos of the company that made the candle. I was buying into the image the store that was selling the candle, and the group of people by supporting that message with my purchase.

If you’ve read my post on toxic masculinity, you’ll also know that buying into gender specific roles, like self care as being a woman’s job, were the teachings I received from my early caregivers, something I’ve been reparenting myself around. Knowing that feelings and emotions are not gender specific, but part of being human, and self care is just part of the human experience, has not been easy.

And the feeling that this candle’s branding seemed to embody is that emotional peace and well-being are only available for a specific demographic. Most likely active, young and fresh smelling women who were probably successful. Tan, wear a lot of white, and burned the types of candles I just purchased. Probably in an immaculate house, next to a freshly washed and folded stack of white linens. This all seemed absurd to me. Or at very least I needed someone who filled that description to provide for me the care I could not give myself. Which seemed equally as absurd.

I recognize that I have a biased view considering my upbringing. And if someone finds peace of mind by burning that candle, I’m happy for them. But I feel there is a large gap in the yoga community where men aren’t represented. This too can be a loaded topic. I’m sure women have found yoga, as I have, to be a healing outlet to get intouch with their bodies in a healthy way. Especially after experiencing trauma or abuse. Most likely at the hands of men. But this still leaves men in my situation of not knowing whether or not they belong.

If we believe the gender specific ideas we are being sold by companies like the one who made the candle I bought, then yoga and that form of stress reduction belongs squarely in the realm of the feminine.

And I don’t mean to argue that the yoga community is gender bias. I’ve always felt welcome at every class I’ve attended and have had excellent instructors both male and female. But the idea that I somehow got a gender specific correlation with the candle, in the way that I did was unsettling. That I was sold a gender specific sense of belonging to a community where, according to the candle company’s sales team, I don’t belong, .

I could be reading into this a bit. I have a minor in communications so the critical side of me comes to the forefront whenever I see advertising involving something I’m interested in. But I feel like this candle is part of a larger problem. If we hear time and again that something we’re interested in is exclusive to a certain demographic, we may begin to feel like an outsider.

The term “yoga pants” comes to mind as I’ve never heard them in reference to men, always how a woman looks in them. And if some of the joy we derive from our interests involves being a part of a community, then we could be missing out on the quality of our experiencing what brings us joy.

And having a constant reminder on display is a good way to let a message settle in and get comfortable. Not to mention the advertising that we are inundated with day in and day out while companies vy for our resources at the expense of excluding large groups. Which is usually at the core of their message. The message being that you don’t belong, you’re not welcome here unless you fit our standards.

I could have just left the candle on the shelf. I could just chalk it up to not being in line with my personal taste. But it doesn’t feel right just to let it stand. The way I’m sure it doesn’t feel right the way some women may feel uncomfortable when they decide to put on a pair of yoga pants for fear of being ogled on there way to a yoga class or a coffee shop. The coercion of being corralled into thinking that you don’t belong to what you find enjoyable, feelings manipulated to unease around what usually sparks joy.

And I did like the candle, it was simple, white and had black lettering, just not the implied image it was selling. So what’s the solution? How do we undo what advertisers and large corporations have successfully accomplished, using an impressive amount of resources to brand their products to a target demographic? How do we shed our targets and live a little truer to our authenticity? Let’s look at some of the ways we may be taken advantage of to understand better how to recognize and sidestep the trappings we often find ourselves in.

Trends can be fun. It can feel nice to be part of something that is just for enjoyment. For instance, liking a new band for their hit song can be a pleasant way to remember a time and place. And the people you connected with at the time without going to deep. But there are a lot of ways that our wanting to belong can be taken advantage of, for someone else’s profit.

When I was in my mid-twenties, I was kind of obsessed with Pottery Barn. I liked the clean lines and muted tones they used while still feeling rustic. It was how I pictured my future home to look, filled with a clean, conservative aesthetic. At the time I was planning to go to school for journalism, so I imagined I’d have a serious and important role to fill. Informing the masses of misdeeds and lapses in morality from those who held positions of power. And of course I needed a desk that would look as important as how I felt my duty would be.

So naturally I spent a large sum of money on a desk that held little more than a decanter of whiskey or scotch, and a matching chess table which sat next to it. As though my desk was so important that it needed an assistant. I was just barely scraping by working as a social worker of sorts, and had probably just enough money for groceries. Let alone buying an expensive desk from Pottery Barn that I barely used. But there I was, with an expensive desk in an empty room. How did this happen? How was I so manipulated into feeling that this desk would not only help me to achieve my goals, but help conjure them into fruition? It starts with what we find value in.

What I didn’t realize at the time was that the desk I purchased, played to my perceived values. I thought that buying something that embodied those values would then thrust me into the mindset/mentality of the value that I wished to embody. Along with underlying currents of confusing taste, style and tendencies with what I valued.

For example, I was a hippy in my late teenage years. Something I haven’t really shed. Mostly because of the feelings of when I was first introduced to the culture and aesthetic were so positive. Along with many of the values that most modern day hippies embody are still in line with my current values. I.e. recycling, organic farming and living sustainably, fostering open and caring community. All aspects of the culture I value and wish to embody in my day to day life, including the clothing and style.

There is also a serious side to me that very much likes order and to bring structure to chaos. So the rustic feel of the desk, looking as though it were made from reclaimed barn wood, blended with the clean polished lines of the industrial, flat black, minimalist metal frame and its mirror finish, appealed to both sides of me simultaneously. My enjoyment of a caring, natural community, represented by the look of reclaimed barn wood, mixed with the clean metal and highly glossed wood finish that filled my need for order, both lead me to believe that this desk represented my values.

But it was not substitute for them. This is the trap that most people fall into when purchasing things they feel are in line with their values. The same ways I did with the desk. The wood was not reclaimed. In fact it was most likely harvested in a way that was environmentally unsound and not in line with my values. Reclaimed barnwood being a form of recycling where as unsustainable wood harvesting for the benefit of a furniture company has grave environmental ramifications.

So it was no surprise that after buying the piece of furniture, I was left with my manipulated values sitting at my desk wondering why I felt a bit restless. Like something just didn’t add up. This was the other message that was being sold. That you could buy your values. Values from my experience are something that you work to embody, something practiced. Not something bought. In order to feel fulfilled from your values, you must first put the hours in.

But that takes work. Something I was not inclined to do. And if I could buy a desk that looked the part while allowing me to avoid the work I should have been putting in, then that’s what my younger self would do. Of course at the time I was unaware of this dynamic at play. I was just trying to fill a part. The one that looked most appealing at the time. Lucky for me there were plenty of stores that were willing to aid me in my effort to avoid work.

So therein lies the danger. Being told that buying something that seems to embody your desired values, is just as good as putting the work in to practice your values. And companies spend a lot of resources in order to sell you an image of what it feels like and looks like to embody that value by using their product.

I’m not stating anything new here. And I hope I’m not blowing any minds. But I’m often surprised at how it feels like every generation finds another way of buying into this system of buying values by purchasing goods. I feel a large part of this cycle is perpetuated by the feeling of a lack of belonging. If we’re trying to fill our sense of self worth with the values we hold closest but only have a desk or pair of shoes or whatever we choose to represent our values, without the embodied presence of the practiced value we’re left, as I was, behind my desk feeling confused and a little lonely.

Lonely for me, because I was perched behind a desk that I thought would lend me the street cred I was looking for. Not feeling the part left me confused and a little like a fraud. I felt slightly guarded. Not wanting people to see that I wasn’t confident in myself and the values I was trying to represent. The vulnerability of knowing that the things I buy, don’t guaranty my belonging but also of not knowing what would if I couldn’t buy it.

These lessons are deeply entrenched in our society. I know I’ve learned this not only from companies looking to sell me something with assistance from large advertising firms, but also from my family. I mentioned this in my Search for a Blog page. When you question your own belonging to the people who are supposed to accept and love you no matter what, that’s when the fear sets in.

Who will or could love me now, may take the place of the love and belonging we once felt. And it will dominate our thoughts and actions in relationship with those closest to us. This is where I believe Brene Brown’s frase, “hustling for worthiness” may take up residency in our mind and heart. If we feel we’ve been rejected by the people we love most, than the most important goal becomes, how do I get back what I lost.

That’s when we turn to whatever feels good at the time. Or what Tara Brach refers to as the false refuges. This could be anything from alcohol to shopping (as were the cases with me and my family). Drugs or even using other people are also false refuges. But they aren’t sustainable. Or they cause great harm to ourselves and others which is why they’re false refuges.

So how do we find our way out of these trappings of the false refuges or hustling for worthiness? One way is through acts of self-care. If you’ve read my post on why self-care is so important, you’ll know that it’s a way of dialoguing with our emotions and getting to know who we are. As my dad likes to say, “be yourself, everyone else is already taken” -Oscar Wilde. Showing yourself that you care, you’re a priority, gives you the courage to find what your values are. The you without the “hustle”, or the false refuges.

Other ways to avoid the hustle, is after you know what your true values are and embody those feelings by dialoguing with yourself, check in with how something makes you feel. Is it the excitement of something new supporting your values, or is it just novelty?

More often than not, the things that you do to bring joy to you practicing your value, won’t cost much money. For instance, if you value spending time with friends, cooking a meal together can be more intimate and enjoyable than eating out. But going to see a concert together can be a joyful experience as well. So it’s important to take a deeper look as to why you’re doing something, and ultimately it’s you that will know the answer. AKA, trust yourself.

And sometimes we’ll make mistakes. After all, advertising is a large industry designed to make you spend your money. So be forgiving when you do stumble. Just because you’ve been fleeced, doesn’t mean that you’re doomed to feel unwanted or unloved. Stay true to and trust your values, they’ll guide the way.

I hope you’ve found this helpful in some way. It isn’t always easy, but don’t worry, the work becomes easier the more you do it :] Good luck and Peace.

Image Credits: “1960s Advertising – Magazine Ad – Campbell’s Soup (USA)” by ChowKaiDeng is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

Self-Care Sundays! Coming to Terms with your Fear and Neglect of Self by Creating Healthy, New, and Self-Sustaining Habits.

Self-care. This used to be a term I knew almost nothing about. For a long time, I didn’t know I had needs that weren’t food, clothes, shelter or water (more like beer actually). Anything beyond the realm of survival was definitely not on my radar. A younger me would most likely scoff at the idea. Self-care in my mind equated to something like getting a mani-pedi. If you’ve read my post on toxic masculinity, you’ll know I had a deeply entrenched belief about the nature of men having to be tough and unfeeling while women were “afforded the luxury” of being pampered and taken care of.

If that was tough to read, then I’m on the right path because it definitely
did not feel okay to write. The strong sexist overtones were literally and metaphorically beaten into me from the time I was a small child. This is no exaggeration. My family ran from their emotions using so many different modalities that I’m not surprised that I literally did not know what it was like to experience them. I’m surprised that I found my way out of the maze they dumped me in at all.

I would spend my days watching my mother drink coffee all morning long while driving to multiple locations to shop for clothing or house wares that she called running errands. She would then meet her mother and they would gossip and complain about the people closest to them in their lives. In the early evening she would switch to drinking vodka tonics, cooking dinner and paying bills or budgeting at the kitchen table. She would finish the night by watching hours of television. She was in perpetual motion or at very least she filled her time with distractions that would keep her from sitting with her internal life.

I love my mother but from her is where I learned to avoid my emotions with either chemicals or distractions. The men in my life weren’t much more emotionally intelligent either. Using mostly anger and aggression to hammer their points home. I don’t remember many teachable moments in my childhood. Where an authority would sit me down and explain to me why what I just did wasn’t the safest or best way to react to a situation. But there was a lot of yelling and beatings for not following the rules. 

So it was here that I was left. The maze between my mother’s teachings of neglecting my emotional body and the fear I learned from the male role models in my life. Fear and neglect were emotional states I knew well growing up in my family. I now know that it wasn’t their fault. They were “faced with something that could consume you completely”, to quote a song lyric from Grimes’ “Skin“.

In the case of my family, what could consume them were all the unattended emotions that were wildly in need of some kind, structured attention. But when you’re a child just learning how to communicate with your loved ones and learning the languages they’re modeling for you with their spoken and implied rules, it’s difficult to understand that it’s not you. It isn’t personal.

As children we are often the centers of our own worlds. When we sit at the kitchen table listening to our parents cutting up others for their perceived shortcomings often enough, it can be tough to suss out when they turn their disdain towards us in a moment of frustration and the child becomes the target, that the children have not fallen into the category of “other”. Not belonging with and to their parents. Showing the child that the love the parents once gave so freely is conditional and unstable.

This can be a lonely place. One filled with fear for not belonging and self-doubt, as to what the child could have done that made their parents turn on them so quickly. I know for myself, that this was how I was feeling and it is something that I’ve carried with me through the years. If our foundation of how we view ourselves is built on these criticisms then we are left with a very unstable vision of how we see ourselves. This is where a nourishing self-care routine came to help me overcome some of the self-doubt and fear that had been instilled in me from very early on.

From my experience, when we practice self-care, we are sending the opposite message to ourselves. One of being important, being valuable. The more often we send ourselves these positive messages that we care enough about ourselves to nurture ourselves, the less we are to believe the messages of neglect and abuse we received from our caretakers in our youth. As an old co-worker of mine used to say, it’s as though you are saying to yourself, “I’m here, I care”.

And a little bit of care goes a long way. Especially since we have everyday stressors to deal with, and if you add neglect on top of that, it can feel insurmountable at times! But what helps to embody these messages of care we take for ourselves is repetition and consistency. We need to make showing up for ourselves a habit.

Which brings us to self-care Sundays! I know for me, I needed to set some time aside each week, so I could just relax. And even learning to relax was a challenge! So it started with finding the time to begin to learn, which for me is Sunday night. Since I work in the food industry, my Sunday is my Friday, and I thought, “what better way to start my weekend than with a little down time for myself”.

The consistency of my routine being once a week gives me the sense that I’m valuing myself, and my time. I know that no matter how stressful the day gets or how many tasks pile up at work, I have some time to myself where I can do something special for myself. Or just be without worrying about what to do next.

And this is where consistency is important. I needed the set structure of having a specific day, with a set time, to be able to learn that I could count on myself to show up. To focus on myself with a kindness and attention that I hadn’t received before from those who were supposed to show me how it’s done. And as I’ve stated above, it’s even more difficult for men because societally, self-care has historically fallen in the realm of the feminine.

Which was another obstacle I found myself navigating around. I felt a mix of guilt, shame and a little bit of fear for showing kindness to myself. As though this was not my job. I was swimming against the current of my family’s unspoken rule of showing kindness at all. It was not only seen as a sign of weakness for a man, but also feminine in nature. I had to teach myself that kindness was not a feminine emotion, but a human one.

The following paragraph sums up the types of role modeling my family members exemplified in my childhood. The man of the house made a living and had a career. He was the unquestioned authority and head of the household. He used violence and aggression to keep his family in line and protected. The woman was caretaker of the man, cooked, cleaned and soothed him using whatever means necessary. She was submissive and navigated her world with a childlike naivety. Alcohol and denial were the two tools most often used to keep this model “working”.

Under this model I was taught that I needed a woman to be kind to me because that was the work of women. I was unable to feel kindness being a man, so I needed a woman to feel it for me. Asides from this being an extremely unhealthy dynamic and possibly co-dependant, it taught me the lesson that I couldn’t be kind to myself or others.

As a child I was given a considerable amount of mixed messages. Kindness being the woman’s job or even having emotions being feminine, being a few of them. But to my younger self it made sense because all the men in my life were terrifying and the source of most of my abuse. While the women were neglectful and spiteful. So fitting into the roles I had laid out for me meant I needed to be hard and unfeeling. In control of myself and others. But it was these roles that were causing me a considerable amount of fear and anxiety.

Little did I realize that this was my family’s way of trying to control their external experiences to feel more in control of their internal worlds. If everybody acts the part that’s pre-approved, then everybody knows where they stand with one another. But asides from being unhealthy, this also takes the spontaneity out of life. Trying to predict everybody else’s emotional states and reactions in order to feel safe in a relationship is more like surviving than being in a conscious loving relationship. And not allowing for people to change is just as bleak an outlook.

What I feel was the missing piece to my family’s way of being in relationship was, they were relying on someone else to take care of themselves while they took care of another. And if your source of care is on the line and you are unable to provide that care for yourself, then I imagine we would go to great lengths to try to control our sources of care. How we’re loved, seen and belong.

This is why self-care is so much more important than just taking ourselves out to dinner once in a while. It’s a way to show ourselves that even if we don’t have someone who is willing to take care of us in certain ways, we are still capable of giving ourselves the care we need. We are still worthy of love and we still belong. We’re not only willing, but perfectly capable of taking care of ourselves and it can be enjoyable too.

Now that I’ve gone over some of the ways we may find resistance in attempting a little self care, next week I’ll go over some of my routines and how I made them stick. Because it’s not always easy starting a new routine. Especially one that is at the very core of how we picture ourselves and how we imagine the rest of the world sees us. Till next time, bring an open mind. Peace 🙂

Image Credits: “2015-03-18c What do I do for self-care — index card #self-care #happiness #comfort” by sachac is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Toxic Masculinity: The Pitfalls of Growing Up Male

I was a child of the eighties. As a male, that meant a lot of different things. As far as my most influential role-models were concerned, they were Sylvester Stallone from “Rambo 2”, and Arnold Schwarzenegger in, “The Predator”. Two men who used gratuitous violence to get what they wanted, and defend what was rightfully theirs. With regards to my emotions, I only had two. Anger which was most prevalent, and the confidence to use my justified anger to protect what was morally right using aggression. These were the lenses through which I was taught to view the world and started as soon as I could speak.

In the world I grew up in, men were men and took what they wanted while drinking whiskey and women were weak and caretakers of their men and children. At the time, I had no idea how unhealthy this polarized idea of how men and women, “should act” was. But I was also a child, where black and white thinking was how I and most children viewed and navigated their worlds.

Unfortunately or fortunately for me I experienced a fair amount of abuse, trauma and neglect, which jettesenned me from the path of the above form of masculinity which I’ve come to know as toxic masculinity. But it took a while to come to this conclusion and I definitely tried to fit in using the methods that were being modeled for me in my youth.

I drank whiskey neat because I thought it was the mark of a man. James Bond, who was one of my role models as well, did so. I watched movies like “Apocalypse Now” and “Fight Club” on repeat, taking notes on how to be the manliest of men by looking and acting the part to the best of what I thought my family would approve of. I even studied Heath Ledger’s Joker because he was sort of in line with the ideology of what I thought it meant to be a man. It helped that the role models I had terrorized me in the way I saw the Joker psychologically terrify people.

Luckly, I no longer look to role models like these and God only knows where I’d be if I had continued down that path. What was so insidious on how I started to idolize those characters was not because I had loads of quality time with male role models mirroring this type of behavior. But rather it was due to neglect mixed with subtle and not so subtle criticisms from my role models that left me not knowing how to be as a man.

For instance, my mother told me I was sensitive constantly. More often than not it was when I was showing an emotion other than the two, pre-approved “manly” emotions of anger and confidence. I did not have the ware-with-all to say she’d be sensitive too if she was neglected by her mother as she sent wave after wave of terrifying men to abuse her. That being said, I recognize that it didn’t start with my mother. Her mother, my grandmother handed down her child-rearing handbook to my mother. So I know she must have lived through some of what I experienced.

Telling me that I was sensitive in a way that always felt as though I were being placated in a condescending tone taught me that it wasn’t okay to have feelings. For most of my adult life I didn’t know what feelings were. Not only was there no one there to model healthy emotional boundaries for me, anytime I expressed one that wasn’t acceptable or was unmanly, I was shamed for having them.

The one feeling I came to know by name and understand well was anxiety. And that was only in the times between the 4 to 5 lattes I would drink during the day to stay ahead of my emotions and the 5 to 6 beers or mixed drinks I would have at night to numb the emotions when they eventually did catch up with me. And they were paralyzing.

And even then the ingrained trainings on how to be a “man” still wouldn’t allow me to see my emotions as something to listen to. As a marker for something being out of alignment. During one of my yearly physicals I was speaking to my physician about the anxiety attacks I would have sometimes looking to be prescribed some sort of anti-anxiety medication. Only I told him, “I just can’t live with this weakness inside of me anymore” referring to my anxiety. Luckily, he looked at me with empathy and said that feelings aren’t weaknesses.

Unfortunately that was one of the few times I could remember receiving any kind of healthy emotional modeling. I had a life’s time worth of harsh criticism leading me in the unhealthful direction of toxic masculinity resulting in the bravado of understanding my inner emotional life as a weakness to be rooted out.

So what sparked this awakening so to speak, of how I came to understand just how toxic the perception of being a man meant? And how it was being modeled for me in my youth? And what gave me the ability to want to change my future? It all started when I stopped running from my emotions. But to do that, I had to go digging through my past first.

I spent a lot of time in Vermont as a child. Most of my family was living there at that time and we would often visit on weekends and holidays. One visit during the winter months I remember my uncle telling me to go get wood from the wood pile and stack it next to the fire place. I couldn’t have been more than eight at the time so I asked for a hat because it was January in Vermont. That meant it was cold. He thought for a second and with a mocking gesture, reached into the closet and retrieved a mesh baseball cap. I was too young to question his authority but I remember standing out by the wood pile freezing while trying to grab armloads of wood to bring into the house. Even then I knew something was amiss. 

The message my uncle was sending me, although I was too young to know it at the time, was that man should be able to endure whatever unpleasant or difficult sensations come up. Regardless of what they may be, even if they were self imposed. Instead of modeling that a man should take care of himself by using the appropriate tool for the situation. In this situation a knit cap for the sub-freezing temperatures of Vermont would have been a healthy lesson to learn. Instead in my eight year-old mind I was taught the lesson that men should endure even the harshest of situations without complaint.

When I found out that I was unable to get rid of the feelings that I was told I shouldn’t be feeling, i.e. the discomfort and uncertainty of being unable to live up to the standard of “man” that my family was measuring me to, I learned to numb them later in life through coffee, alcohol and medication. Sure without feelings I could finally live up to the image of what my family thought I should be and therefore my image of how a man should behave, but I also lost myself along the way. And that way of living was unsustainable at very least.

I was unable to foster and keep close relationships with others to any meaningful degree because I was unable to empathize with or understand how or what someone was going through on an emotional level. I was completely controlled by my emotions. I was terrified of them popping up unexpectedly. So I stayed hyper vigilant to keep the fear of unwanted emotions at bay while finding ways of controlling my inner experience by numbing or pleasure seeking behaviors. The list of methods I used to control my emotions is long, but control of my inner life was my number one priority. Not to feel the emotions I had been running from since I was a child, being sent the message that my emotions were dangerous to feel and unmanly.

This type of behavior, on how men should be raised according to my family and to some degree societally, is founded on two basic principles from what I can gather. The first principle, men should not talk about their emotions, and second, normalizing this form of abuse by labeling it what it means to grow up male.

Men were not supposed to talk about their emotions. As I mentioned above there were only two or so emotions that were acceptable for men to express. Anything outside the realm of anger or confidence was labeled unmasculine and as a male you would be too sensitive if you expressed them. Men were supposed to be hard, physically and emotionally unyielding and unforgiving. 

But it was this modality of being emotionally calloused that prevented me from creating close relationships. You can’t be attuned to yourself and others in an authentic way if you have such a high standard of how to behave that no one would be able to add up to it. Everyone, including ourselves would always be a disappointment. Letting us down for never achieving some impossible standard. Such as not being allowed to feel emotions of vulnerability and tenderness as a man.

When you view the world through this lens, it’s easy to become jaded and see the people around us as nothing but potential let downs. “Why bother” would become our default mantra when it comes to building connections and friendships. In the end the relationship will never be satisfying because we will eventually show our vulnerabilities to one another and if it’s one thing that men are not, according to the unspoken rules of my upbringing, it is vulnerable.

And the why we as men seem to stay wrapped in this idea of perpetually being unable to speak about our emotions, is that it’s just the way men are.

My mother said to me countless times growing up, “I don’t know how to raise a man”. This not only sent me the message that I wasn’t adding up to what her standard of how a man should behave, but also there was no way that I would be able to act as a man. Because first, internally I was terrified of all the male role models in my life due their abusive tendencies. But second, and what my mom was probably referring to was I had no male role models. Healthy or unhealthy, that took the time to show an interest in me as a person. To find out what my strengths were and where I could grow as a person. I was polarized with either abuse, or neglect.

With this amount of uncertainty it becomes easy to fall into the trap of finding someone who will tell you what to do or how to feel. And there is no shortage of people willing to fill this role. I spent the first half of my life looking to recreate this power dynamic in my relationships. Trying to find someone who would criticize me into submission. There’s a sort of cold comfort in knowing that your life isn’t your responsibility. But this type of thinking and being leads to stagnation and the inability to move on with our lives or affect real change. Not to mention the unhealthy drinking habit I picked up along the way as well. As well as many other unhealthy habits in order to avoid the responsibility of my life.

For me it meant reliving the cycles of my trauma. Trapped in a life without meaning because I couldn’t get passed the feeling that I wasn’t in charge of my own life. That somehow, how others saw me was more important than how I was treating and responding to myself. Or more to the point, I thought I needed someone else to tell me I was on the right path when the only person who could know that was me.

What allowed me to recognize these unspoken family rules and then implement changes for a healthier version of myself was time spent away from my family and me hitting my bottom. I was with a woman I who I married and we were together eight years. I left her for another woman, one who was much younger than I was. It was not a wise decision and I’m sure I could have found other ways to come to terms with my emotions and have stayed married. But the reason I left my then wife was because when I was with the woman who I left my wife for, I felt heard and seen for the first time since I was a child. I felt safe, unjudged.

She would later leave me which was for the best but this left me with nowhere to go and no one to rely on except to come to terms with the person I had become. I moved back in with my father at 34 and began building a relationship that was not based around the unspoken rules of my upbringing. It was scary. It went against all my teachings of what it means to be a man. I.e. it left me feeling vulnerable and uncertain. Confused and scared, but I learned that I could live through these emotions and I could be stronger for them.

Since letting go of the toxicaly masculine lessons I was raised with, I’ve gained control of my life again. I’ve come to make healthier choices about my diet and spending habits. I seldom drink alcohol and have one to two cups of green tea a day. I’ve found direction in my life and I’m starting to build and maintain healthy relationships with friends, old and new again. It’s not always easy but my life is my own now and I no longer seek the approval of someone else to tell me how I’m doing. Or how I’m measuring up.

These are the gifts that being your own man are able to yield. Strong and soft are my new goals, not hard and unyielding. Because unlike the curriculum I was given in my childhood, might does not equal right. There is strength in coming to understand, attune and attend to our own inner emotional lives. But it takes courage.

We have it in us, to embody the strength we need. Some say we were built for it. So take heart dear reader. Know you are not alone and you are already the best version of yourself. You only need uncover yourself 🙂 Peace.

Image Credits: “Texans bravado is a little chilling.” by Tolka Rover is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Self Care: Do you Know What you Want?

Here’s a question that you may hear when you are out getting coffee or something to eat. “Do you know what you would like?” We’re asked this question often enough but if you’re like me I’m willing to bet that you often go on what you are used to instead of what you actually feel like having. Some of this has to do with the degree of importance of the task at hand.

For instance, we don’t have to search our feelings everytime we get to the counter at our favorite coffee shop to find out what our deepest self wants to drink for a morning beverage. If you like mochas, it’s probably a safe bet to order a mocha. But somethings are worth the time to investigate.

If you’ve read my post, “Self Care: Spiritual, Meditation, Am I Doing This Right?” you’ll know that I was raised in a man’s man family. This included most of the macho cliche standards of what it means to be men. Among them, not having feelings, getting what they want when they want it and being vulnerable was a sign of weakness… the list keeps going. But basically what this meant for me was some things men just didn’t do.

This was tough for me, because one thing men didn’t do in my family was raise children. This was a job done by women. So to my chagrin when my mother told me she didn’t know how to raise a man, that left me pretty much on my own. What this meant for me was I had know idea how to pursue and develop interests or even to find out what I liked. I was so focused on whether or not I fit in that I didn’t stop to think, “am I doing what I like?”

On top of that when I found out what I liked ran counter to my learned ideas of what men “should” like and act like, I was confused. In the world I knew men weren’t supposed to like yoga or the Grateful Dead. Men weren’t supposed to be vegetarian or vegan or like running.

They were supposed to lift weights so they could be strong and in charge and hold their own in a fight if they had to. Men weren’t supposed to be about peace and love but they showed anger freely and often. The world I grew up in, men hunted and grilled, drank beer, swilled scotch while watching football. I’m not trying to say that any of those ways of being or personal interests are inherently bad but when your acceptance hinges on whether or not you fit a specific mold or set of criteria, therein lies the issue.

So now that I’ve explored some of the pitfalls of how I didn’t know what it was that I liked I’m going to take a look at how I found where my interests do lay.

It started with knowing how I felt, truly felt, without the influence of drugs or alcohol or the threat of being cut off from belonging by those who “loved” me. But that took some digging.

First, I had to change the ways I was doing things. I had to slow down which meant not drinking so much coffee to force my way through the day. Second, I slowed down on my alcohol intake which was my way of winding down from drinking all the coffee to avoid being present in my feelings as they happened. Then I had to stop and listen to my feelings as they happened.

It was a mixed bag. As feelings usually are but the more I listened the more I understood what my interests really were and why. For example, I love The Grateful Dead. But the more I explored my love the more I realized that it was the culture I loved. The freely expressed emotions of love and acceptance that I so longed for. I like the blues, don’t get me wrong, but they can be tough to listen to if that’s all you’re listening to. You end up, well, blue.

I liked watching football with my friends. We’d get loaded and scream at the T.V. for a few hours and get into trouble or at least have a good story to tell for the next week. But the violence of the game always made me a bit uncomfortable and reminded me of how I never felt like I quite added up as a man. scally to those that held my belonging in their judgements by expecting me to fit in with what’s expected.

Yoga and running were ways of getting in touch with my body in a way that was soothing. I could take care of my physical needs for exercise while pushing my personal limits and grow in a safe way. They also have a meditative quality to them. You can get lost in the cadence of your heart beating in rhythm with your feet against the pavement. Or get lost in your body as you’re flowing through downward dog to plank, to upward facing dog. All of your body parts moving in succinct language, freely expressing itself. And you won’t get a hangover from a heavy night of yoga.

Getting in touch with our wants isn’t always easy. Sometimes you have to pull them apart from others expectations and your own perceived or anticipated expectations of how you will be granted acceptance from others. But it’s worth it to find the things, people and places that bring you peace and a feeling of belonging,.Not at the expense of what you are like but because of what you are like. And to quote someone really famous, “Be yourself, everyone else is already taken.” -Oscar Wilde

Image Credits: “Playing withthe Bombay Mix and asking ‘Why?'” by Supermum1 is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0