Making Friends With Your Fear

Fear is something I have plenty of, and I know I’m not alone. It comes in many different forms as well. Depending on the situation, it can range from fear for your physical security, food insecurities, living situation… The list goes on. But regardless of the source, the feelings are still the same.

It’s difficult to handle, and most of us, including myself, spend a lot of time running from it. I’ll go into a few of my fears and how I’ve run in the past, but also how I’m now learning to face my fears and become stronger for it. It’s no easy sometimes, that’s for sure. But it gets easier the more you stay in the feelings. Let’s take a look at some of the ways I used to run from my fears. Maybe you’ll see some similarities with yourself and find comfort in knowing that you’re not alone.

The Fear And Why I Ran From It

For me, the fear is a sense that no matter what happens, I’m not going to be okay. The worry sets in and I think about the terrible consequences of whatever I’m worried about taking up residency. The result is not ideal and it also makes regular visits. For me, it can feel like a consistent fixture in my emotional life.

If the fear itself wasn’t bad enough, I would also worry about when the fear was going to return. This cycle would replay itself, creating fear upon fear. I’d become fearful, the fear subsided, then I get anxious about feeling that fear again. And when all the fear and anxiety became too much, I ran from it.

I would use a myriad of methods to avoid the fear. Alcohol and pornography being my two main methods, but distractions such as T.V. were another way to avoid my emotional experience. Anyway I could numb out the discomfort I would give a try.

But this never really worked for me. The fear and anxiety would consistently return. Like an old friend, I knew it’s embrace all too well. Or enough to know that I needed to pick up a drink and numb out the feelings that were too much to handle. I was drinking coffee and taking Adderall to speed past the feelings of anxiety and drinking alcohol and taking muscle relaxers to numb out the feelings I was speeding away from in the mornings. It was exhausting.

And most of my running was due to me feeling abandoned. I was left and abandoned by everybody that was close to me from a very early age. My entire family and a good portion of my friends, all my best friends and every would-be role model, all vanished like it was magic.

I would later learn to detach from others before they got too close to me, to save myself from the pain of yet another abandonment. This was no bueno. But this way of detaching left me feeling even more lonely and still more abandoned. So by the time my marriage dissolved and the woman I thought I loved abandoned me, I knew something had to change.

Staying With The Fear

There’s a Mark Twain quote that I’ve always loved and it’s something that I remember in times when I’m caught up in the feelings of fear. It goes, “Courage is resistance to fear, mastery of fear, not absence of fear.” This reminds me that the fear is normal. It’s okay for it to be here, only I shouldn’t let the fear control my actions.

Tara Brach has a talk about dealing with the fear in a direct way. Her method is, attend and befriend, and it’s something that has been helpful for me in my journey on healing from past traumatic events. Her message is essentially, that fear is an emotion that’s trying to tell us something. Usually about how we’re currently in danger in some way.

For me, and I’m sure for a lot of us, the traumatic or painful events that have formed our fears, reshape themselves in current and similar situations to try to keep us safe. Only there is no longer a need to feel fearful in our current situation, because those old events are no longer happening.

For example my fear sometimes comes in the form of connecting with others. This was a way for me to remind myself that other people have been historically unsafe to get close to because they will end up abusing me in some way. But this isn’t true anymore. Or at least I’m able to keep myself safe now if someone does hurt me or tries to abuse me again.

Keeping Ourselves Safe

This was a big task for me, and an important skill to learn especially because I was never taught how and abused by those who were supposed to teach me. I was feeling pretty unsafe a good portion of the time, especially around those closet to me. So I needed to learn how to feel at ease around others, or I was going to end up leading a very isolated existence.

Learning to Trust

I had to first learn that other people are trust worthy and generally good people. This was confusing for me, because all the people I had around me in my early years were not only distrustful of others, but they were actively looking to take advantage of other people as well. This definitely sent me the message that people are dangerous, but also that I needed to act in the ways I had modeled for me in order to survive. I.e. mean, distrustful and to pull away from those who got too close.

To counter these old messages, I had to learn to trust and rely on others. I started small, first with those who were closest in, then extending that trust outward. I knew I could count on a handful of friends and family in the beginning. Four or five people that I engaged with regularly. This was a huge step for me and no easy task.

I was taught that since I couldn’t trust anybody, I had to do everything on my own. So relying on others for help with even the smallest of tasks was a challenge. I would make excuses for why I was doing things solo such as, “no-one does it as well as I do”, needing it to be perfect. Or the reverse, “can’t anybody do anything right?!” Both ways of being essentially saying that I was unable to rely on others, while really just being too scared to ask for help.

On the up side, when I finally swallowed my pride and learned to ask for help, things became so much easier. I was no longer running around frantically, trying to keep all the plates I had spinning from crashing down. I was still working hard, but those I invited into my life were willing to lend a hand.

Letting Those You Trust Help

A great example of letting those I learned to trust help me is with my student loans. As I’ve said, when I came to and realized I was living a life lead by fear, I was isolated from just about everybody. I had also racked up just north of 100k in debt, 78k being in student loans. This was quite the wake up call.

So I started in on my debts using the Dave Ramsey method of throwing everything I had at my debt, picking up a part time job which turned into my full-time gig along the way. But with such a large sum to pay back, it seemed as though it would take a life’s time to pay back all that I owed.

So when I started the conversation with those I chose to let into my circle, I was surprised to find out how willing they were to help me out of the hole I had dug. As they saw me working to pay off my debt, a few of my supports offered to chip in 1k for every 10k I paid off. I was ecstatic to receive this news and made my efforts just that much easier knowing that I’d be finished with my goals earlier than I had planned.

And with the promising news of president Biden saying that he will make a decision about debt forgiveness by the fall of ’22, I reached out to another support who offered to chip in some as well. This was most unexpected as the relationship I have with this support has been strained in the past. But I find the more positive I am, along with the work I’m willing to put into the relationships, the more support I receive in all sorts of ways. But this type of relationship building takes work.

Working To Keep These Relationships Alive To Ward Off Fear

Many of the relationships I am currently rebuilding have sustained some pretty intensive damage in the past from both parties. As I’ve said before on this blog, we were mean, especially towards one another. So as I was learning how to care for myself by reparenting and learning the act of self-care, I was also extending what I learned with my own research and extending it to those I was learning to trust.

What I had never learned, and what is probably a no-brainer to mot people is, that when you’re in a relationship with others, you need to tend to it. Otherwise you will be left with something that doesn’t quite resemble connection and definitely is void of support.

For example, when I started building my relationship with my father and step-mom again, I had neglected our relationship so badly that we had almost no shared common interests and nothing to talk about. Our conversations were overly formal and guarded with very little emotional content.

As time passed and while I was learning to trust people again, I began to include my dad and step-mom into the habits and rituals I was learning to keep for myself. One of them being my self-care dinners I make for myself once a week.

Since these dinners had been so beneficial for my well being, I decided to extend this newly developed skill in caring for myself to those I trusted. And what came from it was, family dinner Fridays. We now come together every Friday night, one person picks a recipe to cook and we all make the meal together. The food is almost always good, the mood and interactions are definitely less formal and we’re all enjoying not only ourselves, but the company of each other. We feel more like a family because of it.

Ask The Friend For Love

And this type of relationship building extend to friend as well. I was recently having a conversation with a friend about how difficult it was to pay down debt when the numbers feel so large. We are both in similar situations and have been a good source of support for one another.

I was thinking about how I wanted to reach out to my friend more often, seeing as we only spoke maybe once every three weeks, when he told me that he was also feeling pretty isolated with the irregular hours he worked, consequently having a lot of free time on his hands. I suggested that we hang out more often and he was more than happy to get together more regularly.

I had just assumed that he was busy living his own life and that if I reached out too often, I would be a burden to him in some way. This was not the case and in fact, most of my friends feel exactly the same way. So if you’re feeling as though you’re being a burden to your friends, don’t believe it. Have a conversation with them and find out how they feel before you make any judgements.

Living From A Place Of Support, Not Fear

Fear can be tricky. If we’re not careful, the fearful emotions we have will take the wheel and we’ll be in the passenger seat of our own life bus. This is how I spent a good portion of my time when it came to making decisions about the direction of where my life was heading and it was definitely not a desirable place to be.

But when we choose to make friends with the fear, the fear of connecting to others, the fear of giving up the control of doing everything ourselves and release that isolation, we begin to heal from the fear. Like Mark Twain said, it’s still there, only we are behind the wheel of our life bus and we can choose to let those who will support us on for our journey and join in for some of the ride.

So fear not! Know that you are not alone and that the journey gets easier the more you’re able to let those who want to, help you. Peace, : ) and thanks for reading.

Image Credits: “O OUTRO LADO DO MEDO É A LIBERDADE (The Other Side of the Fear is the Freedom)” by jonycunha is marked with CC BY-SA 2.0.

Superiority Complex: When You Think You’re The Greatest, Kinda

This is something I know well. I’m not sure how long this post is going to be, but I’m just going to shoot from the hip on this one. I’ll explain my experience growing up, how I was raised and how I took those lessons from my early childhood care-givers and completely isolated myself from all those that tried to get close to me because I was acting as though I was better than just about everybody who came into my life. It’s a lonely story, but one that needs to be told incase others are stumbling down the same path I had.

If you are, know that it’s not to late to change things for the better. And I’ve also learned that people can be pretty forgiving. So no matter where you are on your journey, don’t lose heart! It gets better once you realize you need to shift your perspective.

When Your Way To Feel Belonging Is Through Exclusion

I grew up around a lot of big personalities. My family was loud, opinionated and rancorous at times. I don’t remember a lot of the details from my early childhood, but the main impression I got was, there were a lot of us and we had a good time.

Though, this changed abruptly with the death of a family member, we were all still pretty vocal about our opinions of others. It seemed that no matter who was being scrutinized, there was always fault to be found with the other person. The old adage, “if you don’t have anything nice to say…”, was not observed in my family’s moral or value repertoire.

And this was our main mode of feeling a sense of belonging with one another, by tearing another down. This makes me a little sad to think about it now. I don’t remember any one of my care-givers ever complimenting somebody else in the family. Not even once. I think I may have received a compliment, about my appearance. But even that’s vague and I’m not entirely sure it actually happened the way I remember it. Ah, I remember! One of my care-givers told me I had nice calves and I think it was the only compliment I ever received. This is actually a little mind blowing now that I’m writing it down.

Dangling the Carrot

The one thing my family excelled in was withholding love and affection from one another while hinting or suggesting that they could love you, if only you were different in some way. Usually to fit their mold or idea of how you should be. It seemed that everybody had an image of what the perfect life should look like and if you didn’t fit, you were tossed to the side like a piece of garbage.

This may seem like a harsh assessment, but as I’ve said above, there wasn’t any positive reinforcement or any caring and understanding persons available. You either did what was expected of you and were granted permission to ridicule others together, or you were ostracized for not belonging, being ridiculed yourself. It was a polarizing and very sad place to be caught in the middle of.

So I did what was expected of me. I followed suit and made fun of others, acted superior to just about everybody and joined in on the consistent stream of ridicule that we were laying on one another. It was either that or be completely shunned for daring to be different. These were the building blocks of how I continued to manage my relationships outside of my family. This did not bode well for me in latter years.

When You Realize You Haven’t Made the Best Decisions

Again, this way of living did not leave me in a good place. I had very little emotional support, few friends and my family was almost nonexistent. I had found myself in unhealthy relationships, and living in a pretty consistent state of fear. This was something I hadn’t really come to understand until somewhat recently.

What I realized, after thinking about the type of romantic relationship I wanted for myself was, that I am deathly afraid of all the women in my life. The women in my family were so mean, so cutting, with their words and actions, that I constantly felt on edge around them. As well as feeling this way around people that remind me of them also.

My female family members were people I was trained to see as loving individuals, only to feel that they were abusive in the most subtle of ways. And they knew no restraint in their ire which made it all the worse. As an example of the types of comments they were capable of, one of my family members had told me that another of my family members would kill themselves if I was a certain way. I couldn’t have been more than fourteen at the time, but that remark to this day still shakes me a little.

There was a callous disregard for the emotions of others in all of our interactions, which was something I picked up and used as a survival tactic to protect myself. I was also so numb from the constant woundings, that it was difficult to feel anything at all. Also this is one of the main reasons I had such trouble building meaningful and lasting relationships with anybody. I just couldn’t bring myself to be open to another after being so thoroughly abused verbally. The idea of showing my vulnerabilities to someone who could do so much damage to me, one of the cornerstone of building intimate relationships, seemed crazy to me.

So, I avoided being in relationship with others. I acted larger than life on the outside to hide the fear of being hurt again by those I loved most. I also distanced myself from just about everybody in my life, further and further until I had only a few supports who stuck with me even though I was actively trying to push them away. I would like to again extend my gratitude to those who did stick by my side. You mean the world to me. Thank you <3.

Making Better Decisions: Hey, You Can Only Go Up From the Bottom

I hadn’t really realized how isolated I was until I decided to break off my relationship with my now ex-wife. Almost all the relationships I had were through her, and the ones I kept were based on activities such as drinking or avoiding responsibilities. So when I finally took the reigns of my life back from the void I created by pushing everybody away, I found that there was a lot of work that needed to be done.

I started by making a list of those who decided to stay in my life. The title of this list is, “stay connected”. And that’s jut what it’s for. One of the things I realized on how I had managed my relationships in the past was, that I did not pay attention to those closest to me and what was happening in their lives.

If listening to others and remembering what they say sounds like a no-brainer, you’re right. But I was never shown how to foster a friendship. Never taught that people had feelings that could be delicate at times and that the ways to nurture and grow a relationship was to water it with love by showing the other attention and a willingness to be there for them and care about what they’re going through. Another cornerstone of friendships. We were too busy cutting each other apart, searching for vulnerabilities to capitalize on to concern ourselves with caring about the other and their feelings or experiences.

Hurt People Hurt People

It’s also important to recognize that the people who hurt me by acting in the ways they did, aren’t monsters. I may be painting a pretty bleak picture with the types of things said and done, but they were only doing what they felt they had to in order to feel safe. I recognize this now as their insecurity or feeling they needed to control another to feel safety and belonging. Which makes it not personal in a way. It wasn’t about me, it was about them surviving.

I was in their shoes, I know how lonely and fearful they felt. I did the same things when I was in their shoes. But there are other ways of being and it’s important to know, that understanding why someone did something isn’t the same as condoning it.

So if the old saying is true, “hurt people hurt people”, than the opposite must be true too. Loving people then love people. And this is how I’m trying to change to reflect my new way of moving through the world.

Instead of focusing on all the ways I’ve been hurt by those who should have been there to support me, I’m now focusing on first, taking good care of myself, and second, extending care to others. This is no easy task if it’s something you’re not used to doing. I had to swallow a lot of pride first in order to be able to reach out to some people who had wronged me in the past.

But it’s worth it. knowing that I’m trying to be stronger. Building resilience to the pains endured in the past makes me more able to weather the emotions that are more difficult to feel.

I Know I Need to Open Up, But How?

I know… This is, as Melba would say, “no easy”. But necessary if you want to have meaningful relationships and friendships. A lot of it comes down to blind faith. Trusting that the other, whomever they are, won’t tear you down. It’s also worth mentioning that there are no completely safe relationships.

We are going to get hurt from time to time if we are in relationship. That’s inevitable. But the types of hurt aren’t usually that bad. And if they are shaping up to look more like abuse, then maybe it’s time to revisit your boundaries in the relationship. But there is a certain amount of collateral damage that comes with being connected. Luckily, the benefits far outweigh the detriments or the other option, being completely isolating yourself to avoid pain.

If you’ve been cut deeply by others, it’s best to start slow. Find a few people, one or two people who you can trust enough to start building your new friendships, even if they’re old friends with a new beginning. Find out what your personal values are, i.e. humility, honesty, kindness, caring, and find ways to practice them in your relationships with these new friends. This may look as simple as going for a walk with them, or saying things that are supportive, practicing and establishing your values. This will build trust.

And the more you practice these values, the stronger they will become. Your friendships will be held in the foundation of these values the more you practice them. This is how trust is built. It’s worth mentioning that this is a slow process, and it’s best not to rush into these relationships bearing the full extent of your vulnerabilities.

We all know people who over-share in inappropriate ways. Aka level jumping in friendships. It’s best to get a feel for how the relationship is going first. What is the other person sharing? Is it mostly small talk? Or are they giving you a peek at their inner worlds? Depending on what they are sharing, maybe you adjust to their level of intimacy. And if you feel like going a little deeper, push the boundaries a little and see how they react, but start small. If they are sharing about their S.O., share a similar story about your S.O. and build from there. See where it takes you. Pretty soon you’ll be old friends swapping stories and creating memories while staying true to your shared, established values.

Don’t Worry, It Gets Easier

And don’t forget, this is not easy work. It takes a lot of strength and will power to start off on this road. But if you’ve found that you have acted superior to others as a form of isolating yourself to cover over feelings of insecurity as I had, just know that it gets easier with practice. The more I engage with people in honest ways, the more I show care to those closest and the more I suck up my pride when I feel like I’ve been slighted and focus on what really matters, the easier it gets.

So make a list of the people you want to surround yourself with. The people you want to build your life together with. Then make it a point, a priority to get involved with what they’re up to. Keep a running list, as I do, of what they’re going through so you can be a better friend to them. Whatever it takes, get involved (thanks Jordan.) And don’t forget to show a little humility as well. I practice this when somebody says I’m great in some way by saying, “no, we’re great”. Better together : ) Peace and thanks for reading.

Image Credits:”Quillan – Smug” by Lil Shepherd is marked with CC BY 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.

Asking For What You Need: When You Can’t Find the Words Or Were Never Taught How to Speak Up For Yourself

This is something I’ve struggled with for decades. In the family and environment I grew up in, you took what you wanted and any vulnerabilities you showed, were attacked relentlessly. Not a nurturing setting. It seemed that no matter what I did for my family, it was never enough. Nobody ever thanked anybody for the things we did for one another and when we did do something to help another out, we acted as though we were being asked too much of. In short, we acted like martyrs.

Actually, the term martyr was used liberally in our family. To think back on the ways we treated each other now makes me feel a little sick. Even the smallest need expressed was met with resentment in the cruelest sense of the word. Asking for anything from my family felt like you had just asked them to sacrifice what was most precious to them and in turn making you feel as though you couldn’t have wronged them in a more violating way. It was an intense and confusing experience to say the least.

So what does this have to do with being able to speak up for yourself? For me, it has a lot to do with the conditioning that was happening in the subtext of my familial relationships growing up. And this set against the backdrop of my trauma, has shaped the ways I’m able to ask for my needs to be met by others. Let me show you what I mean by starting from the beginning.

When Your Family Turns Their Back on You

When I was eight, my entire world changed. From what I remember, my family went from being a close knit group who spent holidays together and visiting with one another frequently, to having one of its strongest members die from skin cancer. Sending all its members scattered to the four winds. For me, my family turning their back on me happened in a most literal way.

About the time one of my family members was dying of skin cancer, another family member was pulling me from bed in the middle of the night to give me the most terrifying of talks on what it means to be a man. I have never been more frightened of anything in my entire life. From being completely alone, tiny and vulnerable, to being violently rent from a sound sleep and being yelled at in the dark by a drunk, towering, beast of a man, with no one to turn to for safety and no way to escape this fate. It was a lot to take in at eight. There’s an image that I keep that embodies this idea and feeling for me:

I’m not sure where the original image is from, but the artist definitely understands fear in its most primal sense.

When I told my main caregiver what was happening, even though I was under strict orders to keep my abuse a secret, my caregiver literally turned their back on me and never spoke about it again until I brought it up. And all this was happening while my parents were in the middle of a violent and petty divorce. Not to mention my family was falling apart due to the death of one of its most independent members. I literally had no where or one to turn to. So it was in this setting that I grew up, not being taught how to ask for what I needed most. Mainly security and a sense of belonging.

Not Being Able to Ask For Help = Making Poor Choices

So it was in this environment that my will was formed. I was mean, entitled, arrogant and bossy. And of course these were all just acts to protect myself against what I wanted most of all, which was to be loved and accepted. But we were all just running from ourselves and each other, because we were too scared of being vulnerable around those who were hurting us the most. So I ran.

I ran mostly by physically and emotionally disconnecting from those closest to me. I also drank too much alcohol and coffee to avoid my emotional world. Those who would cut me apart for showing what was considered, “signs of weakness” aka vulnerability. And one of those vulnerabilities was, relying on others for help.

I was unable to ask for help from anybody. Mostly because I thought I had to do it all by myself because I was a man and that’s what the men in my family were taught to do. This was also partly due to the arrogance I was taught by acting like a martyr every time somebody asked something of me. But mostly due to thinking that nobody should have to help me, by virtue of being a man. That I should be able to do it all on my own. And not only that, but do it perfectly. This is a scary place to be, also a very lonely one. And this was how I lived my life. Alone and scared to reach out to others.

I had sever social anxiety and the only way I could be around people was if I was drinking alcohol to dull the emotions or coffee to speed past them, with the occasional anti-anxiety med or Adderall tossed in for good measure. I’m making light, but the feelings of fear and anxiety were intense. The only way I was able to manage these feelings was by being medicated.

Fear of Connecting, to Ourselves and Others

And when there is this much fear and anxiety running around in our lives unchecked, it’s difficult to know who you can ask for help from while feeling safe enough doing it. Or to even know you can feel ways other than anxious and fearful around others and that others can help you in your healing process. This was where I had found myself decades after my initial trauma and the abuse I incurred from a life’s time worth of self-abuse and abuse from those closest to me.

So what did I do? To try and reconnect with the parts of myself and of those closest to me? The bridges that had been burned down so long ago, out of fear and spite of how we were treating each other and ourselves, had to be rebuilt. And this wasn’t easy.

I had to recognize that I was running from everyone and every feeling that had been accumulating in my life. I had almost no longstanding friendships to speak of, and left everyone that ever tried to build a loving connection with me. When I was thirty two, I left my then loving, beautiful and devoted wife, for a woman, girl really, 11 years my junior and living in the same, self destructive ways I was accustom to living from my early twenties.

And I did all this to avoid growing beyond the small, fearful life I was used to. The isolation and fear that I spent my time in, avoiding making loving connections with valued friends and family. The very relationships that make life worth living I was avoiding. So after the woman I left my ex-wife for left me, I was left with myself, to sort out the mess I had made.

Building Bridges That We’ve Already Burned: All is Not Lost

After I was left, I realized just how bad my situation was. I was alone, with absolutely zero understanding of how to live my life and no idea how to cultivate the resources I would need to get my life on track. However, even when things seem at their worst, there’s always hope.

I moved back in with my father and step-mom. One of the many relationships I had been running from. Here, I was able to start, what felt like a new life. The old me, the one who was mean, petty and condescending, was slowly eroding. More and more, I was no longer resembling that person. And probably more importantly, I didn’t want to be that person anymore.

I began listening to Tara Brach’s dharma talks constantly. I was looking for a soothing, friendly and inclusive voice. An antidote to the venom I had been struck with so many times, grown up through all those years of my childhood. I was reaching out to old friends. Starting up new conversations with those who used to be in my life and found that I had developed a real affection for these people and our relationships. Including my father and step-mom, going so far as to create family dinner Fridays. Not to mention, starting this blog which has helped to show me ways of re-parenting myself.

Before I had decided to change, I was mostly holding on to relationships out of fear for being alone and the feelings of rejection that came with that fear. So I did and acted, whatever and however I thought I should, in order to feel accepted. I wasn’t really focused on the quality of our relationships, because I was too preoccupied with how I thought the other person saw me. In short, I never learned how to speak my mind. How I truly felt or to ask for what I really needed from others. I just didn’t know how to listen inwardly. But I also wasn’t relating to my own emotions in an honest way. And if you can’t be honest with yourself, how can you begin to project that in relationship with others?

Getting in Touch With Yourself, Building the Bridge Inwardly

I started building the bridge to myself while I was with the woman who I had left my ex-wife for. I had finally felt safe enough, accepted enough, that I could begin to feel comfortable with myself. I owe a great debt of gratitude for the woman who helped me to wake up from the life I was living, even if they did end up leaving me.

It was there that I really learned how to build relationships. I started meditating regularly at that time. This was what allowed me to slow down enough to see how I was treating myself and how I felt about it. What I realized was, in a way I had become my own abuser by handing down the legacy of brutality that had been taught to me and using it on myself. This made me scared of myself and probably one of the reasons why I was so fearful and anxious all the time.

So I listened. I listened and I listened some more. There was a lot of fear I had been holing in that needed to be witnessed. There were nights where I didn’t think I’d be able to pull through to the next day. It was tough, that’s for sure. But I kept going. No matter what was coming up, I was able to sit with it and let it pass. Recognizing that what I was experiencing in the moment, wouldn’t last.

But it was hard to see outside of these feelings sometimes. This is what Tara Brach refers to as a “trance”. And she’s right. Because sometimes when you’re stuck in the middle of an emotion, it’s hard to see past what it is that you’re experiencing. But the more we train to stay when the difficult feelings arise, the better we’re able to see ourselves through to the other side of those feelings. The way out is through, as Trent Reznor so aptly put it.

Note to Self, Stop Running

So meditation is really where I learned to stop running. From myself and others. I was now building bridges instead of burning them, while learning how to listen inwardly to understand and ask how to nurture and care for myself, in the ways that hadn’t been shown to me in the past. This was quite a remarkable turn around from where I was.

I started re-parenting myself around the areas I had left neglected, as I had been neglected. I’m now focused on my career, my health by eating balanced, nutritious and mostly vegan meals. Big thanks to The Minimalist Baker for showing me how to cook for myself. I’m working out twice a week now. Shout out to Yoga With Adriene for her amazing library of free yoga videos. I’m saving and paying down debt while also planning for my retirement, which I hadn’t even given a second thought to in my early years. Another shout out to Dave Ramsey and his baby steps.

But most importantly, I’m now connecting in authentic ways with those I care about. I’m building the relationships now that I had been running from for so long because I was so scared of getting hurt again. What I now realize is, we all get hurt. You can’t avoid that. But do you run from the chance to feel loved and accepted because you’re too afraid of what happened in the past or what might happen? For me, I’ve realized that this is a waste of time.

The Future!

So now that I’m able to listen inwardly, attune to my needs and to those of my friends and family, what’s next? For me it’s living and building the best possible life. For myself and those I surround myself with. Whatever their vision is of a better future, I want to be involved. And I want them involved in the better version of my future as well.

We all have our own trials to go through, our own challenges. But don’t let those stop you from becoming the best version of yourself. You’ve got a lot to give, don’t sell yourself short. Peace : ) and thanks for reading.

Image Credits: “Finding the words – 320/365” by tranchis is marked with CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.

Finding Belonging: Navigating Feeling Lonely For the Holidays

There has been a lot of talk lately about isolation and how it’s been affecting us as a global society. Being quarantined for such a long time has no doubt, taken its toll on peoples’ mental health. But what about those who were already isolating? Only not due to a virus outbreak. What if there are people whom are already quarantining, only to protect themselves from opening up emotionally to others? And not from a potentially deadly virus.

This was how I had been living for decades, not realizing what I had been doing. In this post, I’d like to take a look at what brought me to this place and what I’m doing about it now to help alleviate some of the pain of emotional isolation. Hopefully, helping both those who are too scared to open up emotionally, but also those dealing with pandemic isolation as well. So let’s jump right in with where it all began for me.

How the Past Shapes the Present

When I was young, things were pretty good. I had a best friend, support from family and interests I was developing. I was well on my way to a healthy version of person-hood. But things took a turn for the worse when I was about 8 years-old. My family fell apart and I lost my best friend, all at about the same time.

This is a difficult situation for anybody to handle, but when you’re 8 and emotionally abandoned, it’s nearly impossible to sort out and understand all the emotions tied into what’s happening to and around you. Also not to mention, to not take responsibility for what’s happening. Especially if the messages you were being sent were, as I was, “there’s something wrong with you, I know what it is, but I’m not going to tell you and I’m disappointed in you for it.”

These messages came from my family mostly. There was always a smug sense of knowing, of superiority that my caregivers carried about them. And when you’re a child just coming to understand how you affect the world you’re inhabiting, as I was, this is more than just a little confusing. I was second guessing my belonging, how I was seen by others and whether what I was doing made those I relied on and trusted, reject me. I was lonely, isolated and had absolutely no one to talk to, to help me to understand what I was experiencing. Fast forward to the pandemic and I had already experienced what others were coming to know well as a heartbreakingly lonely experience. Only for most, theirs was due to COVID-19.

And the older I got, the further apart my family drifted. To almost complete isolation. We never spoke to one another and when we did we didn’t have anything nice to say about anything or anyone. We were becoming less and less recognizable as a family, aka a group of people who love and support one another. It just wasn’t in us.

Okay, It’s Hit the Fan, Now What?

To watch something you felt loved and supported from fall apart, is no easy task. As I’ve said in earlier posts on this blog, I have very fond memories of my family as a youth. So getting used to the cold, emotionless, emptiness that was slowly growing in the place of where my love and support used to live was maddening. But it was also fact. No amount of wishing things were differently was going to make things change for the better. Especially around the holidays.

So I did what anybody in my situation would do. I had a breakdown. I left my wife for a woman I thought I loved, only to find myself rejected yet again. A pattern I later realized that I emulated from my family history. But it’s the best thing that could have happened for me at the time.

I realized I was living the embodiment of my family’s toxic ways of being, all the while running from what was healthiest for me. Which was to build lasting relationships based in mutual respect and love. Not on the image based and emotionally avoidant ways my family has been living.

I chose my ex-wife because she held strong opinions and knew what she wanted. These aren’t inherently bad qualities, only it left me without a voice in the relationship. But this was just what I was looking for. Someone to tell me how to live my life. And that’s exactly what I got from our relationship.

The woman I left my ex-wife for was more of the same. I was regressing in my emotional growth by choosing women who were obstinate, mildly self-absorbed, bullish, self-righteous and mean spirited. But if we’re being honest, I was exactly the same way. And I was also looking to avoid actually being a part of my relationships because it’s how I was hurt in the past.

So after my breakdown, I moved in with one of my childhood caregivers. This was a wakeup call In that most of the life events that I experienced, my caregiver had as well. Only I never knew because we never spoke. They were avoiding building a relationship with me in the same ways I was avoiding building relationships with them and at all.

So again, I was left alone and with little direction on how to move forward with and in my life. But luckily this time around, I had a few resources and some goals to work towards. These, in conjunction with one another, gave me the insight to help me move forward, and finally grow from the regressed, stagnant place I had been living from for so long.

What to Do When You Don’t Know What to Do

There’s a feeling I get when I go into a drug store or a thrift shop. It’s a feeling of knowing that I can probably get what I need from the place I’m in, but it maybe won’t match the ideal aesthetic of what I want. But there’s a potential that’s embedded in that feeling. What if I can make something of what I have. What can I do with where I’m at.

And that’s a good feeling. This was the feeling I got when I moved in with my caregiver after barely speaking for 26 years. We were finally in a position where we would be stuck in a place together, for better or for worse, and have to navigate our situation together. But it took a while. We had to get use to being around one another again. Get to know each other as the people we had become, with all of the life experiences we’ve accumulated. It was uncomfortable at times but we stuck it out and grew stronger because of it.

I started doing laundry every other week with one family member, which slowly allowed me to get to know them again. This is where I started to trust again. Then I suggested family dinner nights on Friday. Every Friday, one of us chooses a recipe and we all come together to cook. Dividing the tasks and enjoying the fruits of our labor, the conversations, the mistakes. It’s become a favorite night for all of us. Then I suggested just hanging out with one family member on Monday mornings when I wasn’t working.

Slowly, we were, are, learning how to be a family again. But no one of us could have done it alone. We all had to be willing to become a part of something bigger than just three people living in a household. We needed to be open to the idea of living in a home, foibles and all.

And this took a lot of work, for all of us, but on my part as well. I had to be open to being hurt again. So I could feel the vulnerability and the tenderness that comes with feeling connected. Because I will be hurt again. I’ll be let down by something somebody does or hurt when they leave me for the final time. But it’s worth remembering to open anyways. There’s a line from a Kings of Leon song, “The Immortals” that goes, “don’t forget to love, ‘fore you gone”. Something I feel as though a majority of us are too scared to do. And what I was running from for so long.

Tick List: Stay Connected

I have a list on my phone, next to my “Todo” list. This one is called, “Stay Connected”. It’s a list I wrote of my friends, the people I want to stay in touch with. What they’re up to and current plans I have with them. For someone like me, who has been isolated for the better part of three decades, this is an important aspect of my life for me to stay on top of. There’s a line from a song that goes, “being lonely is a habit, like drinking or taking drugs, I quit them both, but man was it rough” Jenny Lewis, Acid Tough.

And being lonely is both habit and rough. One of the reasons we may be isolating and why I was is, to protect ourselves. But it’s doing more harm to stay isolated than to take the risk and feel connected. This article from Tulane University explains how isolation can lead to anxiety, depression and heart disease. But do we really need scientific research to show us that we feel better after a talk with a close friend? Or the feeling of warmth while we’re cuddling with our S.O.? Sometimes we need only listen to the wisdom of our hearts to know what’s best for us, even if that wisdom is intertwined with fear.

Taking the Risk

I have a photo from “Man on Wire” on my desktop, where Philippe, the subject of the documentary, is on a high-wire between the tops of the two world trade center buildings in NYC. The photo is both terrifying and beautiful at the same time. This is what it feels like, for me, to risk feeling connected again after so much neglect and estrangement. It’s not safe, but necessary, to cross the void in order to feel loved and connection again.

So how do we begin to cross the void? Don’t look down! JK, but seriously, it takes a lot of feeling uncomfortable and swallowing a fair amount of pride in the process. For me, I had to recognize that I was actively withholding love from others. And what’s most surprising is, I didn’t even realize I was doing it. It became so engrained in my personality, in my defense against being hurt, I didn’t even realize it was happening. It was a lesson I learned from my family, who has been practicing it since I can remember. So to even wake up from this trance I was in, is a feat on to itself. But it’s doable. It just takes practice.

What practice looked like for me was, I had to find ways to make my environment comfortable for me to inhabit first. I started with my room. Filling it with plants, a diffuser and some candles. Things that imbue comfort for me. I then took some of that comfort and carried it into the next room I wanted to acclimate to. I started burning candles while I was learning to take care of my nutritional needs by way of cooking for myself while in the kitchen. I was then able to offer this peace I had found in myself to others. But the other aspect I needed was to learn how to be kind to myself first.

This took practice as well. I didn’t realize the ways I was beating myself up in most cases. Trying to reach that impossible standard to feel loved and accepted kept me from seeing a lot of the ways I was disconnecting from myself and how I was pushing myself too hard. But these were learned behaviors from my family. I was neglecting myself in the same ways my family neglected themselves.

For example, my family, for Thanksgiving, wasn’t going to buy a turkey for themselves because it was too expensive and too much food. I don’t eat meat, and they couldn’t eat a whole turkey with just the two of them. But they would buy it for another in a heartbeat if they were coming over for dinner.

These are the ways I had modeled for me in neglecting myself by way of neglecting what brings me joy, because I feel I need to settle for something lesser. This is due to not feeling as though I’m worth the effort, but if I’m always neglecting myself and sacrificing my happiness for no other reason than because I don’t want to spend the money or effort on myself, what kind of message am I sending to myself and others? That I’m not really worth or worthy of love. From myself or from others.

And my family members are good people. They’ve just been told time and again this unhealthy message of, sacrifice your happiness and joy in the name of being frugal, or for someone else’s sake. We never learned how to care for and love ourselves. But this is what I’ve been doing with my planned family dinners and time spent with family members again. Learning how to care for myself, as well as those closest to me. As a result, we’ve all come to trust and love each other a little more deeply because of it. It hasn’t been easy, but it is most definitely worth the while.

There’s a greater sense of ease around one another now. A place where uncertainty and distrust lay before. Something that wasn’t possible only a few years ago. It’s not perfect, but it’s fulfilling. And that’s good enough.

Begin With What You Have

So how do we make the U-turn from lonely and isolated to connected and loved? I’ve found that starting with where you are, and who you are with, is the best place to begin. But first, it’s important to assess your situation and whom is around you to make sure you’re taking care of yourself in as safe a way as possible. For example, if I was still living with the last woman I was staying with, I most likely wouldn’t have been able to grow in the ways I have. I just wasn’t in a safe and supportive environment and subsequently felt guarded and on edge. This was not an environment conducive to building trust.

Finding supportive friends is also fundamental to building trust and love as well. I’m so grateful for the countless hikes and conversations that have nurtured me when I most needed love and support from my friends and family that are closest to me. Time spent together was a soothing balm to the neglect and abandonment I experienced in my youth. And they are relationships I value more and more the more time I spend with them.

So if you’re in a similar situation to what I have experiences and are feeling lonely, find a relationship that feels like it has potential, even if it feels a little risky, and start there. Find a foothold in a shared common interest. For me and my family it was food and gardening. What do the people in your life value? Where does it intersect with where your interests lay? Explore these areas a little together. And remember, it doesn’t have to happen overnight.

Treat your relationships as you would something that is growing. Give them the time and space they need. The nutrients of your shared interests and what you discover along the way. Again, it won’t happen overnight, especially if there are hurt feelings to tend to. But be patient. Also, if you’re new to building healthy relationships, don’t be afraid to ask for help. I owe a great debt of gratitude to my therapist who has been a personal ally for me when I most needed them.

And also, don’t forget to have fun along the way! For me, I can get so wrapped up in thinking I need to constantly improve, be as healthy as possible, that I forget that I and those closest to me aren’t projects. We’re just people who want to connect, to be seen and heard.

The holidays can be lonely for some but they don’t have to be. If you are finding that you are in a similar situation, feeling a bit adrift and lonely, reach out to someone. Even if you haven’t spoken in years. You’d be surprised how many people I’ve contacted after years of not talking and fell right back into a rhythm of conversation again. Start where you are, with who you know. It’ll help, just be open to connecting and you’ll be part of the flow once again. Peace : ) and thanks for reading.

Image Credits: alone… by VinothChandar is licensed under CC BY 2.0

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