Finding Your Values: What Are They? How Do You Know?

Values were something I hadn’t thought much about in my youth. I had a lot of opinions and I had a self-righteous streak when defending those opinions, but I never thought of them as values. Or even thought of them in a sense of structure or order. In short, I felt that most of the time I was right, and everybody else needed to catch up. This, as you have probably already guessed, did not win me very many friends. Nor was it a very sustainable way to navigate my life. I burned a lot of bridges being unforgiving. And if I could change it, I would.

But with that said, I feel the best way to atone for past mistakes is to make healthier decisions going forward into the future. And for me, that started with hammering out my basic values.

So What Are My Values?

For me, values are forms of expression that are lived through ourselves, our personality and actions. For example, one of my values is honesty. The simple act of being honest in my day to day interactions is something that is important to me. But this is something that I learned later on in life. And unfortunately, I had to learn this the hard way.

I was likely to say anything that would get me what I wanted when I was young. And later in life as well, I would think nothing of embellishing the truth. This was mostly due to me feeling as though I wasn’t worth the attention or affections of another. I was so use to being left on my own, that I would say just about anything for someone to want to be around me. And what was so strange about how I was acting, all to be seen and liked by others, that when somebody did show an interest in who I was, I was usually clueless. I was so wrapped up in what Brene Brown calls, “hustling for approval” that I was blind to those who would have been good friends.

Pay for Your Ticket

What turned honesty into one of my values was, while I was riding the commuter rail two stops over to the next town on my way to an appointment, I decided that I was going to always pay for my ticket. This seems like a simple decision to make. And it was. Only, before that day I had always looked for a seat with a zone tag on it, hoping to fool the conductor into thinking I had already paid for my ticket.

I could afford the ticket, so it wasn’t an issue of saving the $3.25 that the ticket costs. I was just trying to be sneaky, get away with something because I could. And one day I realized that that is not the type of person I wanted to be. Hiding from a conductor to avoid paying $3.25 seemed childish to me the more I thought about it. So it was this simple decision of always paying for my ticket, where my value of honesty was forged. And as far as values go, this is an important one.

Without it, we wouldn’t have many relationships founded on trust. This was a problem that I kept finding myself confronted with. Most of the people I had in my life, also didn’t have many values. And it wasn’t until I started practicing my values, that I came to know my true friends. And it feels good. Being able to rely on my friends, no matter what : )

My Short List of Values

Okay, so honesty is a pretty universal one. But how do we find out what our values even are if you’re starting from scratch. Much in the way that I started finding what I valued. As with most things when I’m uncertain of what to do, I start a list. And finding my values was no different. Below you’ll find a short list of the ways I want to live my life:

  • Kindness to myself and others, be forgiving, don’t talk badly about others or myself.
  • Physically fit and a healthy lifestyle so I can avoid injury and stay healthy. Another way to care for myself ūüôā
  • Patience and calm
  • Women are not sex objects
  • Hard working and take pride in my work. Do a good job whatever I’m doing. Don’t cut corners.
  • Honesty
  • Stay away from drugs. alcohol is okay once and a while.
  • Find the time to relax and take care of myself.
  • Be humble, watch my judgements of people.
  • Stay clean and organized
  • Don’t over consume, less is more.

This list came to be after I had been practicing many of the different components for a while. These are the ways I want to be living my life. It’s also worth mentioning that I adhered to almost none of these values before I decided to make changes in my life for the positive. And it wasn’t easy making the change.

Some Habits are Harder to Break Than Others

My proverbial white whale was “women are not sex objects”. This way of viewing the world was foundational for my younger self. While I was growing up, I received so much negative reinforcement around self worth being intrinsically connected to looking attractive that it was law. So when I viewed women, this was the first criteria I used to decide their value. These were definitely unhealthy ways of viewing my world.

But, it was all I knew. It wasn’t until I finally felt heard with a woman, that I stopped the cycle of objectifying them. And that’s not to say that I don’t still appreciate their beauty, but it isn’t the ONLY qualifying factor now, as it once had been.

Now, regardless of whom I’m talking with or thinking about, they are people first. They have just as much going on in their lives as I do, possibly more. So it’s with this outlook that I come to each interaction and try to keep the judgmental side of me to a minimum. And that’s not always easy. I find myself constantly trying to refrain my thinking around each interaction. Trying not to fall into the old habits I once was so accustom to. And this is something that we learn as we go. It’s not something that’s just presented to most of us, unless we have great role models growing up. Which sometime happens if we’re lucky. Though usually it’s something that’s learned new, each generation.

How do We Cultivate Values?

So if you’re reading this, you may be wondering, “how do I cultivate or find out what I value?” For me, it took a lot of looking at what I was already doing and liking about myself and practicing those aspects. Journaling was something that was invaluable to me in figuring out what my values were.

I enjoy the process of bringing order to things, so making a list in my journal and fleshing out why they are important to me came almost second nature. I say almost, because I first had to find a vehicle for my voice. Writing to me just came naturally.

Finding Your Voice

When you think about the aspects that you admire about yourself, what are they? How do you express yourself in the best possible ways? What do you like about yourself? These are the elements of yourself that you can hold on to and develop into your voice. Maybe you’re good at organizing people and events. What about organizing gives you a sense of fulfilment?

For me, as I’ve said above, I enjoy writing and bring together feelings in this outlet. So journaling and blogging are two of my favorite pass times. But what’s important is, that we find what matters most to us and bring that out in how we decide to communicate.

For example, one of my values is self-care. So I’ve posted about my self-care routines on this blog, as well as a resource list on my notes app that I can access when I need a quick pick me up. I am able to convey my values through what comes naturally to me, my writing. And it’s different for everybody. So finding out how you like to express yourself, or what comes natural to you, is important to knowing how to express your values.

Expressing What You Are

After you’ve found your medium, now it’s time to express what you like about yourself. Do you feel best about yourself when you’re helping others? Or maybe when you’ve taken care of yourself and your surroundings. One of the things that brings me joy is looking at something that’s been designed well.

The clean feel with the warmth of colors and textures that come together to make a house feel more like a home has always held a special place in my heart. And staying clean and organized helps not only our physical space, i.e. if you clean out your fridge after you grocery shop each week, you more than likely won’t have a three week old container of whatever growing mold. But it also gives us the mental clarity to not worry about having to clean out the fridge. And this type of organizational mind space can be extended to other areas of your life as well.

In short, sticking to your values can create more ease in your day to day life. It may not be easy to begin this change to values based thinking and acting, but it will definitely help to create more confidence in how you move through the world.

Finding the Middle

Values are important, because they give us they impetuous to define how and who we want to be. But taken too seriously and you can become rigid and unyielding. On the other hand, if you side step your values when situations become difficult, then they aren’t really your values. So finding a middle ground to balance out being too ridged or too lax is important.

When I was younger, honor was driven into me as one of my values in the most militant way I could imagine. A family member would pull me out of bed at two in the morning and drill into me the importance of being a man. This was terrifying for a child of 8, but I held very close to those values, to the point of being mean and unforgiving to others. This is an example of taking values too far in one direction.

On the other side of the spectrum, in my teens and twenties, I was reckless and had no boundaries. I drank to excess and lived in squaller. I was looking to avoid the responsibility of being an adult at all costs, using whatever means necessary. Now that I’ve matured, I’ve been able to find the middle, where I’ve learned to be forgiving, while also holding to my values without judging those who hold values different from mine.

Don’t Worry You’ll Find Your Way

This was something I wish had been told to me as a child. I was so worried about how to feel belonging, that I didn’t have any values. I was just doing what everybody else was doing, hoping to feel accepted. And all the while not realizing who I was becoming. Spoiler, it wasn’t who I wanted to be. So if you’ve found that you are lacking in some moral center, or want to explore your values some, know that it is totally possible and you are probably already practicing some of what makes you, the best version of yourself.

For some more reading on the subject, my therapist introduced me to the 8 C’s and 5 P’s of IFS. This is a quality list of values that aren’t hyper masculine or gender specific. So they’re perfect for starting out on your journey to discovering what your values are and how to cultivate the ones that look, well, like they have some value to you. And know that it is never too late to cultivate the version of yourself you want to be. All you need to do is get out there and make it happen. Peace : ) and thanks for reading.

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

Rebuilding What’s Been Broken: Why I’m Repairing The Broken Bonds From My Past

With any amount of luck, your past will not resemble mine. I’ve left more than a few broken relationships in my wake through the years I’ve been on this planet. But in my defense, I was never taught how to foster and nurture, caring and loving bonds. It just wasn’t in my upbringing.

But regardless of how I got here, they are still my broken relationships and therefore, my responsibility to do what I can to make right what I neglected and abandoned so long ago. In the following, I’ll go over what some of my past experiences were, how I realized I needed a change and what I’m learning about repairing the relationships I’ve neglected. Let’s jump in.

Where To Even Start

I began the work of setting my relationships right a few years ago. I can’t really explain how I got to the place where they had been neglected so badly except, it was how I was taught to treat them. I was left alone in a house, raised by television, until I was old enough to realize that I didn’t have to stay inside anymore. It was then, in my early teens, that I began roaming around the city I grew up in, looking for ways to drink or have a good time, avoiding going home to the neglected and abandonment, in a house that used to feel like a home.

So instead of building lasting friendships and tight bonds with others, I was looking for someone to buy me alcohol so I could avoid the pervasive loneliness I was living with for so long. I think the worst part about it was, I didn’t even realize that that’s what I was doing. It just felt good in the moment, drinking to avoid feeling. But I’m sure most people feel that way when they’re in the middle of making a bad choice. Like eating that extra pastry or skipping this workout just this once. For me it was drinking that extra 4-5 beers or popping a pill.

But what I was really avoiding was, the hard work I needed to put in, in order to get the return I desired, lasting friendships. I was an expert at this. I was drinking to avoid coming home to my emotional world and racked up enough debt to keep me busy paying it off for years. And along the way, I think I neglected all of my relationships almost to the point where I had nobody to rely on. This was a frightening place to be.

Arrogance: The Relationship Destroyer

When I saw the mess I had made of my relationships, that’s when I realized something needed to change. Not to mention how lonely I was feeling. I was lonely because I had been pushing everybody away to protect myself from getting hurt. By them leaving me or tearing me apart as most people had done to me in my past. And one of the ways I isolated was by acting arrogant, better than those around me.

I went into this a little in last weeks post about impossible standards. My caregivers had held me to such a high standard, that there was no way that I would ever meet it. So instead of admitting that I wasn’t “good enough” for my caregivers by failing to meet their standards, I chose to adopt the same method of keeping people at a distance as was being done to me. By acting as though nothing were good enough to meet my standards.

I hadn’t realized that my caregivers were acting from the same hurt place of feeling insecure as I was, or that I had learned how to disconnect from others through them. I only knew that I felt like I wasn’t enough to be loved. So I was scared of other people “realizing” the same thing I had felt and endured, not realizing it wasn’t my fault. We were all too arrogant to let our guard down for long enough to realize that, we all wanted the same thing. To be loved and accepted by one another.

And this is how I neglected just about every relationship I had. Too afraid to connect, too scared to be alone. These were confusing times filled with anxiety and a pervasive loneliness. But things changed for me when I thought I fell in love with a woman. Something changed in me that woke me and suddenly made me realized that the ways in which I was living were truly unsustainable.

What Really Matters

It was in this life changing relationship that I truly felt heard and seen for the first time since I was abandoned in my childhood. This is when I came to understand that what really matters isn’t how somebody else sees you, or what they think about you, but instead it is about the quality of the connections you have with these people.

Most of my connections with others were based on how I wanted them to see me. Which was really whatever they wanted me to be, so I could feel liked, accepted and approved of by them. It was all a game on the most superficial of levels. I thought that if I looked or acted a certain way, the way that I saw those I was seeking attention from act, that I would then be loved and accepted those I was acting like.

But what I didn’t realize was, that they were just acting the part also. Not really knowing what to do to feel belonging. So they did what they saw others do that gained them acceptance. It seems so silly thinking about it now, because it’s something a simple, direct and honest conversation would have resolved. But we were so insecure in our belonging that we were scared to death to even broach the topic.

Instead we just did the dance of trying to follow whatever trend was popular in hopes that someone would accept us for our rendition of it. When I thought I was in love, I thought I was feeling the recognition of being seen for who I was, not the person who was hustling for others approval that I was putting on, and feeling accepted for the authentic person I thought they saw in me. But they really fell in love with the version of me that I was acting as, not who I was.

The relationship ended in a way fitting to how it began. But it made me think about how I had built my relationships in the past and how I wanted to build them going forward into the future. I’ve come to the understanding that, our connections to one another, in authentic and intimate ways, are really what matters most.

But I also understood that, you don’t write people off. I recognized the changes I went through, how difficult they (the changes) were to initiate and endure as they were happening and the resiliency I cultivated in the process. And if I could do it, than others could do it too. This is what made me reach out to the people that had once populated my past self’s life and ask for a fresh start.

Authenticity

What I’ve come to understand about what being authentic means to me is, that I never really wanted to be mean or arrogant in the first place. All the ways I was acting to find approval from those I sought to feel belonging with, wasn’t really who I was. I wasn’t mean, nor did I want to be mean. I wasn’t better than others and acting that way was exhausting and lead to me feeling isolated and judged by others.

These were the barriers I needed break down in order to be in authentic relationships with people, hoping that the bridges I burned along the way weren’t so damaged that I couldn’t repair them.

I started by reaching out to those who I used to be good friends with in the past. This was surprisingly fruitful, as I heard from some people I hadn’t talked to for at least a decade or two. This is where being friends with most of the people I knew from my past on Facebook came in handy. All I had to do was send a message and see if they would reply.

And I began talking to quite a few people this way. But this time, instead of complaining about somebody or something, finding comradery in misery the ways I used to do, I asked them questions about what was happening in their lives and explored common interests we shared. Which, not surprisingly, we had quite a few. This is when I realized that we were friends for a reason. Our shared interests were the foundation of our relationship and why we were able to stand the test of time. This realization felt good : )

We were now exploring who we were in ways that made us feel more connected and a better representation of who we were as people. Sure, we would still commiserate from time to time, about the difficult things in life. But we were no longer basing all of our interactions in this mind frame. Life was more than the difficult experiences we had to endure. It helped that we were also grown adults now, instead of self absorbed teenagers too : ) And this level of authenticity lead to another dimension of feeling belonging. And that i of building intimacy.

Intimacy

When I talk about intimacy, I’m talking about the feeling of being close with another, and not only in a sexual way. Sure, there is that facet of knowing somebody, but it isn’t the ONLY expression of feeling soothed by another’s presence.

This was however, not the message I was sent as a child growing up. The physical act of making love was what was most valued in my environment. Especially when it was connected to how somebody looked physically. This left us all feeling like we didn’t quite belong because it all hinged on the condition of us being attractive. As Melba would say, no bueno.

So when I started rebuilding the relationships from my past over again, I was now focused on our shared interests and how we could turn those into shared experiences. For instance, my stepsister loves to hike. I love to hike. So I’ve recently connected with her and made plans to hit the trails together.

This not only gives us the chance to experience something we both love together, but it will also give me the opportunity to apologize for not being the bigger brother I could have been, had known then what I know now. And hopefully, we’ll start something new. This reminds me of a line from a Peter, Bjorn and John song, “Object of My Affection” that goes, “just because something starts differently, doesn’t mean it’s worth less.”

And that’s just it, the chance to start something new. It doesn’t mean that it’ll be perfect, or that the pain from the past will magically go away, but we have the chance to make something stronger. And hopefully in the process, be happier for it.

Why We Should Even Bother

And this is really what it comes down to. We change and build healthy relationships so we can have a better quality of life. o we can be in a more positive disposition more often. We’ll create better memories that we can revisit down the road together. In short, fuller, happier lives.

So if you’ve been neglecting the relationships from your past, or just feel as though you want a fresh start, a chance to rebuild your relationships for the better, there’s no time like the present. Get out there and reconnect. Be honest with yourself and those you want to connect with and you’ll build intimacy from authenticity. And these are the relationships worth building. Peace, and thanks for reading : )

Image Credits: “True Lies” by Jack Parrott is marked with CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

Your Self Worth Is Not Determined By How Much You Do For Others or How You Are Perceived: Why Listening Matters

This is a difficult lesson for a lot of people, including myself. And how well we learn it depends on a lot of varying factors. From how we were treated in our early childhood to the ways we see how we’re able to effect our surroundings and make changes in our lives. If handled poorly, we can be paralyzed by fear for not adding up to our learned expectations. And these standards or expectations can sometimes feel impossible to meet.

Childhood’s What Makes You

For me in my childhood, I was told this message on a regular basis. There was a constant stream of criticism and negative judgements and a finite amount of praise or positive reinforcement. In fact, I only ever remember receiving one compliment from one of my caregivers in my childhood and it was based on how attractive my calves were. This did not make for a caring or warm, nurturing environment.

I was however, told how lazy I was regularly and regardless of whether or not I was doing what was asked of me. A task that usually took the form of a chore of some sort. And to add insult to injury, I wasn’t shown or taught how to do the tasks that I was being called lazy for not doing correctly, with any amount of patience or thoughtful guidance. It was just expected that I should know how to do the task and do it perfect. This is the definition of an impossible standard.

So with all these negative messages and impossible standards I was being pummeled with and measured against, how did I find my way out of the trap of beating myself up for never feeling enough? Short answer, I didn’t for a long time. I continued to abuse myself and others in the same ways I was abused.

Living Under Unachievable Expectations

These dangerously unreasonable expectations I was raised with, followed me throughout my life. I was using the insanity producing sentiment of, “is that all you are capable of?” to pass judgement on everything that not only I was doing, but of those who were close to me as well. I almost always had a condescending attitude towards what others were doing and nothing anybody did was ever good enough.

What I feel was most confusing about these impossible expectations I held and those holding me to them was, that there was nothing backing them. They had no foundation, but I held on to them with conviction. Never questioning why I was measuring everything/body up in this way. But I was holding onto this way of being while being gripped with a sense of fear that if I didn’t meet my own impossible standards, I would be abandoned again as I had felt I was in my childhood.

And the more I thought about it, the more I realized that my caregivers were acting under this same convictions of feeling unworthy of feeling belonging. For no other reason than because we were withholding our acceptance of one another from each other. We were keeping the very thing we wanted from ourselves by holding it back from those we were judging so harshly.

This is probably what is meant by we have the keys to our own prison. But if the keys are so buried under the rubble of our unreasonable standards, how do we even know what to look for? We need a guide, or a role model in the first place to begin the search for our own release from out of our prisons of unreasonable expectations and critical judgements.

Waking Up From The Unachievable

This is no easy task. I was so inundated with the ideas of perfection that were floating around in my head that the unachievable seemed reasonable. And this is a dangerous head space to inhabit. I was acting mean, entitled and made sure everybody within hearing range knew what my thoughts on the matter, whatever it was, were.

I was so entrenched in my unsustainable beliefs, that it took an act of God to wake me from them. This act came in the form of a woman. I met, and thought I fell in love with a woman who made me change my entire way of being. The relationship didn’t start out in a way that was romantic, or even healthy. But she taught me a few lessons that were essential to me changing the person I used to be. The most important one being how to forgive.

Learning to Forgive and Accept What Is

As I’ve said, we didn’t start out on the best note, but we were infatuated with one another. For me, the term, “real recognize real and you looking familiar”-Jay-Z, resonates with me because it describes the feeling of recognizing the same type of hurt in the other and knowing how to care for it. This, I’m convinced, is what was happening with us. We would have been much better as friends, but the alure of helping each other to heal from our similar wounds was much too strong to let our relationship just be casual.

So we stayed together. And again, we were tested every step of the way. Some things happened that I won’t go into detail about, but they were comprised of what usually bring most relationships to a bitter end without any chance for reconciliation. And I was asked to move past them in the first month of our relationship.

This wasn’t easy, but I was willing to come to terms with them, confront them and heal from them. Even giving up things I loved for her sake, hoping to make it a little easier for her to bear the cost of her actions. But all my efforts were for not as she continued to spiral down. Again, not easy to watch.

But I don’t for a second regret the changes and sacrifices I made on her behalf, mostly because they ended up making me a better person in the end. And for that, I am grateful to her. But forgiveness was easy when I felt heard and seen for the first time since I was a child. Real recognize real has a powerful effect on those who’ve been neglected, and it was just the remedy I was looking for from feeling as though I was never adding up.

Real Recognize Real, Or, Stellar Communication

The ability for me to learn how to forgive myself and others, for not meeting my impossible standards and just about every other infraction, perceived or real, came down to how well I felt as though I was being heard and seen and then reciprocating to that. And feeling heard and seen really comes down to how well we communicate with one another.

So the lesson I learned in that relationship was, that for me, communication and feeling heard and seen were most important to feeling enough. This may seem like a no brainer, but for the chronically neglected, this set off all sorts of lightbulbs. The ability to be recognized in my emotions and having someone react to them in real time was what had been missing from my emotional world for what felt like my entire life.

It felt so comforting to be held in a space of feeling heard instead of the feelings of not adding up to the others expectations, that I would do just about anything to hold onto that feeling. This is what made forgiveness so easy for me. This space of feeling heard and seen allowed me the courage to overcome the feelings of hurt and sense of being done wrong and not adding up. And it’s from here that I was willing and able to build a healthy relationship.

These were the tools I was missing, was never taught by my caregivers in my youth. No wonder my relationships all failed in the past. But I also learned from our relationship that, just because I was ready to communicate open and honestly with my partner, didn’t also mean that she was ready to. So in the end, our relationship failed. Though this time not for lack of me trying to make it work.

Finding the Right Person Being Willing to Do the Difficult Work of Communicating

As I’ve said above, it can’t just be one person doing the work of communicating. If this is the case, there will most likely come with it a feeling of unrest, of not feeling heard and not quite knowing why. This was how I felt when I was unable to communicate my feelings to my partners. And in my case, I chose partners who were outspoken and knew exactly what they wanted. They wanted somebody who would come along for the ride while they made the decisions and I was looking for someone to do the work of living my life for me.

It seemed like a win win, but this type of control over another usually leaves one person feeling as though they have no control over their life and as though they aren’t doing enough to feel loved. For me, I was feeling listless and left wanting more. More out of my life, out of my relationships, more belonging. I was drinking a lot to numb the dis-ease of these feelings of lacking and feeling isolated. This was a lonely place to be.

So now that I know what was lacking from my past relationships, what’s changed? How does what I know now change the ways I see and choose my relationships in the present? For starters, I’m more aware of the people around me and their ability to listen to what I have to say.

Listening to Feel Heard

A partners ability to listen to feel a sense of being enough is now at the top of my list of desirable attributes. Before I was looking for one thing only, and that’s how good looking my partner was. This seemed to be the only thing that mattered to me, but looking back now it was the number one value that all of my caregivers could agree on. You could do terrible things to others, but as long as you were attractive, it was okay.

Only, this type of foundation in a relationship leads to connections based on superficialities that do not last. It also breeds resentment from my experience. There is a feeling of distance between each other that translates into the question, am I enough? This is because our emotional worlds are usually left unattended, uncared for by our partners and probably ourselves. And if you don’t feel heard or seen in a relationship, then you have what I’ve described above. Something that is based on control over the other and feeling as though you have to do more or be more to feel loved. The sentiment in this type of relationship being, I have what you want and you’d better do as I say or or fit my idea of you or I’ll take it away.

But if we listen to each other, attune to each other’s need, then we begin to build true intimacy. Feeling heard brings with it a sense of feeling loved and belonging. So being heard and listening to one another is a way to feeling belonging to each other. Finally feeling enough for the other person. The sentiment in this type of relationship being, I hear you and I’m here for you. This is how we build connections that are strong and lasting. Not withholding love from the other to feel belonging, but giving love to be open to receive love.

Giving Love to Feel Enough

So in the search for healthy relationships, we don’t have to push ourselves to give as much as humanly possible to feel loved and accepted. This is a trap that we get caught in usually because we already don’t feel as though we’re enough as we are, in order to feel loved. Instead of focusing on what we can do for others to feel loved, instead focus on how do we accept ourselves and others as we are. Then we’ll be driven to do for ourselves and others, only not from a place as Brene Brown so aptly puts it as, “hustling for approval”, but because we want what’s best for ourselves and our loved ones.

So if you feel as though you’re not adding up in some way, or have to do more in order to feel loved and belong to and with another, slow down and take a look at why you feel this way. Question what you’re believing about yourself and your belonging. You may just find that you’re already enough. Peace : ) and thanks for reading.

Image Credits: “Impossible standards just make life difficult. #fortunecookie”¬†by¬†dziner¬†is marked with¬†CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

Dating: Navigating the Ways We Connect Romantically

Dating. This is something that I have historically been, notoriously bad at. This always seemed a strange paradox to me, because I’ve always known that I want to be in a relationship, only I had no idea how to navigate them. I was completely clueless to when women had shown interest in me, and ended up clinging to unhealthy forms of relationships in my past. And a lot of how I’ve handled my relationships in my past, are ways that I’ve had modeled for me by those closest in to me and popular culture.

But what I’ve come to realize is, that most of how I had been handling relationships, and the role models that got me there, were monumentally unhealthy. In the following, I’ll be going over some of the lessons that I was taught while I was growing up, and how I’ve adapted or overcome from these unhealthy habits of connecting. So let’s jump in where it all started for me in the romantic world, with sex.

The Importance of Sex and Dating

This is a loaded topic, and one with many avenues to travers. I’ve written about this some in my post about porn and porn addiction. This is not an easy one for lots of folks, including myself. I’ve stopped using porn, almost a decade ago, but it is something that is ubiquitous in our culture. Something that I was introduced to at the age of eight and by my caregivers at that. This was way too early to be taught about sex to almost any degree, but in relation to romantic connection, I might as well have been taking a trig class in between recess, nap time and lunch. Out of my element.

To start, there was a lot of unhealthy messages being sent to me, and those around me at the time, involving the importance of sex and how it’s connected to belonging. And to be sure, this isn’t anything new. We seem to struggle with this a new each generation. This was the case in my family and one that was driven home countless times. From my grandmother being a model and ridiculing her children for not fitting the image or standard of beauty she felt as though she imbued, to her children handing down that ire to my generation.

Or the porn addiction that was also handed down generationally. Time and again, the message was that if you weren’t attractive or sexually desirable, you did not belong. This was the message I learned at the tender age of eight, along with a few others that I won’t go into detail about. But all roads lead to Rome so to speak; love and belonging hinged on whether or not someone wanted to have sex with you. When you are left with sex appeal as equal to belonging as your only map to navigate relationships with, then sex becomes the most important aspect of your relationships.

And this was how I navigated almost all of my relationships. If I wasn’t trying to get with some woman, I was talking about women to my friends in the most obscene ways. Nothing was off limits. Either that or I was comparing myself to those around me. Who was more attractive, is she more interested in my friend than me. And on top of that there was the porn addiction. Every relationship was somehow rooted in sex. This was unhealthy.

And that’s not to say that we can’t have a healthy relationship with sex. Sex is enjoyable, fun and a way to bring another level of intimacy to a relationship. And I don’t want to sound as though I’m proselytizing about how sex is to be feared in some way as inherently dirty or morally wrong. But the messages I was being sent as a child definitely carried that sense of hidden moral ambiguity with them by avoiding talking about it or doing it in clandestine ways. And if you’re using the moral compass of an eight year-old, things can look pretty black and white.

Fast forward to my romantic relationships in my twenties and thirties, and I was following in my family’s footsteps by objectifying women as sex objects and treating them with disrespect. It’s also worth mentioning that I didn’t hold onto many relationships. I was also terrified of being emotionally available with others. This goes hand in hand with objectifying women. Because if I didn’t see women as beings with emotions, I wouldn’t have to be open and vulnerable with them. This was something that took a long time to realize after thawing from my emotional freeze.

So sex really came to mean emotional detachment from my partners, the very people I was looking to belong with and to. These were the unhealthy lessons I was taught and carried with me in the ways I related to my relationships. So if objectifying women was the main way I used to detach emotionally, how did I make the U-turn to being emotionally available? There were a few things I did to open up emotionally again, and it started with acknowledging our shared humanity. First in myself and then in others.

Waking Up Into Our Emotions

The first step towards inhabiting my emotional world again was to recognize the ways I was leaving and what I was using to guard myself against them. For starters, objectifying women was the main barrier between me and cultivating intimacy with the women I was with. I had to first recognize that there was fear in me that I had been running from.

The fear for me stemmed from the time I was first abandoned by my family, and allowed to be abused by my caregivers. Once I confronted that fear, I was able to see others, mainly women, as people with emotional worlds all their own. Not as potential threats to my safety or belonging. I could then appreciate the nuances of their personalities instead of reducing them to one dimensional sex objects.

One of the ways I was perpetuating this belief was, as I said above, by using porn. When I stopped, my emotions were then more available to me. But there was a fair amount of work that needed to be done to untangle the mass of unprocessed feelings and emotions I had been covering over.

This is where meditation and yoga came into the picture. Through meditation, I was able to slow down my emotions enough to understand which emotions were which and why I was feeling them. And yoga taught me to stay when things got uncomfortable. If what you’re doing to avoid emotions amounts to pleasure seeking to dodge being uncomfortable, then there is most likely a backlog of difficult emotions to feel your way through. This is where the work lay.

If you are doing this work, and there is any amount of trauma or abuse, I recommend doing it with a professional counselor. And it’s sometimes wise to rely on medications. The message I was given was that real men muscle through tough emotions. This is dangerous and toxic. It’s okay to ask for and rely on help from others and medication when it’s wise to do so. The road can be difficult and scary at times, it’s best not to go it alone.

Emotional Intelligence and Cultivating Intimacy

Once I was able to slow down enough to feel my emotions, this was where I was able to cultivate emotional intelligence. I became fluid in the language of my emotions. This was what I had been missing in my relationships with the women I was with. If I wasn’t able to understand my own emotional states, there was no chance for me to understand what my partners were experiencing.

And there were many emotions to untangle. What was most striking about this process was, that feelings would arise all at once, and be bundled together and wrapped in fear and anxiety. A life’s time worth of unprocessed emotions, all surfacing at once. Demanding my attention and without an understanding of what they were trying to tell me. This was overwhelming.

The ways I used to manage my emotions was through coffee and alcohol. Speeding past or numbing them. But it wasn’t until I felt the full force of them by reducing the ways I was running from them, and by feeling their individual affect on me, that I was able to begin to develop intimacy with my emotional world. This also had the effect of making my emotional world less overwhelming. And subsequently less terrifying.

This is how we cultivate intimacy in our other relationships as well. By attuning to our emotional needs, we’re able to recognize the emotional needs of our partners and respond to them. Sounds simple, but it takes a lot of digging, listening and caring for what comes up. And staying with the difficult emotions is what’s so, well, difficult in the first place. So what makes this possible?

Resources for Emotional Growth

For me, I needed to feel safe and supported again. This was most difficult due to the ways that, first I was treated growing up, and second how I chose to live as a reaction to my upbringing.

I’ve mentioned before on this blog the abuse I endured but also the amount of neglect I also experienced as a child. This was where my distrust in others was cast, and what took the most work to overcome. Without the reassurance that you are being cared for, or at least your basic needs are being met, you feel as I did, that people are inherently selfish and dangerous on top of feeling all alone.

So being able to rely on others is something that flies in the face of logic and is also terrifying to even begin to think about. If you’ve been taught that those who are your caretakers are also your abusers, this becomes a problem when your supposed to rely on your ride or die (partner) for the most intimate support. If you’re unable to trust those who are closest to you, including yourself, how do you learn to rely on others and yourself?

Patiences, Forgiveness and Practice: We’re all Just Humans

Patiences is a difficult skill to hone. But if we don’t develop it, there’s a chance that we will react poorly to those whom we rely on. Especially when they make a mistake that hurts us in some way. Maybe it’s an off comment or a broken promise. We’re only human, it’s bound to happen once and a while. If it happens often enough, then maybe there needs to be another conversation about setting healthy boundaries. But it’s best to give the person the benefit of the doubt, especially if they’re your S.O.. And remember, they’re human and bound to make mistakes.

So we’ve accepted ourselves and others as imperfect. But does that make it any easier to weather the hurt feelings or little betrayals along the way? Sadly no. This is where cultivating patience is so important. In sitting with these difficult emotions, the ones I was talking about above that I would avoid by pleasure seeking, numbing or speeding past, I learned to accept them as, yes difficult, but also passing. They won’t last forever.

And once I got through the uncomfortable emotions and feelings of being hurt by my loved ones, it was easier to see what really matters. Not that I was hurt, but who the person is, how I feel about them, and what their intentions are. Most likely the times where my loved ones hurt me aren’t the norm. And when they do, that doesn’t take away any of the past feelings and experiences I’ve had about and with them that are filled with love. Also, their intentions weren’t most likely malicious.

So with patience comes understanding and forgiveness. And this is most important with the person you’re most intimate with. Your romantic partner. If you learn to trust one another’s intentions, then patience and forgiveness will come second nature. But if your trust has been breached in the past by those closest to you, patience and forgiveness also takes practice.

This was something I had to learn, am still learning, how to show up for myself when I need me most. Because I know if I’m willing to neglect my own needs, I’m going to have an unreasonably high expectation of others. When I don’t see them neglecting their own needs for the sake of “what’s important” to me, in the ways I would. And for the record, this is unhealthy. For example, I would often think people were lazy if they weren’t pushing themselves to exhaustion in the ways I would myself.

This is where practicing forgiving yourself is most important. Because neglect is a habit. It’s something that is learned. Either modeled for us or something we do to avoid the difficult parts of living our life and being connected. For me, I had to listen to myself when I as feeling off or overwhelmed. It wasn’t clear at first, the feelings of being neglected and abused, because they felt so normal. But the more I practiced listening inwardly to the feelings of being overwhelmed and of pushing myself too hard and ignoring my physical needs, the better I became at recognizing what I was going through and what I needed.

This type of understanding is something that can be used to attune to others’ needs. And these are the basic building blocks of intimacy in a romantic relationship as well. If your S.O. looks overwhelmed from a long day at work, recognizing what they are feeling and responding from a place of empathy, of “how can I help, I’m here for you”, is an essential way to build trust and intimacy. And if you’re not sure what to do, ask!

There are few things that can harm a relationship more, from my experience, than mind-reading. Feeling you know what the other person is going through without asking, and that you know how it “should” be handled, is arrogant. Also telling someone else how they are feeling is equally as damaging. I used to operate from this mindset and it was one of the ways I stopped listening to my partners and myself. It was also a way for me to stay disconnected from those closest to me including myself. If you’re not able to listen, you have no idea what the other person is experiencing.

Take The Risks

And finally, if you’ve learned to cultivate some or most of these skills, and you’re still willing to put your heart on the line, there’s nothing left to do than to get out there. Take the risk of being seen, heard and loved. It probably won’t be easy, especially if you’ve had your heart broken before. But it sure will be worth it. And you don’t have to be perfect to start. We often feel like, well I do anyways, that we need to be like Brad Pitt from “Fight Club” in order to be loved by someone else. The perfect body, the right living situation, the perfect career… The list goes on.

In case you still feel that way, I’m here to tell you, you don’t. Just be you, or the closest approximation to that you can ; ) Be honest and forgiving to yourself, and you’ll do just fine. Peace, and thanks for reading : )

Image Credits: “love-romantic-gift-present”¬†by¬†pixellaphoto¬†is marked with¬†CC0 1.0

Clean Your Plate!: How Healthy Boundaries With Food Can Help Us Heal From Old Wounds

Every Tuesday night, I make a special, self-care dinner for myself. I usually search for a recipe that looks interesting, or something that has caught my eye during the week. I go shopping for my meal that night, and take my time cooking the meal to really savor my time preparing something I will enjoy. I even had a co-worker make me a special bowl for the weekly ritual. I usually make a large batch of whatever I’m making so I have leftovers to eat during the week. And last Tuesday was no different.

However, there was something different about last week’s meal. I made a tortilla soup topped with corn chips, cilantro, avocado, cheddar and sour cream. It was tasty, but that wasn’t what was different. What had changed was, by the time I got to the end of my bowl, I felt as though I was forcing myself to finish the rest of my meal. I had at some point stopped enjoying my meal and began forcing myself to enjoy my meal.

This was a confusing place to be. I made these meals especially so I could enjoy and connect with the experience of cooking something I like while also nourishing myself in the process. Why was I now forcing myself to enjoy something, after I had already enjoyed the process and consumption of it?

And the more I thought of it, the less sense this seemed to make. The bowl I had my friend make for me was the second bowl she had made. The first one was too small for my liking. I wanted something I could fit a lot of food in. Further more I usually made, and served myself, way too much food, and had up to three or four drinks and a dessert to follow with some sort of tea to round out the meal. I was not concerned about my portion control, only how much I could consume.

This switch, from a ritual I had created to forge a new and soothing relationship with myself, to turning into something that was not as enjoyable as I had initially planned it to be, had me feeling uneasy. Then I realized there was much more beneath the surface to what I was experiencing.

It began with my portion sizes. I was serving myself way too much food. So much so that I felt as though I was muscling through the meal towards the end rather than enjoying the experience in a relaxed setting. I was using my experience with food, the joy I received from making the meal, to sitting down and relishing in the flavor combinations of a meal well prepared, like a drug. And from this perspective, more is better. But I was also covering over some other feelings that had been left unattended for a long time. The feelings of how I related to food.

When I was growing up, my experience in relating to food was not an enjoyable one. I do have some fond memories of holiday meals being prepared. The smells of rosemary and roasting meats wafting through the house as family gathered to celebrate. But a majority of my time spent with meals was not so steeped in revelry. I would often hear from my caregivers, “clean your plate” in reference to finishing the food that was given to me.

I also spent very little time at mealtime with my caregivers. And the times I did spend with them was filled with petty arguments and insults. A thousand tiny cuts. They would prepare meals for me, but I believe that family mealtime ended for me around the time I was 12-14 years old. My caregivers were gone until 2am most nights, leaving me to fend for myself when it came to nourishment. It felt more like survival most nights. This is an exaggeration, but the loneliness mixed with not knowing how to cook for myself or how to pick healthy meals that would leave me feeling my best was anxiety provoking and confusing. I spent most of this time alone, not sure of what to do to take care of myself. It was a lonely and scary place to be for a preteen.

And the times we were together, my caregivers referred to me as a “human garbage disposal”. This was also confusing, and seemed in direct contradiction to my prime directive of, “cleaning my plate.” I was confused. Paired with no direction on how to please my caregivers, it seemed that everything I was doing was somehow wrong or unexceptable to their judgements.

And to further drive home the “human garbage disposal” nickname, my caregivers were more than intolerant of overweight persons. This was also confusing, as my caregivers and myself, were also all overweight. There was literally no sense to be made from any of these interactions. Again, a very confusing place to be.

One of my caregivers went so far as to offer me money to lose weight. I believe the arrangement was 40$ to get down to my ideal weight. I agreed, but what 13 year-old wouldn’t want 40$? But with no direction on how to lose the weight, and being poorly fed with no direction on how to achieve my goals by the same people wanting me to lose weight, I didn’t stand a chance and felt like a failure.

Fast forward to my mid twenties, I was overweight, had zero boundaries with the food and alcohol I was consuming, but I stayed faithful to my caregivers instructions, and chose Brad Pitt’s character from the movie, “Fight Club” as my role-model of how I thought I should look… What hurts so much now thinking about all of this is, that I had no idea how unreasonable these standards are and were. I thought these were perfectly normal and reasonable aspirations because they were expected of me by my caregivers.

I should also mention that one of my caregivers top values is looking attractive. Which, unfortunately for me growing up, was reinforced, time and time again. So I wasn’t even aware of how unreasonable these standards actually are, and backed by a society that is equally image obsessed, it took a great strength of will to even see past the idea that looking thin and attractive, was not the most important aspect of life.

All of these unhealthy messages I received growing up left me feeling confused, angry with myself for not being able to live up to these unreasonable standards, highly judgemental of others who couldn’t live up to my and my caregivers standards, and just plain unsatisfied. By the time I hit my early thirties, I was overweight and angry about it and my diet was the most unhealthy it had been ever. Something needed to change.

I first started with exercise. I started running two miles every few days in the local commons. I was going through a divorce at the time and there were other major shifts happening in my life. One of the ways I was able to take some steps in a healthier direction and control of my life was by getting out on the road and running a few miles. This was the start of me making more health conscious decisions that directly affected my life for the better.

After I got into a routine of regularly exercising, I shifted my focus on what I was eating. This was particularly difficult, considering the environment I was in. I was living with a woman who was in her early twenties, who was living life much the same ways I was in my early twenties. This should have been an indicator that I was moving backwards with my life choices, but I was under a considerable amount of stress and dealing with a life’s time worth of unchecked emotional baggage. I understand why I made the decisions I did, but would not make them again. Needless to say, our eating habits were not the healthiest.

That being said, I was however able to begin to make healthier food choices and change my habits while I was living in less than ideal circumstances. I began grocery shopping as I would for a family. Planning and preparing meals for us for the week. I was roasting whole chickens and preparing other whole foods, straying away from fatty and sugary prepared and processed foods. I was taking control of our nutritional needs and moving us in a healthier direction.

This was also around the time I decided to reduce my alcohol intake as well. This change stems from my taking a conscious effort to part ways with the habits and patterns my caregivers had modeled for me in my youth. And ones I stayed loyal to, until I decided to make changes for the better.

And as soon as I stopped drinking as much alcohol as I had been consuming, that’s when my health really started to take shape. I was less sluggish, I was losing weight due to the sudden decrease in caloric intake from not only the unhealthy foods I was eating, but also the empty calories in the beer and coffee I was drinking. And speaking of coffee, I also lessened my caffeine intake. I was drinking around 4-5 double or quad shot moccas a day! This was excessive by any standard.

So in the course of two years, I had turned my eating habits from something unhealthy to the point where I may have had health complications had I kept with my poor eating habits, to exercising regularly, watching my alcohol and caffeine consumption and eating healthier, whole foods. All in all I had made some pretty remarkable changes in my personal life. So fast forward a few years and I’m still defaulting to some of my old habits. Why was this so?

From what I am able to tell, much of it stems from my avoiding the old feelings of deficiency I received from my caregivers growing up. I was still looking for the external validation of living up to my caregivers unreasonable standards that I adopted as my own. All the healthy eating and diet changes were a way of trying to live up to my caregivers impossible standard. The difference is, now I have the tools I never had before. Now I know how to please my caregivers.

But this is still an unhealthy way of living. Trying to live up to impossible standards is exhausting and dangerous. I remember one night, after working a full shift without eating breakfast or lunch, I ran three miles and did thirty minutes of yoga. I was so exhausted from the day, that when I got out of the shower and bent over to towel off, I passed out on the bathroom floor. The person I live with came into to the bathroom to see if I was okay. I clearly was not.

So I’m still holding on to these conflicting and unhealthy messages from my past, which all stemmed from, “clean your plate”. Even after all this work, I’m still holding on to some of these lessons. Why?

From what I’m able to tell, I feel a sense of accomplishment from “cleaning my plate”. This is the external validation I am looking for, that I never received from my caregivers. There’s a part of me that is still looking for validation for what I never received. So how do I change this unhealthy way of relating to myself and these unreasonable standards I’ve adopted? How do I learn to be okay, just as I am, while still striving to be the best version of myself in a healthy way? I think it starts, for me anyways, with my meditation practice.

During my meditation, I recite a set of affirmations that helps me to be the version of myself I want to be. One of the lines is, “it’s okay to be me, just as I am”. I need this constant reinforcement, to help to break the old patterns of not feeling as though I’m adding up. And not adding up meant feeling like I didn’t belong to my caregivers, which made me feel unsafe. Add some early childhood trauma to the mix and you have a recipe for a difficult set of patterns and expectations to break free from.

This reassurance also helps to let me know I’m not perfect, and that’s okay. When I was younger, I really thought my belonging hinged on the good opinion of my caregivers. Now that I know that my caregivers are just people, it’s a little easier to forgive myself for not living up to their standards, as I no longer view their words as absolute law.

Also, being kind and patient with myself. When I was forcing myself to finish my meal a few days ago, I was already feeling uneasy and a little sad. I needed self-care then more than ever. Because there was and is a lot of confusion and mixed messages around food and sustaining myself. And my younger emotional self is still holding out for that chance to make my caregivers proud of me for doing what they asked of me. This will take some time for my emotional self to feel better about. And the only way I can come to terms with that is through being kind to myself and the feelings as they arise.

Exercise and healthy eating are still going to be integral routines to my lifestyle choices, but for different reasons than they were before. It’s still okay to want to look and feel good, only the perspective has shifted from looking and feeling good as being my top value, to being a means to living a healthy and active life. Because when I was living a sedentary lifestyle, overweight and drinking too much, I wasn’t happy.

I was drinking caffeine and alcohol to numb my emotions while watching T.V. and playing video games to avoid living my life. I was also overweight and unhealthy. As I said above, I was most likely headed for some health complications due to my lifestyle. That wouldn’t have been good for anybody! So knowing that I’m living my life, to be the best and healthiest version of myself is now my number one value when it comes to health choices and making value based decisions, and this makes me feel healthier. My values are no longer set at how good I look naked, and that feels good : )

And finally, knowing that we are not perfect. This one was a difficult one for me to come to terms with. My caregivers focus on perfection was omnipresent. I felt as though, if I didn’t get that A, or wasn’t the perfect image of what my caregivers wanted of me, regardless of how impossible the image was (see Brad Pitt’s character in Fight Club for example), I was unsafe and unloved.

I went so far as to study Val Kilmer’s, Jim Morrison, because they liked The Doors, and Jim seemed to be living life like my caregivers. I had no idea how unhealthy this dynamic is and was. But I remember how lonely it was growing up, with no one around and not feeling loved or belonging. Realizing that I don’t have to be somebody else, that “it’s okay to be me, just as I am”, has done so much good in remembering I don’t have to add up to someone else’s standard. That it’s okay to be me, flaws and all.

And it takes practice. Sometimes I still find myself wanting to conform to someone else’s ideal to be loved, to feel belonging. It’s in those moments that I remember the things that I do value. The friends I have who know and love me for me. The activities I find joy in like yoga and hiking. And the plans I have for my future, that help to ground me in who I am outside of somebody else’s standard.

So if you’re struggling with a set of unreasonable standards you were presented with before you were able to form your own healthier versions, you are not alone. And also, it’s not too late to change these standards. Be persistent, take the time to learn who you are. Your likes and dislikes. What are the moments that bring you joy? Is it a song that you particularly are drawn to? Do you enjoy a certain meal or maybe a treat you make for yourself on special occasions. These are the pieces that when added up, make you who you are. Be faithful to those and you will find your way : ) And as always, thanks for reading : ) peace.

Image Credits: “Stack of Clean Plates”¬†by¬†ljfullofgrace¬†is licensed under¬†CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

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