Extreme Independence and Trauma: When Doing You, Affects your Relationships for the Worse

I was on Facebook not too long ago, scrolling through my feed when I saw a post about how extreme independence is a trauma response that stems from being unable to trust those closest to you. The cause, they said, was mostly due to experiencing neglect, from those who should have been attentive to our basic needs for love and belonging.

This felt true as I read it, and most of my family has a very strong judgement function, when it comes to attonomy and deciding what’s the best course of action. And further more, this only extends so far as their own needs are concerned. As they arise in context to situations they find themselves in with those closest to them.

This ability to choose decisively how to act in a situation is useful, and gives the added benefit of being seen as someone who is in charge, competent and who knows what they’re doing. But what I’ve come to find out, from my own experiences and those close in to me, is that this is little more than a way to survive. Those who modeled this behavior for me, were acting the part so they could feel as though they were doing what was best for themselves and those they were in charge of caring for. But it was only an act.

They had to keep up this facade of always being seen as in charge, strong, never letting on that they had the same fears, vulnerabilities and worries that everyone else does. They, and I, were playing a part, and one that was void of a large swath of our emotional lives. This lead directly to a lack of there being moments of intimacy and tenderness. There were only stark, contrasting times of polarized ways of being with one another. On an emotional level that usually took the shape of arguments, judgements or just plane making fun of one another.

For example, the good times consisted of the men drinking beer while loudly verbalizing their opinions of whomever or whatever. While the women gossiped about their friends and family. The bad times were usually filled with more loud verbalizing, but of the displeasures of how the men weren’t being heeded, while sometimes being accompanied by shattering dinner wear, while the women spewed hurtful and demeaning messages designed to cut emotional wounds that were mostly left to fester.

What both these examples have in common, the “good” and “bad” times, is that they were both ways to keep others at a distance so as not to seem weak, or rather the distance was to keep others from seeing that they were emotionally wounded in the relationships they were supposed to be enjoying. So why does this happen? I have a feeling it has to do with a few different factors, that we all experience, which shape the ways we see our world and how we build relationships, and starts in childhood, when we bond with our caregivers.

When we first learn to love and trust, it is usually with our parents or guardians. These bonds tend to be tight, and set the stage for the relationships we form well into adulthood. If there is a nurturing bond, one where the caregiver is attuned to the needs of their child, then healthy and balanced relationships are forged. But if the bond is broken time and again by emotional distance, then the child learns that the love they once felt, has betrayed them, trust becomes fickle and the bond they once built disintegrates.

This, I imagine, is where extreme independence is adopted. Not knowing if we are accepted by those who are supposed to love us unconditionally, would add an undercurrent of uncertain fear to our everyday interactions with just about everyone we meet. The lesson learned is that no one is trustworthy, and we need to protect ourselves. So we learn to survive, feeling the only person we’re able to trust is ourselves, and that’s only if we somehow learn to attune to our own needs. Which most likely wouldn’t be the case.

From this perspective, it’s easy to see how trust relates to fear for our belonging, and abuse of this trust by loved ones, the source of our belonging, leads to our feeling alone, like we have no one to rely on. So we rely solely on ourselves.

Extreme independence then, is really a form of extreme isolation. And there’s a difference between isolation and independence. There’s a sense of empowerment that comes with the image of being independent. It’s often romanticized as the loner, striking out on his own, braving the wilderness, armed with only his wits. There’s a sense of being able to handle whatever may come up, no matter how difficult it may be. Which is a trait I feel like we’d all like to embody.

Isolation however, is something that leaves us weaker as an individual, less resilient. It’s used by most societies as the main form of punishment, to separate from the greater whole of our communities. And if we see this type of isolation as punishment, then staying in this isolation is a form of unrealized self punishment, what Buddha called the “second arrow”.

The first arrow is the breaking of the initial trust from the caregivers. Something that we have no control over. The second arrow however is something we do to ourselves, regardless of who we learned the initial lessons from. So if we continue to isolate, after we separate from those who had done the abandoning, then we are continuing to do ourselves harm, even if it’s the only way we know how to be.

This is why isolation is so debilitating, it leaves us with the inability to care for ourselves by being unable to connect emotionally with others, because we feel it’s protecting us by doing what’s in our “best interests”. But also why “extreme independence” is so destructive, when disguised as a virtue, and not seen for the damaging isolation it can be.

For sure there are times we need to take a break from everything, and that’s healthy. Going to your favorite coffee shop to journal, or draw up your monthly budget while sipping on a warm cup of your favorite tea or coffee, can be just the right way to slow down a little and gain some much needed perspective. But when you check your texts, and the last four times you checked in with a “loved one” is on major holidays or a birthday, something’s amiss.

And unfortunately, what’s amiss usually involves more than one person. So even if you realize that you’ve been the one who has been working under the guise of extreme independence, unless the other people in your life are or have been open to building, and fostering a reciprocating relationship, than you may be left with the hard realization that you’re sort of still in the same place.

And this can be a tough place to be. How do you keep the door open, to possibly reconnect, especially if it’s a painful prospect of being abandoned again? I don’t know that I have the answer to that, but I know what helps. Fostering healthy new relationships.

The more healthy, robust relationships we build, that are based in mutual respect and understanding, the more resilient we become to the ups and downs of all our relationships. And by “keeping the door open”, I don’t mean we have to stay loyal to the lessons of ways of being in unhealthy relationships we learned from the past. Unlearning those lessons should be priority. Instead we forge new bonds, learn new lessons, ones that leave us feeling good, about ourselves and others.

Once we have a blueprint, a map on how to navigate a healthy relationship, one we want to be in, then we bring that along with us if we attempt to reconnect with someone who has historically been difficult to connect with. So we don’t fall into the familiar terrain or old patterns of the unhealthy ways we used to interact.

It definitely takes patients, but with some persistence, you may just find yourself surrounded with caring, loving and a healthy support network. So do not give up hope! There are healthier times ahead, we only need go out there and bring them to fruition. And remember, you don’t need to do it alone. Peace 🙂

Image Credits:“THE DARKNESS IS ON THE WAY/ ARE WE GOING TO BE ISOLATED?” by HORIZON is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

United we Stand..?

I’m from the United States, so for the past few months the only thing that anybody’s been talking about is the election. And I have to admit, I’m breathing a bit easier now that Biden has officially won. But the degree by which this election was called, the contrasting starkness of how this country is divided, is more than a little concerning. This isn’t something new.

We’ve been talking about one divide or another in the U.S. for a long time. Economic, racial, socio-economic, to name a few, but in a system that has two parties that represent two very different halves of the whole, it stands to reason that one half of the country is not being heard, or at least feeling like they’re not being heard, at any given time.

That’s a lot of people. And if people aren’t being heard, they find ways of making themselves heard. There are more acceptable ways, such as peaceful protesting or volunteering for a cause you’re passionate about. But there are other, more tragic ways of being heard. The popular trend of school shootings comes to mind. Something that seemed unimaginable in the not so distant past is now unsettlingly familiar.

Or the “proud boys”, a recent neo-fascist organization that is known for political violence. These are truly unsettling trends, but something about this divide feels all too familiar. Like I’ve lived this before. Then I realized that it reminds me of the ways my own family is divided. All of us in our own, small, ununified factions, feeling hurt and unheard. We’re all alone, not knowing how to connect or if it’s even safe to. Then we’re left with the question, what do we do then? How do we reconnect, or start from scratch and build relationships after having been so badly damaged from past abuses?

I know I’m not alone in this experience. Many people I’ve talked with have had difficult familial relationships and with the national average of almost a 50% divorce rate, it isn’t difficult to see that we are literally a nation divided. It’s also clear that what happens in the smaller units of our families, are the building blocks of what happens in the larger whole of the society that these families compose.

For example, abuse of authority may look similar from parent to child as it does from political authority to voter. Both authorities have the power to take rights away from those who are in their charge. So the settings are similar in some regards. And it’s in those settings of overlap that I want to search for similarities in hopes of finding how we relate to one another. How we may be able to help to heal some of the dis-ease of those who are feeling as though they aren’t being heard. Because regardless of how those who feel unheard react, they are still people. With just as many feelings, hopes, needs and rights as everybody else.

And who’s job is it to listen to those, the members of our society, if it isn’t our own as members of that same society. It is in this vein that I want to explore these areas here on the blog. I don’t have a set list of issues, or even know when I’ll be posting them, or where to even begin, but one thing is for certain, we can’t keep pretending that everybody is being accounted for when there is such a stark divide among us.

This mentality breeds an, I’m right and you’re wrong, way of thinking. In short, those who think they’re right, stop listening to those who they see as wrong. Depending on who holds the power, that could make for dangerous circumstances. And we need to learn to listen to one another again. To be sure, there are probably some puns to be made or parallels to be drawn about how political labeling is in line with the ethos of this blog. And there will be time for that, but right now there is work to be done. We’ve been a house divided for far too long. It’s time to make the journey back home, to one another.

It’s not something that will likely be easy. But few things that are worth the time usually are. But do not lose hope. We’ve seen difficult times before, we can travers them again, together. Thanks for reading, peace :]

Image Credits:“No Known Restrictions: Picketing the White House When Coolidge Refuses to Listen (LOC)” by pingnews.com is marked with CC PDM 1.0

Toxic Masculinity: The Pitfalls of Growing Up Male

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reparenting: Creating Healthy Boundaries, Being a Part of Someones Solution Without Solving Their Problems

Boundaries. This is a big topic and I hope to do it some justice. For the sake of this post I will be focusing on some of my experiences with personal boundaries in regards to how they’ve been taken advantage of in the past. And ways to engage with those encroaching while keeping a healthy distance when you need space to feel and stay healthy.

Hope you’re still with me 🙂 It may be a bumpy road. I’d also like to take this time to say, especially if you’ve experienced abuse or trauma, I strongly urge you to find professional help. I am not a therapist myself and these are only my experiences, opinions and research I’ve done on the subject. My therapist has been an indispensable resource for me guiding me through very difficult times. Don’t be afraid to ask for the support you need.

The family dynamic I grew up in was very much a black and white landscape of either very rigid boundaries or absolutely no boundaries at all. For instance it was my mother’s job to feed and clothe me. And to her credit she took care of the basics with religious fervor. But I didn’t have the freedom to cook my own meals or request favorite foods. Or was I in any way involved with that decision making process when it came to meal planning or anything domestic. She never asked me if I ate while I was out with friends or even really ask me anything at all about me personally. I was punished severely and often for underachieving in high school yet I was never shown how to succeed in an academic setting. Or even had a curfew. Nor was anyone home to enforce it if I had been given one.

In short, I was always in trouble for doing something I shouldn’t be doing. And with no parent to enforce the severe punishments bestowed upon me because my mother and stepfather were likely out doing the same things I was getting in trouble for. It was a confusing place to be in my teenage years. And that’s not even accounting for the biological changes I was experiencing!

As a result I spent a lot of my time as a teenager wandering aimlessly around my surroundings looking for someplace to feel belonging, before I was kicked out of the house at 19. I remember feeling so left out and empty. It was a cold place to be.

There was a lot going on in my family besides personal boundaries being ignored. But it was in these times of not being recognized as a person with boundaries and their (my boundaries) being neglected, that I learned to neglect my own personal needs and boundaries. Picking up where my family left off when I was given the boot from our dysfunctional family at 19.

But as crippling as the rules and regs of my family had been, I still desperately clung to them and their lack of regard for my well being. If only to feel a piece of a whole. Some belonging. So it was their initial neglect of my boundaries that set the rules for there to be no rules or boundaries with myself. Only the pain of not feeling wanted or belonging if I chose to create a sense of separate self. My own personal identity. But it wasn’t my family’s fault either. They were most likely experiencing the same feelings I was. The neglect and the hurt, the lack of personal identity and feeling as though they had to cling to one another to feel belonging. It’s sad and a little exhausting just thinking about it.

So if everyone was so hurt by one another to the point where they were afraid of being around each other, yet feared above all else to feel rejected and hurt by the people who were supposed to love them, why did and what allowed us to all cling to one another with such a tight grip? Yep, alcohol, anger, indignation and shame.

It’s hard to see shame for what it is when you’re in its midst of it. Especially difficult when you’re drunk (or to recognize any emotion really when you’re three sheets to the wind ¯\_(ツ)_/¯). My shame was the internalizing of my mother’s critical opinions of me. Mixed with the trauma from my abuse I was thinking to myself, “What had I done to deserve this and make my family feel they needed to punish me so severely”.

When abuse happens, all kinds of boundaries are being trampled. The right to be in control of who is allowed and how to physically be in contact with your body is one. And the physical threat that is embedded in that loss of control. Emotionally by imbuing terror in the place of  where love and safety should be with and around those who are supposed to be your caretakers. And the parelizing judgement of who you are thought to be by those who are supposed to teach you healthy habits. That will show you how to navigate life. And instead leave the fear of and from the abuse in their place.

As well as the confusion of being rejected by your loved ones who you are mirroring in order to feel belonging to and with those doing the rejecting. This is just a short list of the many different and difficult feelings of abuse of boundaries that go along with the shame of abuse and trauma. Probably too much to cover in one post.

The first step in healing this shame of loss of boundaries and loved ones is to realize that it’s not your fault. This is best done with the aid of a therapist and trusted family and friends. Because as Tara Brach puts it, “we were wounded in relationship, we heal in relationship“. Not only that but we can’t do it alone.

It’s also helpful to know that the people who have abused us are probably hurt themselves. And possibly have been abused in the ways they are abusing others. Not helpful in a way that we are happy for their suffering. That would be likened to seeing them with a large pile of festering garbage and feeling better that they are in it too. But this perspective allows us to see that they’re suffering like we’re suffering. Which if we allow it, will open us to compassion for the person’s suffering because it is so interconnected with our own. And to transform the suffering they’ve handed to us and turn it into compassionate caring is how we find our way out of the suffering cycle.

As I see it the gift lie in transmuting the suffering into caring and spreading caring and love instead of hurt and abuse. This is what I believe is meant by coming to realize that we are the ones in control of our own experiences. What it means to be one hundred percent accountable for yourself, your emotions and actions. And it’s then when we realize that it is our suffering, no matter who perpetuated it, that we can let go the anger that keeps us wrapped up in blaming the other for the transgression they perpetrated. We can get so attached to that angry self. The one that needs to be seen, heard and justified for the wounds we are carrying at the hands of someone else’s actions that we forget we can let go and be free. Free from the idea that we’ve been done wrong and we need retribution for our grievances to move on.

This is not to be confused with not pursuing justice for crimes when the situation requires it. But if we let the wound fester after justice has been dealt we lock our emotional energies into fixating on how we have been hurt. Or focusing on fantasies of how it could happen again, closing off our emotional selves from the risk of harm. This only works to keep us in a frozen emotional state. Like a plant that has been pot bound, unable to spread its roots and subsequently stunts its growth leaving it small and vulnerable.

Or maybe the time for justice never came and you are truly left with the injustice of a crime never revealed, heard or seen. In this case it is even more important to let go of those feelings of injustice and find ways to move towards more fertile grounds. Because resentment will take the place of the relationship turned sour. And it will cripple us emotionally if we allow it to reside within. Keeping us from fostering new and healthy, loving relationships.

So in the analogy above in order to break the bonds of our personal pots to find more freedom and space, we must first give up the bonds of our “pots” voluntarally. The anger, the blame and find more fertile soil. Helping others and connecting in relationship is a good example of finding more space. The way twelve step programs allow space for people with similar experiences to come together and be witness to one another. This creates a space larger than the self who is often too small to hold the burdens of a life’s time worth of aggression and abuse.

I should probably note that none of this is easy. It sounds so simple to take stock of and list all our grievances. Most of us carry them around our whole lives. It seems idealik written down and the truth is it may be difficult. But like a physical wound, if left unattended, will only get worse the longer we ignore it. And  don’t forget, it’s not like we’re carry around the anger and indignation of our wounds for no reason! There’s a sort of logic to poking the wound to remind us of the pain we feel. We can use it as a tool to protect us from what can happen if we let our guard down or put ourselves in a vulnerable situation such as trusting another or sharing our wounded selves.

This is why I brought up earlier that working with a therapist and trusted friends and family can be invaluable. If you are like I was I didn’t even know what a boundary was, let alone a healthy one. If we don’t have the space to talk about how our actions and the actions of others are making us feel in a non-judgemental environment, we may not be able to find the necessary tools and resources. Such as healthy self-talk, building a high self-esteem and healthy role models. We need these tools to be strong enough to journey to be the healthiest version of ourselves. Especially in the face of those whom may have torn us down in the past.

And that is what it really comes down to. Finding out how we fit into the whole in the healthiest ways possible. For most of us that means family and friends. That being said family can be brutal when it comes to disrespecting boundaries. So can friends so it is especially important to find someone who has your best interests in mind and at heart. Discerning who is safe in regards to family and old friends who may be ignoring some important boundaries is definitely a challenge. Boundaries can be fragile when they are first forged so go slow. Be certain that you can take care of yourself before caring for another. Especially if the other is a family member who has unhealthy boundaries.

Which leads to another issue. Knowing how to say no to those whom have no boundaries. If we haven’t cultivated the healthy habits that allow us to be strong and take care of ourselves first, then there’s no way we’re able to be a part of someones solution. We’ll most likely get pulled into their unhealthy and possibly self destructive lack of boundaries. Being strong enough may look like knowing how to ask for help from a friend or know when to talk to a therapist. Or something as simple as taking yourself out for dinner at your favorite restaurant, just you for the night. It will look different for each person but you first need to know what those resources look and feel like for you. And how to access them when you need them most in order for them to be useful.

Because those are ultimately the parts of ourselves we want to share with others. The strong, independent, capable, fun loving… insert adjective you want to describe yourself as here. But we can only do that once we’ve found our way to that person. And then draw a map so we can keep getting back home. And we do that by feeling the support of our resources and knowing how to access them when we need them most. As another friend of mine puts it, “when I’m the best version of myself, that helps others be the best version of themselves”.

So it is here that I will leave you good reader. I know that I covered a lot of ground and there’s more to be said on the subject for sure, but I feel that will be best left for another post another time. I’ll post some resources I’ve found handy in the Community page, so don’t forget to hop on over and read like you love yourself (shout out to YWA:)! Peace.

Image Credits: “Boundary – Boulder” by joiseyshowaa is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

Self-Care Emotional: How do You Relate to Your Inner-Critic?

“Bryony” by Trucknroll is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

We all have one. The voice that says we’ll never finish that degree, or I’m never gonna land that job that would be just right for me. I’m never going to find the woman/man who’s my true love or I’m just plain not adding up. I know mine well. It took some digging but when I finally realized who was behind the wheel and where he was steering me, I can tell you it was a real eye opener.

My inner critic has taken the form of my abusers past, and I can actually pinpoint it in my body. Of course this took years of work to begin to unlock my frozen tundra of emotion. And this was after decades of not being able to feel my body or to even know what my emotions Were. Also that I was the one in charge not my emotions. My inner critic will often tell me things about myself that just aren’t true. Such as I’m overweight even though I weigh 185 and am 5’10”. I’m unable to find and do meaningful and fulfilling work even though I’ve excelled in all my positions and graduated Cum Laude from college. I need a another to take care of me because I’m incapable of doing so for myself regardless of my well organized and healthfully curated my lifestyle is… The list goes on.

But what’s most important to understand about all our critics is, asides from the content being untrue and damaging to our psyche, how often we get lured into its siren’s song. And allow ourselves to be led astray from what our heart’s true aspirations are. If you’re reading this then you’ve probably come to some of your own healthy conclusions. But in case you haven’t I’m here to tell you you are not the contents of your inner critic. And the only control it has over you is the control you give to it.

I know from my own early childhood experiences of trauma that my critic has grown strong from repeated infractions against my sense of self worth. And it may seem as though these experiences are relegated to those who’ve experienced some sort of traumas. But the numbers of those who have experienced trauma are staggering. It’s reported that “nearly 14% of children repeatedly experienced maltreatment by a caregiver, including nearly 4% who experienced physical abuse.” That’s about one in seven! That’s a lot of people.

But even those that haven’t experienced some sort of trauma in their lives, states of being such as peer pressure and people pleasing have real consequences. And not to mention are a real source of frustration for many. This all sounds pretty sad. And it is, but there are ways to identify our inner critic and create a caring cushion around it. To soften the blow when it does strike. This is where the hard work lay. In knowing how your inner critic has infiltrated your day to day routines and the patterns that we’ve cultivated in relating to it.

Do you know the subtle signs of the transition between when you’re behind the wheel and your critic has taken over? Is there a low level of anxiety that is prevalent? Feeling as though you’re not adding up in some way for no reason? Are you believing things about yourself you know just aren’t true? These are just a few examples and they vary from person to person. There isn’t a “one size fits all” approach to knowing how you and your own personal inner critic relate to one another. Or the ways it has taken control in your life. But there is a commonality in coming to understanding who and what your inner critic is and needs. And it starts with listening.

When are the times you feel down on yourself? Or feel bad about a specific behavior or something you feel like you should be doing? Times that you are measuring yourself to another and feel as though you are coming up short? Those are the times and opportunities to listen inward. To feel where you feel them in your body. The places you are trying to avoid. That’s where you’ll find your critic.

Your critic is trying to tell you something but it’s afraid. Underneath that fear there is a protective quality, one that is trying to keep us safe. For me it is, “I had better conform to certain expectations or else I’ll be rejected and unloved”. Listening to the message of what it’s trying to tell us and deciphering it from the fear will yield great rewards.

Because once you find the message that is behind the fear you can relate directly to the unattended hurt. The source of the wound. Though I should say when dealing with traumatic fear this is something that should definitely be done in the care of a professional. And with the support of trusted family members and friends when possible. Tara Brach explains in one of her talks on relating to traumatic fear called, “Healing Trauma: The Light Shines Through the Broken Places” that it may not be safe to take in all the fear at once. It may end up retraumatize us.

I know from my own work with my therapist that learning the art of just this much, finding your window of tolerance is invaluable. Especially for those of us who have been trying to live up to our own imposed and impossible standards. Go hard or go home. The insatiable voice that keeps telling us we need to do more and accomplish greater deeds. And the critic doesn’t only focus on us. Others as well need to live up to our impossible standards or something terrible will happen. Or so we often times feel.

So how do we begin to recognize our critic? And possibly even more importantly, what do we do when we finally come toe to toe with them? For me, it was about slowing down. It wasn’t until I stopped trying to work myself to death, to live up to the impossible standard I had created, that I realized it was never going to be enough. No matter how hard I worked, how I ignored my needs and those of others. No matter how critical I was of the job I was doing or others were doing, I was never going to meet the impossible standard I had in my mind of how things should be.

This took some doing because I was drinking 5 to 6 lattes a day and going hard to avoid coming home (figuratively). It wasn’t until I started meditating and switched to tea, one caffeinated cup a day, that I was able to create the space necessary to slow down and hear what my body was telling me. Instead of telling my body how to feel. It was a shock though. I won’t go into details but it hit hard. I was feeling all sorts of unattended emotion from my past. I had been ignoring not just the attic of my life but most of the useable square footage!

But that brought me to the second step of reckoning with the unfelt emotions. It was crazy at first. But my feelings began to slow down until they were manageable. Small enough to take in without being overwhelming. I needed a lot of support during that time too. And a lot of kindness. Mostly from and to myself. I had been beating myself up for such a long time that there was some animosity for sure. But the more kindness I showed myself, the easier it became. Not only easier to bear but the inner critic began to lose it’s bite. When he would show up, which he still does sometimes, I could recognize him and treat him with kindness. Knowing that really it’s just the product of the ways I’ve been maltreated by myself and others.

So when you’re relating to your inner critic the key is to be kind. Kind to yourself, kindness to and from others as well. Because it’s that kindness that will then create the cushion around our hurt selves. The places our critics are protecting in order to make space for them to heal. And it’s not easy. People will say and do hurtful things and we will do and say hurtful things too. To ourselves and others. But it’s a practice. And the more we practice the better we become at being kind. And the more tame our critic will become. It’s doable, just don’t give up :]

Image credits: “Bryony” by Trucknroll is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0