This is a tough one for many, to be yourself. And something I’ve wrestled with for a long time. Not to mention the unintended consequences it’s had in my relationships while I was in the throws of becoming me. I’d like to share with you my perspective and some of my experiences in coming to understand who I am and how I separated that from who I thought I was supposed to be. Like The Grateful Dead said so long ago, “what a long strange trip it’s been”. Let’s start this trip with who I thought I was supposed to be.
What Makes Me Likable?
My journey to personhood began long ago. About the time I started high-school. This was a strange time for me, but that seems to be the hallmark for that age bracket. This was also when and where I began to figure out who I was becoming and what my likes and dislikes are.
In the mid-90s, when I entered the awkward age of adolescents, hippie culture was making a come back. Bands like Phish and The Grateful Dead were prevalent in the culture at the time and I took to them. Both the culture and bands pretty quickly. The sense of community, the colors and the attitudes all appealed to me. The music, too was something I had grown up with. I remember watching The Dead’s, “Touch of Grey” on VH1 often as a younger child. Its positive message, “I will get by” that’s sung in the chorus, spoke to me then and still does.
The clothing was something that I connected with as well. There was the tie-dye, which was colorful and unique, but also the comically large pants that were in style at the time. Some, including the pair I made, had panels of different colored material going up both the inner and outer seams. They also had 36 inch cuffs. Like I said, comically big! I had one pair that I must have worn for months straight. This must be where the term, “dirty hippy” comes from.
And even with all the drug and alcohol abuse that was happening in the culture, for me it was never about the drugs. I enjoyed the community and the diversity of colors most of all. It wasn’t until I was chastised one car ride long ago for not knowing who The Doors were, that I started down the path of drinking and doing drugs occasionally. As I’ve said before in my post on feeling unworthy of love, at the mere mention that Jim Morrison was more liked in my family than I was, I studied him to feel belonging to any degree. With family, with friends, whomever. I just wanted to belong.
Am I Liked Yet?
So I made choices in life the ways Jim would have. And the strange thing was, that even though I was doing the “right thing”, according to my family’s unspoken rules, I was being punished for behaving the ways I was. Which were also the ways my family was behaving. Because we were all living like Jim Morrison to a lesser degree. So the more I tried to act and behave the ways that I thought I was supposed to, the ways my caregivers had, the more rejection I felt.
The reason, I’ve come to realize is, that we really didn’t like who we were. This was a sad wake up call to be sure. But the silver lining is, that it wasn’t ourselves that we didn’t like. It was who we were pretending to be that we were uncertain of. All we really wanted to be was liked. Deep down there was this feeling of not being accepted by one another. So we had to do what others were doing to be and feel accepted. But we were just covering over what we truly are. For me, I’m coming to realize that there’s a great deal of strength and other positive traits beneath what I was trying to cover over, for the sake of being loved by another.
So If I’m Likable, Why Don’t I Feel it?
It took me a long time to realize this. And I had to do a lot of internal cleaning in order to get to a place where I could see the patterns of wanting to be accepted. From what I can tell, and why I didn’t realize sooner that I wasn’t feeling liked or belonging was for two reasons. Because I was so busy chasing the good times, and searching for external validation from friends and family. I was blinded to who I really was, outside of the bars and drinking, but also the show I was putting on to be liked.
We were so busy avoiding what we were uncomfortable with in ourselves by seeking others approval, that we didn’t realize that we weren’t taking care of our most basic needs for self esteem or feelings of self acceptance. We also didn’t have healthy connections with ourselves or each other. For me, this extended to both family and friends. No shared responsibilities, no facing hardships together and coming out stronger in the end by making healthy choices and building strong bonds. It felt as though we were on our own, together, but alone. The foundation of our relationships were built on the times when we would drink to avoid the work of living our lives, by connecting with one another with kindness.
Being Cruel & Severed Connection
But what is most disheartening is, that we were intentionally mean to one another. This worked to erode what little connections we had. And feeling as though we had to do everything on our own was a given. Because asking for help was seen as a weakness. This lead to the term “martyr” being tossed around often and liberally in my family. And we all made it well known that we resented feeling as though we had to do it all alone. This was not a healthy way to build strong and lasting bonds. Or a way to feel liked or lovable. Not to mention how incredibly self-righteous and arrogant we all were acting.
Clinging to Belonging & Just Surviving
So what held us together if we were so consistently mean to one another? What was it that made us likable enough to want to be around each other? We were so desperate to feel belonging, that we were grasping onto whatever form of acceptance we could find. One of my first apartments is a good example of the desperation to be accepted in action. When I moved in, I never actually had a conversation with my friends who were living in the apartment. I just moved in and we never talked about. And what I moved into wasn’t even a bedroom! It was a pass through from the kitchen to the living room.
And this is in no way a judgement on us at that time and place in our lives. I was so focused on surviving, not being homeless, that I was clinging to whatever form of belonging I could find. Even if I had to force it from somebody. Along with trying to survive, for me, came an apathy towards how I was living. Surviving was priority one. And that’s not to say that we didn’t have some good times while we were together. But this was no way to live my best life by a long shot. And I wouldn’t wish the situation I was in on anybody else either.
Waking Up From Not Feeling Liked
Tara Brach describes this way of being as, in a trance. This makes a lot of sense. Because when you’re in the trance, AKA survival mode, it’s hard to see anything outside of how to survive. Kind of like tunnel vision. You have one focus because that’s all that matters.
Brene Brown’s research on hustling for approval is another apt way to describe how we were living. We were just so scared to be our vulnerable, emotional selves around each other, due to all the scarring from past relational wounds, that we numbed out all of our emotions. To scared to get close, but also to be alone. So fear, and being numb by way of drinking, were the binding forces behind most of our connections. This is also what stopped us from feeling likable or belonging.
So if fear is what’s holding us back from feeling connected, how do we drop the fear and be our whole, vulnerable selves around each other? That’s the trick. You have to feel your way through it. Thaw out the numbness and feel the fear as it is. And unfortunately there aren’t any shortcuts or easy ways to do this. The way out is most definitely through. Feeling the uncertainty and vulnerability, the fear, all the emotions we’ve been avoiding in the first place. Allow them to all reside in us at once. This is how we begin to feel lovable again. But we need to go slow. Otherwise trauma ensues.
How to Feel Uncomfortable, Vulnerable & Uncertain
I’ll say it again, this is difficult work. As a friend of mine used to say, “it’s no easy” (thanks Melba : ). And she was right. After all, I was spending great amounts of energy and resources trying to avoid all of these difficult emotions. I’ve been thinking about it some lately and I believe I was avoiding them because feeling unpleasant emotions, in a way, feels like a betrayal.
The uncertainty and fear were caused at the hands of my caregivers while I was being abused and neglected. So there was that betrayal to come to accept. But also too, that I was capable of producing these difficult emotions. The ones that had the effect of making me feel as though I was my own abuser in a way. That these emotions were inherently a part of my being. And that I could be that terrified. I could be fearfully uncertain. This is what lead to me trying to numb these difficult emotions. Feeling as though I was betraying myself.
But as my therapist once told me, “you can’t just numb one emotion, if you do, you numb them all”. And she couldn’t have been more correct. When I was drinking large amounts of alcohol and caffeine, I only really felt two emotions. Either feeling totally relaxed, or riddled with fear and anxiety. There was no nuance of emotional diversity. I was living very much in a, black and white emotional world. So How did I unthaw?
Unthawing the Difficult Emotions
Something switched in me around the time I left my ex-wife. I thought I had fell in love with another woman. But what I was really recognizing were the similarities we shared and that she seemed to accept me unconditionally. Something I had been looking for since my parents abandoned me. I didn’t understand what I had had with my then wife. But I was emotionally stunted and unable of reciprocating love in an emotionally mature way.
But in all honesty, I don’t think that either woman I was involved with at the time, my then wife or the woman I left her for, was able to either. We all had our own versions of what I was going through. The difference was, my choices affected three lives for the worse. Something I’m not proud of. But this was also when I began to live my own life. By taking charge of what was happening in it.
I was so used to letting things happen to me that I was leaving the job of living my life up to whomever would step in and take up the task. I had to thaw from this trance of being completely submissive, to being intentional about what I was doing to move my life forward. Exercise and running were some of the first ways I was becoming intentionally in charge of my life. Along with meditation and listening to Tara Brach’s Dharma talks, I was beginning to understand that I was still very much a child in the ways I was living.
Okay, so as I said in the beginning of this article, I was definitely not able to get to everything in 2,000 words. Next week I’ll be posting more about the ways I’ve woken from the trance of living the subdued life and started living a life with more focus and direction. Until then, peace, and thanks for reading : )