I Want to Be Like Everybody Else, Or Do I? What It Means to Be Yourself

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.

My Music?

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.

My Clothing?

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.

My Trendiness?

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 : )

Image Credits: “You’re Lovable & Worthy of Love” by edenpictures is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Updated: 11/23/22

Finding Belonging: Navigating Feeling Lonely For the Holidays

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

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

How My Past Shaped My Present

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

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

There was usually a smug sense of knowing, of superiority that my caregivers carried about them. And when you’re a child just coming to understand how you affect the world you’re inhabiting, this is more than just a little confusing. Also hard not to take personally. I was second guessing my belonging, how I was seen by others and whether or not what I was doing made those I relied on and trusted, reject me. Like a suspended state of hope, only to be torn down, again and again. I was lonely, isolated and had absolutely no one to talk to. No one to help me to understand what I was experiencing. Fast forward to the pandemic and I had already experienced what others were coming to know well as a heartbreakingly lonely experience. Only for most, theirs was due to a virus.

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

Okay, It’s Hit the Fan, Now What?

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

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

Reliving Old Patterns

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

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

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

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

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

Rebuilding

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

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

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

Something Bigger

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

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

Tick List: Stay Connected

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

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

Taking the Risk

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

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

From Neglected to Safe & Cozy

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

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

Turkey Day

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

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

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

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

Begin With What You Have

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

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

Get Out There

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

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

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

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

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

Updated: 11/9/2022

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