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.

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

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

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

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

When Your Family Turns Their Back on You

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

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

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

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

Not Being Able to Ask For Help = Making Poor Choices

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

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

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

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

Fear of Connecting, to Ourselves and Others

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Getting in Touch With Yourself, Building the Bridge Inwardly

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

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

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

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

Note to Self, Stop Running

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

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

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

The Future!

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

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

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

The Holidays are Supposed to be Fun: How to Ease Some Self-care into Your Busy Holiday Schedule

With so many responsibilities and events happening around the holidays, and with your focus being so intent on what you can do for others, it’s easy to let your own needs slip through the cracks. But what good are we to others if we haven’t taken care of ourselves? That’s why it’s especially important to remember to take a break in the midst of the holiday chaos, to recharge your batteries. A little strategic self-care can go a long way during these times of increased stress. Let’s see how.

Lower Light Lowered Energy

As the daylight hours get shorter, so does our natural rhythm. It may just be me, but when the days aren’t as long, it feels as though there’s less time in the day to get done what we need to do. And with so many extra responsibilities around the holidays, this can feel overwhelming.

I’m usually up before the sun, and most days, I’m leaving work right around the time the sun sets. Not being out during the daylight hours has definitely had an adverse affect on my emotional states. Especially the weeks leading up to Thanksgiving. With the menu planning, work schedule and logistics of how to get what, where, it all takes a toll.

And with Christmas just around the corner, for me, time can just as easily slip away in December as it has in November. So what’re we to do in the face of all these responsibilities? For me, coming up with a plan is a priority. Otherwise I wouldn’t follow through with many of my thoughts or ideas on gifts to get and meals to cook and people to see. So here’s how I deal with the increased amount of responsibility this holiday season, and during other times of high stress.

Make a Plan

And follow through! When you’re scheduling your time during December and for the new year, take a look at how thin you’re spreading yourself. Did you pick up extra responsibilities at work? Did you say you would host a gathering or attend multiple gatherings? How much time did you leave for just yourself? When is your down time and what do you plan to do to recharge?

For me, work gets a little crazier around the holidays. So making sure I stick to my self-care routines is important. One way I practice self-care is by making a special meal for myself once a week. Also, going to my weekly in studio yoga class is important as well.

Sometimes I feel a little guilty. As though I could be squeezing more tasks into my schedule if I skipped yoga for a few weeks. Or ordered takeout instead of cooking my self-care meal. But pushing myself to the point of exhaustion or cutting corners on what brings me joy is no way to live life. It’s not sustainable for one, and two, Stephen King wrote a few novels about this which should be a clear red flag all its own, “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.”

So before we flip to ax murderer status, let’s try and work some self-care into our schedules. A good place to start with is: what do you already do that brings you a sense of joy and peace? For me, sipping on some herbal tea is a good start, maybe while burning some beeswax candles. A good foot soak is up there as well. With some essential oils and bath salts, it’s something that’s especially relaxing.

And it being the gift giving season, why not work yourself into your gifting list this year? I plan on buying myself a massage before the season’s over. So I have something to look forward to in-between work responsibilities and family and friend engagements. It doesn’t have to be much, but a little self-care goes a long way to keeping your mental and emotional health in the best shape possible amid the stress.

Shopping for Others: It’s Not a Competition

I know when I’m shopping for others, it can feel like I have to find the perfect gift. Also, match whatever the other person is potentially going to get for me. What I’m trying to keep in mind this year is, that gift giving isn’t about the money spent on the person.

Sure, I set a budget for my gift giving plans during the season. But if I come in a few dollars under or over budget, that just means that I found the right gift for less, or I need to reign in my spending elsewhere. The dollar value I put on my gifts does not match the value I place on the relationship. This is what’s most important to remember, and helps to alleviate some of the stress that’s wrapped up in gift giving.

Also, understanding and accepting that the value someone else puts on gift giving does not have to be equal to, or in line with our value system. They can exist independently and not have an affect on our relationship for the worse.

So if someone doesn’t like the gift you got them, or they went all out and you kept it on the simpler side, try not to take it so personal. This can be difficult for sure, but the old adage still rings true, even after all these ages. It truly is the thought that counts. So try not to worry about it by remembering that the other person’s reaction isn’t a reflection of your intention. Just keep in mind that we’re all celebrating each other, not the gifts we bought for one another.

Ask For Help

Don’t forget that you’re not alone! Depending on what your responsibilities look like, you could ask those close in to lend a hand. For example if you’ve found yourself buried at work, don’t be afraid to ask a colleague or your boss for some assistance. I work in the food industry, so when I get behind, there are immediate consequences. But regardless of which industry we work in, being overwhelmed with work looks the same in every situation.

For example, a family member of mine works in the tech industry. They find themselves overwhelmed, usually in the beginning of the month, when they are inundated with paperwork. They were also, until recently, managing the work loads of other employees. When they understood how much they were doing, they had some conversations with their supervisor and the end result was, they hired another person to take some of their responsibilities.

When we’re behind at the place I work, we see who we can bring in to give us a hand with the prep list. Sometimes it’s a person from outfront, or maybe another person in the kitchen that works a different shift than I do. This way, our prep-list gets taken care of, while maximizing the resources and people we already have, only from somewhat unlikely places.

In both instances, when the work proved to be too much for those allocated the tasks, we both asked for help with finishing the tasks. There was less stress on the shoulders of the people who were tasked with the work, which means the work was done with more care. Win, win for everybody involved. It’s also worth mentioning that nobody does their best work when they are under large amounts of stress. It’s almost always beneficial to ask for help.

You Don’t Have to do Everything

In the same vein of asking for help in the workplace, it’s also good to know that you can ask for help in other areas of your life as well. For a very long time, I thought as though I had to do everything on my own and I had to do it perfect. Or in my book it wasn’t worth doing. This lead to a lot of disconnection and hurt feelings.

I was being insensitive to those who were earnestly looking to help me while they watched me struggle with what I was taking on. This directly lead to me alienating myself from those who were looking out for my best interests. I inflicted a lot of damage to many of my relationships this way. This is something that I’m not proud of, but also a valuable lesson learned. I don’t have to do it all, and I don’t have to do it alone.

Luckily, I was able to do some damage control and salvage most of my friendships. But recognizing when to reign in my foolish pride, take a step back and honestly evaluate my situation, and recognize when I need help, has been a huge step forward in being and staying connected with others again. Not to mention being in a happier frame of mind more frequently.

And it takes work. As I’ve said above, an honest evaluation of where you are and what you need is the first step to taking care of yourself and those around you. But it’s a difficult one, especially if you’re like me and let pride take the wheel.

One way this could be practiced is, if you’ve planned a holiday party for some friends and family, ask your S.O. or best friend if you can coordinate the logistics of the gettogether, together. Pick a night to get a few beers, some dinner and plan out the details of what you’re about to undertake. Maybe get a few more people involved in the planning. After all, more perspectives can bring a greater scope and depth of ideas to your planning. Making the event all the more satisfying in the end.

You could also have fun in the process, and build closer and tighter bonds with your friends and partners as you go. After all, this is what we’re looking for when we plan these types of events in the first place. To bring those we love, closer together, and create a sense of shared comradery, of joy, happiness and love. And this is the most basic type of self-care. Caring for yourself, then sharing that care with others while others do the same as well. Like being held in a field of caring.

It may sound a little cheesy, a little too Hallmarky, but who doesn’t have a fond memory of when your friend did that crazy thing at that party that one time. These are the moments that we hold close, that help us remember the good times when we’re stressed and in over our heads.

And Remember to Have Fun

And don’t forget, these times are about celebrating the good. We’re literally gathering together during the holidays to remember that life is fun. Sure there’s work to be done, and it isn’t always one big party. But there are moments of tenderness and joy. Happiness and love. Ease and serenity. These are all states that are worth celebrating and better when celebrated and shared together.

So remember, when you’re feeling stressed this season, make a plan. Take an honest evaluation of where you are at and what you need. Keep in mind that the material manifestations of you’re good intentions are enough. And don’t forget that not only are you able to ask for help when you feel overwhelmed, but it’s advisable, and will probably lead to building happier, stronger and lasting bonds. And don’t forget to take the time for yourself that you need. It’s okay to do something nice for yourself, even while you’re taking care of others. Good luck this holiday season. Peace, and thanks for reading : )

Image Credits: “Holiday plans” by jose.jhg is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 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

Food and Family: How Cooking Together can Build Tighter Familial Bonds

It’s no secret, food brings people together. Culturally it creates bonds and even some good natured disagreements. I’ve been cooking for most of my professional career. But it wasn’t until recently that I really started cooking for myself. If you’ve read my post on self-care Sundays, you’ll know that food was an area that I neglected for a long time. What I hadn’t realized though, was that this was also true for my entire family.

This seems crazy to me now, knowing that most all my caregivers were involved in the food service industry to some degree. One was working in it and one had gone to cooking school!

But the more I thought about it, the more sense it made. If you have an insecurity around food it stands to reason that you would find a way to be immersed in it. After all, eating is one of the things we need to do to survive. If we experience abuse or neglect around this basic need, things can get really out of hand.

As I’ve said above, I know this to be true from my experience. Cooking for me as a career choice was a way to be surrounded by a source of nutrition so I didn’t have to worry about feeding myself. But this was no way to live.

I was just trying to survive at the time. I was barely able to take care of myself, and all I had down at that point in life were the very basics, just enough to get by. And I found that a lot of people are drawn to the food industry in some variation of this same reason.

When you work in the industry, the bonds you make can be pretty tight. There was definitely a sense of family when I showed up to work, or family as I had known it. With the hustle and pressure that came with the dinner time rush, to the beers we drank together while cleaning up, it definitely felt like gathering for a holiday or some special event like a graduation.

And while I have fond memories of working in the food industry, the ways I was living were not sustainable. And I imagine it was this way for my caregivers as well. I was certainly emulating their behaviors in the ways I was living. And it isn’t a great stretch of the imagination to think that they were experiencing what I was at some level. Another way to put it, the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.

Even more to the point, when I did gather with my caretakers, there was such a sense of urgency paired with lots of drinking. The same atmosphere that was present in most kitchen jobs I worked in. We were creating the same type of perpetual party that was the culture in the restaurant scene. And if it wasn’t sustainable in the restaurant, it definitely was less so at home.

I remember many mornings where my caretakers would be cleaning up after the night of rancorous drinking. Where there were as many cans as there were loud opinions being tossed around, figuratively. This was a strange place to grow up in as a child, and one I wouldn’t wish for anyone to experience. I’m not trying to imply that my caregivers are bad people. They didn’t know any differently and more to the point it’s how they grew up. But it was a scary place to be as a vulnerable child to be sure.

More recently, I’ve been cooking for myself as a way to care for my nutritional needs. Something I was never taught. Now I am coming to enjoy the process of bring my meals together. I usually batch cook recipes for the week. I’ll pick two to three recipes to cook, pick a day to go grocery shopping and cook my meals for the next two weeks all in one night.

I usually light a basil scented candle and put some of the more ambient lighting on in my kitchen. I clean out my fridge and gather my ingredients, ready my recipes on my computer, put some soft music on in the background and go through my recipes one at a time. Making sure that I take as much time as I need so as not to feel rushed or pressured in anyway. If it’s in the winter, I choose recipes that utilize the oven to generate more heat in the kitchen, to create a more cozy, comfortable setting. I also like drinking a few cups of herbal tea while cooking in the colder months. And in the summer, more salads and dishes with raw veggies. As well as some lemonade or iced herbal teas as a refreshing change for the warmer season.

The ease that I’ve brought to this aspect of how I take care of myself has become a great resource for me. I feel safe, calm and at ease in the kitchen. Instead of insecure, a bit of fear and the uncertainty I used to feel. What I realize now, was I was carving a space out for myself to feel safe, in control. I was so used to having almost every aspect of my life being so out of control that I literally didn’t feel safe anywhere. Once I established a foothold for safety in the kitchen, I padded my kitchen and cooking time with loads of resources in order to bring that sense of calm, ease and comfort I was working so hard to cultivate there. So after I made my kitchen and meal prep routine a resource, I thought to myself, “how can I share this with others?”

I’ve been having dinner with my parents more often lately. It’s been good, but I’ve always kind of had the feeling that something was missing from the experience. We typically would gather around the T.V. after serving ourselves from the kitchen. We’d talk a little, but the T.V. had always been the focal point while we idoly chatted about random events. Nothing too personal or in-depth. Just glancing the surface of what was happening around us and speaking in broad generalizations.

We never shared cooking duties. One person usually picked the recipes and the other would cook while we waited for the meal to be ready. It was very mechanical and without much feeling. We were eating to survive and not enjoying the process of coming together to share a meal. Then one day while I was making dinner, or cleaning up, I had the idea to make dinner feel more like a family event as opposed to just shoveling food in our mouths while watching the television.

So it was a natural transition that I thought to take the way that I’ve turned my meal prep into a self-care routine, and bringing those same principles to our family dinners. I thought that this way, we can practice taking care of ourselves and one another together, while also bringing an element of peacefulness to something that, for me, used to be a hectic and sometimes scary place to be.

Also, we’ve never cooked a meal together before. This was also something that kind of blew my mind. So as well as practicing self-care, we’ll be growing tighter bonds with one another and the food we’re creating. I suggested that we take turns picking the recipes. Each week someone can choose, and we’d all come together in a thoughtful way to create something we’ll all enjoy. The idea landed and we planned to come together the next Friday night to cook a meal I chose.

The recipe was chana masala. A simple dish I enjoy that I had just found a new recipe for. I was definitely nervous about the night leading up to dinner. I was really taking a risk by opening myself up and sharing something that has become such a resource for me. I felt vulnerable, uncertain, scared and a little on edge.

The reason I felt so unsure was that most of my childhood memories around meal times were filled with lots of angry yelling and shattered dinner wear. I knew that things were different now. We had all mellowed our tempers since those early meals together, but there was still a place inside of me that felt as though it could happen again. That I wasn’t safe.

As the time came nearer to begin cooking, we all gathered in the kitchen and readied ourselves for the event. I made myself a cup of tea and went around gathering the ingredients we would need for the dish. My father gathered some utensils and started in on prepping the veggies and my mother began gathering and measuring out the spices and herbs we needed. We all took to our tasks quickly and rigidly with pensive attention.

The atmosphere was tense. As though we’d all been here before, but hadn’t been there for so long that we forgot what to do. It should have been instinctual, but instead we were left with awkward half spoken sentences. Reading and rereading the same directions over and over again. Missing steps, forgetting ingredients, I was using a mortar and pestle to grind chiles, garlic, cilantro and ginger into a paste that took what felt like forever and the closest I came was a wet chunky mess. The lighting was bright and harsh, and the music I tried to play kept turning itself off. It was the opposite of the resource my meal prep had come to mean for to me.

But when I finished washing our dishes and went to the stove to see how the chana was coming along and how the ingredients we had prepped separately had come together, it looked good. It smelled aromatic and was thick and stew like. It was better than I had imagined. And as the meal prep went on, our conversation felt more natural as well.

We found out about how each other’s day’s had gone. My mother just got new glasses and we were discussing the differences she noticed from her old ones as compared to her new ones. My father told me stories about his past, something I know very little about. As I was cleaning the cutting board I asked where my father got it. He couldn’t remember and my mother didn’t know either, but I enjoyed cleaning that board as I always do knowing that’s it’s just always been there.

As we finished cooking our meal, I put the naan I had picked up for the meal in the toaster and my father had gotten some bowls from the cupboard, I felt more at ease. I wasn’t totally comfortable, but it was the start of feeling safe again. As though maybe it was okay to start to trust those I choose to keep company with. This was something I had been notoriously bad at when I was younger.

The friends I had kept in my youth were mean, spiteful and said hurtful things often and without reserve. It truly felt like a sport we were playing. Who could demean the other to the point where someone would break. And of course we all pretended not to be hurt, but we couldn’t feel anything to begin with because we were already so numb. The damage had already been done, the games we were playing were just practice from lessons we learned long ago.

This is what makes building new bonds so scary. Knowing How I used to be in relationship with others, and that I chose to be in those relationships was nothing but self destructive. And what’s more, I’m trying to rebuild some of my relationships with people I originally learned those old lessons from?! It felt a lot like juggling knives. So knowing that I can trust myself enough to create healthy bonds, or at least know what unhealthy relationships and boundaries look like was something I wasn’t wholly sure I was able to do.

But then I realized that I had already done this in some ways. I remember getting together with an old friend somewhere close to both of us. This was a step towards seeing if we were able to stay in touch, keep connected. When we sat down and started talking about old times, some of those same spiteful remarks were popping up in our conversation. It was as though they were poking around the edges, to see how close they could get to my core. To see if they could still walk right in, past security and do whatever they felt without meeting resistance.

Luckily I had established some healthy boundaries for myself. I was not my same old self, the one who would leave themself wide open to be abused in the ways I had been used to, all to feel a sense of belonging. I recognized what was happening and since have kept to my boundaries. And I feel much better for it though it wasn’t easy. I still miss the bonds I made but now recognize just how unhealthy they were.

And with the new bonds I’m creating, there is definitely a sense of mutual respect. We care for one another in that we respect one another’s space and boundaries in ways I wasn’t ever shown before. And that was one of the aspects of making dinner with my father and mother that was so reassuring. That we were all nervous about how we were affecting one another showed me that they were thinking of my wellbeing. And that makes me feel a little more secure in building new bonds with them.

This all seems pretty basic, but if all you know growing up are people without boundaries and saying and doing the most hurtful things to one another, it’s nice to know that you can change the ways you used to be. That there is hope for the future and future relationships. That was something that was definitely missing from my early interactions in all my relationships.

Now that we’ve cooked together once, we plan on making it an on going, weekly event. We ended the night by sharing how we felt and our hopes for the future. It felt more natural than it ever had and I think we all left that night feeling a little more hopeful for our future together.

And it’s something that has made me stronger in my other relationships as well. I went into the next day feeling a little more self confident in communicating to and interacting with other people, knowing that I had people I could rely on. That I had carved out another little space of safety in a world that sometimes feels as uncertain as it did in my youth. A place to go back to when I needed some support and feeling loved.

And all it took was for someone to come up with the idea and bring it into fruition. I am now looking forward to helping them this summer in the vegetable garden, knowing that the meals we’ll be making will be even sweeter using the fresh produce we’ll be harvesting from the yard. I’m also looking forward to helping them with projects around the house.

Helping them build a back porch or patio, a place to gather and enjoy the garden and grilling weather in the summer. A place to eat meals and gather outside. Carving out another place where we can all feel a little safer coming together. With a little luck and some work, maybe we can make the house feel more like our home.

So if you have some family you’re trying to reach out to but aren’t sure how, maybe cooking a meal together would be a good place to start. And if cooking isn’t your thing, find something you are all interested in, start there. Wherever it is, be the one to make the first step. I’ve found that people are almost always going to say yes when you ask them if they want to have a good time.

Usually it just takes someone to make the first step, make the plan. Be that person. You’ll be happy you did. But if it’s something that is still tender, or emotionally raw, go slow. It doesn’t help to rush yourself to try and feel comfortable because you feel you “should” be. Have a plan where you can take care of yourself if the need arises.

I am lucky in that the people I chose to rebuild my relationships with were not only willing to try, but also capable of doing the important work of self-introspection. Being aware of how they feel and how they affecting those around them. This is no easy task for people whom are used to isolating as a form of self protection. And not everybody is able to take to it so willingly.

Don’t be afraid to end your plans if you feel as though your boundaries are being violated. Above I mentioned that I had got together with an old friend who had not changed from our shared unhealthy past. I had ended our meeting early that day, telling them I felt uncomfortable with the way things were going. And now I keep very limited contact with them for this reason.

I was honest with myself, and with them about how I felt my boundaries were being abused, and took care of myself by removing myself from the situation. Also limiting future contact with them, until I am certain I can trust them enough not to violate my boundaries. This is how I’m actively taking care of myself, and building trust in myself in the process.

And it’s not easy. But if you don’t define your boundaries, others are more than willing to define them for you. From work, to romantic relationships, family and friends, if you don’t have a clear idea of how you want to be treated in your relationships, you leave yourself open to having your trust abused as well as many other important aspects of your connections. And it isn’t always the other person’s fault either.

Friends and family aren’t mind readers. What may be a sign of intimacy to one person may be an insult to another. This is why speaking your feelings is so important. When establishing boundaries, especially if you’ve had unhealthy ones before, you need to establish what is and is not okay to do in clear terms. This can be awkward, but however awkward it may feel in the moment, it’s worth it to know that you’ve established your expectations clearly on how you will be treated.

It’s empowering knowing you’re taking care of yourself in this way. And also a good indicator of the other person being trustworthy of being emotional support to you. By actively, not passively setting boundaries, you are building the trust and bonds that will last. If this is something you’ve had difficulty with historically, then it’s a good way to slowly rebuild healthy relationships knowing you have your best interests at heart.

Establishing boundaries, especially with those whom you may have already fallen into unhealthy ways of relating to one another can be tricky. And like anything else, it isn’t easy! This is an area where you will need to bring, and if necessary, cultivate a lot of patients with yourself and others. And it’s important to go slow. There’s no point in rushing into something if you or the other person aren’t ready for the changes. So go slow and keep an open mind, and know that you are good deep down, and worthy of trust. Peace 🙂 be well and thanks for reading.

Image Credits: “Lindell family cooking” by One Tonne Life is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

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