“It’s No Easy”, Sitting With The Difficult Emotions

Learning to Stay

This is something I have very little experience with. I’ve just started feeling my emotions again after running from them for so long, I had forgotten what they felt like. I used a lot of different modalities to run, among them being, pornography, alcohol, eating and just plain being mean to others. If a difficult emotion came up such as fear, anxiety or sadness, it was probably a safe bet that I was using something to avoid it. And as my old co-worker and friend Melba would say, “it’s no easy”. And she’s right.

Running from my emotions was not healthy. I saved up these difficult emotions until I released them in unhealthy ways as well. Anger for example was something I would hold onto and release in the form of cutting insults and condescending remarks. If you’re reading this and I’ve done or said something hurtful to you, let me apologize. I’m so sorry. I had no idea what I was doing.

This is something I’ve been skirting the edges of for a while because I’m not sure it is really who I wanted to be. Not in a way where I’m trying to defer how I treated others by saying my intentions were good, but I don’t think I ever wanted to be, or be known as, mean. Or maybe more pertinent, bad-ass and callous.

I think what was so confusing for me was, that the more often I was mean to others, the more I felt bad about myself. I thought by acting superior to others, I would somehow be above the feelings of self-doubt and insecurity. But I was riddled with anxieties and the fear of not belonging. Which seems strange looking back because I was pushing everybody away with who I was acting as, what did I expect would happen? And all this because I was to afraid to stay in the difficult feelings.

Difficult Feelings: What Are They?

I imagine the difficult emotions are the same for everybody. The fear, the distrust and anxiety. The anger and the hate. The shame and guilt. We all feel them, but what makes them unique to our situation?

When I think about it, it doesn’t make a lot of sense that we don’t have a single way to handle these emotions that everybody is feeling. We’ve been dealing with them for so long that it seems someone should have found a way to handle “that” emotion, whatever it is. But the reason this is the case, I believe is, that everybody has a different origin story for their difficult emotional stories, their narratives.

What’s Your Story?

I believe that everybody has an original source and situation for where their pain comes from. We aren’t born mean or looking to harm others. It’s something that’s learned, passed around from hurt person to hurt person. Just as the old adage says, “hurt people, hurt people”. I believe the source of our hurt comes from our initial, or most repeated infraction on our fragile selves.

This could come in the form of a constant stream of criticism from a care-giver. Or from years of emotional and physical neglect or abuse. Maybe one or more traumatic events happened through out our lives. Wherever the source comes from, the result is the same. We’re left with difficult emotions to process and feel our way through.

And if we’re not taught to handle or process these emotions using strong and healthy resources, the outcome usually isn’t good. I had picked up my care-givers’ tools for dealing with difficult feelings, the short list I listed above. But I wasn’t actually dealing with anything. These were the ways I was running from what would eventually catch up to me and lay me low without warning. I was only covering over what I didn’t want to come to terms with by pleasure seeking.

So when I was in a situation where I felt as though I were being judged, usually socially or with those closest to me, I drank. This helped to numb my experience of what was happening around me, giving me a false sense of confidence that I used to judge others in hurtful ways. I wasn’t constantly living in a state of fear or anxiety, or of consistent judgements of others, but I was spending an awful lot of time there. And that is not a health head space to be in.

Acting superior to others was another way of disconnecting from others and the possibility of being hurt by them. It was also something that was handed down to me by my caregivers. We had a sense of entitlement that was beyond reproach. God only knows why because we were just as flawed as everybody else, only we felt as though we were “better” in some way than what was happening around us.

I cringe a little now thinking about it, but understand the enormous amount of insecurity we were all feeling. Because when your self-worth hinges on one facet such as, how good you look naked, then being loved and excepted is an all or nothing condition. And that is a terrifying place to be, especially if you’re being judged by your family in this way. So with so much working against us, how do we begin to change the ways we are acting in order to stay and feel through what we’ve been running from?

So You Know Your Story, Now What?

Now that you’ve looked at some of the ways you were treated, which may have brought you to try and avoid the difficult emotions that were the result of said treatment, the question then is, where do we go from here? Running hasn’t worked for me, so the natural solution I came up with was, to stop the evasive tactics. I.e. the bad habits I picked up, then I could start the work of changing the ways I handled myself by acting superior or being liberal with my anger in condescending ways.

Social Pressure and Fear

For me, being in social settings was something that triggered a great deal of insecurity in me. I was so roundly rejected by my care-givers that the thought of being in a room with them while they pulled me apart like rabid animals feasting on a carcass, flooded me with emotions of anxiety and insecurities of not belonging and questioning if I was even loved. If they even could love was something I’m coming to terms with now.

And when feelings of fear mixed with the thoughts that I was somehow offensive to my care-givers just by being in their presence were some of my first social cues, I would there after find myself questioning if I was even wanted wherever I went. I was followed by a pervasive sense of self doubt in every social setting I found myself in, never quite feeling as though I belonged.

This was usually where I would pick up a drink and throw loudly spoken opinions around. Numbing the fear while keeping those at a distance by belittling them and trying to make myself seem superior. This did not work however and I found myself feeling more and more anxious the more I used these tactics to try and feel better about myself. So how did I stop the cycles or fear and anxiety in connecting with others?

Change What You Do To Become Who You Are

For me, I had to take stock of where I was in my life and how I got to feeling as anxious as I was feeling around others. I should mention that I still have feelings of anxiety in relationships sometimes, but not the overwhelming amount I used to. Leading to me having to drink my way through them.

The first thing I did was separate myself from the social scene I was a part of. I took a little time off from the people that I had been spending most of my time with and evaluated my relationships with and to them. How had I been acting around them and they me? Did I feel worse after hanging out? When we were together, what was the content of the ways we were connecting? Were they mean? Was I mean? Were we cutting others apart to feel superior?

Or were we building each other up? Being a support for the other when dealing with difficult situations? Did we share our hopes and plans for the future with one another? Did we say and do thoughtful things for each other? Sadly the answer to most of these questions were definitely not. Something needed to change.

Your Habits Matter

Once I took stock of my relationships, I slowly released myself back into the wild, one friend at a time. I got in touch with my old friends and started rebuilding my relationships with them. Only this time I used a new set of tools to connect with them.

Listening was probably the most important of these tools, inwardly and to others. In my past relationships, as I said above, I was loudly throwing my opinions up on whomever was around me. This did not leave me with the ability to listen to what others were experiencing. But I was also surrounding myself with similarly minded people. Loudly validating whatever venom the other was spitting. This was something I learned from my care-givers as a child watching them do the same.

So I stopped forcing my opinion on others and in the process changed some of my views to be more inclusive and kind. This was an added bonus to slowing down enough to listen to what the other was experiencing, but also listening to what was coming up in me. This is the most direct way to learn what the other person is like. I was asking more questions, about their likes, dislikes, what their experiences are and stories they had to tell. This may seem like a basic friendship building block, but to me these were all new and exciting lessons.

I made it a point to share well thought out opinions and advice when asked. Instead of telling the person what was “right” according to me, which was usually a blanket statement about how someone is, or group of people are or how they’re out to get us in some way, I was listening to and responding from my honest experiences. If someone had a question about finance, instead of me going on a rant about how the richest 1% are trying to control the world, I would ask what the specifics of their situation are, listen inwardly to use my experience with debt and the info I had from the research I’ve done for myself and give them an honest evaluation of what I think would be a viable plan.

And I slowly did this with more and more people, until I found myself surrounded with friends that I truly felt a connection with. And it’s important to say that not everybody I reached out to was in a place to be able to connect again. We are just in different places and that’s something that I needed to accept if I’m rebuilding my burned bridges from past relationships. Not everybody is in a place to want to connect again. And that’s okay. There will be more people willing to step up and be a part of our newly renovated lives.

Just from writing this blog, people have reached out to me that I never thought I would talk to again. And we’re better for it as well : ) Which leads me to another bonus of shifting our habits. Expect the unexpected!

And Be Patient

I’ve only covered a small section of the feelings that may be difficult to stay with. I’ll be talking more about these in other posts. But just know that this is a practice and something that takes a bit of time to feel comfortable with. It took me a great deal of practice to get to where I am and I’m still learning how to stay when it gets tough. There’s a phrase in the meditation community that I learned from Tara Brach that goes, “sit, stay, heal”.

I think is a nice way to think of the practice of, not only meditation if you are practicing, but also learning to handle emotions. Especially if you weren’t given much guidance in this area. So be patient, you’ll eventually get to where you’ll feel most at home in even the most difficult emotion. Peace, : ) thanks for reading.

Image credits: “creativecommons | incense burner” by *AndrewYoungPhoto* (writing_with_glass) is marked with CC BY 2.0.

Living Your Life: Relationships, Friendships

Oh man, this was a rough lesson to learn. With so many different types of friendships, if you’re not shown or told how to navigate them, it can be a confusing task to manage on your own. Friendships can be especially confusing if you’re not used to being in healthy forms of them. My motto through my teenage years and twenties was, “bridges are for burning”. And not surprisingly, I ended up with few people I could call my friends after I finally pushed everyone away. I’m still amazed that the few people who actually did stick around, even through my neglecting our relationship to the point of not talking to anyone I knew for years, decided to stand by me. And to them, I am forever grateful. It must have been no easy task to endure the petty and neglectful ways in which I managed my friendships. And if anyone is reading this who is my friend, thank you, I’m sorry, and you are truly great friends.

But I also didn’t have many stable friends growing up. This was mostly due to my caregivers not being able to model what a healthy friendship was, or the lifestyle that would lead to lasting and loving relationships. In one case, one of my caregivers had no close friends save one, and on the other end of the spectrum, my others had many, but were rancorous in their judgements of them. I was stuck between complete isolation or being surrounded by rowdy and rancorous pettiness. These were polarizing ways of seeing the world and a very confusing place to be. So the few friendships I had, I held onto for dear life. As a way to escape the chaos that I was surrounded by. This was unhealthy too, as it set the standard for me to depend on the few relationships I kept, too much.

And this fear based way of maintaining relationships, as you’ve probably guessed, was unsustainable. The only people I was in touch with regularly were friends found for me by my then wife. I spent most of my time by myself, drinking and playing videogames. I was avoiding opening up to others due to the considerable amount of distrust I learned to have of others and by the time I was 11, I had experience the loss of a loved one to cancer while my parents were divorcing due to the stress of the event. I lost both my best friends due to more unfortunate events in their lives, and the slow decline and neglect of my family left me on my own. On top of the trauma I experienced, I had lost everybody I loved and was left completely alone to handle all of these traumatic emotions. This is and was a lot to handle for anybody, let alone a child of 11.

So I learned to distrust those closest to me, my caregivers and support network. This was the model I would later use to navigate all of my relationships, a.k.a. tactfully avoiding any type of close contact with others, especially those close in, so as not to get hurt again when they eventually decided to turn on me. This lead to, as I’ve said above, lots of beer drinking and video game playing.

When I was younger, the types of friends who I would drink and play video games with were a good time. But as we aged and life progressed, the more video games I played, the more disconnected I became from my life and the relationships in it. And this isn’t a soapbox for railing against video games or the people that play them. They can be a fun distraction and intellectually stimulating. Even bring out a sense of creativity. But I was definitely using them to avoid people. In fact, as if I were trying to tell myself as much, I was playing and replaying Zelda’s, “Ocarina of Time”. The original Zelda being the game I first played before and when all the traumatic events happened in my young life, and the premise of the latter game, “Ocarina of Time” is that of Link, the main character of the series, going back and forth through time, from his younger self to his adult self, in order to do battle with monsters from his past and present! Talk about meta! Art imitates life maybe 😉

So I managed to create a sort of comfortable cocoon to insulate myself from my role in my relationships. I say sort of comfortable because it took an immense amount of energy to keep myself so disconnected. The right amount of vice mixed with the right amount of avoidance. It was a balancing act for sure. But when I came to, I realized I had almost nothing in the way of authentic connections with friends. I was alone, and thankfully it took me a while to get scared, otherwise I’m not sure I’d have been able to handle the reality of my situation crashing down all at once.

So when I did come to, after my divorce and ending of the relationship that was the catalyst for my divorce, I had one close friend who remained loyal to me, (thanks Jon) and my parents. That was about the extent of those I had to support me. It was a sad situation to be in. Luckily I had taken to hiking which helped me to reconnect with myself a little and develop some healthy habits. This would later give me something to do with those I was trying to reconnect with. Because I first had to reconnect with myself, befriend myself. I had spent so much time running from others and burning the bridges behind me, that I could barely trust myself that I wouldn’t do that to me. This is an ongoing process of getting to know myself and trust that I’ll treat myself with respect and love. It’s also not an easy task.

This is where I discovered what my likes and dislikes are. Why I do certain things and what things mean to me. Such as certain songs, my relationship to my style and how I want to be seen. The ways I nourish myself and the care I provide for myself with meals, grooming habits and caring for my surroundings. These were the foundations of me coming to trust myself and that I have my best interests at heart. Tara Brach calls some of what I’m talking about as resources. As example, some of mine are burning candles, drinking herbal tea and listening to music. Basically whatever brings you a sense of comfort and ease. Once I was able to make acquaintance with myself again, and gain some trust in myself, I was then able to extent that practice to others.

I started out small. Like I said, I only had one friend at the time, so it was important for me to stay loyal and in touch with them. We went for hikes, got coffee and lunch together. And basically just did the normal everyday things I had previously taken for granted. We were friends in highschool and roommates in our twenties, so there was a shared history, but I had only just begun to know him as a person and as my friend. It’s been a good feeling getting to know him again and appreciating him for the person he is.

Then my friend group began to grow. Soon after I started running with an old friend from highschool every week. My other friend got married to an amazing woman and also a brilliant friend. I was also reaching out to people I hadn’t spoken to in years. Some live across the country, others a few towns over. I was amazed at how many of the people I reached out to were responsive and more over, friendly to the idea of being friends. As one friend who I recently reconnected with said, “our younger selves would have bullied our older selves for who we are”. And we were mean back then. But to know that we’ve made the change from bully to responsive and friendly adults is comforting. Knowing that the strength of our empathy and caring is stronger than the anger and bitterness of our past is reassuring more so now then ever.

Now that I’ve reconnected with so many people, and since I’m a list maker, I’ve put down the names of the friends I’m keeping in touch with on a regular basis, and some bullet points on what they’re experiencing or anticipating in the near future. This way I can open up my note and quickly see what they’ve been up to so I can check in with them and see how they’re progressing or offer some support or an ear to listen or maybe go for a walk and vent some frustrations. An example of this in practice is, I know for instance one of my friends is renoing her house. So I’ve created a board on Pinterest with ideas for her backyard living space and shared the board with her. This way we can have an ongoing conversation about what her focus is on.

On the same note, I also keep a list of upcoming plans I have. This way I won’t miss out on spending time with those I’ve been building a relationship with. It’s been helpful to have a place where I can see everything I need to know in one bird’s eye view so I can adjust and respond to those in my life with care and conscientious actions and words. This is where the rubber really meets the road in that mindfully supporting those who support you can build some seriously strong bonds. You’re there when they need you and you know what they’re going through. This is powerful for someone who is really in need of a friend.

I’ve also discovered some friends in strange places as well. I use a meditation app called Insight Timer. After you meditate you have the option of thanking those who’ve meditated while you were meditating. I’ve made a decision to choose six people to thank after every meditation. Four of them respond regularly, two respond every day, and one has become my gratitude partner. I asked them a few weeks ago if they’d like to practice gratitude with me since we were already kind of doing it by thanking each other every day. They said yes and we’ve been gratitude buddies ever since. It’s been nice knowing that I have something to look forward to in the mornings, something positive to read.

It’s been an intense but amazing journey and one definitely worth the undertaking. So if you’ve found yourself in a similar situation as I was in, do not give up hope! Reach out to old friends, you may be surprised with how they respond. Start some conversations with those closest to you. Work is a great place for this, seeing as how you are already around a select few people on a daily basis. Join an online community, like Reddit. There are loads of people out there looking to connect over shared interests. Find a place to volunteer. This way you can match your passions with your connections and do good work along the way. I met one of my friends at a grocery store. They worked there and went there almost three times a week. We’re both ginger so we hit it off immediately! And a word of advice, stay open. You never know where you are going to meet your next friend. Peace : ) and thanks for reading.

Image Credits: “friendship” by bekassine… is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

Watering Plants, Watering Friendships: How Caring for Plants Help Grow Friendships

I was watering my plants a few weeks ago when I thought about how I hadn’t checked in with some of my friendships for a while. The thought seemed odd at first, but then I realized that the feeling I got when I checked my plants, made sure they were watered, fed, had enough light and weren’t visible stressed, is sort of close to the feeling I get when I think about checking in with my friends.

Checking in Builds Strong Roots for Friendships to Thrive

I use an app to help me keep my plants’ watering and feeding schedules on track. It’s on my phone so the days they need something, a notification will pop up. This lets me know it’s time for some plant love.

I’ve also come to realize I kind of do the same thing with my friends. There’s also an app for that : ) On my commute home, or on my weekends, I’ll send them a text to see how they’re doing. Or what they’re up to. Short conversations that let them know I’m thinking about how they’re doing. To let them know, as an old coworker of mine put it, “I’m here, I care.”

Which is not unlike watering my plants. And that’s not to say that I’m caretaker for them in any way, but the shared space we hold together is one that needs tending to and feeding.

Friendships Build Community

I’m currently in the process of building shelves for my father and step-mother. I told a friend of mine the plan to build out the pantry area with shelving and he offered to help me with the project. One of his hobbies is wood working so he enjoys the process of creating something and bring a project together.

I enjoy building and the designing aspect of these projects as does he. So coming together to draw up plans and set times, borrow tools and bounce ideas off of each other is like watering, feeding and creating a comfortable environment for my plants. A space we both enjoy and are building something literally and figuratively together.

Finding Comfort in Our Surrounding Community

The above situation reminds me of how I recently moved some of my plants around that weren’t doing so well. One was getting too much sun and needed to be in more humid conditions. While others weren’t in the optimal space for their lighting needs. I changed their positions in the room and they seem to be doing better in their new environment.

I saw that they needed a change, responded to their needs and am enjoying the new growth that is coming from the change. This type of attuning to the plants needs is also something we do with our friends as well.

I’ve recently gotten into the habit of keeping a list of my friends on my phone and things to keep in mind. Shared interests or things my friends have told me they’re doing. For instance a friend of mine recently told me he’s been teaching himself how to cook. He also said specifically that he was into sauces and roasted veggies right now. So when I search for recipes to cook for the week, I’m keeping an eye out for something that looks like he may enjoy.

Finding Shared Common Ground

I like to cook, he’s just learning how. It just makes sense to build a connection in this way. But this way of connecting didn’t always come naturally for me. There’s a line from a song by Iron and Wine called “Sacred Vision”, that sums up how I used to feel about friendships, “forgiveness is fickle when trust is a chore”.

Keeping people at a distance was something I learned early as a survival tactic. When your trust is abused by so many that are supposed to be caring and loving support, it becomes necessity to keep people at a distance to feel safe. But distance erodes connection and it takes a great will of emotional strength to learn how to reconnect. To be vulnerable enough to allow people back into your life again.

Being Vulnerable is Difficult Work

And I wish I could tell you I found an easy way to be vulnerable around others. It’s tough enough already, but when our trust has been abused, it’s excruciating. All I can tell you from my experience is to go slow. It takes time to heal the old wounds while learning to be vulnerable at the same time. It is definitely difficult and painful, but possible and worth the effort.

I started by texting people. Reaching out to old friends. Some responded, some didn’t. But I’ve been able to slowly practice being a friend again while also setting healthy boundaries. Something I never learned how to do growing up because my care-givers never learned how themselves. I no longer find myself lost in a relationship, acting the part I feel I should play. I’m more me in my relationships with healthy boundaries and it feels more gratifying than before.

So keep on watering your plants. Text that friend you haven’t spoken with in a while. Keep those friendships in your life open and tended to. If it feels like it’s too much to keep them open, let them be for a bit, undisturbed. Take the space for yourself you need. And when you feel up to it, invite someone in again. It’ll be tough at times but it’s worth it. So be brave, who knows what may grow. Peace :] and thanks for reading.

Image credits: “Water Plant in Garden – Museum at Penn” by natematias is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

Updated: 7/31/22

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