Giving & Taking: When to Draw Boundaries Around How Much of Ourselves We Feel We Need to Give

Knowing how to draw boundaries around how much of ourselves we feel we need to be giving is a loaded topic for many. This was one of the chief concerns in my family growing up and something that, thanks to the help of my therapist, I recently got a much needed new perspective on. In this post, I’ll be going into the different aspects of giving and receiving in relationship, especially with those who are closest to us, and how giving too much of ourselves can put a strain on all of our relationships. Also, I’ll be adding a few tips at the end to help forge some new boundaries. Hopefully, we can break some of our old patterns and start a new.

Guilt & Feeling a Burden for Simply Being

In my family, doing for others was something that brought up a lot of resentment. It seemed that anytime something was needed of another, there was usually an accompanying, cutting comment that came with the chore. Regardless of how small the task, or if it was even difficult, whomever was asking was made to feel a burden to the other. It was second nature to us. It was our way of acknowledging that the other had a need or needed support.

But what made this so insidious was, that these comments started immediately upon entry into our family. Imagine being 5 years old and hearing the resentment in your parent’s voice as they responded to you after you asking them for something as simple as a snack. I was barely old enough to open the fridge, let alone make something to eat for myself! But whatever the request was, the reactions were the same. The roll of the eyes and incredulously, indignant sigh while they begrudgingly lifted themselves up to attend to whatever task was being asked of them.

The term martyr was used liberally around our household to describe someone who thought they were doing too much. Usually said with venom. As if to say, “you think you’re doing a lot! Take a stroll in my shoes!” And most of the time, the “martyr” was only setting a boundary around what they were willing to do. Even as I’m typing this post, I felt guilty about typing the words “willing to do”, in stead of, capable of doing. Because in our family, if you were able to do what was asked, it was expected of you to do what was asked. Your will didn’t even enter the equation. And this mentality, breeds resentment around something as simple and possibly joy inducing as giving. So why were we so venomous towards one another? If all we wanted was to feel accepted and loved? Because our self worth hinged on how much we were doing for one another.

Self Worth & Value

In my family, we definitely had a lack of self esteem. We were always so uncertain of how we stood in each others regard. We seldom received positive feedback or reinforcement, so we were usually looking to gain some social capital in the family. One of the ways we did this was by doing things for one another. However, we were all so self-conscious about how we were perceived by the other. And with no one being brave enough to tip our hands, to show our true feelings, that even when we did something from a sincere place, we wouldn’t know because we were always so guarded.

With all of this uncertainty, it’s no wonder why we were so resentful of each other! We inevitably drifted further and further apart from the thousand tiny wounds we inflicted on one another. Our surroundings grew cold and void of affection, with fear and resentment residing in their stead. As Melba would say, it was “no easy”.

What is most difficult about how we ended up, is that we were once close. I can remember large family gatherings where children, me being among them, would run wild while the family humming in the background preparing meals and watching games. It was nice, comforting. We felt connected and vital. And all it took to rent our family apart was to hide our emotions from one another in an attempt to feel more needed and loved by the other. All because we didn’t feel we had self worth apart from somebody else’s opinion of us. Or what we were capable of doing for them. That and a fair amount of shared family trauma. So if we were so hurt by one another and all we wanted was to feel appreciated, why did we not just say what we needed from each other? Why hold our feelings so close in? I believe this was for fear of being seen as weak.

Fear of Exposing Our Weaknesses

It blows my mind to think how unforgiving we were in my family. To think about how we viewed our vulnerabilities as weaknesses to be routed out makes me wince a little. And in our family, giving was seen as a strength. But only because we made it known how much of a burden we were taking on by giving ourselves so “selflessly” for the other’s benefit. This was how we turned asking for help, into a weakness. Something to be ashamed of. Or, at least that’s how I felt.

And of course, this is something that is perpetuated in the culture. With role-models such as Rambo, The Terminator, Taylor Durden, John Wayne… the list goes on. But with role-models like these, it’s hard to escape the message that strength is the absence of vulnerability. However misguided that message is.

And just because we pretended that we don’t have our vulnerabilities, doesn’t mean that they are not there. But we pretended and covered them over whenever they would inevitably show themselves. And for what? To cover up the fact that we felt flawed because we didn’t feel accepted or acceptable. By ourselves or by the other. So how do we break this cycle? How do we find the strength that isn’t based in how much of a burden we can take on by giving ourselves to the point of emotional burnout? I think some of the answer lay in how we take care of ourselves.

Learning to Give & Set Boundaries Around how Much We are Giving After Not Knowing How to Give

Setting boundaries around what we’re willing to give is tricky business. Saying no to a task or a need is tough enough when you truly want to be helpful. Add guilt or feeling like your worth hinges on whether or not you say okay and it’s paralyzing. I used to be in the camp of not doing anything for anybody. Of course, I could barely take care of my own needs, let alone help someone with theirs. But I was also taught this sort of, lived helplessness by those who were constantly doing for me.

So it was a double edged sword. I didn’t know how to do for myself due to those who were taking care of me never showing me how. Maybe they did this for fear of feeling less valuable if I was independent. Though when I asked for something, a need to be met, they made me feel as though I was a burden for asking. So when I struck out on my on, I had no life skills or self esteem from feeling like a burden for so long. I didn’t even know how to ask for the help I needed, for the life skills I didn’t know I didn’t have. It was a difficult first few years for sure.

I don’t like to think how long I floated along in life before I realized I was lacking these essential skills. But regardless, I came to a place where I now understand and appreciate giving and what others give to me. But, like with all of the other areas in my life, I needed to set some boundaries around what I gave.

When is it too Much?

When I woke from the trance I had been under, things began to change rapidly for me. For the first time in my life, I understood and appreciated the sacrifice that those supporting me were making on my behalf. It felt good, knowing that I have this support, but also as though I needed to express my gratitude more often. And for me, acts of service is one of my main love languages. So giving for me can quickly turn into spreading myself too thin.

I need to keep an eye on how much of my time I’m giving, so I don’t over commit myself. Because this will lead to me burning out. I mainly do this by keeping a to-do list in my bullet journal, with a calendar for the next three weeks opposite my list. This way, I can allocate tasks to days on my calendar and check in on my progress.

Also, I need to keep an eye on whether the other person even wants what I’m offering or doing for them. I’ve often times found myself thinking that I’m “helping” someone with a great idea I’ve had, only to realize that they were just fine with the way things were. This is an embarrassing situation to find yourself in, so it’s best to read the room before you jump in!

Have a Conversation

This seems like a no brainer, but talking to those who are closest to you is what’s most helpful in finding out what they need. It’s also a way for you to set the tone of the relationship. As a child, I was sent the message that communication in all its forms, especially around my needs, was dangerous. Dangerous in that simply asking for something, however small, threatened my very belonging to those who cared for me.

But by asking those who you are close with what they need or what you can do to make life easier for them, you’re sending the message that, as a friend of mine used to say, “I’m here, I care.” And something so simple as having the coffee ready for your partner in the mornings because they told you they don’t feel as though they have enough time in the mornings, sets the tone for a more stress free environment. It’s these small gestures, done with love that cultivates feelings of acceptance and appreciation.

And talking about our needs also brings with it feeling heard. Something that is in short supply from my experience. I know this to be true for me, that sometimes I feel so focused on my goals, or the task in front of me, that I forget that one of the simplest gifts we can be giving one another is our time and attention. To really listen to what someone is telling us and respond in authentic and caring ways. Never underestimate the power of feeling heard and seen.

Healthy Give & Take

With the holidays around the corner, there’s no better time to jump in and practice setting some boundaries around what we’re capable of giving to each other. If you’re anything like me, you like to go all out in the gift giving department. Maybe this year, take a step back. Take a look at what you’ve done in the past and how it’s made you feel. Do you dread the holidays? Does it feel as though you’re the one who who is consistently giving directions and planning events? Maybe do some more delegating this year. Take a look at you’re budget and try to stick to it better when purchasing gifts.

And while you’re reigning in your spending and the time you’re spending on various projects, don’t forget to take some time for yourself. Treat yourself to a bath during the week. Or a special meal. Something that will bring you sense of ease and peace. Because there’s no point in fostering a healthy and happy relationship, if you’re making yourself miserable in the process. Peace : ) & thanks for reading.

Image Credits: “Give, take ‘n share” by Funchye is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.

Earnest Hemmingway, Reality TV & Partying

I had a dream a few nights ago and in that dream I was contemplating the Earnest Hemmingway Novels I’ve read. In my twenties, I went through a Hemmingway phase where I read a good portion of his works. I’ve also recently come to the conclusion, that I’m not now, nor ever was, a fan of his writing. I was trying to remember what it was that got me into reading him and I think it stems from him being popular with my friend group. For context, we were also watching a lot of Woody Allen movies. But the conclusion I’ve come to about Earnest is, that he was perpetuating and embodying the tenants of toxic masculinity.

Toxic Masculinity as a Lifestyle

The more I think about it, the clearer it becomes. Hemmingway was travelling around with his buddies, drinking too much and getting into fights. He wrote about war, fishing, bull-fighting, death, extreme independence and romantic encounters, topics saturated with masculinity. All of these topics and themes resonated with the type of man I thought I needed to be, at that junction in my life. But what I hadn’t taken into account was, how these personifications of masculinity were causing me to ignore the person I actually was.

I had been strong-arming my personality into a box that just didn’t fit me. Mostly because this was how I was taught to be a man. But maybe more importantly, because I wanted to be loved and accepted by those around me. What makes this so sad is, that there was always a low hum of anxiety, just beneath the façade of my masculine veneer. I was scared of the anger I was harboring, but also I was scared of myself.

The macho attitude I was displaying, along with my unforgiving personality, turned me into, the types of people who’ve abused me in the past. In short, I turned into my abusers. This was where my anxiety was coming from. One wrong move and I was likely to be cut off from everyone and thing I knew and loved.

Reality TV & Partying

The insights I gleaned from my dream was, that the ways that Hemmingway was living, with the drinking, the partying and all the drama that’s attached, was a lot like what reality TV has become. The only difference is, they had slightly different social norms in his time.

For example, I imagine that displaying your masculinity was what was popular at the time. So for Hemmingway, running with the bulls was probably a way for him to show off how manly he was. If you filmed it and formatted the trip into a half hour or hour show, throw in a little drama and you’d have a pretty good reality TV show.

And for the most part, minus the extravagant trips, this was what was playing out in my family. Something I’ll go into more detail later on this post. The men were putting on the façade of being ultra masculine, and shutting off our emotions in the process. While the women were looking to feel connection or taken care of and seen. But they were too scared to open up emotionally to the angry and abusive men, who had already severed emotional ties with the women. This was because this is what we thought the women wanted.

Why I was Living this Way

The more I think about it, the more miserable I was. Sure, I had some good times. But I was usually drunk, or having fun at the expense of somebody else. The rest of the time I was mostly worried about being around other people. Unable to relax or feel a part of what was going on around me. Worried I wasn’t who I should be. It was isolating and strange. So why was I living this way?

From what I can tell now, looking back in hind-sight, I was trying to be a-part of the culture I was steeped in. Being a product of the 80’s, I was definitely taught that men were tough, violent and in charge. These were their most prized attributes. These qualities however, were not how I wanted to act or be in the world. They were used in my past to raise me and I remember all too well the fear and isolation they created. The last thing I wanted to do was to perpetuate what had happened to me. But it seemed to be what was expected of me as a man. So I acted that way in an attempt to feel a part of the culture and people surrounding me. And it worked for a while.

Being My Own Person

But as I said above, it was fear and anxiety producing. Being and acting the ways my abusers had, went against the vision of how I wanted to live my life. I did not want or need the extreme independence and lack of connection with others that had been modeled for me. I wanted to love and be loved by those closest to me. But this was impossible while I was living the toxically masculine life.

So in order to be the person I felt I was and the one who was being stifled, I had to give up the image of what I was taught a man should be. And this was no easy task.

Getting in Touch with My “Feminine” Side

I found myself criticizing myself for being too “feminine”. Or not looking the stoic, powerfully in charge personality I was taught a man should be. The unyielding, unforgiving, authority figure who was prone to violent outbursts, was something that was modeled for me time and again. But the forgiving and accepting person I was trying to embody, I was taught were the traits of women.

Though it was never specifically taught to me that genders had inherent traits, culturally it was something that was reinforced. In my family, the women, just like the men, were petty and mean most of the time. But we still subscribed to the beliefs that women were soft, vulnerable and caretakers of the men. While men were hard, in charge and were not allowed to show vulnerability.

I’m not totally sure where this mentality came from. In my parents generation, the man was still supposed to be head of the household. The bread winner and the person calling the shots. And the women were supposed to take care of the family and the men.

Old Ways of Navigating Relationships Leads to Stifled Ways of Being

From this dynamic, I observed a lot of unhealthy forms of self expression. The men in my family were angry most of the time. Often around how the household was being run. While the women were expressing themselves through what they could buy.

What was and is so frustrating about watching this dynamic play out is, we are so much more than the one or two roles we play in our closest relationships. When we’re reduced to a stereotype, we lose dimensions of our personality. This can lead to resentment. Also, taking out our pent up anger, due to limiting our personalities, on others in our relationships. This was the root of a lot of discord in my family.

This was due to dynamics in play such as, men weren’t allowed to be vulnerable. And women weren’t allowed to take charge or question the man’s authority. For me as a man in my family, this meant taking on too much responsibility for others and feeling overwhelmed, without knowing when to take a break and care for myself. From what I saw with the women in my family was, that they were frustrated with feeling powerless. So they acted in petty and spiteful ways to take out their frustrations on those they felt powerless to.

How We Handled Stifling Our Emotions

But in order for the men in my family to bury their vulnerabilities and for women to cover over their frustrations, we drank. This was the easiest way to not have to feel what we were so afraid to express. Of course, nothing about what we were experiencing was easy. But we’d rather drown our problems than take a hard look at what was causing them.

How I Retain My Masculinity While Showing My Vulnerabilities

This was a difficult lesson, with a steep leaning curve. It had been taught and reinforced, so many times in my family, the lesson that men were not ever vulnerable, that the wall I had built around my emotions was almost impenetrable. Luckily for me, with the aid of a friend I awoke into my emotions. But the path was most definitely a rough one.

When I began letting my emotions in again, I had the emotional intelligence of an eight year-old. This was around the time my abuse started. So my emotions had been frozen for little over two decades. I remember clearly that when I started to feel my emotions again, they would all come flooding in at once. And they were all intense. I didn’t know what emotion I was feeling at any given time, because I was never shown how to give names to my emotions and let them be without trying to stifle them.

But the longer I stayed with my emotions, the less intense they became. When I first started feeling them, it was as though they were all bundled together, like a knot of live wires. And every time I tried to untangle them, I would get a shock. But the more I untangle them, the clearer it became which emotion was which. Even though I was vulnerable to the shock of feeling the once overwhelming emotion. I’m now able to feel emotions that were much too powerful for me to experience before. And I believe what has helped me the most has been, support from friends and family and meditation.

Support from Family, Friends & the Greater Community

The support I received from family and friends was pivotal. Knowing that I could just be me, without the toxic masculinity and still feel accepted, was what allowed me to discover who I was. And not only allowed, but accepted and loved for who I was becoming. This was what gave me the courage to drop the masculinity armoring and allow me to let the emotions in.

But it’s been a slow process. And one I’m still learning how to adjust to. I had a life’s time worth of lessons on toxic masculinity to unlearn. And I had none of the resources with which to unlearn them. I went searching for them in earnest and many of the resources I’ve picked up along the way are listed here in this blog.

Sites such as The Good Trade have done so much good in helping me to get in touch with the more sensitive aspects of my personality. They have a wealth of articles that give advice on how to navigate emotions and emotionally charged situation.

Tara Brach was another great teacher that I found along the way. Her talks helped me to understand that I wasn’t alone in what I was going through. Hearing others’ stories have helped to give me a sense of hope. Hearing that someone else has been through what I’m going through and hearing how they managed the experience, has been a huge source of relief and sense of community for me.

Meditation

And finally, meditation has helped me to stay in my body while my emotions are coming over me. This may seem like something insignificant, but every time an emotion came on that was over whelming, I ran from it by dissociating. I ran so often, that when I finally sat down to sort through them all, they had become the mass of tangled, live wires I described above.

Sitting and learning to handle a single emotion and separate them from the unsorted emotions has been invaluable to understanding my emotions. Also how to handle them with care. And the longer I stay, the easier it becomes.

Final Thoughts on Masculinity

If you’re in the same boat that I was in, and I imagine that it’s not all too uncommon, don’t worry. It’s difficult to feel the pressures from our families and friends, and not to mention from society and culturally as well. A place where masculinity is given a much higher value than it can be worth. So if you’re feeling a little uneasy about how you’re seen by others, maybe it’s worth your time to investigate where these feelings are coming from and what you’re doing that makes you uncomfortable.

Are you doing something that you don’t really like doing because it’s what’s expected of you? Maybe there’s a trend you’re apart of, that you got involved with to feel some belonging. If you examine these places and you find that you aren’t enjoying them as much as you feel you would like to, it may be worth asking yourself if doing them is a true expression of your personality. Here is where you can find where your true passions lay. And being masculine isn’t a bad thing. But when it gets in the way of who we truly are, then we may need to explore why we’re holding on to it so tight. Peace & thanks for reading : )

Image Credits: “Charging Bull, Wall Street” by carlossg is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.

Relax, You Don’t Have to be Dying to Take a Sick Day

The result? Feeling tired and run down most of the time. Also never having time to relax or do something for the fun of it.

I’ve recently been reading a travel book about New England, to get to know Boston and the region a little better and to relax a bit more in my place of origin. Also to look for some places to travel to, maybe for a weekend or a day trip. While I was reading the bio of my people, I was informed that we are known for or thriftiness and our being industrious. This struck me as odd. Mostly because I don’t see New Englanders as having these traits in abundance. But the more I thought about it, the more the evidence started to pile up. I just couldn’t see the forest for the New England Foliage.

My family in particular are very thrifty. We will go a great distance to find the best prices and deals on the things we buy. I remember many a car rides to outlets and discount retailers, looking for a bargain to bring home. And I think we did it mostly for sport. For the bragging rights, to say we got the cheapest price. We are intense about the things we do. And the intensity we bring to shopping, we bring to other areas in our lives as well. Which brings me to number two on the list, our work ethic.

Being Intense on the Job

Thinking back to the travel book, I was realizing how spot on their assessment was. At least of my New England family. Growing up for me, hard work was a given and to relax was to be lazy. There was no tolerance for those unwilling to pull their own weight. This was made clear to me in one of my first jobs as a bus boy in the restaurant my mother worked for.

I was probably 13 years old at the time and my only other working experience was when I had delivered news papers. I never experienced a traditional work environment before and especially not one as tough as a kitchen. On my first day, no more than 3-4 hours into my shift, my mother pulled me aside and yelled at me for being lazy. I was 13, three hours into my first shift and at the only place I had ever worked and I was already expected to know how to preform my duties and do them perfectly. These were the expectations that were set for me and my family. We definitely needed a lesson in how to relax.

How We Look Doing What We Do

Looking back now, I understand how connected my performance was to how my mother viewed herself moving through her work environment. In her eyes, I was a direct reflection of who she thought herself to be. And the one thing she was not going to tolerate was being correlated with being lazy. This was where my work ethic was forged.

So I worked hard. Mostly because I wanted to feel accepted and loved. But I worked from a fearful place. One where I was afraid to relax for fear of being seen as lazy. I adopted my family’s serious demeanor because I wanted to be seen as someone who doesn’t play games. Someone who gets the job done and does it without having to be told how. Also to garner respect. Because this, I was taught, was the mark of a man. But this way of living left me with an intensity that made me slightly mean and definitely unapproachable. And little in the way of tools to help build solid foundations for relationships.

In a more recent experience, while at work, I was being told that I was working too hard. Also that I was difficult to talk to because I had an air of undeserved superiority about me. This wasn’t the first time I had been told I was difficult to manage either. I was let go of a job that I was particularly good at because I didn’t have any people skills. This was jarring because it flew in the face of the values I had been raised with. Which was that working hard and productivity are first priority. Everything else is inconsequential. Being able to relax was at the bottom of the list. But what I was coming to learn was, I had been mislead.

Listening to Our Bodies & Learning to Relax

This type of intensity doesn’t come without its toll. More recently, I decided to take a day off from work because I was exhausted. I had just worked two doubles, back to back, 12 hour days and was feeling worn out. So I called in to my work place and told them I needed the day. They said “I hope you feel better”, and I got back to taking some much needed rest.

Later on in the day, when I was speaking to my father about taking the day off, he was growing agitated with the topic as we discussed it. He was asking probing questions about my decision until I finally asked if he felt uncomfortable with what I had done. Calling in without actually being sick. He said he was and that it was something you just don’t do. He also told me that I don’t work that hard anyway so it shouldn’t be such a big deal to muscle through the day. Unhealthy to say the least.

Well, as the week progressed, I was feeling worse and worse. I worked through the last two days of the week, but by the time Friday night came around, while I was finishing up dinner I knew I was definitely feeling ill. I knew that I would wake in the morning feeling sick and that me taking the day off in the middle of the week was most likely my body telling me that I was tired, stressed and getting sick. So it’s time to take care of yourself and relax. Something I’m not used to doing and if it were up to my family, something I wouldn’t do at all.

Take the Day, Trust Yourself

My body was telling me something that I have been ignoring for far to long. Me and my family have been neglecting our physical needs for as long as I can remember. “Muscling through it” should be at the top of our family crest. And if the need to feel belonging wasn’t drive enough for me to try and work myself to death, I was also being guilted into working more than my body could handle. All because it was making my family feel “uncomfortable”.

I had been stripped of my autonomy because it was too difficult for someone else to see me as being unreliable, or even worse, lazy. Even though I was receiving nothing but encouragement from my places of employment. I was 13 all over again, trying to live up to an impossible standard at the expense of my better judgement and overall health. This, I declared, was unhealthy and unreasonable. Something needed to change in my life and I was the one who had to put it into action.

Trust Your Intuition But Know Your Limits

This is where I am deciding to take the time if I feel I need it. There are some things I’ve come to know about myself. I know I’m a hard worker, to a fault. I take pride in a job well done and usually, enjoy the work. But I can push myself beyond my limits. Knowing these characteristics, I am now able to search for feelings and flags around my work ethic.

How this looks in action is, if I’m thinking about taking a day off, I first need to trust that this is coming from a caring and trustworthy place in myself. This way, when the voice of my family chimes in with phrases such as, “you don’t work that hard anyway” or “don’t be lazy”, I can challenge those thoughts and the emotions of guilt and shame that make me uncomfortable and accompany my thoughts. I can then sit in the dis-ease and make a decision based on what is best for me and my body’s needs. Not the expectations of my family.

These are the healthy self-care lessons I was never taught. And they’re ones that I’m deciding to implement while reparenting myself. It isn’t easy, but neither is the alternative of working myself to death. And I’d rather be in a healthy mental space than buried under stress from the unachievable standards of a dysfunctional past.

Finding the Support to Make the Change

And none of what I’ve laid out above would have been possible if it wasn’t for the healthy support I received from my friends and role models along the way. For instance, my therapist has been a huge wealth of support for me. If I didn’t have a trained professional who was able to give me another perspective asides from my dysfunctional world view, I don’t know that I would have been able to see outside of what I was steeped in. The unhealthy values of my family.

And without a friend to text, or to grab a beer and burger with to talk about what’s happening in my life, I could have easily withdrew. Losing out on a much needed perspective shift. Or some understanding and empathy. And these are the elements that I was missing when I was too afraid to connect. Especially because connecting with others has meant being hurt and taken advantage of in my past.

Luckily for me, when I decided to change my way of living, I had a few friends willing to stand by me through the change. And it was these friends, who allowed me to change without the judgements or criticisms, that showed me what it felt like to be supported. Something that had been lacking in almost all of my previous relationships.

Why Support Matters

Because if it wasn’t for my newly found support, I would have gone on living my life as though I had to meet the impossible standards of my past. The standards that said it is not only normal to work 6 days a week and that 12 hour days are the norm, but it’s also expected. And not that difficult.

The result? Feeling tired and run down most of the time. Also never having time to relax or do something for the fun of it. That’s why we need the kind of support that says, “you look tired, when was the last time you had a day off?” Otherwise, life is a difficult mess. And it’s from this mindset that I want to approach how I budget my resources. With self-care being at the forefront of my assessments. And this is so much easier when you have people in your corner cheering you on. Reminding you what the healthiest version of you looks like.

Because we need these reminders when we wake up after working two, 12 hour days back to back. The reinforcement that gives us the nudge to pick up the phone and text or call our boss to tell them we need to take the day off. Reminders to tell us to do what’s bet for us.

Take the Day & be Kind

If you’re anything like I am, when you decide to take care of yourself you’ll be inundated with guilty thoughts and feelings. It’s difficult enough feeling fatigued and vulnerable when we are feeling sick or super stressed. Then add on the guilt and feeling that you’re failing in some way and we’re making an already bad situation worse. So remember the kindness that we’ve cultivated in our relationships with our supports. Once we do that, we can then extend that kindness to ourselves.

And don’t forget to relax! I know this is a tough one. Especially by those who are riddled with feelings of guilt for feeling as though they’re underachieving. But it is an essential part to feel your best. Nobody has ever guilted themselves into a healthier version of them self ; ) Recently I’ve come up with a few lines to repeat to myself with the help of my therapist. These are there to remind me that it’s okay to relax. And maybe most importantly, to take it a little easier on myself.

So keep an eye on your self and your energies, emotions and physical being. Rest when you are tired, eat when you are hungry and take the space you need to feel your best. If you need a mental health day to recoup, take the day. Nobody knows what you need more than yourself. It may be a big responsibility, but it’s a rewarding one. And head over to The Good Trade if you need some inspo on ways to relax. Peace & thanks for reading : )

Image Credits: “sick day” by jamelah is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

Just Relax: Easier Said Than Done

Being able to relax doesn’t come naturally for everybody. For me, it was a lesson that took a while, and one I’m still coming to terms with. In the past few years, I’ve been pushing myself beyond what my limits are. I feel this was in reaction to the ways I used to live and be treated. By seeking external approval now, to validate who I am. That I’m worth something by my work.

I used to be sedentary. I over consumed, just about everything and watched enough T.V. for a family of four. This was a direct result of my upbringing. While I was growing up, I wasn’t taught the value of keeping an active lifestyle. I didn’t have many interests and what’s more, no one to help me discover and foster healthy and active hobbies.

I was left alone for what felt like days at a time. And it seemed as though I had nothing but T.V. and videogames to occupy myself with. There was a short stint where my stepfather tried to get me into lacrosse. But it never took. I had never heard of the sport before my freshman year in high school, when he signed me up for it. And I was terrible at it as well. I had no one to practice with and my stepfather wasn’t available or lost interest. So it was a short lived experience. Nor one that built confidence in my abilities as an athlete.

Being Active to Prove Myself

The most active I remember being in high school was playing frisbee and hacky-sack in the courtyard. The “slacker sports” as we used to refer to them. We were cultivating a life of being sedentary. My friends and I had no goals to aspire to, nor guidance from healthy role-models to show us how to set and obtain goals, had we made any.

We were just drifting through life aimlessly. But we didn’t know any better. For me, and I’m sure for most of the people I hung out with, I was called lazy and put down verbally for most of my youth. I had nothing to aspire to, because I had no one show me how to aspire to something. Only consistent negative reinforcement from my role models. In case you are wondering, this was not a great parenting strategy.

Staying Busy to Overachieve

Though, I imagine my parents had been raised under more harsh, critical familial expectations. I knew my grandparents well. And they were not the happy, go lucky type. They were intense in all aspects of the word. My grandfather once yelled at me without restraint, when I was maybe 5, for forgetting to tell my father to bring a screwdriver to their house. Restraint and temperance were not words in my grandfather’s vocabulary.

My grandmother was image obsessed and cold. She had a standard that nobody could live up to. Considering, I had it pretty easy growing up. But the legacy of impossible standards that our family handed down through the generations, left us all feeling as though we had to work double, and triple time in order to gain any form of approval. This directly impacted our ability to relax. Mostly for fear that what ever small amount of belonging we felt, would be pulled out from under us, for taking some much needed rest if we did relax.

So we kept ourselves busy. We stayed busy to gain approval so we could feel belonging. But we always felt as though we had to keep producing, in order to cull what little approval we could from those that were keeping it so well guarded. This is an exhausting way of being. And one that does not lead to a sustainable way of feeling approved of. And it also leaves us little, if any, time to relax.

Sorting Out Integral Support From External Validation

With all of our hustling for approval, we never left ourselves with the time to take care of our basic needs. Let alone allowing ourselves the time to relax or enjoy what we do for ourselves. And if our tendency is to seek external forms of approval, then we’ll always be hustling for that approval. In order to break the cycle of seeking external validation, we need to validate ourselves first, for who we are.

This can feel like a strange reversal. Especially if you were brought up, as I was, constantly chasing the feelings of approval from those who held it just out of reach. But learning that you can approve of yourself while having that approval be an integral part of who you are, is empowering. And this may look a little different for everybody. As I’ve found approval is something that is a personal experience.

Self Approval

This, like most things, is a practice. I wish I could tell you that it will just magically appear one day and you’ll be solid in your sense of feeling adequate. But even still, it’s something that’s obtainable. It just takes work. For me, I’m still finding the ways in which I approve of myself. Two big parts of feeling self-approval for me lay in two areas: First in feeling accomplished and second, taking care of myself.

Withholding Accomplishment

Accomplishment was something that I had not really felt until very recently. I have vague memories of the felt sense of accomplishing as a child. But since, the standards were set so high, and for so long, that I just forgot what it felt like. This makes me sad to think of now. But this was just the norm for our family. And what makes this so tragic is, this was the foundation on which we built our connections.

We wanted to feel better than the person who was struggling with the standards we had set for them, when inevitably, they would fail to meet those standards. But this just left everybody feeling frustrated and angry. Sure, we felt superior for a while, but that feeling of superiority only carried us so far. Before long, we would have to accept that we pushed everybody close to us, away. Leaving us feeling all alone.

Feeling Accomplished to Feel More Content, Relaxed

Thinking on when I feel most accomplished now, and nothing comes to mind. But the feeling is present, however vague. And the more I dwell on the feeling, the more I recognize where in my life, and what I do, that brings that feeling with it. For example, when I think of No Labels Living, I think about all the time and effort I’ve put into crafting these posts. Turning my feelings and experiences, into pages of, what I hope are, helpful advice.

And when I think about cooking for myself, the food I make for the weeks ahead in an attempt to allow me the time to get after other goals that need attention in my life. I think about the rows of freshly cooked meals in Mason jars that contain my week’s nourishment and feel a sense of accomplishment.

Taking Care of Myself & My Needs

Taking care of myself, in a way, brings its own sense of accomplishment. In the example above, when I cook for myself, I feel a deep sense of pride and accomplishment for taking care of my nutritional needs. I’m making the food I love that nourishes my body. And this is a whole other felt sense of accomplishment. Like pride, mixed with care and doing for myself. Which in turn translates to time for me to relax.

Or like promising that I’ll take a bath at the end of a long work day. Knowing that I’m taking care of my emotional and physical needs, brings with it a sense of accomplishment and way to relax. Knowing that I’m caring for myself in a way that aids me in becoming the healthiest version of myself is gratifying.

Relaxation is Free

There’s a big industry focused around making money from peoples’ inability to relax. I’m not saying that you shouldn’t splurge on yourself once and a while. Especially if it’s something that you enjoy. But try to make doing, or enjoying your treat an event, where you can really savor it. But also keep in mind that the ability to relax is innate in all of us. Not achieved by something we purchase.

For example, I feel so much more relaxed soaking in a warm bath, than I do out at a restaurant. And you don’t have to go to a spa in order to feel as though you’re getting the spa treatment. I’ve been in the habit of burning candles and using an essential oil diffuser to create a more relaxed atmosphere nightly. If this is something that helps you to feel more relaxed, try creating your own spa experience at home. Add a few Epsom salts to your bath water. Maybe some essential oils as well. Add a few candles to the mix and you have something people spend good money on.

Other Ways to Relax That Won’t Cost You Anything

Exercise

Exercise is a great start if you’re looking for ways to sooth your nerves. My go to for exercise now is yoga. It’s low impact on your body, which after running for years is a nice break. And whether you are new to yoga or a seasoned pro, YWA has a ton of free videos on her site. Check her out here, or head over to my Community page for a link to her site and other resources for relaxing.

While we’re on the topic, taking a walk in your favorite stretch of woods will do wonders for your level of calm. Maybe you’re more of an ocean person? Walking by the beach is also soothing in ways that few other activities are. Being out in green space helps to reduce anxiety levels and has a calming effect. So the more you can be out in nature, the more you will be able to relax.

Cooking

This is something I especially enjoy. There is something about being in the kitchen, where so many elements come together. And with the right atmosphere, brings with it a sense of joy, ease and excitement. Burning a scented candle while slowly bring together the ingredients for each recipe is soothing to me. I know I’m nourishing myself with the tasty and healthy foods I’m making, but also engaging my senses with the colors of the fresh veg and the smells from the simmering sauces.

It’s a treat and one that reminds me of the times when I used to cook in a restaurant. It was a small take-out place where the lines would be out the door most nights. We made Mexican food with an Indian/Asian twist. The results were phenomenal and wildly popular in the city where we were.

My nights on the sauté station were most memorable. I had ten burners going full throttle with a line of slips piling up as the night got steadily busier. From the dimly lighted atmosphere complimented by flashes of ignited cooking oil, to the slow jazz playing in the background, it was a busy, yet soothing experience. And something I carry with me into my current cooking experiences. Only this time with fewer items to make : )

Journaling, Reading & Listening to Music

Journaling, listening to music and reading are a few other ways I’ve learned to sooth my nervous system. For example, today I spent most of my day reading about New England’s history while listening to old sea shanties, to really get me in the mood. It was like being transported to another time and place and all while feeling completely at ease.

Journaling is something that has been invaluable for me as well. I bullet journal, so planning out my weeks and organizing my household is something that brings me a great sense of feeling relaxed. Knowing I’m taking care of the parts of my life that need my attention allows me to move on with my day without wondering, “am I forgetting about something”. Being organized is a gift to those who feel they’ve been stretched too thin.

Winding Down

These are some of the ways that I relax, and some of the benefits I garner from feeling relaxed. If you have any go to ways of decompressing, I’d love to hear about them in the comments section below. It’s so easy to get wound up during the course of the day. And it’s even easier to open a bottle or smoke something to take your mind off of your accumulated burdens. But there are healthier ways of being at ease in your body that don’t need the aid of something other than a calm night, cup of herbal tea and maybe a hot bath. So take a load off and get into something more comfortable. You deserve it. Peace, & thanks for reading : )

Image Credits: “Relaxing feet – 20100417 – IMG_3171.jpg” by Dhammika Heenpella / CWSSIP Images of Sri Lanka is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0.

Trauma, Blueberries & Recovery: How the Past Informs Who We Become

I’ve covered a lot of ground on this blog. Much of my personal history is written in the pages of this space. I’ve also experienced a lot of trauma. Only some of which I’ve talked about here. This post is a little different than my others, in that I’m going to talk about trauma and the effects it has on our ability to feel, give and receive love. As Jay-Z once said, “it’s a hard knock life”. And the longer I live, the more I see the damage we incur from these knocks. We’re all hurt to some degree and we all deserve a little compassion. So let’s take a look at some of my hurt and how I’ve dealt with it. Hopefully, others will find some comfort in knowing they’re not alone.

My Song

When I was young, my family life was pretty good. My mother’s father was my best friend. We would sit in his den, watching baseball games together on the weekends when I was very young. We lived in the poor part of a very wealthy town, that makes most well-to-do suburbs look a little shabby. And I had a family that was supportive and seemingly loving.

That being said, there was violence happening in our family as well. The men in my family were prone to yelling at whomever wasn’t listening to them, while throwing breakables at walls to punctuate their rage. Also there was a lot of physical corrections being made in the form of spankings that were carried out with enthusiasm and zeal. And if the men in my family were terrifying, the women were just as scary.

Words were their weapons. As well as condescending judgements and withholding love. Also, setting a standard so high in order to gain their regard, that no matter what I did, I would never add up. Not to mention the emotional neglect. And this was the cycle. We were constantly hurting one another and not realizing the damage we were doing because we were so shut off from our emotions that we could barely feel anything. This was trauma inducing to say the least.

The Trauma

By the time I was halfway through my eighth year, things in my family began to fall apart. My aunt had developed an aggressive form of skin cancer that ravaged her body. My mother was the one who took charge and aided my dying family member by taking care of her through the worst of her struggles. I can remember watching my mother stick metal spoons in my aunts mouth to depress her tongue, while my aunt was having grand mal seizures. She had a mouth full of jagged teeth due to this practice. They did this because it was believed that the person having the seizure would swallow their tongue. Medicine has thankfully come a long way.

It was around this time that the fighting between my parents began to escalate. There was more yelling, more cutting words and more dinner ware being shattered. This happened until they finally called it quits. But by that time, my mother had been taking my sibling and I to the neighboring state, most times at 1 AM, after my mother got off from work, to comfort my deceased aunt’s family. This was where my abuse began.

Nighttime Visits

After having witnessed my aunt lose her violent battle with cancer, wasting away to a ghost of her former self, my family fell apart. I was spending more time with my deceased aunt’s family in an unfamiliar setting, away from all my friends and family, save for my mother. But that was about to change.

I don’t remember when these visits started, but at some point during the summer, my uncle had taken to coming into the room where I was sleeping in the dead of night, 2-3 AM, and pulling me from bed. I would later develop an obsession with vampires because of these visits. Usually he would yell at me while drunk, about what it means to be a man like a drill Sargant. I was living in constant state of fear for my life, not knowing how to keep myself safe. The first of many times he did this, he poured water on my groin and then violently rent me from my bed. He then punished me for “wetting” the bed. Making me clean up “my mess”. I have never felt terror like the night I was looking at myself in the bathroom mirror, not knowing what to do or where to go.

This painting sums up how I felt after my family divided while incurring all of the violence and trauma I was going through. Figure with Meat, Francis Bacon “Figure with Meat” by lluisribesmateu1969 is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0.

Later, I told my mother what was happening, taking a chance after being given strict instructions not to tell her by my uncle during his drunken rages. But when I told her, she turned her back on me and walked away. It was at this point that I was left completely on my own with zero support. I was eight and had experienced events that some people, thankfully never experience, and others that were usually spread out over a life’s time. And I experienced them all within six months and with no one to take care of me or to support me, at eight years of age. This is where my emotions left me. Frozen to keep me safe. It would take decades for me to feel safe enough to open to these emotions again, to defrost.

Living with the Trauma

As I aged, I would experience more traumas at the hands of my family. Only now I was old enough to start taking matters into my own hands. I stopped going to school by the time I was 14. My family life was deteriorating rapidly as well. My step-father was abusive and addicted to pornography as well as drinking too much. Something my entire family did and did well.

And, the apple did not fall far from the tree. By the time I was 15, I was drinking and staying out all hour, also addicted to pornography and looking to have a good time. Of course, this was what I was telling myself. But I was really terrified to go back to my house because I would most likely be abused. Either physically or psychologically and the neglect was a given.

By the time I turned nineteen, I got the boot from my house because I wasn’t going to college. I had stopped going to school by the time I was 14 because I was unable to be around others without feeling tremendous amounts of fear and anxiety. But by some miracle I was expected to go to college and do well. So I got my first apartment with two friends that were in similar situations and was on my own.

On My Own with Friends

Our first apartment wasn’t too bad. But we were living on our own, with zero life skills. I remember one of the first nights at the apartment, I came home from work and the fridge was completely filled with 40s. There was no food. Only beer and videogames. And that’s how it was most nights. We drank to manage our anxiety and fear. The only tools we had to navigate our out-of-control lives. We would eventually get the boot from that apartment inside of a year living there. Our neighbors, as it turned out, were selling heroin. So clearly, in the mind of my landlady, we were selling heroin as well.

We moved from that house to a temporary house that was going to be torn down in a few months time after we moved in. It was better to live there than to be homeless, so we moved in. This was the apartment that I lost my childhood friend to drugs. He didn’t die, but he was spending more and more time with his drug dealer than with his other friends. He moved out into the garage and started cutting ties with us. After that we became strangers to each other. Not an easy thing to experience, and only one of the many friends I would lose along the way. But what made this so difficult was, he was the only friend I had that was support from before my childhood trauma began. Losing him was a big blow.

After that apartment, we moved into an apartment that was too small for us, so I squatted in the entre way. Again, better that than to be homeless. That apartment was dirty. We had trash drifts in areas of the apartment that were up to our knees. I later upgraded to a bedroom when a roommate moved out, but that was still hard living. Another friend of ours moved into the entre way. Again, much like our first place, it was filled with booze and videogames. We also lived across the street from a bar that we frequented. This did not help in the drinking department.

Moving Up, Sort of

From there I moved again a few times, but by this time I had met my now ex-wife. We worked in adolescent group homes. Me at the one for boys and my ex in the one for girls. I was still emotionally numb from the undealt with traumas I had incurred when I was eight, but I somehow stumbled my way into a relationship that was somewhat stable.

I was still drinking regularly, about 100 pounds over weight and still viewed women as sex objects. I’m not sure how I managed to find someone to be with, because I had zero luck when it came to relationships. But we were together for about eight years.

Unfortunately, things still looked the same for me. I was in a state of stasis. Unchanged from the ways I had been living from the time I had been abused as a child. I was just coasting along, unable to appreciate what I had due to me being so numb from my early childhood and family trauma. So when I started waking from my emotional cocoon, things took a surprising turn.

Waking Up into My Emotions

Oddly enough, it was somebody that I worked with that started me down the path of waking up emotionally. I can’t explain why it happened with her, but there was a combination of feeling heard, with an empathic understanding and willingness to be vulnerable around me that made me feel awake around her. Also feeling safe with my current partner gave me the stability to open emotionally again. I was so used to being told how to feel and what was going to happen for me, that this was something completely new. There was a possibility present that I had never felt before.

So I started spending more time with this woman, in hopes to gain some of that emotion that was missing from my life. Looking back I would have done things differently, but I didn’t stand a chance. I was eight years old again with her, dealing with 24 years of trauma that had been piling up at my doorstep. To say I was in over my head is an understatement.

I realize now that what I was experiencing was finding a friend, friendship. Someone who had been through some of what I had been through and understood. She had her own list of trauma that she was dealing with. The term, “real recognize real and you lookin familiar” describes some of what I was feeling for the first time in a quarter century. But these feelings were all new to me and I was just tying to stay afloat.

My ex did all the right things however. She got us into couples therapy and desperately tried to find out what was happening with me. The only thing I knew was that I was feeling again for the first time since I was a child. I didn’t know what I was feeling, but I was feeling again. And finally, after I had come to a place that was relatively still waters for what I was experiencing, in one night heavy with tension, I stood in the kitchen with my ex and asked her if she wanted to try to make our relationship work.

I had no idea what was happening to me, but something inside of me knew that I needed to give our relationship another shot. But she was unwilling. She said that I had had an emotional affair with the other woman. And that, she couldn’t forgive. I didn’t know what emotions were, let alone know them enough to have an affair. So we parted ways that night. And it’s important to say I don’t blame my ex for leaving. For all I was experiencing, she was dealing with her own struggles. No one was struggling more than the other.

After the Separation

I lived with the woman who helped me to wake into my emotions for a while. It was a good time for me. I stopped drinking, started exercising regularly, meditating and started thinking about my future, all for the first time in my life. I didn’t feel like I was drifting anymore. But not too long into the relationship she told me to leave. She couldn’t handle the weight of the guilt of how I ended my relationship with my ex. So I moved in with family, something I had been running from since I was eight.

I was working a series of part time jobs after moving in with my family. And I was starting over at the ground floor, looking to build myself back up. I started dissociating, which is a way for me to protect myself from the feelings that were too trauma packed to feel all at once. How I discovered I was dissociating was, I had crashed two cars on my way to work in the morning. One into a suburban fence, and the other on I-95. The only thing I remember about the accidents is suddenly coming to and walking around the flipped car on the side of the highway or crashed into a fence. I’m lucky to be alive and that I didn’t hurt anybody in the process. This was jarring.

Also, shortly after I moved in with my father and step-mother, I went into a manic state two times and tried to run to Maine to start a blueberry farm to win back my ex-wife. I thought that this was a reasonable reaction to feeling the loss of my former relationship. Again, I was eight years old, standing on the landing after my mother turned her back on me after telling her about my abuse. I felt completely alone and unsafe. If it wasn’t for an old roommate of mine who happened to be driving by me while I was running, I don’t like to think what would have happened to me. Again, lucky to be alive. Thanks Jon.

It was here that I was feeling the full force of my unfelt trauma from my childhood. I was looking for something safe, running from what was too difficult to feel. But they say the way out is through. So I stayed. I stayed in what was more than uncomfortable. Staying with what was traumatic. With family, with my feelings and most importantly, with myself. It was here that I really learned how to heal from what had been a life’s time worth of neglected and abused emotions. No easy feat.

Continuing to Heal

I’m now in a much healthier place than I’ve ever been. I’m still exercising regularly, meditating as well. And I’m eating healthfully and am at my ideal weight for the first time since I was a child. I have boundaries for the first time and am building new relationships built on mutual trust and communication. It feels really good knowing that I have my future in focus after a life’s time worth of running from my past. Knowing I’m here for myself, and as a friend of mine says, “I’m here, I care” to my emotional world, makes me feel like a whole new me.

The trauma I’ve experienced in my past is only a story now. Not something that makes regular visits. The support I have from the community I’ve built around me is also world class. I can’t say enough good things about the people who have stood by and support me through some of the most challenging times in my life. And none of this was easy.

If you’re dealing with trauma and the effects of trauma, at any stage of your life, know that you are not alone. I’ve found the help of my therapist to be the guiding light out of my darkest times. Because as Tara Brach says, “we were wounded in relationship, so we heal in relationship”. This talk from Tara Brach, Buddhist psychologist, was pivotal for me learning how to navigate my emotions again. If you’ve experienced trauma, please take a look at it and seek help. There are good people out there doing good work.

Reflections on the Past

These are only a sampling of the trauma I’ve endured. I’d also like to say I’m not seeking sympathy, only sharing what I’ve experienced in hopes it may aid somebody else in their journey. Because life gets weird. And without each other’s help, we can be overtaken by the difficulties we encounter. So take heart and know that you are strong enough for this life that was given to you.

Also, I’d like to take the time to apologize for how I treated all of the people I hurt in the past. If you are reading this and I’ve injured you to some degree, know that I am truly sorry. My past is no excuse for treating people the ways that I had. And for this, I am truly sorry.

If you’re looking for someone to talk to about what you’ve been through in the past, this article from The Good Trade goes over some online therapy sites that can help in your journey. So dear reader, this is where I leave you. Thank you for reading and if you have any comments or questions, I’d love to hear about them down below. You’re the best and as always, Peace & thanks for reading.

Image Credits: “Plant in dried cracked mud” by Aproximando Ciência e Pessoas is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

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