Making Friends With Your Fear

Fear is something I have plenty of, and I know I’m not alone. It comes in many different forms as well. Depending on the situation, it can range from fear for your physical security, food insecurities, living situation… The list goes on. But regardless of the source, the feelings are still the same.

It’s difficult to handle, and most of us, including myself, spend a lot of time running from it. I’ll go into a few of my fears and how I’ve run in the past, but also how I’m now learning to face my fears and become stronger for it. It’s no easy sometimes, that’s for sure. But it gets easier the more you stay in the feelings. Let’s take a look at some of the ways I used to run from my fears. Maybe you’ll see some similarities with yourself and find comfort in knowing that you’re not alone.

The Fear And Why I Ran From It

For me, the fear is a sense that no matter what happens, I’m not going to be okay. The worry sets in and I think about the terrible consequences of whatever I’m worried about taking up residency. The result is not ideal and it also makes regular visits. For me, it can feel like a consistent fixture in my emotional life.

If the fear itself wasn’t bad enough, I would also worry about when the fear was going to return. This cycle would replay itself, creating fear upon fear. I’d become fearful, the fear subsided, then I get anxious about feeling that fear again. And when all the fear and anxiety became too much, I ran from it.

I would use a myriad of methods to avoid the fear. Alcohol and pornography being my two main methods, but distractions such as T.V. were another way to avoid my emotional experience. Anyway I could numb out the discomfort I would give a try.

But this never really worked for me. The fear and anxiety would consistently return. Like an old friend, I knew it’s embrace all too well. Or enough to know that I needed to pick up a drink and numb out the feelings that were too much to handle. I was drinking coffee and taking Adderall to speed past the feelings of anxiety and drinking alcohol and taking muscle relaxers to numb out the feelings I was speeding away from in the mornings. It was exhausting.

And most of my running was due to me feeling abandoned. I was left and abandoned by everybody that was close to me from a very early age. My entire family and a good portion of my friends, all my best friends and every would-be role model, all vanished like it was magic.

I would later learn to detach from others before they got too close to me, to save myself from the pain of yet another abandonment. This was no bueno. But this way of detaching left me feeling even more lonely and still more abandoned. So by the time my marriage dissolved and the woman I thought I loved abandoned me, I knew something had to change.

Staying With The Fear

There’s a Mark Twain quote that I’ve always loved and it’s something that I remember in times when I’m caught up in the feelings of fear. It goes, “Courage is resistance to fear, mastery of fear, not absence of fear.” This reminds me that the fear is normal. It’s okay for it to be here, only I shouldn’t let the fear control my actions.

Tara Brach has a talk about dealing with the fear in a direct way. Her method is, attend and befriend, and it’s something that has been helpful for me in my journey on healing from past traumatic events. Her message is essentially, that fear is an emotion that’s trying to tell us something. Usually about how we’re currently in danger in some way.

For me, and I’m sure for a lot of us, the traumatic or painful events that have formed our fears, reshape themselves in current and similar situations to try to keep us safe. Only there is no longer a need to feel fearful in our current situation, because those old events are no longer happening.

For example my fear sometimes comes in the form of connecting with others. This was a way for me to remind myself that other people have been historically unsafe to get close to because they will end up abusing me in some way. But this isn’t true anymore. Or at least I’m able to keep myself safe now if someone does hurt me or tries to abuse me again.

Keeping Ourselves Safe

This was a big task for me, and an important skill to learn especially because I was never taught how and abused by those who were supposed to teach me. I was feeling pretty unsafe a good portion of the time, especially around those closet to me. So I needed to learn how to feel at ease around others, or I was going to end up leading a very isolated existence.

Learning to Trust

I had to first learn that other people are trust worthy and generally good people. This was confusing for me, because all the people I had around me in my early years were not only distrustful of others, but they were actively looking to take advantage of other people as well. This definitely sent me the message that people are dangerous, but also that I needed to act in the ways I had modeled for me in order to survive. I.e. mean, distrustful and to pull away from those who got too close.

To counter these old messages, I had to learn to trust and rely on others. I started small, first with those who were closest in, then extending that trust outward. I knew I could count on a handful of friends and family in the beginning. Four or five people that I engaged with regularly. This was a huge step for me and no easy task.

I was taught that since I couldn’t trust anybody, I had to do everything on my own. So relying on others for help with even the smallest of tasks was a challenge. I would make excuses for why I was doing things solo such as, “no-one does it as well as I do”, needing it to be perfect. Or the reverse, “can’t anybody do anything right?!” Both ways of being essentially saying that I was unable to rely on others, while really just being too scared to ask for help.

On the up side, when I finally swallowed my pride and learned to ask for help, things became so much easier. I was no longer running around frantically, trying to keep all the plates I had spinning from crashing down. I was still working hard, but those I invited into my life were willing to lend a hand.

Letting Those You Trust Help

A great example of letting those I learned to trust help me is with my student loans. As I’ve said, when I came to and realized I was living a life lead by fear, I was isolated from just about everybody. I had also racked up just north of 100k in debt, 78k being in student loans. This was quite the wake up call.

So I started in on my debts using the Dave Ramsey method of throwing everything I had at my debt, picking up a part time job which turned into my full-time gig along the way. But with such a large sum to pay back, it seemed as though it would take a life’s time to pay back all that I owed.

So when I started the conversation with those I chose to let into my circle, I was surprised to find out how willing they were to help me out of the hole I had dug. As they saw me working to pay off my debt, a few of my supports offered to chip in 1k for every 10k I paid off. I was ecstatic to receive this news and made my efforts just that much easier knowing that I’d be finished with my goals earlier than I had planned.

And with the promising news of president Biden saying that he will make a decision about debt forgiveness by the fall of ’22, I reached out to another support who offered to chip in some as well. This was most unexpected as the relationship I have with this support has been strained in the past. But I find the more positive I am, along with the work I’m willing to put into the relationships, the more support I receive in all sorts of ways. But this type of relationship building takes work.

Working To Keep These Relationships Alive To Ward Off Fear

Many of the relationships I am currently rebuilding have sustained some pretty intensive damage in the past from both parties. As I’ve said before on this blog, we were mean, especially towards one another. So as I was learning how to care for myself by reparenting and learning the act of self-care, I was also extending what I learned with my own research and extending it to those I was learning to trust.

What I had never learned, and what is probably a no-brainer to mot people is, that when you’re in a relationship with others, you need to tend to it. Otherwise you will be left with something that doesn’t quite resemble connection and definitely is void of support.

For example, when I started building my relationship with my father and step-mom again, I had neglected our relationship so badly that we had almost no shared common interests and nothing to talk about. Our conversations were overly formal and guarded with very little emotional content.

As time passed and while I was learning to trust people again, I began to include my dad and step-mom into the habits and rituals I was learning to keep for myself. One of them being my self-care dinners I make for myself once a week.

Since these dinners had been so beneficial for my well being, I decided to extend this newly developed skill in caring for myself to those I trusted. And what came from it was, family dinner Fridays. We now come together every Friday night, one person picks a recipe to cook and we all make the meal together. The food is almost always good, the mood and interactions are definitely less formal and we’re all enjoying not only ourselves, but the company of each other. We feel more like a family because of it.

Ask The Friend For Love

And this type of relationship building extend to friend as well. I was recently having a conversation with a friend about how difficult it was to pay down debt when the numbers feel so large. We are both in similar situations and have been a good source of support for one another.

I was thinking about how I wanted to reach out to my friend more often, seeing as we only spoke maybe once every three weeks, when he told me that he was also feeling pretty isolated with the irregular hours he worked, consequently having a lot of free time on his hands. I suggested that we hang out more often and he was more than happy to get together more regularly.

I had just assumed that he was busy living his own life and that if I reached out too often, I would be a burden to him in some way. This was not the case and in fact, most of my friends feel exactly the same way. So if you’re feeling as though you’re being a burden to your friends, don’t believe it. Have a conversation with them and find out how they feel before you make any judgements.

Living From A Place Of Support, Not Fear

Fear can be tricky. If we’re not careful, the fearful emotions we have will take the wheel and we’ll be in the passenger seat of our own life bus. This is how I spent a good portion of my time when it came to making decisions about the direction of where my life was heading and it was definitely not a desirable place to be.

But when we choose to make friends with the fear, the fear of connecting to others, the fear of giving up the control of doing everything ourselves and release that isolation, we begin to heal from the fear. Like Mark Twain said, it’s still there, only we are behind the wheel of our life bus and we can choose to let those who will support us on for our journey and join in for some of the ride.

So fear not! Know that you are not alone and that the journey gets easier the more you’re able to let those who want to, help you. Peace, : ) and thanks for reading.

Image Credits: “O OUTRO LADO DO MEDO É A LIBERDADE (The Other Side of the Fear is the Freedom)” by jonycunha is marked with CC BY-SA 2.0.

“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.

Isolation and Being a Man Shouldn’t Go Hand In Hand

The Man Standard

I spoke about this some in last weeks post, about what it means to be a man. My experience, while growing up in the eighties, was a very polarizing one. Views and mindsets were on the verge of changing to be more inclusive, but there was still a stronghold of intolerance that shaded everything a stark black and white.

The lessons I gleaned from the opinions modeled for me were, men acted one way and women acted another. There were no shared emotional experiences or characteristics. In my family, men were hard, in charge, responsible for everything and got what they wanted, when they wanted it and could resort to force to get it if the other did not comply.

Women on the other hand were objects to be won, raised the children, had no responsibilities, said and did cruel and cutting things with impunity as long as they did whatever the man wanted from them. Spoiler alert, this did not end well for anybody involved.

Why is that so? Because this way of being bred an awful lot of resentment. And if it’s one thing I’ve learned it’s that resentment is corrosive to relationships. I say corrosive because it seemed as though every action was being judged and criticized while every intention was called into question. And at the heart of this resentment was the limiting ideals of who could feel what or could be who they were, aka a human being with emotions, outside of the polarized views of the expected roles of who men and women should be.

This, was, crazy making. I’ve talked about my abuse before on this blog. An experience that shaped my future interactions with people, making me meek and timid around others. My timid nature was the subject of a lot of ridicule among my caregivers. I was called “sensitive”, which under the regime of my family, was a trait that men simply didn’t have.

It didn’t matter to them that I was traumatized at an early age and habitually abused and neglected. The reasoning being, if I were a real man, I should be able to handle it and do it on my own. This was/is an unreasonable expectation of anyone, especially from an eight year-old. But I soldiered on under these expectations, not realizing the damage they were imparting.

Doing It On Our Own

I’m not sure where this standard originated, but it’s one that’s been alive and well for a very long time. From my experience, asking for help was akin to showing vulnerability. And vulnerability was seen and preyed upon as a weakness. In my family anyway, if you showed that you weren’t able to handle something on your own or asked for help in anyway, the other person would show a deep sense of resentment.

Mostly because we all already felt like we were stretching ourselves to thin. So the burden of one more request was sharply felt in the form of resentment. But also because we never thanked anybody, or showed gratitude for anything anybody ever did. We definitely had a martyr complex and did not hesitate to proudly display this to others.

So instead of normalizing relying on and asking for help from others, I was taught that this was an act of aggression. One of disrespecting the other’s time and resources. In reality, I was just too scared to ask for help and to feel the scorn of any would be aid. But since fear was another emotion that men weren’t supposed to feel, I pretended that I was better than asking for help. This was how I tricked myself into believing that asking for help was for the weak.

Weakness Ain’t So Weak

But this wasn’t something that was unique to my family. This was a cultural phenomenon. For example, most all of the Rambo movies were about just this. One man fighting against all odds to make right the situation. Also, Arnold Schwarzenegger from “The Predator”, was another solo male role-model. Doing it all on their own without any help and leaving a wake of destruction wherever they went.

When I was young and felt like I could take on the world, these were definitely two dangerous role-models for me to have. Learning that having to rely on others is a form of weakness, is no way to navigate challenges that come up in the day to day. But this was the playbook I was given. And one I jumped at the chance to emulate. Everybody I looked up to was doing it, why couldn’t, shouldn’t I?

What I hadn’t realized at the time was, that most of the male role-models in my life were scared to death of some sort of version of coming up short. Whether it was due to social pressures, pressures from their loved ones, societal expectations… The list goes on. But instead of owning these limitations as “unreasonable expectations”, the men in my life chose to fake it till they made it. Only, there wasn’t anywhere to go. This however translated to a lot of drinking, belittling others and an awful lot of machismo bravado. And all of it designed to show how independent and manly they were, not realizing they were seeking somebody else’s approval. This did not work in their favor.

Most of the relationships in my family failed in one way or another. Family gatherings became strained events, where we would all inevitably drink too much and talk about those closest to us in demeaning ways. There was an awful lot of hurt feelings and bruised egos as well. And everybody was too scared of one another to share how they actually felt and what was on their mind. It was a suffocating environment to grow up in.

Making The Change: From Man-Up to Cool-Down

When I was in high-school, as I said above, I was meek. I was quiet and timid but also outspoken in other ways. I did not go to classes, and made a few enemies along the way. One of them was a bully, but no ordinary one. Once, when I was confronted and cornered by this bully in the hallway during a class we were both skipping, she punched me in the eye while here two oafish friends held me in place. I had a black eye for a few weeks and on top of that, I had to tell everybody that a girl beat me up.

This was tough for my 15 year-old ego at the time. Especially growing up in the culture I had. If it was one thing that men didn’t do, it was get beat up by a woman. One of my caregivers even came to my defense and said, “what were you supposed to do, you’re not supposed to hit a woman.” There’s a lot of thing that aren’t right about this statement. Among them being, nobody asking why I was getting beat up in school instead of going to classes. But they were too ashamed of my “sensitive” nature to ask the important questions and set things right.

So asides from being taught that it wasn’t okay to be “sensitive”, how did I find a way to take better care of myself even with the years of harmful lessons I was taught? It started with embracing my sensitive nature and calling it for what it was, me being a man having emotions.

Emotional Experiences: From Traumatic Fear to Just Plain Afraid In a Good Way

The road I took wasn’t a straight forward path. There were a lot of twist and turns and quite a few ignored emotions that needed to be felt. When I started “driving my own life bus” as my boss likes to say, I had to swallow my pride and admit that I had made a mess of the life I was living. Not asking for help from anybody left me alone and with few options as far as how to move myself forward.

I moved back in with family members and had to learn how to be a part of a family again, only this time in a healthy way. And this was difficult. The more I was around my family, the more old emotions were coming up that I had been running from. This was when I began dissociating. I would feel an intense emotion come on, and my mind and body just wouldn’t be able to handle it. So I checked out. People have described it as there being nothing behind my eyes, empty. That was the traumatic fear I was unable to fully feel.

But the longer I stayed with the feelings, meeting my edge and softening, the more I could embody them without dissociating. This took a lot of work in the way of, self-care, learning to be able to trust others, accepting support from others and trusting myself that I wasn’t going to carry on the legacy of the lessons that were taught to me.

Practice Makes Perfect: Wait, Maybe That’s an Unreasonable Standard

And what made this work possible, was a whole lot of practice. My default settings were to rely on the harmful lessons of my caregivers past. I had to consciously work to recognize when a situation would arise where I was operating under old, unhealthy ways of being and willfully work to change the course of my old teachings.

A great example of this is the ways I used to view women. As I said above, I was taught that women were objects to be won. This also meant that they were only to be seen as objects and their purpose was to fulfill desire. This meant sexual desire in my family. So my default teaching was, when I saw a woman, I immediately put her in one of two categories: attractive or unattractive. In my family, this was the extent of a woman’s value.

I hadn’t realized how demeaning this was because I wasn’t really driving my own life bus. I was acting on auto pilot, mostly for fear of being rejected by the people who where teaching me these unhealthy lessons in the first place.

So I first had to recognize that these views I held were unhealthy. This came with getting to know the women I was already relying on in my day to day relationships as first; people with emotional worlds all their own, and second as smart, funny, caring and loving individuals. To my surprise, they were fun and loving people with loads of personality and lots to contribute to just about every area of life. This is a bit of hyperbole, as I’ve always had a respect for women.

But treating them as equals was something that went against my initial teachings and something I had to actively recognize, when I was judging them solely on their appearance. Because how can you really see someone as equal if you decide their worth boils down to how hot they look in an outfit or naked?

So I was relying on the aid of these women to teach me how unhealthy my views and lessons learned were, by them being amazing and strong women. I was also recognizing the judgements I was making that were popping up in my mind as they were happening, while also challenging them in the moment.

This was tough, I’m not gonna lie. And I can see how some would choose to bury their heads in the sand and pretend it doesn’t need their attention. But the quality of my relationships has grown exponentially with these women and I’ve learned so much just by being around them. For example, my boss is an amazing woman who’s, started her own business after leaving a successful career in finance where she traveled around the world while raising a family. She’s like an unstoppable machine and I’m pretty sure who Merion-Webster had in mind when they defined the word and phrase, “capable” and “excels in every area.”

I could go on and I want to take this opportunity to thank all the women, especially those who go unrecognized, for putting up with people who I used to resemble for as long as you have without killing us. You are much stronger than we’ve ever given you credit for being : ) Thanks.

So the new lessons I’m choosing to live by are, men don’t have to go it alone. There are loads of people that are more than willing to lend a hand, women being among some of the the most capable. And asking for help is not equivalent to weakness. If you’ve found yourself in a situation similar to mine, know that you are not alone. It takes some work to break free, but it is most definitely worth it. I’ll leave you with a song that’s given me strength on my journey. Peace 🙂 and thanks for reading.

Strength, Courage and Wisdom. India Arie

Image Credits: “Lonely Man” by Nickeeth Lopez is marked with CC BY-NC 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.

Healthy Sex Life, Healthy Relationship: How You Relate to Sex Matters

I was at my workplace a few days ago when I noticed an attractive woman enter the store. My first thoughts were, “man, she’s beautiful”. Thinking back on this now, I’m amazed at how different my reactions and intentions are from what they used to be. Before I would judge the attractiveness of a woman by her body and how she looked. Now I notice more subtle characteristics of women and their personality is a large part of the whole.

This isn’t to say that I don’t find other aspects of women attractive. Such as their looks and how in shape they are. But they are for much different reasons now and a much smaller part of the equation.

Sex was All I Could Think About

In my youth, it seemed that all I was focused on was sex. The question “how do I find a hottie to bang?” was one I asked myself often. And full discloser, I did not have much game. And to be fair, I was raised in a family that held sexual desirability as their number one value. We used sex as a way to be liked and a way to gage how much we were valued. If you couldn’t find someone to have sex with, then you were doing something wrong.

This was the message that I was receiving, not only in my family but also everywhere I went. Sex was all anybody I hung out with seemed to talk about. Whenever I was with my friends, we would objectify women to some degree. Whether it was whom my friend was cheating on his girlfriend with, or what “chick” I wanted to “bang”, we had always viewed women as objects, prizes to be had.

This was not a healthy way to be in relationship. Pornography was also something that was ubiquitous in all of my relationships. From contraceptives being left on the backs of toilets in my childhood home, to the enormous pornography collections of my caregivers, to my later pornography habits, sex was the number one way we all were relating to ourselves and how we judged each other.

When Looking Good is Priority One

One of my caregivers went so far as to offer me money to lose weight. I was overweight as a teenager and had no self restraint when it came to how I fed myself. Of course, they were feeding me. So instead of being taught a healthy relationship to what I was eating, I was being bribed to learn how to for myself. These were confusing messages I was receiving. Especially as a child trying to establish my own set of values and seeing my caregivers practiced values directly in contradiction to what they said they desired.

So my health goals all revolved around how I could look good naked. Again, an unhealthy way to relate to my nourishing myself. And as unhealthy as it was to be a guide for my eating habits, it was even worse of a guide for how I valued myself and my partner in my relationships.

I put looking attractive as more important than being kind or loving. The kinds of relationships I was trying to cultivate were those based on how attractive we were and how others found me and my partner desirable. And I was constantly judging other women as more or less attractive to my then current partner.

Women had been treated as sex objects for so long in my family, mostly by the women in my family, that when it came time for me to find and develop a relationship all my own, I looked for a partner with impossibly high standards and who was critically minded. Together, between the two of us, nothing ever measured up to our standards.

Unhealthy Values = Unhealthy Communication

When you’re as concerned about how you look to others as we were, for me more so physically and my partner more ideologically, you are afraid of being seen as anything but perfect. It felt as though every expectation was being picked apart and analyzed by each other. “Am I adding up?” was my constant concern. But I was also to proud to admit I was scared that I wasn’t enough in the eyes of my partner.

I was acting as though I was beyond reproach, but really was scared of what anybody thought of me. So instead of being vulnerable, taking the risk and being open and honest with my partner about how I felt I wasn’t good enough to be with, I ran.

I thought I developed feelings for another woman and ran to be by her side. What I was really recognizing was that, the other woman was just as judgmental as my partner and I were, but they were enthusiastic about being with me. I couldn’t see this at the time, but even with my being blinded to what was happening to me and my inability to communicate, I still offered to work through our issues with my then, current partner.

Understandably, she declined and ultimately left me. And this all stemmed from us being unable to share our emotions and perspectives of what was happening in our relationship because we were too scared to show each other our vulnerabilities. Our fear was that they (our vulnerabilities) would be abused as they had in us before by those we trusted.

And I can’t help but to feel that if my number one value wasn’t based on how attractive I or my partner was, then maybe I would have been able to see them, my partner, as a person instead of an abject. Also myself as a person instead of an object. We would have been able to have conversations about other values and feelings. Like our vulnerabilities and fears of trusting others for the times they were abused in the past. All of these “difficult” conversations could have lead to tighter bonds and wiser decision making. I may even still be married.

But the sad fact is, we just weren’t ready for that level of intimacy and trust. The ability to release control of how others saw us. As if we had control of that to begin with. Instead we all just ended up hurt and me alone.

Okay I Know My Values are Askew, Now What?

I figured this out after I had already done some serious damage to a majority of my relationships. This however, wasn’t the worst thing that could have happened to me. After I had been left for the second time for wanting to change the trajectory of my life, I ended up at my father’s house.

Here I was challenged to face some of those fears around being vulnerable in the presence of those who left and abused me. I’ve said before on this blog, if it wasn’t for this chance to rebuild a relationship I had been running from my entire life, I most likely would have ended up homeless.

So I started the work of cleaning up the mess I had made of my life. And the mess was formidable indeed. One of the places I began was, to start treating individuals with the respect I thought they deserved.

People as People, Not Objects

This was difficult for me because as I’ve said above, all of my role models, and I mean ALL, objectified women as sex objects and men as calloused and in charge. I had to identify the unhealthy habits I was practicing without realizing it and make a conscious effort to change what I was unconsciously doing.

One of the habits I identified to change was, I didn’t make eye contact with women I met. I was usually making a judgement on how attractive I thought they were by staring at their bodies. In my youth, I once entered my workplace and objectified the woman at the counter to my then friend by making rude gestures only to realize that it was my sister I was objectifying. This is something I’m not proud of, but that’s how I chose to live my life.

Now, I keep my eyes at face level. The person I’m interacting with deserves my attention and more importantly, my respect. I find that with a more concerted effort to pay attention to the person by not judging them, it’s easier to talk with them and I feel less pressure and as though I’m being judged.

And this is not an easy habit to break if you’re used to objectifying women the way that I had been. I find that I subconsciously want to search out different body parts or not make eye contact at all. But if repetition created my habit, it’s repetition that will break it.

Learning to Communicate How I Feel and Ask How Others Are Feeling, Not Just Acting a Part

Being able to acknowledge people as people and not objects has helped me in other areas as well. I’m more able to have open and honest conversations with people. Especially those close to me, instead of trying to be seen as someone who is likeable. I’m also able to own my mistakes now because I’m not afraid of looking less than perfect.

For example, the woman I currently work for is an excellent role model of someone who values honest communication over being seen as in control, or an authority. As a result, because of her values and because I’m able to see her as a person with value, I’m not afraid to talk about my mistakes and learn how to improve through them. This was something that was seen as a weakness in my family while I was growing up.

I’m also more confident in who I am as well. When I have a disagreement with someone, I now know how I feel about what’s happening, how I’m being treated by the other or how the other person feels. I used to fear being disliked and would do or say just about anything to feel belonging. Or I had no control over my anger and let it fly without restraint. Also something I was told was the mark of a man.

I had an argument with my father not to long ago that could have ended poorly had I chose to react the ways I used to when confronted with conflict. Instead of freezing him out after he reacted in a way that he later regretted, I was able to stand in my body and feel the full force of his anger while acknowledging that how he was reacting was not a reflection of who I am, how he sees me or makes me any less of who I already am.

I felt confident in myself, that I could take care of myself and stand up for myself at the same time. I felt as though I had an inner strength by standing up for myself instead of folding to the other person’s wishes or acting in a petty way. We were able to resolve our argument while acknowledging how we each felt. We both felt heard and that felt good.

I Thought There Was Going to Be More Talk About Sex?

So how does this all tie into a better sex life? These aren’t just disparate parts working independently of each other. So much of how we see one another and how we talk to each other forms the bonds that holds our relationships together. If you are constantly objectifying women as sex objects, including your partner, as I was, eventually they become one dimensional. And inevitably we will search out others to fill the need for novelty. This leads to an unhealthy relationship and sexlife.

But if we choose to view our partners, and people in general as multi-dimensional, then we begin to build more intimate bonds that will last beyond when we get bored with the one aspect of the person we decide to fetishize. This leads to feeling and being heard, understood and ultimately loved. And yes, when sex isn’t the sole focus of our interests, it becomes more enjoyable when you do indulge in it : ) It’s something to look forward to as opposed to what we hinge our value on.

And what brings this all together is, practice. It’s not always easy and in fact, it’s sometimes down right hard. But keep after it and it will pay off. There’s so much to discover about those closest to us that it would be a shame to ignore focus only on one aspect. Peace, and thanks for reading : )

Image Credits: “Romance & Sex Life of the Date” by Thomas Hawk is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

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