What to do When You are Surrounded by People Unwilling to Move on, Leaving You to Move Forward on Your Own

I’ve been through and dealt with a lot of trauma in my past. It’s been a crazy ride to say the least. But I’m finally in a place where I’ve taken the deep dive inward, faced my demons eye to eye, and have come out the stronger for it. But after doing the difficult work of inner reflection, I’m left with little in the way of support. After I woke from my trance of fear and self-doubt, I discovered that almost everyone that has been my support to some degree is in exactly the same place I used to be. Scared to move into the future, and clinging to the past in hopes of getting what they never got in the first place. This is a frustrating place to be.

So how did I and how can we move on when we see our past selves reflected in those that are closest to us? From my experience, it starts with setting healthy boundaries and by understanding that we are solely responsible for our own actions and emotions. While everybody else is responsible for their actions and emotions as well. This is a difficult lesson to learn when you are on your own, looking towards other people to help you move on who want to stay locked in their old patterns of blaming others for their emotional states. It can be a confusing place to be to say the least.

The dynamic with my caregivers growing up was, as I’ve said above, one where nobody ever took responsibility for their own emotions. It was everybody else’s fault that they felt the ways they did because others MADE them feel that way. Not that their emotional states are a reaction to an action that originated from someone else, and something that they (the owner of the emotion) have control over (their own emotions).

Coming to relationships from this perspective, it makes perfect sense why it would be scary to foster and develop relationships with others. Other people become the sources of possible discomfort, fear and pain. From this mind set, it’s not your fault you feel this way. It’s the other person who is unjustly doing you harm, with malicious intent. And this feeling is only compounded if you’ve experienced betrayal or trauma in your past. To quote Iron and Wine’s, “Sacred Vision”, “forgiveness is fickle when trust is a chore”.

I was wrapped up in blaming others for my experience of my emotions for much too long. It was a prison I was holding myself in, to avoid the pain of feeling connected again and the hurt and betrayal from those I loved and trusted. And I pushed a lot of people away using that method of being. But it wasn’t my fault, it was what was taught to me. And even though it wasn’t my fault, it was and is still my responsibility to take control of my emotional life and give myself the loving guidance I needed, but never received. And this was difficult. It still is.

I used to dissociate. If you’re not familiar with the term, it’s when you disconnect from your emotions, body and current circumstances. It’s a defense mechanism to protect the self from feelings that are too overwhelming due most likely to trauma. It’s like when you blackout from drinking too much. Only no drinking involved. This is scary. Knowing that your emotions could overpower you and leave you feeling completely helpless. But even still, with emotions so powerful that they could render me completely vulnerable and unable to account for my actions, I was and am still responsible for my emotions.

This may seem unreasonable to some. I understand, it’s not an easy thing to experience let alone understand. But our emotions are only that, emotions. And if we let them, they will control our lives leaving us victims of our own feeling selves. But if we want to live in peace with our emotions, we need to learn how to self regulate. For me this happened when I slowed down long enough to be able to feel and stay present with each emotion, regardless of how difficult it was too feel.

When I slowed down enough, stayed curious enough, that’s when my emotions really began to take shape. I could feel each emotion as it was happening, and realized that there was a reason for it being there. Before I had the patients to sit with my emotions, I was drinking a lot of coffee. I think I was doing this to stay ahead of my emotions, so I didn’t have to feel them. This was my way of avoiding my emotions, and one I learned from my caregivers.

I also drank a lot of alcohol at night, to numb what I was trying to speed past during the day. This was another habit I picked up from my caregivers. Also something I needed to learn to undue, to defrost the frozen emotions that had been piling up through the years.

Both the patients and the thaw were difficult aspects of my healing to learn. There was a reason I was running from the emotions I was and it was because they were painful! The amount of neglect and abuse that needed to be processed and at the hands of my caregivers, seemed insurmountable. And the process still isn’t over. I still hit pockets of feelings of abandonment and distrust. Fear and distress. But the difference now is that I can recognize them for the emotions they are and let them be. Without trying to cover over, speed past or numb them out. They appear, they are intense, but they subside. As long as I stay present with the feelings, as they are happening, they don’t add up to overwhelm me at some later date or in the moment.

And it took a lot of practice to get to this point. A lot of faith too, to know that I would be okay if I let the feelings in again. After being betrayed by them so long ago and by so many. It also took a fair amount of forgiveness as well. I had to forgive others for how they abused me, and myself for the ways I abused myself. Learning to trust again after so much abuse is difficult. But it starts with us. If we trust ourselves, we can learn to trust others again as well.

And that’s not to say we fling the doors wide open and trust whomever happens to walk through them. We need to use wise discernment when evaluating whom is and is not trustworthy. But the first step is to unshackle the doors to our emotional bodies to be able to feel out how others make us feel with their actions. If our boundaries are being violated in some way, this is a good indicator that something is not right. Off in some way. But we can’t do that at all if we don’t at least greet them at the door.

I think this is what me and my caregivers were so afraid of. We wanted some guaranty that we weren’t going to be hurt by the other or another. But there is no guaranty and in relationships there is always the possibility of getting hurt. There’s no way around that. But some people will lock themselves up their entire lives for fear that they will get hurt again. This is the case with my caregivers. So along with the intense and crazy amounts of abuse I’ve received, they also taught me to isolate and not ask for any help for the emotional pain I was experiencing. Double whammy.

I’ve recently been staying with one of my caregivers and this situation has been breached on multiple occasions. The most recent was when I had realized that my caregiver has been dissociating for years. This was kind of a shock to recognize at first. I had been so focused on how I was coming to understand and learn about and relate to my emotions, that I hadn’t even realized that I had learned to dissociate from a combination of my caregivers! I had been so desperate for support, I was clinging to whatever form was readily available to me. And what was available was a form of unhealthy attachment.

My caregiver had never learned to relate to their emotions. And in turn, taught me to avoid feeling anything as well. I felt like I was blindsided when I realized what I had been struggling with for so long was in fact a learned behavior from my caregiver. Only the trauma I received was intense enough for me to be in emotional shock for a very long time. I hadn’t even realized I was dissociating until the shock wore off decades after the initial traumas. Out of the frying pan and into the fire.

So once I wasn’t in emotional shock anymore, the dissociation started. I had been dealing with it in some form for the past five years. The causes were mostly from pushing myself beyond what my mental and physical limitations are in a self-destructive way. Like the time I ran three miles and did yoga for 45 minutes, after a full day of work and not eating anything from the time I woke up at 5am. I got out of the shower and passed out. But while I was out, I had a full conversation with my caregiver about how tired I was.

But I also dissociated around others, when I was building some form of relationship. It would happen, that I would begin to feel an overwhelming sense that I was unsafe. Then I wouldn’t remember anything for a chunk of time, maybe 30-45 seconds. Then everything would continue as normal only I wouldn’t be aware of what just happened. It was confusing for sure, but not totally unexpected. Considering how disconnected I was from almost everybody and all the traumas I’ve experienced at the hands of caregivers. I was so afraid to be in my body and feel my emotions, that if I got even close to feeling them, I would panic and leave in the form of dissociation.

But knowing that it was something that I learned from a caregiver gave me hope. Hope that I could reconnect with the parts of me that had been pushed away for so long. As it was, I felt as though I were isolated when I was with my caregivers already. So I used this time to reconnect with myself. I learned to listen to myself. How I am feeling, when an emotion comes up I give it my full attention as well as I’m able. I ask myself what I need, but also give myself the caring and gentle guidance that was never taught to me by my caregivers. It was in this kind self talk that I learned how to ease into myself again. To be present in my body. It was a slow process, but it needed to be slow.

I had been running from and freezing my emotions for so long that if I undid everything all at once, it would most likely have unfortunate effects. There was also a lot of difficult feelings to process. Big feelings. Like the fear and shame from the abuses I experienced. I remember many sleepless nights where I held myself against what felt like a cold and malicious world, while I relived the emotions that had been too painful to endure the first time around. I felt my younger self, huddled in terror as I allowed the emotions to wash over me. I didn’t want to, and my instinct was to fight them. But as I let them flow through me, they became lighter, more manageable.

And with this release of emotions, came a freedom. The emotions sometimes still comeback, but I know them now. And I fear them less, or I am more secure of who I am in knowing that I can handle what comes up. But it was only after I did this work, after I woke from the fear and terror that had gripped my life, that I saw those closest to me, who’ve experienced traumas as well, still gripped in that same fear.

This was where I was seeing my old fear in their actions and emotions. The way they would knit their hands together in uncertainty made me feel as though they were unsafe. What that meant to my past self was that I was unsafe. These kinds of triggers would happen frequently. From the short conversations we would have about the weather, never really going any deeper than topical subjects. To being too afraid to ask for help with a project. Some sort of shared collaboration that would mean some type of emotional connection or vulnerability.

There was too much fear to connect in any spontaneous way. And even the ways I had planned were tenuous. I had been batch cooking my meals, and started a self-care Sunday dinner where I would cook a special meal for myself once a week. This helped to heal some of the raw emotion that was wrapped around food for me. So I decided to ask my caregivers to join me in a night where we cooked meals together. They agreed, but it was the first thing we had done together since I had been staying there and I had been there for a long time. It was incredibly vulnerable for me to share a resource that has been so healing. But I thought that I would take the risk. Open up.

It was a success the first few times. We enjoyed the meals and had fun cooking. But after having a conversation with one of my caregivers, where they said they didn’t really feel emotions, I began to wonder if what I was trying to build was a mutually shared experience. From my perspective, there needs to be effort put in on all parts. My caregiver has never put effort into any aspect of their life. They never ask for help or try to connect with anyone. If they are involved in something, it was someone else’s idea or plan. This is sad to think about, but also necessary to understand that for better or worse, my caregiver is responsible for their own self, emotions and actions.

And this is where it is most important to keep clear and firm boundaries. Especially with those who will continuously take, without even realizing how much pain they are causing to the other person. For example, if they don’t really know what feelings are, then they have no idea how vulnerable I am being by sharing something that has been such an important resource for me. They can’t then begin to understand the emotional investment I have in those dinners, and how sad it makes me to think that the only ways we connect are in ways that I come up with. In a way it feels like being used. Yeah, it’s a good time, but when the good time is over and you have a conversation with the person, as I did with my caregiver, about how they don’t really feel emotions, it feels like a slap in the face.

Where it gets tricky, and where a lot of people get caught up in, is blaming the other person for “taking advantage of my feelings”. It’s a frustrating place to be, to know that the only way you connect is through your own intentions and efforts. But it’s not the other person’s fault that we feel taken advantage of. We have a right to feel however we feel, but the difference is knowing that you have control over how you will and will not be treated. You give up your power when you make the other person responsible for how you feel. This may be obvious for some, but if your were steeped in an environment where, how everybody felt was the fault of everybody else’s doing, then you are raised to believe you have no power. You are at the emotional whim of those closest to you.

So in the case that you are sharing something that is close to you, or is held in a vulnerable space, it’s important to know what your limits are. How much are you willing to give, without receiving anything in return? And it’s important to respect your limits and boundaries. This is especially important if you are still cultivating trust in yourself, and others. The more we let our boundaries be violated by ourselves and others, the more difficult it is to build and maintain this trust.

It’s also just as important to realize how much the person you are giving to is aware that they are taking without reciprocating. If they don’t know that they’re taking without reciprocating, it may be easier to forgive because the intention isn’t malicious, but the result is still the same regardless, and you have to take care of yourself first. If it is malicious to some degree then it is important to know this, and set firm boundaries around the person.

And also keep an eye on how you’re feeling regularly so you don’t burn yourself out. Life is demanding enough without spreading yourself too thin. Especially if you have someone in your life that may be a taker without realizing it. Setting aside some self-care time is essential to keeping yourself in a place that is healthy enough to meet the demands of everyday life.

Find friends and close ones that are willing to listen. I don’t know where I’d be if it wasn’t for the handful of close friends I have, that I can reach out to when I need a pep talk or just someone who knows where I’m at. Also take time to understand what your likes and dislikes are. This may take some digging, especially if you are, like so many, wrapped up in the latest trend that feels fun, just to be a part of something. For me, my yoga and running practices are essential to my peace of mind. Cooking as well, as I’ve mentioned above.

Find support. When you are dealing with people who are stuck in the past, it’s easy to get locked into old patterns of behavior. Knowing you’re not going it alone is something that is invaluable for your emotional well being. I hope you’ve found this to be helpful in some way. If you have any resources you’d like to share, to help regain your peace of mind, I’d love to hear about them in the comments section below. And as always, peace, and thanks for reading : )

Image Credits:“‘We must learn how to MOVE ON. MOVE PAST THE DISTRACTION.’ James Martin MOVE ON TO WHERE GOD IS TAKING YOU. CHANGE IS AHEAD. GREATER IS IN FRONT OF YOU.” by diva0768 is licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0

Affirmations: More than Positive Self Talk

“Affirmations? Really?” That used to be how and what I thought about them. Of course my introduction to them was from the Saturday Night Live character, Stuart Smalley, and his daily affirmation, “I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and doggonit, people like me.” This scathing introduction to the world of self-help was just the type of fuel an adolescent me needed to make fun of those willing to look for something that would make them stronger, more resilient. Of course I was thirteen and knew everything at the time, so I should probably cut my younger self some slack ;]

All joking aside, I’ve come to see affirmations in a much different light as when I was a teenager, and have been using them as a way to help create a sense of stability. To build confidence and help give myself the guidance I so desperately needed in my childhood. Of course I had to swallow a little bit of pride first. If you’ve read my post on toxic masculinity, you’ll know I was brought up to believe that things like affirmations were for the ineffectual, the weak.

According to my family, I was a man at eight years old after my parents divorced. I became “the Man of the house”, or so I was told by almost every male role model. Almost as a way of consoling me, as if to say “buck up son, no time to be upset, you have new responsibilities to get after”. Looking back this all seems ridiculous, but when I was eight, it felt like the weight of the world was on my shoulders.

From my younger perspective, men took what they wanted and were the embodiment of confidence and strength. If there was a problem, the man would take care of it using sheer force. There was no need to account for feelings, or even others points of view. So from this mindset, affirmations weren’t something a man needed because he already imbued strength and confidence by virtue of being a man. They were a given.

I even came to live life to my family’s standard of what it means to be a man in the ways that made my family comfortable. Something I’ve created an affirmation around to combat this sense of toxic masculinity that was handed down to me. But it was hollow. I pushed everyone away with cutting criticisms and needed to numb the feelings I had been ignoring in order to be who I thought I should be, according to how I saw those closest to me behave. It was anxiety producing and most of the time I was filled with fear.

And all this fear that was growing unchecked, was fueled by pride and bravado. I was perpetually putting down others to make myself seem more confident, more capable than I actually was. The nature of my thoughts were negative and born from insecurity. And I was practicing them constantly. The more I practiced them, the deeper I sunk into the hollowness I was creating around me. There’s a Modest Mouse album I used to listen to often, and its name embodies this sentiment for me, “Building Nothing out of Something”.

And that’s what it felt like for sure. After I had burned all my bridges, I was left completely alone, with only my negative thoughts to keep me company. That was about six years ago, and since then I’ve been rebuilding, well, just about every aspect of my life. From relationships to people, to food, and maybe most importantly, to myself. I had to find a way to replace that constant negative self talk and doubt that had become my M.O. for so long. That’s when I began using positive affirmations.

I think the idea took root while I was taking a psychology course at a local community college. My professor, Gerry, was an upbeat woman in her early sixties, who spoke a lot about positive psychology. This branch of psychology focuses on the individuals strengths, to live a fuller, happier life with more meaning. Affirmations, for me, are a way to focus on these, the positive qualities of my life. The areas that help me effect change in my world.

But there was a lot of unchecked emotional baggage I needed to go through (that I’m still going through), in order to know what aspects of my life to focus on and how I was relating to my emotional experiences of them, so I could give my affirmations direction.

I mainly focus on the ways that I’ve experienced trauma and how unsafe I feel around others. As well as the loneliness of the neglect and verbal abuse I experienced in my childhood. I’ve been doing this work with the help of a therapist, who has been an invaluable resource for me on my journey, and if there’s one bit of advice I can give, it is do not go this alone.

There are many times where I need the guidance of someone who knows about the path I’m on. And if you were left with caregivers like mine, you may not have many healthy lessons to reflect back on. This is exactly where outsourcing some healthier new views on how to handle experiences in the present, that may bring up old ways of reacting to emotions that may help you to see them from a more positive, strength based perspective. This can make the difference between establishing a healthy, lasting change, or opening an old wound that you may not be capable of processing alone at the time.

And it’s after the work of understanding how we react to our emotions and experiences is done, that we’re then able to forge affirmations that can help us to facilitate change. Mine are a work in process, and alter slightly as I come to understand how I react to the maladaptive lessons I’ve learned to use over the years, to navigate my emotional states.

It’s only now that I’m learning that my emotions aren’t anything to be ashamed of, no matter how I was shamed for having them as a child. It took decades of repeated reinforcement of the maladaptive lessons I was taught on how to be with my emotions that got me to where I am today, so I wasn’t totally surprised to find out that it takes lots of practice to reinforce the more positive perspectives I wish to embody. A little frustrating for sure, but not surprising.

And this is where it gets difficult. We have to navigate the result of years of negative reinforcement, while introducing the positive aspects of how we want to interact with our emotions. It can be tricky to figure out on your own. Especially if there has been a lot of verbal abuse. This is where persistence is key to making a lasting, positive change and the aid of someone who can help to steer you back on the path when inevitably you veer off.

One way I’ve veered from the path, many times, is when I’m caught in the grip of some irrational fear that I know stems from my abuse in some way. When the fear sets in, usually in the form of negative thinking, my mind insists on believing the horrible thoughts that are running through my head. This usually leads to more fear and anxiety. It’s then that a part of my affirmations will come to mind, like a firm place to hold on to. Some stability. But it’s because of how persistently I practice positive self-talk that I’m able to create the space necessary to gain a clear perspective when I’m in the thick of these difficult emotions.

And I cannot stress enough that it takes practice. The more often you say and focus on the positive, the more often your mind will default to it when thoughts and circumstances pop up, as they do in day to day life events. For example if you’re insecure about meeting new people, or being judged, the more often we say to ourselves, “it’s okay to be me, just as I am,” the more likely we are to remember this sentiment when we are in a situation where we are being introduced to someone for the first time.

I say mine once a day, and sometimes, if a part of them comes to mind, I scan my circumstances to see if it’s tied to an old belief in how I’m relating to it and my current situation. If so, I’ll remind myself of the positive ways I want to relate to my thoughts and emotions in the here and now. Then sometimes I’ll repeat the whole of my affirmations, just for a little extra boost of confidence. This usually helps to subside any of whatever anxiety and fear may be present.

And it’s not always easy. To be completely honest, sometimes it just plain sucks. But it never lasts very long and it subsides much quicker now than it ever has. And the more often I practice them, the better and more confident I feel about myself while being able to endure the difficult emotions and finding my footing onto more stable ground.

Practicing affirmations probably isn’t in style. I’m not sure how people would react to me if I told them I regularly give myself pep talks to build confidence and generally feel better about myself. But maybe that’s part of what helps to build the courage we’re seeking. Doing something that isn’t in line with what others see as “tough” or “strong”, but striking out on our own and finding what helps to make us feel stronger, more courageous.

I know it seems clicie, but it’s true, finding the strength in ourselves first, is how we come to feel stronger. It’s not out there, in someone or something else, but right here. All we’re really doing when we use affirmations is reminding ourselves of what’s already right here. The frase namaste comes to mind, the divine in me, recognizes the divine in you. The “divine” is what we’re “recognizing” when we decide to reinforce the search for the strength in ourselves by focusing on the positive in us by using specific affirmations in the ways we feel we are lacking in confidence. Or seeing the positive in ourselves. It’s already right here, we just have to recognize that it’s here.

Using affirmations can be a good foundation to find the personal strength needed to build, or as it was in my case, rebuild the basics of healthy relationships with others, healthy self-image and how we care for ourselves. It takes work, and it can be tough at times. But learning to use the tools of positive self-talk has the ability to strengthen every other aspect of our lives. From who we choose to surround ourselves with, to where we feel we deserve to live or work and how we care for ourselves. If you haven’t thought about it, or are on the fence about them, it may be worth your time to give it some serious thought. Because the nature of your thoughts holds the power to shape your world. Thanks for reading, peace :]

Image Credits: “Ben Eine – The Strangest Week : Smiley Faces / Acid House Faces – Hackney Road / Diss Street, London E2” by bobaliciouslondon is licensed under CC BY 2.0