Alone: Being Resilient While You’re with Yourself

Being alone isn’t easy. Take away the distractions that we often pump into our day to day and it’s nearly impossible. People expend a lot of effort to get away from the life they find right here. This is what Tara Brach calls “the unlived life”. And it’s aptly named, because this is the life that is usually filled with concern, worry or anxiety. All emotions that nobody really wants to be around.

What happens if I disagree with my employer, or boss at work? What happens when I feel differently than what most people feel as being “normal”, or status quo? These are some difficult questions, and ones that come with a host of feelings, all revolving around feeling excluded or alone in your experience or emotions. These are vulnerable places to be.

And this is where we have a choice. A lot of people, including my past self, choose to run from these places inside ourselves. It’s easier to do what is expected of us in order to keep the order of the existing established rules. Even if this order, and sometimes, especially if the order is dysfunctional. Because those that are keeping the order sometimes need the added validation of their existing situation, of running from their vulnerability, to feel as though they are doing what is best, all in the name of avoiding their unlived life. I.e. the vulnerability of the difficult emotions of uncertain and unanswered questions.

And, all of this isn’t easy. That’s why it’s being run from in the first place! If it were easy, I’d imagine we’d all have many more healthy relationships and the world would be filled with a lot less conflict. But the truth is that we live in a world that is fraught with these types of relationships. And on top of the vulnerability, these habits and ways of being can sometimes be difficult to see, making them even more insidious as the root cause of much of our anxiety around varying relationships.

When you are stuck in the middle of the uneasy feelings, i.e. perceived expectations or mind reading, established relational roles or pigeonholing, most often it is difficult to see past the immediate dis-ease of feeling vulnerable, alone and uncomfortable, and instead we stay the course of what has been historically accepted, avoidance. In other words, the path is clear to follow, but it’s not always the healthiest path.

And this intricate dance, this confusing maze of expectations mixed with emotions and perceived expectations, can be the cause of much miscommunication. From my experience, when you expect a person to behave, act or take on/conform to certain unspoken standards, this is where people feel as though they are never adding up to another’s expectations, or just plane don’t feel enough. And a life’s time worth of feeling as though you’re not adding up is a lonely place to be.

So if we are constantly trying to live up to somebody else’s standards, and we feel as though we’re coming up short, how do we break the cycle of handing the responsibility of living our own lives to others by trying to live up to what they expect of us? I found, for myself anyways, that setting goals and owning my feelings are paramount to taking the leading role in living my own life.

I was so used to deferring the responsibility of the choices that needed to be made during the course of my days to somebody else, that it just became second nature. And there are no shortage of people that are willing to take up that role if you let them. So I first had to recognize what it was that I was running from, in order to take up the reigns of my life again. And this takes patients.

Patients first with you’re emotional experiences and second with finding the ways to best take care of yourself and your emotional needs. If this is something you’ve been leaving for someone else to manage than it is going to be a steep learning curve for sure.

For me, I had left that job for the person I was in relationship with. I had learned this from my caregivers, so I actively sought out this relationship dynamic. And as I’ve said above, there was no shortage of people looking to live my life for me. It wasn’t until I had ended these relationships that I was left with the unsettling truth that I needed to show up for, and live my own life. This was a shock for sure, because it was a dynamic that I was almost completely unaware of until I was left with myself.

I had to make all the decisions for myself, by myself. Everything from grocery shopping and cooking to budgeting, exercise and work decisions. All were left to my better judgements. It was scary and overwhelming at first. I remember feeling as though I couldn’t possibly take on the entire task of living my life all at once. But what I found made the biggest impact, which helped me to make these decisions without being overwhelmed by the scope of them was, patients, and taking things one step at a time.

Taking things slowly was important to learn. To recognize that I didn’t need to do it all at once, that I could take each task on slowly and deliberately. This helped me to not only make healthier choices, but I also had a clearer presence of mind while making the decisions. So I was also making better choices.

And also learning how to be patient with the emotional experiences as they were happening. Knowing when that little voice that pops up, the one that tells you that you need to act immediately, or else! And how to let that voice have its piece, but also not responding from that voice by being patient enough for the feeling of urgency to wear off, in order to then respond from a place that is more calm and able to see the situation from a more clear perspective.

And instead of feeling stressed out and as though you are frantically looking for answers to a situation by yourself, patients with ourselves allows us the time and space necessary to feel comfortable with the connectic feelings of urgency and uncertainty, while also allowing us to take a responsible and grounded approach to taking care of any situation that needs our attention.

For me, one of the ways this has played out in my recent past is in my professional life. I’m currently in the middle of picking up a new role and responsibilities at a new place of employment. I went in for a shift, and it was unlike the experience I was used to in a similar role at a different agency in the past. My first reaction, instinct was to walk away from the role. I thought that “this is unacceptable” and I was unwilling to compromise. This was, for me, the voice of urgency telling me I was in a situation that wasn’t safe.

But I decided to give the issue some more thought. I talked it over with a trusted friend, and came up with some thoughtful and direct questions that would communicate what my concerns were and how I was feeling about everything I was experiencing. But I had to do it on my own. Sure, I got some advice and guidance from a friend, but it was a new perspective that I gained. I still had to go inward and explore what I was feeling about the situation I was getting myself into.

What are my thoughts and feelings about what I’m about to do or plan on doing, and how am I going to address and attune to my feelings. This is where resilience is cultivated. Because essentially, these are the places where you meet your fears, feel them and find out what they are telling you, and then make some decisions about how you’re going to accept the fear, but move through it anyway to a place where you are confident in your ability to progress.

And like most ambitions in life, it’s not always easy. In my taking on a new role in a new position, I had some fears about the role, some concerns about how things are, and how I was used to them being in the past. I then had to be patient with my initial response which was to walk away from it out of fear. And then feel the fear and understand what I was trying to tell myself by exploring why I was uncomfortable. Once I explored my concerns, I then came up with a plan to take care of and attune to my feelings so they didn’t grow unchecked and take control of my actions.

Another step to this process is, being present with the discomfort of the feelings that are arising when I’m exploring and encountering new situations that provoke fear and uncertainty. Because if it wasn’t for the ability to stay with the feelings, especially the uncomfortable ones, then you would be constantly running from the situations that provoke these emotions. Keeping yourself in a comfort zone where you are unable to grow.

And this is how we learn to navigate our fears and anxieties, while moving forward with our lives in a positive direction. Staying flexible enough to face each new feeling that rises to meet us, but also holding our ground and knowing that we are enough to meet and grow through these new situations. Again, not always an easy task, but there’s something to be said for overcoming a challenge.

These are the decisions that we need to take care of, that come into our lives that we all have to face on our own. As I’ve said above, I used to defer this part of self-care and life responsibility to others. I can remember vividly Living with an ex-partner, in an apartment they had found, working at a job I wasn’t very happy with and going to school for something I wasn’t really sure I wanted to do. I had no idea what I was doing in life, but regardless, I just kept on going being propped up by those around me.

And it’s not as though I’m not grateful for those who helped me along the way. But I wasn’t allowing myself to come to terms with where I was in life by surrounding myself with those who were happy to be in a position of caretaking for me. And this is where we had been trapped in an unhealthy cycle of relationship. Me by not facing the emotions I was running from because I thought the responsibility of living my own life was too much, and my partner who was more than happy to tell me what to do and how to be for her own reasons.

And when the relationship finally ended, it came as a surprise to all parties. We were all finally forced to confront what it was that we were avoiding, but what came as the biggest surprise, to me anyway, was that I realized I was strong enough to change.

At the time, it was the affection of another that woke me up, to realizing that I had the ability and strength to face my own fears, but where it really took shape was when I told my partner about my feelings. How someone else’s affections had woken my emotions, something that had been dormant since the trauma, and that I was willing to work on what was right here, the relationship in the unhealthy form it had taken.

Ultimately my partner had said she was unwilling to work on our relationship. I don’t blame her for ending the relationship, only knowing that she, like me, was running from the difficult work of understanding the whole relationship, including the places of fear, vulnerability and uncertainty makes me sad for what we could have been if we had faced those emotions together. But first we need to do the inner work, to know what we are bringing into the relationship.

So if you have found yourself in a similar situation, or know this one well as a place you keep returning to, take heart. Resilience is possible as long as you are patient with yourself and stick around while you’re going through and sorting the difficult emotions. Feeling alone while you are sorting through these emotions is common. But it’s something we all have to face eventually and it also helps to know that you are not the first.

Many have come before you and have done the difficult work of coming to terms with their fears, vulnerabilities and anxieties. And it doesn’t last forever. It may take some time coming to a place of understanding these feelings, but we all get there eventually. I hope this has been of some help to you, and as always, peace, and thanks for reading : )

Image Credits: “Niagara Falls Peaceful Solitude” by ***Bud*** is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 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