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

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

My Song

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

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

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

The Trauma

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

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

Nighttime Visits

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

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

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

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

Living with the Trauma

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

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

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

On My Own with Friends

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

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

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

Moving Up, Sort of

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

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

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

Waking Up into My Emotions

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

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

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

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

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

After the Separation

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

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

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

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

Continuing to Heal

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

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

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

Reflections on the Past

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

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

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

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

More on Forgiveness: When We’re Our Own Worst Enemy

Forgiveness. This is not an easy topic. And if you’re anything like I am, nothing gets past your ruthlessly critical eye. Especially your own doings. This has been the case for me for a very long time. Something I’m just now learning to tamp down. But it took some doing to even recognize how unforgiving I was. Also, how the people I chose to surround myself with shared my sense of self righteousness. I cringe a little, thinking back on how I was acting with those around me following suit.

But things have changed for me for sure. I’ve given up many of the old beliefs that were holding me back. I’m no longer the “score keeper” I once was and I’m more willing now to let things go. But if we’re being honest, that was never my intention. My goal was to be kinder, not as mean or petty as I once was. But there in lies the catch. In trying to whip myself into shape, to be kinder, more forgiving, I was unwilling to forgive myself for the ways I was behaving. So I needed to learn to extend a little of that forgiveness inward, before I could be kind and forgiving outwardly.

Forgiveness Starts with Yourself

This is so rote, so cliché that it should be a no brainer. But I feel as though each family, or person has to learn this anew each generation. I know from my experience that forgiveness was something that was held just out of reach from me by my family. And to be fair, I don’t know that any of us felt as though we were even worthy of being forgiven. We carried with us such an air of feeling as though we weren’t enough, no matter what we were doing, that it just didn’t register that we could be forgiven.

Knowing What Forgiveness Feels Like

So instead of trying to practice a little forgiveness, we chose to cover over our unworthy feeling selves. We did this with our holier than thou attitudes. This however, did little in the way of making us feel better about ourselves.

As a result, we all had very low self esteem. We were lonely as well. Mostly because we were pushing everybody away but, also due to us feeling as though we were the only ones feeling that we didn’t deserve forgiveness or kindness. We were trying to be perfect to avoid the critical judgements of each other, while holding everyone to the impossible standards we had created for ourselves. This was a dangerous combination.

The result? Not to my complete lack of surprise, we didn’t know what forgiveness felt like. We were so busy holding it back from each other, that we held it back from ourselves a well. And in the process, forgotten what it had felt like. However there was, for me, a lot of free floating anxiety and fear. Mostly of not feeling accepted by others. Or feeling loved and belonging. Like I said, it was lonely.

Holding Back

What’s so strange about this experience was, that I could actually feel myself unwilling to let go. I could feel myself withholding love and forgiveness from myself. It feels like when you see a small child throwing a tantrum because they are told to stop doing something against their will. And that’s what made this feeling so difficult to manage. Because there was also a feeling of contempt for the part of me that was withholding forgiveness.

The part that I feel should have known better. The part that should know that I’m only hurting myself. But then how should I have known if it was the only way I knew how to relate to my ability to forgive? I wasn’t taught another way. So I continued to hold back my ability to forgive myself.

Realizing Something is Off

It wasn’t until very recently that I put the pieces together of what I was doing and the effect it was having on me. I noticed when I was speaking to someone about how unreasonable my standards are and how I didn’t want to go back to my old ways of being. Then she said something to me that made me physically feel well, cared for. She asked me, “have you forgiven yourself for the ways you used to be?”

The answer to that question was most definitely a NO. And to be asked that, to directly recognize that I was treating myself as unforgivable, a criminal, was eye opening. A feeling of being relaxed, full, washed over me from head to toe. As though I had been waiting for a person to ask me just that for a very long time.

And finally, I turned my attention to that place. The place that had been treated as though it were volatile. But I couldn’t have done this all at once and without a little prep work. The years of self-care I have been practicing, paved the road for me to be comfortable enough to open up as I did.

Listening to Ourselves & Taking Good Care

Here was where I was able to listen to myself with a different kind of focus. I had been listening inwardly for a while now as part of my self-care routine. But now I’m able to differentiate between the parts of me that need my attention. Now I’m able to respond with more patience and know what I need.

Now I know that the part of me that was holding back was doing so because my love and forgiveness have been so abused in the past. I am scared to be open and loving enough, to forgive. Because then I’ll be wide open to the ruthless critical judgements I’ve been so used to from the past. Including from myself.

The feelings of being turned on by those who are supposed to love me. Supposed to be there for me and show me care. I could be left again, as I had been so many times in the past.

Reparenting Our Wounded Parts

And it’s here where the work really begins. We need to guide those parts of us we had trained to turn their backs on us and others to show forgiveness and love again. Even in the face of inevitable pain. Our wounds will be opened again. That’s an unavoidable part of life. But it shouldn’t stop us from living and loving fully. This is the part I keep getting stuck on. And I’m sure I’m not alone.

It feels crazy to open up again after so much abuse. Abuse of trust mostly. And of not being able to rely on others to take care of us when we’re at our lowest. But it’s a part of being connected. For me, I had to open up slowly. I was so confused as to what trust and love meant, that I was guarded all the time. Not knowing when the other would finally turn on me. Because in my experience, it was a matter of when, not if.

So I started small. Really small. After I set up a safe and cozy place that I could use as a retreat, I started venturing out into what had been historically unsafe territory.

Sitting With Those Who Hurt Me

I moved in with my father after my last relationship ended. It was the best thing that could have happened for me at the time. I needed the time and space to put my life back together after the mess I had made of it. It was pretty bad. I alienated almost all of my friends, wound up about 115k in debt, with no plans for my future and no idea how to move myself forward in life. I was a drift.

But while I was licking my wounds, I was spending more time with those who had hurt and abandoned me in the past. I was spending time in physical proximity to them. Even if it was just watching T.V. together. For half hour increments, I was slowly getting used to the old feelings that were arising while just experiencing their nearness. And it was tough at times.

I remember dissociating a few times just sitting on the couch watching a show. This was how badly my trust and emotions had been abused. I felt unsafe in the safest possible environment. I’m in an affluent neighborhood, surrounded by (now) loving and caring parents, no concern for food or shelter, surrounded by a network of caring and loving support, financially stable and genuinely cared for. It couldn’t have been any safer for me.

But there were those parts of me that still remembered what the pain felt like. It was here that I needed to turn my listening ear towards.

Knowing When to Take Space for Yourself

And I needed to listen inwardly. I had no idea that there was an entire world inside of me that had gone unnoticed for as long as I can remember. Numbing it out with the drinking and the medication. The mean natured opinions I would dispense towards anybody who would listen. Anything I could use to quell my inner emotional world, I would use to numb.

So when I started practicing self-care, I begun to slowly learn that I could be kind enough to treat myself with respect. This was also a slow process and one that needed time and space apart from those around me. Because there’s a part of all of us, who wants to feel a part of something. Some belonging. But in the process of seeking that belonging externally, if we’re not strong enough in ourselves, we can drown out the inner voice that so desperately needs our caring and loving attention.

This is where taking space, along with practicing self-care, paid off. My safe and cozy place acted as a center for me to come home to. To feel at ease just being. The clean atmosphere, the ambient lighting and the refreshing scents, all coming together with gentle music playing, creating a sense of ease. Safety. It was here that I found a way to listen to myself. Slowly and with care.

Releasing the Expectations

This is also a place without expectations. A place where I can allow myself the space to explore what my needs are. To slow down and repair some of what has been damaged by the missteps of my past misguided self. A place to heal, and to quote a Peter Bjorn and John song, a place where “I am more me”.

Growing up I had nothing but expectation after expectation piled on top of me. First from my family but then by my peer group. It seemed a never ending stream of rules dispensed to hammer me into something that was acceptable to others. Not true to who I actually am.

And who I am is a sensitive man who feels deeply. I’m a hopeless romantic and lover of music that’s a little on the lighter side. I’ve been listening to Mree a lot lately. The antithesis of how I was raised to be “manly”. I do still appreciate some things from the past. But I wouldn’t say that they define me. And I feel that this is an important distinction to make.

Be More You

Because we all have a version of ourselves that is the truest form of ourself. I know I do. And I’m uncovering a little more of it everyday. It’s strange at times. Scary too. But there are also tender moments mixed in with crests of excitement. A journey worth the taking to be sure. But a journey that starts with letting ourselves be fully us and that starts with letting go of the past. Forgiving ourselves and moving forward.

So if you’ve been on the edge of letting go of the past, let this be your permission to let go. Forgive yourself and move on to the next challenge. There’s too many possibilities to explore that we won’t be able to if we’re dragging the past around with us. Don’t worry what others will think. They’ll come around or they won’t. What’s most important is, to be there for yourself. Peace : ) and thanks for reading.

Image Credits: “forgiveness” by cheerfulmonk is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.

Withholding Love: Growing Up Unlovable

This is a difficult subject for me. Love was something that was withheld and doled out with condition. I’ve written about this before, but I’ve recently had an experience that reminded me that no matter what I was taught as a child, withholding love now is a conscious effort on my part. I’d like to explore some of the emotions surrounding this experience a bit and how I’m working to turn my habits around to be more inclusive of love and the people who I give and receive love and support from and to. Let’s jump in at the beginning.

Making the Choice to Withhold Love

This is something I remember very clearly. I couldn’t have been more than 6-7. I was laying in bed, wrestling with some thoughts when I made the decision to hold back. Hold back my caring and affection. It was a stubborn, sort of obstinate defiance. The type where you see a child reacting disagreeably to something their parent is forcing on them.

With arms folded and a stern frown sagging on their face, this was how I felt. I no doubt learned this behavior from my role models. But I remember the night I decided to emulate that emotional state in myself. And the thing is, I still do this to some degree. Even decades later.

Even now, when I have interactions with people who rub me the wrong way, I get that same stubborn sense of, “no! I’m not letting you in.” And it’s not as though I’m not allowing myself to disagree, or even dislike what a person is doing. I’m deciding that the person who is offending me gets a hard “no” when it comes to letting them get close to me.

Predictable Results, Feeling Lonely Not Love

And, no surprises here, this leads to feeling very lonely. Especially when you practice this often. For me, it also led to acting smug, feeling superior, being unforgiving and petty as well. A cornucopian of difficult emotions, leading to feelings of isolation. So with so much detriment to the choice to withhold love, why do we, did I, continue to choose to do so? For me it was out of fear.

The Armoring

I believe this is what people mean by the phrase, “letting down your armor”. From my experience, I know that I just wanted to feel loved and a sense of belonging. I was afraid of opening up to those who could love me because I had been so hurt by those who I had let in in the past. Also, the fear of having the love I was receiving being given on condition, was another frightening prospect.

There are only so many times you can be wounded by those who are supposed to love you, who then leave you alone with your wounding, without support, before you decide to shut everybody out completely. And I suppose that this is where I decided to shut others out. Put up the armoring and use smug, petty judgements and an unforgiving frame of mind to keep others at bay. This isn’t ideal.

Nor is it conducive to healthy and lasting relationships. And I think that the longer I had this armoring up, the more I was losing touch with my emotions. If you practice hardening yourself against emotions of love, kindness and empathy, and your ability to forgive, it stands to reason that you will eventually lose your ability to recognize them in yourself.

Finding Yourself and Your Love Again

So if it’s practice that gets us to a place of losing our compassionate and loving, feeling selves, then it is practice that hones these attributes as well. But before we can start practicing these traits again, we first need to feel safe doing so. This was the case for me and luckily I had some help during this process.

Being Bold Enough to Learn to Trust

For me, my trust had been abused so many times, in such odd and disturbing ways, that I needed not only to recognize that I could rely on people for support, but also learn that people were not objects to be used and disposed of. These were difficult lessons.

I had learned to use people in much the same way I used alcohol: that’s to say that I was only around them for the good times. If they, in anyway caused me the slightest bit of discomfort, I was out of there so quickly it would have surely made their heads spin. Unfortunately, most of those closest to me were the same way. So when things got very bad for me, I found myself almost completely alone. Save for the few true friends and family that decided to stand by me. Which to this day shocks me, because I was a poor friend. And that’s being generous.

Role-Modeling Destructive Behavior

But this was also how I saw my role models act. Gathering to drink and be rowdy while spitting venom at everybody and anybody. I was torn down so many times at the hands of my, “supports”, during the “good times” that I had no idea what it meant to be caring, loving and supportive. Or what a good time, really was. And worse yet, when I saw genuine love and support from others, I viewed it as weakness of character. Something to be made fun of and ridiculed, rooted out of myself. Like a Hallmark movie, too campy and unrealistic for the real world. Full disclosure, I now sometimes watch and enjoy Hallmark movies : )

And this was how I lived my life until my early thirties. Unloving and unforgiving. This was the reason I had so few healthy, lasting relationships. So what changed for me? How did I make the change from untrusting and unforgiving to trusting and able to give and receive love? It happened slowly and took practice.

Role Modeling Loving and Trusting Behavior

After I had been abandoned by someone who said they would always be there for me, I had to rely on family who had abandoned me in the past. This was no easy task. I had given up just about every way I had used to cope with my emotions and was putting myself in the lion’s den. A place that was decidedly unsafe for me to be.

Trust started to come slowly. One way I was learning to trust again was, we were polite to each other to the point of being almost cold to one another. This was a complete 180 from the family of my youth who had no boundaries in regards to personal space.

As an example, my family would search through all of my personal possessions and space as though I wasn’t allowed to have a separate sense of self. This left me feeling suspicious of how genuine the people who were around me were. Being polite helped me to realize that I was safe enough in myself and surroundings to be at ease. And the more we were polite, the more I learned I could trust these people I was sharing space with.

Finding Love Again

It was from this shared space of mutual respect and trust, that I found the courage to feel compassion for those who had left me in the past. They became more real to me. They were no longer the person who did me wrong so long ago. We were in the present, building a new foundation for a healthier relationship that started with being polite and kind to each other.

I could now feel compassion, concern and care for these people. This was not something entirely new, but it was something that was difficult to allow to be. To be with the vulnerability and uncertainty of relying on them again. Hoping that the same would not happen all over again.

But also finding forgiveness. For the ways I had been treated, so I could move forward and build the healthier, new versions of the relationships I so desired. This was no easy as well. But it was in these moments of mutual vulnerability that we all learned to open up, if not slowly and a tiny bit at a time, to each other. This is how we learned to love and support each other again.

Family Dinner Fridays

A great example of this is, after I had spent some time getting used to my new surroundings and starting to feel comfortable again around others, I suggested starting family dinner Fridays. A day where we rotate who chooses a recipe to cook and we all pitch in and help to make the meal together. My family has a love of food, so this seemed like a natural place to start.

And it was during these dinners that we learned to work together. Ask what the other needed, help the other with their task. We learned to divide and delegate the tasks and share the responsibility of our jobs. We also learned how to communicate with each other.

Not only in asking what we needed from one another, as far as tasks being done. But also to ask for clarification from one another. “What do you mean when you say…”, something we were just too proud to ask each other in the past. If you’ve read my post on “disagreement and belonging”, you’ll know we had trouble admitting we didn’t know something, even when it was impossible to know what the other was thinking without being able to read minds. Because we didn’t want to be seen as weak.

Seeing Communication as a Weakness

And this is really what it came down to. We saw communicating with one another as a weakness, because we wanted to be right and seen as superior. All because we wanted to feel belonging. But we were really just cutting each other off from one another with our lack of communication because we didn’t want to be hurt. Something that happened again and again with malicious intent. I believe this is where we stopped communicating, everything really. And this is where I learned how to hold back my love from the other.

“Love is Stronger Than Pride” – Sade

But the need to connect is strong in us. Because we need to connect, to feel loved and belonging. So we keep trying, even if it feels like we’re fumbling our way through our relationships. That’s definitely what it feels like for me sometimes.

And the desire to want healthier ways of connecting is the first step in connecting in healthier ways. I believe that we all have it in us to be together in healthy, reciprocal ways. Ways where we feel heard, respected and most important, loved.

And it is that desire to be loved that is stronger than the ways we choose to disconnect from each other. As Sade so eloquently put it so many years ago, “love is stronger than pride”. The pride that keeps us from sharing and communicating our love with one another. So if you’re looking to make stronger connections and share love more freely, know that it’s not too late to open up and share your loving self. I hope this helps in some way. Peace, thanks for reading : )

Image Credits: “Heart” by Pandalia_YUE is licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0.

Self Directed Guidance: It’s Not Always Easy

Guidance was something that I received very little of while growing up. And Much of the direction I did receive was either unhealthy or toxically Masculine. The emphasis in my family was more to the tune of dominance, not gentle or loving guidance. And I held to those lessons as law for a long time. They worked in our family for the most part. It was only when I stepped outside of my family dynamic, that I understood how dominance was not substitute for learning to work cohesively as a team. Not only that but also how destructive it could be.

And I feel as though I wasn’t the only one raised with these teachings. It feels like, from my perspective that, people for the most part are more inclusive and tolerant of one another in general. I also recognize that I live in a pretty liberal and progressive state. So my views may not be shared by most. But still, we’ve come a long way as a society in the past few generations alone. It’s not too far a stretch to recognize that we’re on an upswing as far as being more humanitarian goes.

And that’s what I’d like to talk about in this post. Focusing on the guidance that we may not have learned from our culture or families, but how we can cultivate the guidance we need to navigate our day to day lives. Keeping that sense of tolerance and inclusivity, keeping ourselves open to new experiences and people. Because it’s too easy to get caught up in the negativity that is happening around us. I know this from experience to be true. So let’s find some of that guidance we’ve been missing.

Guidance is Not Static, But Fluid

This is something I had trouble with when I first started looking to follow my values or other parameters I had set for myself. I took myself way too seriously and would not budge from the stances I took. I was unforgiving. A lesson that I learned early and would also learn to regret later in life. Unforgiving, unyielding, closeminded… All of these adjectives described my perspective in viewing my world.

And from this vantage point, it’s easy to feel as though your way is the only right way. And that everybody who isn’t following your lead is inept or inferior. This is an extreme example for sure, but it’s one that I know well because it was where I had set my standard. I needed to be better than others.

And what’s so strange about this was, I think I was doing it to be liked. Accepted. Of course I offended a lot of people acting this way, so I never did gain the belonging I so desperately was seeking. But what was so strange was, that I was completely blind to how offensive I was being. It didn’t even cross my mind that I was making enemies. My goal was to be right and seem as though I knew what I was doing.

Giving Up Being Right

For me, I had to let go the need to be right about whatever was on the table. Because needing to be right leads to aggression in communication. Expressing dominance over another who, as I viewed them, were “inferior”. This can lead to feelings of superiority, contempt, smugness and other relationship killing emotions if left unchecked. And most definitely severs connection.

What I decided to do instead of needing to be right was, listen. I say decided, because it was a choice I made. And not an easy one at that. In fact, I still struggle with it sometimes. Even the day I’m writing this article, I was in a meeting at work, hearing my coworker communicate disinformation in a vague manner. My first response was one of contempt.

But the more I listened to the conversation, the more I realized they were struggling with a difficult topic. They weren’t being willfully ignorant, they were expressing vulnerability in not knowing how to provide care for a certain situation. This is where I turned it around and started listening to the context behind the conversation.

Don’t Beat Yourself Up for Not Having The Guidance You Needed

And while I was listening to their conversation with a new perspective, the first thought that came to mind was, “man I’m being a jerk”. Insensitive maybe, but a jerk… I didn’t say these thoughts out loud and what’s more, these were the ways I was taught to be in relationship.

Most of all, I don’t want to turn that aggression inward after I’ve done so much work to notice and curb my aggression from judging others. So it’s important to remember to treat yourself with the same kindness and care as you would a dear friend. Because who are we to ourselves if not friends? And that’s not an easy task

For me, what helps is practicing kindness to myself. Especially when an emotion comes up, I inquire where it’s coming from, using soft and gentle guidance in asking what I need. Why is this emotion coming up now and how can I provide care for it? The part that’s most rewarding about this process is, the more often I practice this kindness inwardly, the easier and kinder I feel. It’s quite the change from my old ways of treating myself.

How You Treat Others is a Reflection of How You Treat Yourself

The ways I used to treat myself was with a sharp and demeaning criticism. Thinking back on it now, it seems counter intuitive. With all the ways I was practicing being critical of others while acting superior, you would think that I had a pretty high opinion of myself.

And outwardly that was what I was projecting for sure. But as I said above, I just wanted to feel belonging. So most of the ways I was acting were to gain approval from others. And when I didn’t measure up to my impossible standard, I tore myself down in the same ways I tore others down.

I also was surrounded by others who were just as judgmental as I was. So our relationships were founded on a never ending cycle of judging and being judged by one another. We were stuck in unhealthy relationship with no clear guidance on how to steer ourselves clear of the constant wounding we were inflicting.

So what’s the catalyst for change that we so desperately need to break free from this cycle? How do we make the change from judgmental critic to kind and attentive listener? For me, it started when I felt truly heard.

Feeling Heard is Healing

I used to work in the food industry. I did this because I didn’t have any guidance in searching for and fostering interests that would later bear fruit in the form of a career. So I did what was easy, which was working in a kitchen. These were some pretty tough environments. Physically demanding yes, but also relationally.

We were relentless in our insults towards one another. Arguments were the norm and usually fueled by inflated egos, lots of caffeine and uppers as well as alcohol. It was an unhealthy environment to say the least.

I later would switched from kitchens to bakeries, which were slightly less aggressive, but only physically. There was still the same amount of petty arguments and hatred that was present in the kitchens I worked in. So it was in this environment, that to my complete surprise, that I felt heard for the first time since I was a child.

Coming to Terms with Feeling Heard

And I wish I could say that I felt heard and everything was alright. But the truth is, things got a lot worse before they got better. I hadn’t felt heard in so long, that when I did, I was flooded with all of my neglected emotions. Ones I had been ignoring for decades and that I just hadn’t been given the guidance to know how to handle them with the care and sensitivity they needed.

At first, I felt elated. I couldn’t believe that somebody was paying attention to me. And what’s more is that they seemed to like me for who I was. This came as a shock, because as I said above, I surrounded myself with people who were just as critical and condescending as I was. To be liked without the judgments was a whole new experience for me.

Making Poor Choices While Learning How to be with My Emotions

So I ran towards that feeling. All I knew was that I didn’t want to let the source of that feeling get away. This was where my poor choices came into play. I hurt a lot of people in the process of running towards what felt good and ultimately was left by the person who made me feel heard. This was the last thing I wanted to happen.

But it gave me the chance to stop running long enough to feel what had been neglected for so long. I was able to learn to sit with the uncertainty, of not feeling belonging, not feeling lovable. And I was able to do it with Kindness.

This kindness was something that awoke in me after I had felt heard again. I was learning how to listen to myself and my needs and in turn, learning how to give myself the guidance I so desperately needed to manage my emotional world. These were the lessons that I was never taught. On how to listen, be kind and love myself.

Love is Something Given From the Inside Out

And it was from this place of feeling heard and listening that I could feel love. I needed to feel loved first, with somebody else, before I could know it intimately in myself. It was then that I was able to practice it with myself, by listening to my emotional needs with kindness and then practice that same love and listening to and with others.

But it is a practice. It’s something that you need to cultivate in order for it to become second nature, strong. And to cultivate love, you need to give yourself the boundaries and structure necessary, to give guidance to your emotions. Because love is strong, but if you let other emotions take hold, they will crowd out and smother the seeds of love.

It Helps to Find Others Willing to Listen

And none of this is possible without finding people who are willing to listen and mirror what you are wanting to cultivate. With my old friends, I was practicing contempt and judgment. Now I’m choosing friends based on how supportive they are. This took some getting used to as well. But it is worth the transition to feel a deeper connection than bonding over how attractive we found some woman. Or how much we drank the night before.

I have a photo on my desk of me with friends of mine. We’re at their wedding in a small town in Western Mass. They had just gotten married and we are pumping our fists in the air. These are the people I think about when I think of support, unconditional. They are kind and always willing to listen when I need an ear.

Friends like these are essential to helping give our emotions the guidance to be the best version of ourselves in a kind and loving way. And they’re out there. But you need to do some digging. So practice in yourself what you’re looking for in others and you will naturally attract those who will compliment you.

This can seem abstract too. When you talk about guidance and kindness as a “practice”. But it’s something that’s a felt sense once you understand what to do. So keep practicing! Don’t be discouraged if you still feel judgmental or are feeling unkind to yourself and those old feelings come bubbling up. As I said above, the more you practice kindness, the easier it becomes. Like second nature. Peace : ) thanks for reading.

Image Credits: “arrow” by alandberning is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.

Relationships, Dating: The Ways We Connect Romantically

Dating and relationships in general. This is something that I’ve been historically bad at. This seems a strange paradox to me because I’ve always wanted to be in a romantic relationship. Only I have no idea how to kick game. I’m somewhat clueless to when women show interest in me and I end up clinging to unhealthy forms of relationships when I do get in them. But to be fair, how I’ve handled my relationships in the past are ways that I’ve had modeled for me by those closest in and popular culture.

I’ve come to realize that most of how I’ve been handling my relationships, not to mention the role models that got me there, are monumentally unhealthy. In the following, I’ll be going over some of the lessons that I was taught while growing up and how I’ve adapted to or overcame these unhealthy ways of connecting. So let’s jump in where it all started for me in the romantic world, with sex.

The Importance of Sex & Dating

This is a loaded topic and one with many avenues. I’ve written about this some in my post about porn and porn addiction. This remains a difficult topic for many including myself. I’ve stopped using porn, almost a decade ago, but it is something that is ubiquitous in the culture. And something that I was introduced to at the age of eight and by my caregivers. This was much too early to be taught about sex through pornography. But in relationship to romantic connection, I might as well have been taking a trig class in between recess and nap time. I was out of my element.

To start, there was a lot of unhealthy messages being sent to me by those around me at the time. Mostly about the importance of sex and how it’s connected to how we belong. And this isn’t anything new for sure. We seem to struggle with this a new each generation. This was the case for my family. From my grandmother being a model and ridiculing her children for not fitting the standard of beauty she felt as though she imbued, to her children handing that standard down and the angst, to my generation.

Also, porn addiction that was handed down generationally. Time and again the message was that if you weren’t attractive or sexually desirable, you did not belong. I given this cue at the age of eight, probably sooner. When sex appeal is equal to belonging, and your only map to navigate relationships with, then it stands to reason that sex becomes the most important aspect of your relationships.

Using the Wrong Map

And this was how I navigated almost all of my relationships. If I wasn’t trying to sleep with some woman, I was objectifying them to my friends in the most obscene ways. And nothing was off limits. I was also comparing myself to those around me. Who was more attractive? Is she more into my friend or me? And on top of the constant objectification, there was my porn addiction. Every relationship was somehow rooted in sex. This was unhealthy.

And that’s not to say that all of the above ways of relating to sex is unhealthy. Sex is enjoyable, fun and a way to bring another level of intimacy to your relationship. Also, I don’t want to proselytize about how sex is to be feared. Or in some way is inherently dirty or morally wrong. But the messages I was being sent as a child definitely carried with it a sense of hidden moral ambiguity. Usually by my caregivers avoiding talking about it, or doing it in clandestine ways. And if you’re using the moral compass of an eight year-old, things can look pretty black and white, right or wrong.

Fast forward to my romantic relationships in my twenties and thirties and I was following in my family’s footsteps by treating women with disrespect. And no surprises, I didn’t hold onto many relationships using these methods. I was also terrified of being emotionally available to my partners as well. This goes hand in hand with objectifying women. Because if I didn’t see women as people with emotions, I wouldn’t have to be open and vulnerable with them. This was something that took a long time to realize, after thawing from my emotions being frozen.

So sex really came to mean emotional detachment from my partners. The very people I was looking to belong with and to. These were the unhealthy lessons I was taught and used in the ways I related to my relationships. So if objectifying women was the main way I used to detach emotionally, how did I make the U-turn to being emotionally available? I did a few things to open up emotionally again. And it started with acknowledging our shared humanity. First in myself and then in women.

Waking Up Into Our Emotions

The first step towards inhabiting my emotional world again was to recognize the ways I was leaving them. And what I was using to guard myself against them. For starters, objectifying women was the main barrier between me and cultivating intimacy with the women I was with. I had to first recognize that there was fear in me that I had been running from.

My fear stemmed from the time I was first abandoned by my family and allowed to be abused by my caregivers. Once I confronted that fear, I was able to see women as people with emotional worlds all their own. Not as potential threats to my safety or belonging. I could then appreciate the nuances of their personalities instead of reducing them to one dimensional objects.

One of the ways I was perpetuating this belief was, as I said above, by using porn. When I stopped, my emotions were then more available to me. But there was a fair amount of work that needed to be done to untangle the mass of unprocessed feelings and emotions I had been covering over.

Meditation & Yoga

This is where my meditation and yoga practice comes into the picture. Through meditation, I was able to slow down my emotions enough to understand which emotions were which and why I was feeling them. And yoga taught me to stay when things got uncomfortable. If what you’re doing to avoid emotions amounts to pleasure seeking, such a porn or drinking to dodge being uncomfortable, then there is most likely a backlog of difficult emotions to feel your way through. This is where the difficult work lay.

If you are doing this work and there is any amount of trauma or abuse, I recommend doing it with a professional therapist. And it’s sometimes wise to rely on medications a well. This was the opposite of the message I was given. The one that said “real” men muscle through tough emotions. This is dangerous and toxic. It’s okay to ask for and rely on others for help, and medications when it’s wise to do so. The road can be difficult and scary at times, it’s best not to go it alone.

Emotional Intelligence & Cultivating Intimacy

Once I was able to slow down enough to feel my emotions, this was when I was able to cultivate emotional intelligence. I am slowly becoming fluid in the language of my emotions. This was what I had been missing in my romantic relationships with the women I was with. If I wasn’t able to understand my own emotions, there was no chance that I could understand what my partners were experiencing.

And for me, there were many emotions to untangle. What was most striking about this process was, that feelings would arise all at once. And bundled together, wrapped in fear and anxiety. A life’s time worth of unprocessed emotions, all surfacing at once. Demanding my attention and without an understanding of what they were trying to tell me. This was overwhelming.

The ways I used to manage my emotions was by drinking a lot of coffee and alcohol. Speeding past or numbing them were my management methods. But it wasn’t until I stopped running from my feelings that I felt the full force of them and then felt each individual emotion and the affect they had on me. This was how I was able to develop intimacy with my emotional world. This also made my emotional world less overwhelming. And substantially less terrifying.

This is how I cultivate intimacy in my other relationships as well. By attuning to a friend or my partner’s emotional needs, I’m able to recognize and respond to them. Sounds simple enough, but it took a lot of digging for me to get to that point. Listening to and caring for what comes up. And staying with the difficult emotions is what’s so, well, so difficult in the first place. So what makes this possible?

Resources for Emotional Growth

For me, I needed to feel safe and supported again. This was most difficult due to the ways that I was abused growing up and second, how I chose to live as a reaction to my upbringing.

I’ve mentioned before on this blog the abuse I endured, but there was also a fair amount of neglect I experienced as a child. This was where my distrust in others, especially those close, was cast. And this is what took the most work for me to overcome. Without reassurance that your needs are going to be attuned to, or at very least, your basic needs are going to be met, you’d probably feel as I did. That people are inherently selfish and dangerous and will leave you lonely.

So being able to rely on others is something that flies in the face of logic for the neglected and also a terrifying prospect. If you’ve been taught that those who are your caretakers are also your abusers, this becomes a problem when you’re later supposed to rely on your ride or die (partner) for intimate support. So how do we cultivate trust?

Patience, Forgiveness & Practice: We’re all only Human

Patience is a difficult skill to hone. But if we don’t develop it, we’ll probably react poorly to those whom we rely on when they make a mistake that hurts us. Maybe it’s an off comment or a broken promise. We’re only human, it’s bound to happen once and a while. If it happens often enough, then maybe there needs to be another conversation about setting healthy boundaries. But it’s best to give the person the benefit of the doubt. Especially if they’re your S.O..

So we’ve accepted ourselves and others as imperfect. But does that make it any easier to weather the hurt feelings? Or the little (or big) betrayals along the way? Sadly no. This is why cultivating patience is so important. From my experience of sitting with difficult emotions, the ones I was talking about above that I would avoid by pleasure seeking, I learned to accept them as difficult, but also passing. They won’t last forever.

And once I got through the uncomfortable emotions and feelings of being hurt by my loved ones, it was easier to see what really matters. Not that I was hurt, but who the person is who hurt me. How I feel about them and what their intentions are. Usually, the times where a loved one has hurt me aren’t the norm. And when they do hurt me, that doesn’t take away any of my love for them. Also, being loved ones, their intentions were most likely not malicious.

So with patience comes understanding and forgiveness. This one is most important to practice with the person you’re most intimate with. If you learn to trust one another’s intentions, then patience and forgiveness will come second nature.

Taking Care of Yourself & Your Close Ones’ Needs

This was something I had to learn, am still learning. How to show up for myself when I need me most. Because I know if I’m willing to neglect my own needs, I’m going to have an unreasonably expectation of others when I don’t see them neglecting their own needs for the sake of what’s important to me, in the ways I would. And for the record, I recognize that this is unhealthy. For example, I would often think people were lazy if they weren’t pushing themselves to exhaustion in the ways I would push myself.

This is where practicing forgiving yourself is most important. Because neglect is a habit. It’s something that is learned and then repeated over and over. Either it’s modeled for us, or a habit we do to avoid the difficult parts of living our life and being connected. For me, I had to listen to myself, especially when I was feeling overwhelmed. At first, the feelings of being neglected and abused weren’t out of the ordinary. Because they felt so normal. But the more I practiced listening inwardly to my feelings of being overwhelmed and of pushing myself too hard while ignoring my physical needs, the better I became at recognizing what I was going through. And also how I needed to respond.

This type of emotional Intelligence is something that can be used to attune to others’ needs also. And these are the basic building blocks of intimacy in a romantic relationship as well. For example, if your S.O. looks overwhelmed from a long day at work, recognizing what they are feeling by asking and responding from a place of empathy by saying, “how can I help, I’m here for you”, is an excellent way to build trust and intimacy. And if you’re not sure what to do, ask!

Mind-Reading, a Relationship No-No

There are few things that can harm a relationship more, from my experience, than mind-reading. Thinking you know what the other person is going through without asking and thinking you know how it “should” be handled, is arrogant. Also telling someone else how they are feeling is equally as damaging. I used to operate from this mindset and it was one of the ways I stopped listening to my partners, family and friends. It was also a way for me to stay disconnected from those closest to me including myself. If you’re not able to listen, you have no idea what the other person is experiencing.

Take The Risks

And finally, if you’ve learned to cultivate some or most of these skills and you’re still willing to put your heart on the line, there’s nothing left to do than to get out there. Take the risk of being seen, heard and hopefully, loved. It probably won’t be easy. Especially if you’ve had your heart broken before. But it sure will be worth it. And you don’t have to be perfect to start. I’m guilty of thinking that I need to look like Brad Pitt from “Fight Club” in order to be loved by somebody. The perfect body, the right living situation, the perfect career… The list goes on.

In case you still feel that way, I’m here to tell you, you don’t. Just be you, or the closest approximation to that you can ; ) Be honest and forgiving to yourself, and you’ll do just fine with your relationships. Peace, & thanks for reading : )

Image Credits: “love-romantic-gift-present” by pixellaphoto is marked with CC0 1.0

Updated: 11/9/2022

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