Cultivating Joy, Cultivating Friendships

When I was a teenager, I had no idea how to sustain friendships. This is not hyperbole. I literally did not have healthy friendships modeled for me, and the friendships I did have were with people who were experiencing the same amount of strain or trauma in their personal life as I was. We were all just trying to figure it out without any guidance to show us the way. So, we hurt each other. A lot.

But even with the hurts we were blindly injuring one another with, we still managed to find some lasting and comforting forms of companionship. As I’m writing this, I’m waiting for a friend at a local coffee shop. Someone I’ve known since high school. We’ve managed to stay friends through the years. Through college, career changes, babies and marriages, we’re still a resource for one another.

But this hasn’t been the case with many of the people I once called friends. I’d like to explore some of what brings us together and how to keep these bonds healthy. How do we nurture the initial spark of friendship that brings us together, to last through the years? Let’s start with the spark, and see where it takes us.

What Makes a Friendship?

I’ve said this before on this blog, that Jay-Z’s line, “real recognize real and you lookin’ familiar” has a spark of truth in it for me when it comes to describing a friendship. What I like about it is, that I think we recognize what’s familiar in one another’s experiences and circumstances. We see that we’re in the middle of something that looks familiar to us, and are drawn to one another. I suppose as a way to support each other while we try to figure it out. Two heads are better than one, as they say : ) ( :

We’re mirroring each other in a way. And I believe this brings us comfort. Because seeing someone else succeed helps give us the confidence to succeed. And if we fail, we have each other as support. Someone who can show us the positive in us while we’re busy beating ourselves up for not succeeding. And if you’re like me, you are beating yourself up quite a bit.

So having another around to help show us that we’re human, and bound to make mistakes, is helpful in keeping us more grounded and balanced. For me, it has been invaluable to have that kind of friendship. The one that tells me I’m “killin’ it”, while I’m paying back my student loans after cutting back to only working one job. This friend was also in debt until recently. We are both here for each other, cheering one another on while we work to achieve our goals. And that’s a great feeling. Feeling support from someone who knows how difficult it can be.

Maintaining a Lasting Connection

This was the difficult part for me. It was fairly simple finding people who were/are in similar situations to my own. But keeping the friendship alive was a mystery to me. What I’ve come to realize is, that we were all just surviving, and not able to think past our immediate circumstances. This lead to somewhat superficial connections.

I was so concerned with when the next panic attack was going to come, that I didn’t have the bandwidth to make plans for the future. Nor did I have the foresight to do the basics. Such as putting close friends’ birthdays in my calendar. I was just drifting from day to day without any plan or goal in mind, playing video games and drinking to numb my experience of what was happening to me. No bueno.

So, how did I change this? How did I go from just surviving to being an active role in my relationships? This took a lot of work. And it’s something I’m still working on. Let me show you what I’ve come up with for fostering friendships.

Make a List

I’m a list maker. I get a sense of joy and satisfaction just from organizing tasks, thoughts and events into a functional and attractive looking list. This is why I bullet journal. It gives me the right amount of art to organization ratio I need. So naturally, in order to stay in touch with those close to me, I’ve made a list.

This list is on my phone, and I’ve put various friends and relatives into four different groups of people. In the first group, are the people I check in with once a week. Then the following three groups are people that I check in with every three weeks, rotating through each group every week to make sure I don’t miss anyone. This way, I’m staying current with what’s happening in the people’s lives whom I care about.

Be Diligent

It also pays to be persistent as well. For example I was texting one person on my list for weeks with no response. This was kind of disheartening because this person is going through a lot of life events right now and I want to be a source of support for them. Then, during one phone call from his brother, I learned that he never responds to texts, (my preferred method of communication) only phone calls. So I called him the next day and low and behold he got right back to me with a text saying he was at work and is it important. That felt good. Like unlocking a puzzle.

Diligence has paid off with friendships for me in different ways too. I had definitely left many of my friendships to decay by simply neglecting them for a very long time. And I was a different person to most of the people who knew me before I changed. So rebuilding those connections wasn’t something that was a one and done deal. It took being persistent, but not pushy, and kind to those I was reaching out to. Hopefully letting them know that I’m not the ass I used to be.

But, this method worked. I’m now in regular communication with many of the people I was friends with from my past and I like to think that both our lives are richer for it. For example, a friend of mine that I used to cook with told me to Google search, “gross Jell-o molds” and it did not disappoint. My favorite was the ones with SpaghettiOs in them : P

Remember Your Shared Interests & Look for Experiences to Share

As far as the curriculum of friendships goes, planning events and then executing them might as well have been a trig class while I was still taking fundamentals of math. I’m an introvert, so doing things with others doesn’t come so naturally to me. I believe that in most of my romantic relationships, my partner was the one who was making plans for us. So during the seasons of my life where I’m on my own, I’ve had to find things and experiences to do, on my own.

What I’ve been trying to do is, when I think of something new or interesting that I’d like to get involved with, I scan my friendships to see who else might want to get involved. Then I shoot them a text to see if they’d like to join in. Again, this may seem obvious for many folks. But for us introverts, it’s a bit of a struggle to make that connection.

For example, I’ve been into thinking about my Polish heritage lately and am making my next self-care meal as an homage to Polish cuisine. There are a lot of mushrooms in Polish cooking so I found some recipes that looked satisfying. But the more I thought about mushrooms, the more fun I thought it would be to go foraging for some. I went once when I was a child, chanterelle picking in Vermont, and absolutely loved the experience. So I searched for foraging groups local to me then texted some people in my friend group who I would normally take hikes with. I thought combining the two, foraging and hiking was a perfect match.

If Your Friend Can’t Come to You Go to Them

If you’re like me, you’re pretty busy. Until recently I was working two jobs to pay off my student loans, and on the days I wasn’t working, which were few, I’d be cleaning and cooking for the week. This left me very little time for myself. But, I found the time to visit some of my friends who were equally as busy. Tending to our friendships was a priority for me. And I did this by getting creative with how we spent time together.

For example, one friend of mine worked at a local restaurant until recently. So on my nights off, I’d hop on the train and go visit with him while he was working. I’d grab a beer and a bite to eat while he sat behind the bar a told me about his goings on. His family and what’s been happening with him personally. It felt good catching up with him in this way. Seeing him in another light, another role. I feel like I know him better as a person now.

I have another friend who recently took a job at another local restaurant. We’ve been friends since grade school though we don’t get together very often. A couple friends of mine suggested that we go to his restaurant and visit while he bakes. A fun night out, catching up with old friends seems like a pleasant way to spend an evening : )

It’s also a good idea to be mindful of how much of yourself you’re giving in all of your friendships and be cognizant of your boundaries with them. If you find you are always doing for your friends, then maybe suggest a few changes to your rules of engagement. It’s no longer fun if it feels like a burden.

Take Risks

Also, it’s important to step outside your comfort zone. Building friendships isn’t always a walk in the park. There are going to be tough times as well as the good ones. And, sometimes meeting new people means expanding beyond what your comfortable with.

For example, a friend of mine called me out of the blue because she had tickets to a small venue to see a bluegrass band. It was on a day I had off, so I decided to go. I didn’t realize at the time that there would be close to eight of us going. If I had known I might not have gone. But I went, and had a great time. Also finding an amazing new venue for seeing music that I will be going back in the future for sure.

You are in Charge of Your Belonging

Connecting with others is risky sometimes. The pain of rejection, or being vulnerable around another is not something that is easily tolerated by many. Especially if you’ve experienced abuse or trauma. But it is necessary if we want to feel connection, or a sense of belonging. But don’t forget, you’re in charge.

It’s okay to go slow while reconnecting. That way, you’re taking care of yourself while taking the time in building your friendships. And also to take the time to know that they are healthy and genuine friendships. True friends are truly a blessing. Finding and cultivating these friendships is something that will bring us so much joy the more we tend to them. But we need to take the time to nurture them.

If you’ve found your relationships are less than fulfilling, maybe it’s time to inspect how you feel in your connections with and to others. Is the fear of pain greater than the value of your connection? If so, the relationship my be under strain. Maybe the strain of not feeling like you are totally accepted as who you are in the relationship for fear of being rejected. And being yourself is a large component of feeling genuine connection in our friendships.

So cultivate your friendships. And tend to them with a nurturing effort, and you’ll find joy in them. But also know who you are first. And true friends will help you to be the best version of yourself. Not expect you to change. Friendships aren’t always easy, but few things worth their while are. Be consistent and make your relationships a priority and they will yield feelings of comradery and joy. Peace & thanks for reading : )

Image Credits: “friendship” by bekassine… is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.

Childhood Emotional Neglect

Here’s another big topic. Childhood emotional neglect is something that has recently been on my radar. But it’s also something that, when I read about what it is and its effects, I identified with and immediately knew what it was. In the family that I grew up in, we never spoke about emotions. But what I think and feel was so damaging about this was, that when we did have an emotion openly, or displayed an emotional need, it was made known that the person having the emotion was just one more cross to be born by the other.

I would later realize that this was my parents’ inability to establish healthy boundaries around how much they are willing vs. able to give. But as a child, this sent the message that it was not okay for me to have emotions. As though my emotions were a punishment bestowed upon those who were in charge of my well being, and not an aspect of being human.

In this post I’d like to talk a little about what emotional neglect looked like growing up in my family in action. And ways that I’m coming to understand what happened to me and how I’m healing from it. Here’s a link to the site that sparked the inspiration for this post. And also, I’m not a professional, these are only my experiences and opinions. If you’re experiencing difficult emotional states, speaking with a trusted professional therapist or counsellor is advisable.

Mirror Mirror on the Wall…

When I was a child, what I remember most about my family was, that they had one look, one affect. And it was of disapproval. Seldom did my family look on one another with loving and caring gazes. If I was happy, I would get a tentative look in response. As if to say, “I see you’re happy, but are you really happy?” And on top of the confusion of not understanding my family’s responses and lack of mirroring to my emotions, I felt as though there was something wrong with me.

Their constant, judgmental stares reinforcing my deficiency in some way. So every time I had an emotion, I felt compelled to seek my family’s approval. “Is this right? Am I feeling this right?” was how I felt most of the time, in regards to how I was feeling emotionally. This would also play out in my relationships with women, later on in life. More on that later. But with this type, or rather lack of mirroring of emotions, I was left not understanding how I felt about pretty much anything at any given time.

My emotional world was a confusing maze, thanks to the emotional neglect I had been through. And one I had no map to navigate. So I drifted. I floated from one relationship to the next, one set of circumstances to another, without direction. What I was looking for was a place to feel accepted and approved of mostly. I think I was also looking for someone to tell me how to feel. But that was a lesson that was still on its way.

Choosing Relationships not Knowing How I Felt About Them

Relationships are difficult to understand when you don’t know how you feel about them. The best way to describe the experience is, that I was so afraid of not belonging, being accepted, that I was in survival mode for most of my life. Fear was the number one emotion in my world, and something I knew well. So when it came to choosing a relationship, I went along with whomever was going to tell me how and who to be.

Due to my emotional neglect, I had no idea what was expected of me in a relationship. Or even more importantly, I had no idea what made me happy in a relationship. So I chose people who, in no uncertain terms, would tell me how to be accepted by them.

In these relationships, I spent a majority of my time sedated with alcohol while letting my S.O. tell me what she expected from me. I had successfully created a space where I could exist in a sort of half numb state, where I didn’t have to live my life or take responsibility for who I am or my emotions. I was so busy being what everybody else wanted of me and feeling that I was a burden in some way, that I had no idea what I was feeling emotionally or who I was like. This was confusing.

When Fear is the Glue that Binds

And what held me together in my relationships was mostly a sense of fear. Fear of being abandoned and left alone. A fear of being judged bad or not worth being with and feeling shamed for it. The emotional neglect I endured had left me feeling so much fear, that I was paralyzed in my emotional body. Frozen solid. Too afraid to wake into the reality of what my thoughts and feelings were about who I was.

This did not bode well for my relationships. I was acting against my better moral judgement by treating women like sex objects, as well as writing people off while acting incredibly arrogant. And all to make myself seem “acceptable” as a certain type of man. The type of man I had modeled for me and was suggested for me to be, when I was a child. Needless to say, the types of women I was attracting were not women who were best suited to who I actually wanted to be.

Being Sensitive as a Man in a Relationship

Because under the arrogance and pettiness, I was a super sensitive, thoughtful and caring, hopeless romantic, who was terrified of the ways I was behaving. I was rejected by my family, for who I was, so many times that I tried forcing myself to be as they implied and modeled for me. But this was also how I came to be my own abuser.

By freezing and numbing my emotions, while behaving the ways my family did that terrified me as a child, I had become my own abuser. And in turn, I chose women who craved this type of man. Emotionally neglectful and abusive. Time and time again I would choose relationships that left me feeling worse while I was in them. Too afraid to be my sensitive self due to the fear of being rejected or torn apart for having emotions that weren’t “manly”. So I numbed them to fit into the mold of who my S.O., friends and family wanted me to be.

We were repeating the patterns of emotional neglect, from my family, in my romantic relationships. All for the sake of “fitting in” with the people I had come to fear. This was unhealthy. I wish that I could say that there was a defining moment, one where I woke from this fear and started living a life more true to my emotions. But there were some dramatic events that coincided with my awakening.

Waking from the Fear & Emotional Neglect

I drifted through my relationships and most of my life, until I was married in my mid-twenties. Our relationship wasn’t terrible by any means. We were amicable to one another and pleasant most of the time. One day, my now ex-wife came to me and said that we felt more like roommates than a married couple. Looking back now, I understand more clearly what she meant. And she was correct. But I was so numb at the time, that I couldn’t tell the difference.

My family members had acted much the same way as I was acting, so it just seemed natural to me. But what I realize now, what was missing from our relationship was, a felt sense of affection for each other. Sure physical attraction, but more the type where you would lay in bed and talk and cuddle. Being open in emotions and thoughts while being physically close. What I missed when she brought this up was, that these were the questions that would have lead to more intimacy.

But I was much too scared to be intimate in relationship then. I’m only now realizing that intimacy comes after overcoming your fears of being close to another, not before. I first needed to learn to feel safe in relationships with others, before I could be intimate with another. These lessons are usually learned with family in childhood. So in order to feel safe in relationship, I went back to where it all began. To my family.

Safety with & Among Those Closest

After my divorce and the break up of the relationship which immediately followed my marriage, I had no choice but to move back in with family. What made this move so difficult was, that I had been so thoroughly neglected by this family member, I was terrified to get anywhere near them. But I stayed.

I stayed and learned how to take care of myself, but also and more importantly, I learned how to allow myself to be supported by those I was with. I had been so used to do things my way and Feeling Supported By Communicating

And it’s during these interactions where we’re collectively reversing the emotional neglect that we had all experienced in the family. The more often we connect, the more comfortable we all feel with asking each other more and more questions. In the family of my youth, there were no boundaries. Family members would root around in one another’s belongings to try to find something, anything that was being hidden from them.

It turns out that all we were hiding from each other was love and trust. What we wanted to know, we didn’t trust that the other would be honest with us if we asked. Due to us feeling as though we had to be secretive about ourselves and our emotional states for fear of being torn apart. Fast forward to family dinner Fridays and we’re communicating more open and honestly than we ever have.

We’re concerned about each others well being. We share things we find that we think will aid each other. We’re creating community by being honest and open with our emotional states. And this is what we were missing all along. Because we were too afraid to be our authentic, sometimes scared, vulnerable selves around each other, not knowing or realizing that whatever happened we would and could be there to take care of ourselves. Care we could then extend to each other.

Finding Your Connection

I recognize that my situation is unique. Not everybody can go back to a fearful place and make a fresh start. And it was a lot of hard work on my part too. It’s not as though our connection didn’t have its difficulties. But what made it possible to reconnect again was an open mind and staying in the discomfort. Knowing it’s going to be hard but staying anyways, that’s what helped us to create tighter bonds with each other.

Emotional neglect in relationships is not easy to overcome, but it’s also not impossible to either. If you’ve found yourself relating to some of what I’ve written, please seek help. Feeling alone and isolated are two major parts of emotional neglect. And the longer we live with these feelings, the more difficult it is to come back from them. Reaching out to a professional can be a great way to open the door, if only a little bit, to start letting people in again.

Because it is in relationship where we really come alive. The love and trust that we share is life blood to our relationships. And our relationships with each other can be so rewarding. I also find that it helps to think the best of others as well. Not everybody is out for themselves. There are good people out there doing good work. It’s our job to be that person and recognize it in others. Good luck on your journey, and know that you are not alone. Peace & thanks for reading : )

Image Credits: “Broken Mirror” by Rakesh Ashok is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

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

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

Guilt & Feeling a Burden for Simply Being

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

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

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

Self Worth & Value

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

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

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

Fear of Exposing Our Weaknesses

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

When is it too Much?

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

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

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

Have a Conversation

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

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

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

Healthy Give & Take

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

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

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

Just Relax: Easier Said Than Done

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

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

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

Being Active to Prove Myself

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

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

Staying Busy to Overachieve

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

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

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

Sorting Out Integral Support From External Validation

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

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

Self Approval

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

Withholding Accomplishment

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

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

Feeling Accomplished to Feel More Content, Relaxed

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

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

Taking Care of Myself & My Needs

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

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

Relaxation is Free

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

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

Other Ways to Relax That Won’t Cost You Anything

Exercise

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

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

Cooking

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

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

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

Journaling, Reading & Listening to Music

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

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

Winding Down

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

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

Minimalist: Knowing When We Have Too Much of Something

I often wonder how to cut down on my consumption of products. I like the idea of being a minimalist, but this doesn’t show itself in practice. For example, I was sorting through my recipes recently, when I realized that I have a lot. About 260 recipes in all and that’s not including the recipe websites I have book marked! I only make a handful of these recipes regularly, seeing as how I’m on a budget until I pay off my student loans. The plan is, to start rotating in new recipes when I’m able to spend a little more money on my food budget. Because when I was buying whatever I wanted, to make my meals, I was spending upwards to $700 a month 0.o No bueno. But looking at all these recipes has me wondering, where is the limit? When have I amassed too much of something?

When is Enough Stuff, Enough

Amassing things is something I’m good at doing. I’m not alone, to be sure, but still, it leaves me feeling a little guilty. I love the feeling of a clean, well organized and open area. But most of the time this is not how my space looks. Some of this is not my fault. I currently live with my father and step-mother, who also have a habit of collecting things. And I don’t feel as though it is my place to dictate how things should be handled as far as the daily maintenance of the household and collection of stuffs is concerned.

I do however want to do my part to chip in and help keep our shared spaces clean and decluttered. This is something I’m really good at. This was a trait I picked up from my mother, who excels at all things cleaning. Though I must say, that she, like myself, can take it to the extreme. I think this is where the idea of wanting to be a minimalist comes into play. But in between my cleaning binges, I’m really good at collecting items that I have a plan for at some later point in the future.

Or, the things I need to sort through get put to the side because I need a chunk of time to execute my project. Time that I just don’t have. This is usually due to over committing myself to projects, or being too ambitious with my plans. In both cases, the result is the same. I keep putting off the projects I want to get done.

Sort Through Your Basement

An extreme example is, I’ve been putting off going through the stuff from my last apartment that has been taking up space in my basement for the better part of a decade. No bueno. There are some items I want to keep, but I feel that most of the things I own, I’m going to donate. And in my attempt to be as sustainable as possible, my plan is to list everything on a site like “Offer Up“.

This way I feel a little better about not dumping a pile of stuff in a landfill some where. But this also requires me to, take photos of all my stuff, create a sellers account, list items with descriptions, then keep an eye on my inbox for potential interested parties. This, with all of my other obligations and commitments, just seems a little too much.

However, in the spirit of being a minimalist, I DO want to do this as sustainably as possible. So where is the balance? How do I achieve my goals without killing myself in the process? And if you’re like I am, when you go, you go hard. I think the answer is in something that my father tells me all the time, but I was too busy doing to stop to listen.

Go Slow, One Thing at a Time & It’ll Get Done

This is some basic advice that I was just unwilling to accept. However, while I was growing up, I was often told I was lazy. I was already having a difficult time feeling belonging, so I thought that if I worked myself to death, then I’d gain the approval I was searching for. This, however, did not go as planned. I ended up pushing myself past my physical limits as well as setting my standards too high. In short, I was a mess.

Since moving in with my father, a part of me was resentful of how little he seemed to do during the day. He was retired, which in my mind and my upbringing dictated, that he has a whole day to be “productive”. Something my family valued more than most things. This was a lesson I was taught from an early age. Being productive meant gaining approval. But there are a few things that I’ve learned that aren’t healthy about this statement.

When I stopped to listen to my father, I learned that he had done the exact same thing that I was doing. Only he was going harder than I was. Sure, I was working six days a week at two jobs to pay off my loans. But my father was working seven days a week under more difficult conditions than I was. This was an eye opener.

At one point, he said he was rushing around waiting on three people at a time when he realized that he was making mistakes and feeling like no matter what he did, how hard he worked, he was never going to meet the mark. That’s when he decided that he was going to slow down and take it, “one person at a time, they will wait”. And it’s true. People will wait. So will our tasks. And this is where our actions meet the minimalist ideal. We just need to give ourselves the permission to slow down and feel uncomfortable that others are waiting on us. And extend this mentality to all our tasks. One thing at a time.

You are Not How Much You Produce

In my family, on my mother’s side, we are constantly on the go. In a state of perpetual motion. It’s kind of amazing to watch actually. For example, my mother knows how to pack a day so full, that there is no down time. Every moment is filled with some errand or project that needs doing. This usually translated into some sort of shopping trip or returning bought goods to stores. This is how I learned not to be a minimalist. By filling my down time with shopping trips and projects, labeling them as “being productive”.

The more we felt we needed to do, the more items we consumed. The tenants of being a minimalist weren’t even on my radar when I was taught these lessons. And they sure weren’t on my family’s either. But if we stopped for long enough to see what we were doing, why we were so focused on buying things to feel productive, we may have realized that we were really running from our fear of not being approved of. And in a way, by stopping long enough to see we are running from our emotions, we become task minimalists. Taking control of our time and relieving the stress that comes with a super busy day.

Relaxing in the Face of Rejection

If you’re seeking approval through you’re productivity, then you have to keep producing to feel approved of. This is not sustainable. But learning to relax in the aftermath of learning that you are not how much you produce, can feel overwhelming. This was/is something I struggle with. I often feel guilty if I’m not being productive for fear of being seen as lazy.

So the first step is to relax. Let go of your to-do list. This is at the heart of being a minimalist and this will look a little different for everybody. But I’ve come to know it as self-care. I recently read an article from The Good Trade that has labeled this type of relaxing as slow living. I agree with them in what the article lays out as a practice for being kinder to ourselves through going slow, though disagree that the term “self-care” has become “meaningless” according to their article. Either way, they have some great points.

Mostly about cutting out the things we’re over committing ourselves to. This falls in line with my minimalist ideal while, as the article says, freeing up time to pursue the things and hobbies that really matter to you. And this falls in line with my dad’s saying, “one thing at a time.” Letting go of the guilt, of feeling like you’re letting someone down by not being as productive as you feel you should be and take your time doing your tasks. The benefits? You’ll get more done, probably faster than if you’re trying to multitask and make fewer mistakes as well.

Boundaries With What We’re Planning & Reigning in Our Emotions

And once we learn how to slow down our impulse to produce and gage what’s truly important to us, we can start to embrace the minimalist ideals by decluttering some of the things we’ve been collecting. For me this means being able to step into my basement and get the urge of wanting to organize everything, all at once, under control. It’ll get done, one thing at a time.

I recently had another experience with wanting to plan out my future all at once when I was looking at the types of houses that are available for me to build. I was looking at photos of “pole barn houses”, as they are a more affordable option in building your own home.

Interior of a Pole Barn Home from: Taglevel.com

As I was looking at the photos and texting with a friend who is also in the same place as me in wanting their own home, I started to feel the excitement of the possibility of building my own home. It felt like a pent up energy, of wanting to accomplish something. As I was getting excited, I kept opening more browser tabs and before I knew it, I had ten open tabs and was looking on Pinterest while texting with my friend. I was working myself up, not realizing that I needed to slow my roll a little.

Then I stopped. I recognized how I was feeling at that moment, of being swept away in the emotion, and gave myself the permission to not have to figure it all out then and there. And it kind of felt as though I was being bullied by my emotions a bit. As though my emotions were in control of what I SHOULD be doing. This carried undertones of how my family used to handle their emotions. A legacy I do not want to carry with me into my future.

Be Patient & Know That it Takes Practice

That being said, it took a while for me to get to a place where I could be patient with my emotions. In the past I would react to my emotions almost immediately. This made for some uncomfortable situations. But allowing yourself the space between your initial emotional wave and the actions you take, you’ll find the emotions are easier to handle.

Slowing down helps with this process. I cut down on my caffeine intake drastically. This helps me to stay in my emotions while listening to another’s point of view. This is critical for people feeling as though they are feeling heard. Because if you don’t feel as though you are being heard, that’s when the emotions start flaring up.

And in the spirit of being a minimalist, the simpler the conversation, the more likely everybody will feel heard. This is how we stay open, slow down and take things one step at a time. There’s no need to rush to feel approved of. We’re already enough. Peace : ) & thanks for reading.

Image Credits: “A pile of stuff that wants to become a kitchen” by siepert is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.

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