The Power of Feeling Heard: Why Listening Matters

This isn’t a new idea or concept by any means. But it seems like each generation discovers it a new. When we first learn what it means to be a part of the whole. For me and my family, it came a little later in life than is typical for this milestone.

In fact, it seems to be working in reverse. The younger generation guiding the more experienced. And this is by no means a judgement on those of us who are slow to learn. I myself am amongst those ranks. Also, life gets pretty weird sometimes and I totally understand the learning curve that us slow learners are on. So who am I to judge?

But what I’m finding, and the more I talk with those closest to me is, that most of the time when we’re too afraid to connect it’s due to the pain of not feeling heard or understood. Usually from when we were vulnerable enough to put our emotions on the line. And old relational wounding is most likely what’s holding us back. This was the case with my caregivers. And to some extent, still is.

I’ve recently been attempting to reconcile my connections with my childhood caregivers. It seems to be going considerably well given the circumstances our relationships were ruptured under. But it has taken a lot of pride swallowing on my part. To be able to come to a place where I’m able to let go the anger and listen to my caregivers’ stories. And there was a lot of anger. A subject for another post for sure.

But what I’m realizing is, the more I listen to my caregivers’ stories, is that they were/are dealing with some of the same issues I was/am dealing with. Only our situations were a bit different. It’s as though we have been handing down these traumatic experiences, from one generation to the next, like some curresed family heirloom. No bueno. So how do we break the cycle of feeling hurt, alone and fearful in our own family? By feeling heard and seen by one another.

Feeling Heard Ain’t So Easy

From my understanding, most of the people in my family are afraid to connect with one another because deep down, we’ve been made to feel as though we’re unlovable to some degree. Whether it’s from unreasonably high standards we were measured up against, or just plain neglect. We’ve let the fear of being rejected stop us from connecting with one another fully. To speak and be heard became something to be feared instead of embraced. And sadly, this is something I feel isn’t unique to my experience.

And the consequences? We’ve learned to hide ourselves and our emotions away. The risk of being hurt again too much to bear. So we lived in a cold, isolated existence from each other. As Tara Brach puts it, “longing to feel belonging” with one another again but to afraid to reach out.

One of the main ways my family has done this was by keeping most of our interactions at surface level. Also by speeding past and numbing out the discomfort of old relational wounding. Avoiding going deeper at any cost so as not to feel vulnerable around those who are in the habit of attacking vulnerability on sight because they feel it is a weakness.

This reminds me of one visit to my doctor’s office, where I described the anxiety attacks I was having as, “a weakness I just couldn’t live with anymore.” But that was how I was raised to view emotions as, weak. Especially being a man. Which meant in my family that, “weaker” emotions such as tenderness and caring, were feminine by nature and not something men should feel.

The Toxic Lessons We’re Taught About Vulnerability

My family was very much a product of the popular machismo culture that has been alive and well for many generations. Owning guns and drinking were prerequisites of the culture. And if you weren’t belittling those who didn’t fit in, you were considered weak and ineffectual. Vulnerability was a trait that was considered “childish”, or “feminine”, and power and control were the traits of a “real man”. A man who showed vulnerability in my family, especially around other men, were punished severely.

We were mean, with a childlike sense of cruelty. When someone was foolish enough to express an emotion that wasn’t approved of by our family dynamics, they were ridiculed and ostracized by both the men and women. In a misguided attempt to teach me what it means to be a man, when I was seven or eight years old, my uncle would come into my room at three in the morning, pulling me from a dead sleep, and verbally assault me. All the while he would be telling me how to be a man. I don’t remember the lessons from those visits as I’ve blocked them from my memory. But the effects have lasted a life’s time.

The backdrop to my abuse was, my family falling apart. The most independent family member had lost a battle with cancer and my parents were divorcing in the most hostile ways they were able to muster. And when I told my parent about the abuse, they turned their back on me without a word. With so much anger, hostility and trauma flowing so freely, it seemed insanity to open up to what was around, and in us at the time. So we ran from one another. Blocking all attempts to reach out or be comforted because connection at any level meant pain.

We also didn’t know how to be tender with, or comfort each other. This was another trait that was considered feminine. So the men never learned how to be tender with anybody, especially towards ourselves, and the women were so used to being verbally abused, but also inflicting abuse, that they as well forgot how to foster the seeds of tenderness and compassion. This was a cold and confusing place to call home. Especially since we were all still telling each other that we loved one another! Sometimes in the same breath as some freshly spit venom.

Everybody was paralyzed by fear and we all had forgotten how to connect in healthy ways. Aka, communicating. Being heard and seen fully by one another. So if you’re in this place of isolation, how do you begin to forge new, and strengthen what bonds are left to salvage? Open and honest communication. It all comes back to being and feeling heard.

Listening to Feel Heard

The journey to feel heard began for me when I started listening inwardly. I had followed in my family’s footsteps unwittingly and left my then wife for a woman who I felt heard and seen with. I hadn’t realized it at the time, but it wasn’t the love of another woman that would make me feel complete. What I was really looking for was a place I could feel safe enough to feel the child like vulnerability and tenderness that I was shamed for feeling as a man.

I say childlike not as a way to diminish the feelings of vulnerability and tenderness, only that they were still immature in myself. Feeling young as from when the trauma originally happened. These are human emotions. Not to be relegated to a gender or age bracket.

I learned how to listen to myself when I started taking care of my basic needs. I had begun meditating regularly, exercising consistently. Taking care of my nutritional needs as well as keeping my living space clean and organized. I practiced self-care regularly and stayed in touch with old friends while making new ones. And this, as they say, is where the magic happens.

Listening to My Friends = Listening to Myself

Learning to be present for my close friends as they recounted their days to me, or asked for my perspective on a situation was where I really understood what it means to be a part of something larger. To find the safety in the uncertainty of opening up to another and feeling closer because of it. Much in the same ways I was looking to feel safe with myself again. I wish that my doctors visit so long ago was the wake up call for me to start treating myself with more kindness. Even after my doctor told me “you’re being too hard on yourself”. An understatement for sure. But that lesson was still a ways off.

So when I started taking care of my surroundings and my physical needs, that’s when I began to understand that I had to listen to my own needs, physical and emotional, in much the ways I listen and attune to those closest to me. For example, if someone I care for isn’t feeling well, I check in with them regularly to see if they need anything. I do the same for myself as well. Rumi said it best with, “do you pay regular visits to yourself?”

Attuning to your Own Emotions Like an Old Friend

The same is true for myself and what my needs are. When an emotion arises, let’s say I’m feeling a bit fearful, I check to see where my feelings of fear are coming from. Is it situational? Is there someone or thing around me that is making me feel this way? Also, how I respond to this fear is equally as important as recognizing its presence.

Maybe the fear is brought up by being around a person who reminds me of someone who’s harmed me in the past. I recognize that I am in the present, and that I am now in charge of keeping myself safe. Also that the past is in the past. And if I need to, I can remove myself from the situation. There is great power in the ability to choose.

Responding to the fear without reacting to it is an important step to break from these cycles as well. Because we just don’t make good decisions when we’re afraid! And this takes some digging to come to understand with clarity, where your cycles start. For me, it’s usually when I’m around somebody that reminds me of someone from my past. Stay curious about when your cycles start, when the fear takes hold. You can learn a great deal from being open to what’s happening internally in the moment.

For me, the more I recognize what’s happening inside, my emotional states, the more I feel a sense of care towards myself. This is how I’ve been practicing love with myself. And no surprise, it’s similar to the ways I practice care with those close to me. It’s not always easy, but it is most definitely worth it : )

And Don’t Forget, Be Kind

What holds this all together is, you guessed it, being kind. When I remembered that conversation I had with my doctor about my anxiety, I shuttered a little bit. To recognize that I had been so far removed from the tenderness inside of me, made me feel as though I maybe wasn’t able to trust myself. I had become my own abuser in the ways that were modeled for me and that was a terrifying thought.

But I remembered all the work I’ve been putting in, and the ways that I am now listening to myself, and that brings me a sense of ease. Knowing that I’m capable of change is comforting also. It shows me that I’m willing and able to take care of myself in the ways that were never done for me. It’s a little scary at times, for sure. But it’s doable and worth it.

It’s when we treat ourselves with kindness that we’re able to open up and receive kindness. But it takes persistence. Especially if you were trained to view kindness as weakness and something to be avoided at all costs. It’s been quite the journey for me, that’s for sure. Just remember to take your time, and rest when you need to. It’s difficult work, opening up again emotionally when you’ve been shut down for so long. There’s no deadline or need to prove anything. Just do as much as you’re able to when you’re able.

I hope this has been helpful in some way. If you have stories about how you’ve come to listen inwardly, I’d love to hear about them in the comments section below. And as always, peace and thanks for reading : )

Image Credits: “Listener Supported” by planeta is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

Self-Care Sundays! Coming to Terms with your Fear and Neglect of Self by Creating Healthy, New, and Self-Sustaining Habits.

Self-care. This used to be a term I knew almost nothing about. For a long time, I didn’t know I had needs that weren’t food, clothes, shelter or water (more like beer actually). Anything beyond the realm of survival was definitely not on my radar. A younger me would most likely scoff at the idea. Self-care in my mind equated to something like getting a mani-pedi. If you’ve read my post on toxic masculinity, you’ll know I had a deeply entrenched belief about the nature of men having to be tough and unfeeling while women were “afforded the luxury” of being pampered and taken care of.

If that was tough to read, then I’m on the right path because it definitely
did not feel okay to write. The strong sexist overtones were literally and metaphorically beaten into me from the time I was a small child. This is no exaggeration. My family ran from their emotions using so many different modalities that I’m not surprised that I literally did not know what it was like to experience them. I’m surprised that I found my way out of the maze they dumped me in at all.

I would spend my days watching my mother drink coffee all morning long while driving to multiple locations to shop for clothing or house wares that she called running errands. She would then meet her mother and they would gossip and complain about the people closest to them in their lives. In the early evening she would switch to drinking vodka tonics, cooking dinner and paying bills or budgeting at the kitchen table. She would finish the night by watching hours of television. She was in perpetual motion or at very least she filled her time with distractions that would keep her from sitting with her internal life.

I love my mother but from her is where I learned to avoid my emotions with either chemicals or distractions. The men in my life weren’t much more emotionally intelligent either. Using mostly anger and aggression to hammer their points home. I don’t remember many teachable moments in my childhood. Where an authority would sit me down and explain to me why what I just did wasn’t the safest or best way to react to a situation. But there was a lot of yelling and beatings for not following the rules. 

So it was here that I was left. The maze between my mother’s teachings of neglecting my emotional body and the fear I learned from the male role models in my life. Fear and neglect were emotional states I knew well growing up in my family. I now know that it wasn’t their fault. They were “faced with something that could consume you completely”, to quote a song lyric from Grimes’ “Skin“.

In the case of my family, what could consume them were all the unattended emotions that were wildly in need of some kind, structured attention. But when you’re a child just learning how to communicate with your loved ones and learning the languages they’re modeling for you with their spoken and implied rules, it’s difficult to understand that it’s not you. It isn’t personal.

As children we are often the centers of our own worlds. When we sit at the kitchen table listening to our parents cutting up others for their perceived shortcomings often enough, it can be tough to suss out when they turn their disdain towards us in a moment of frustration and the child becomes the target, that the children have not fallen into the category of “other”. Not belonging with and to their parents. Showing the child that the love the parents once gave so freely is conditional and unstable.

This can be a lonely place. One filled with fear for not belonging and self-doubt, as to what the child could have done that made their parents turn on them so quickly. I know for myself, that this was how I was feeling and it is something that I’ve carried with me through the years. If our foundation of how we view ourselves is built on these criticisms then we are left with a very unstable vision of how we see ourselves. This is where a nourishing self-care routine came to help me overcome some of the self-doubt and fear that had been instilled in me from very early on.

From my experience, when we practice self-care, we are sending the opposite message to ourselves. One of being important, being valuable. The more often we send ourselves these positive messages that we care enough about ourselves to nurture ourselves, the less we are to believe the messages of neglect and abuse we received from our caretakers in our youth. As an old co-worker of mine used to say, it’s as though you are saying to yourself, “I’m here, I care”.

And a little bit of care goes a long way. Especially since we have everyday stressors to deal with, and if you add neglect on top of that, it can feel insurmountable at times! But what helps to embody these messages of care we take for ourselves is repetition and consistency. We need to make showing up for ourselves a habit.

Which brings us to self-care Sundays! I know for me, I needed to set some time aside each week, so I could just relax. And even learning to relax was a challenge! So it started with finding the time to begin to learn, which for me is Sunday night. Since I work in the food industry, my Sunday is my Friday, and I thought, “what better way to start my weekend than with a little down time for myself”.

The consistency of my routine being once a week gives me the sense that I’m valuing myself, and my time. I know that no matter how stressful the day gets or how many tasks pile up at work, I have some time to myself where I can do something special for myself. Or just be without worrying about what to do next.

And this is where consistency is important. I needed the set structure of having a specific day, with a set time, to be able to learn that I could count on myself to show up. To focus on myself with a kindness and attention that I hadn’t received before from those who were supposed to show me how it’s done. And as I’ve stated above, it’s even more difficult for men because societally, self-care has historically fallen in the realm of the feminine.

Which was another obstacle I found myself navigating around. I felt a mix of guilt, shame and a little bit of fear for showing kindness to myself. As though this was not my job. I was swimming against the current of my family’s unspoken rule of showing kindness at all. It was not only seen as a sign of weakness for a man, but also feminine in nature. I had to teach myself that kindness was not a feminine emotion, but a human one.

The following paragraph sums up the types of role modeling my family members exemplified in my childhood. The man of the house made a living and had a career. He was the unquestioned authority and head of the household. He used violence and aggression to keep his family in line and protected. The woman was caretaker of the man, cooked, cleaned and soothed him using whatever means necessary. She was submissive and navigated her world with a childlike naivety. Alcohol and denial were the two tools most often used to keep this model “working”.

Under this model I was taught that I needed a woman to be kind to me because that was the work of women. I was unable to feel kindness being a man, so I needed a woman to feel it for me. Asides from this being an extremely unhealthy dynamic and possibly co-dependant, it taught me the lesson that I couldn’t be kind to myself or others.

As a child I was given a considerable amount of mixed messages. Kindness being the woman’s job or even having emotions being feminine, being a few of them. But to my younger self it made sense because all the men in my life were terrifying and the source of most of my abuse. While the women were neglectful and spiteful. So fitting into the roles I had laid out for me meant I needed to be hard and unfeeling. In control of myself and others. But it was these roles that were causing me a considerable amount of fear and anxiety.

Little did I realize that this was my family’s way of trying to control their external experiences to feel more in control of their internal worlds. If everybody acts the part that’s pre-approved, then everybody knows where they stand with one another. But asides from being unhealthy, this also takes the spontaneity out of life. Trying to predict everybody else’s emotional states and reactions in order to feel safe in a relationship is more like surviving than being in a conscious loving relationship. And not allowing for people to change is just as bleak an outlook.

What I feel was the missing piece to my family’s way of being in relationship was, they were relying on someone else to take care of themselves while they took care of another. And if your source of care is on the line and you are unable to provide that care for yourself, then I imagine we would go to great lengths to try to control our sources of care. How we’re loved, seen and belong.

This is why self-care is so much more important than just taking ourselves out to dinner once in a while. It’s a way to show ourselves that even if we don’t have someone who is willing to take care of us in certain ways, we are still capable of giving ourselves the care we need. We are still worthy of love and we still belong. We’re not only willing, but perfectly capable of taking care of ourselves and it can be enjoyable too.

Now that I’ve gone over some of the ways we may find resistance in attempting a little self care, next week I’ll go over some of my routines and how I made them stick. Because it’s not always easy starting a new routine. Especially one that is at the very core of how we picture ourselves and how we imagine the rest of the world sees us. Till next time, bring an open mind. Peace 🙂

Image Credits: “2015-03-18c What do I do for self-care — index card #self-care #happiness #comfort” by sachac is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Speed and Efficiency aren’t Always Correlated: Taking Care of Our Need to Achieve by Slowing Down and Being Kind to Ourselves

The drive to achieve in us humans is great. And it’s not such a bad trait. Collectively, we’ve developed and discovered a great many things that are wondrous and breathe taking, and some that are bland and scary. But we continue achieving anyway, regardless of what the outcome is. We can expand our views and ideas to accomplish deeds greater than the scope of our own lives, or we can narrow our view and focus on changes in the self and shades between as well. Whichever mode of how we choose to accomplish something isn’t inherently more virtuous than any other.

They say it is good to be selfless and act on behalf of those who can’t for themselves, but it is also said that to effect real change, you must first change yourself. However, there may be some pitfalls along the way. If we’re not careful they could cost us our desire to achieve something, either for the greater good or for our own greater good.

One trap we often fall into is wanting to obtain our desired outcome with our own clear map in mind and black and white thinking to navigate the way there. This often leads to dead ends and with a lack of willingness to vary our course to get to our final destination, when we eventually need to vary our plan because our map hasn’t accounted for unknown circumstances, we find ourselves lost and without direction. One of the ways we get caught in black and white thinking is to confuse speed with efficiency. Believing that that alone will lead to success.

This sort of speed equals efficiency and we need to be as efficient as possible, doesn’t usually give us the expected results we think it will. That being said, there is something about working with a quick, controlled focus. Like when you watch a master at his or her craft, moving with agility and dexterity, to create something unbelievably satisfying. But this type of speed and accuracy isn’t necessarily correlated with efficiency. More so it is due to the ten thousand hours the master of their craft committed to their task. And yes they move fast but they are also agile enough to change course if need be. And they are more than likely experts at that as well. Staying fluid.

So if it’s the fluidity of the work that is so impressive to watch in action, while speed is a product of repetition and practice, where does that leave efficiency? From my understanding efficiency is achieved after trying a varying degree of deviations from the main method and being able to adjust for the current circumstance in real time. How do we get there? By trying a bunch of different techniques and seeing what works and what doesn’t. A.k.a, lots of mistakes. The Swedish Chef from the Muppet Show comes to mind, singing along while blindly bandying things about until something is created.

I’m joking, but doesn’t it feel that way sometimes? Like we’re just throwing it together and praying that it comes together? It does for me for sure, until I get a few successful attempts under my belt and then the confidence starts to build. And this is true for most endeavors. From trying a new recipe, to taking a new yoga class, taking on new responsibilities at work, or life responsibilities… there is always something calling for our attention. Something new to try.

And in turn, something for us to make mistakes at. And this isn’t news to anybody for sure. We know by now that to “make an omelette, you must break a few eggs” but sometimes the line gets hazy as to where we feel the acceptable amount of the aforementioned eggs to break is drawn. Or if our plan says to break them a certain way and it doesn’t pan (sorry) out the way we expect it to, or it works but could be tweaked a bit for better results, if we can’t deviate from our plans then we miss an opportunity to stay fluid in our search for mastery or efficiency in our tasks.

One of the ways we learn new paths and stay fluid and where we’ll find another pitfall is working with others, collaborating. Often time we view mistakes as embarrassing and where speed is priority, wasting time can be something of a sensitive subject. Especially for those that feel as though they have to be good at everything they do on their terms to be as efficient and successful as possible.

So in the search for being efficient and where speed is a value and mistakes are seen as an embarrassing weakness, we will often times reject help from others. Or insist we have to do everything on our own in our own way, too proud to ask for help and being seen as someone who can’t handle their tasks. But it is this very instance where two minds coming together to understand and approach a problem from different perspectives that allows for the type of growth that implements change for the positive. In other words, more efficient.

I work with someone who exemplifies this sort of speed is priority above all else. And what was so eye opening about watching them work and actually hearing them say, “we have to be as efficient as possible”, is how much they reminded me of myself, not to long ago. My co-worker is a reasonably amicable person, but when they have something set in their head on how things should be done they don’t pull any punches. I’m a baker by trade and an example of this type of mindset in action is I feel encapsulated by one of our interactions we’ve had fairly recently.

We were making baguette, shaping the familiar cylindrical loaves we know and love as the iconic french bread. When I was flipping the dough from the pre-shaped form to the middle of the bench, crusty side down so that it didn’t stick to the bench, my co-worker asked, “could you please not flip the bread when you move the pre-shapes”. When I inquired why she wanted it done this way she responded with, “the crusty side is down, so when someone shapes, the crusty side will be on the outside of the loaf.” She was already anticipating that someone was going to make a mistake and wanted me to adjust for the person who may shape the loaf incorrectly. This made little sense to me since everyone on the team was experienced.

What it came down to for them was whether or not they could trust their co-workers. Or rely on someone else to do the right thing when called upon. I was working from a collaborative perspective, anticipating what would be most convenient for the team. When you have the mindset that everyone around you isn’t trustworthy, then you take on the role of responsibility for the outcome of the entire team. This is not only unreasonable but also unhealthy. What was and is so shocking for me is how much of my former self I see in my co-worker.

I remember having a tough night at a bakery I used to work at when I got into an argument with the owner about something. What I’m not to sure of now but knowing me it probably wasn’t a big deal. But I know I made it out to be. In the middle of our argument I told the owner that my bake looked like garbage when actually it was a very respectable bake. He said so himself. I think a few loaves may have been misshapen, but I blew up those two to three loaves into a complete failure for the entire night. It was this type of black and white thinking mixed with the impossible standard I set for myself and others which isolated me from those I worked with. And something I see so clearly now in my current co-worker’s actions.

This is a very isolating place to be and the only way out is through kindness, to ourselves and others. My former self and my current co-worker had/have the best of intentions. But that’s just it, they always have to be “the best”. There is no room for error and anything “less than” will be dealt with swiftly and with extreme prejudice. This is the very definition of passive aggressive behavior and turned inward, can result in self harm in negative self talk.

It’s like being in an abusive relationship, only there is nowhere to run where you won’t find yourself. You are always there to pick apart whatever perceived failure or mistake you see and there is always an underlying feeling of something being off. Like you’re not quite safe but can’t figure out why. From my experience this was the attitude that is cultivated by being in this passive aggressive state. Hyper vigilant and distrustful of yourself and others. No question a very isolating place to be.

But again the way out is kindness. It’s amazing how much a little self care goes toward reversing this critical state of being. Self care and kindness towards yourself and others begins to cultivate a loving attentiveness to the spots that get sticky when we want to pick ourselves apart. Staying with those feelings and being kind to them, but also staying with the feelings that come up when we experience them by observing them in others.

Because when we see these emotions in others, judge them as weak or unsavory in some way, we distance ourselves from them and become guarded against them. Or we actively are hostile towards them.

What I wasn’t taught and what I imagine most people aren’t who are in most need of this advice is these are not emotions specific to the individual that we are judging as other or less than. They are human emotions. You can’t kill or completely rid yourself of select emotions. Being human means that you sign up for the entire package. Pleasant and difficult emotions alike and all those shades between. So when you judge another for being in a certain emotion and when you eventually feel that emotional state, you will judge yourself with the same harsh scalpel you did another.

Furthermore, the more we practice this aggression towards others and self, what immerges is a low self esteem and self doubt. The Buddha said “what we think, we become”. It stands to reason that if we are filled with angry thoughts and those of aggression towards others, we become outwardly hostile and unpleasant to be around. The Buddha also said, “hatred never ceases by hatred but by love alone is healed”. So the more kind we are to ourselves and others, the more we cultivate a loving state that is capable of healing our fragile, wounded selves. Creating a space that is able to support the healing of ourselves and others.

So the more we judge ourselves for not adding up to the plans we’ve laid or when we eventually have to change course because something unpredictable happens, the more we get stuck in our ridged ways of being that become a source of frustration. A roadblock to what we truly want. Usually this means to be productive and good at what we do, efficient and capable. But the more we slow down in those moments of harsh judgement and see ourselves as honesty as struggling or lost with a lack of direction, and the more kindness we are able to bring to that lost self, the easier it will become to pull ourselves out of that state and into a place that is more flexible and understanding. More loving.

In the end, we will accomplish more by slowing down and bringing a loving attention to the places in need, than by any form of criticism or judgement. And it all starts with bringing kindness to what’s happening in the moment. With the feelings that arise.

A good way to loosen the grip of the harsh judge is to come up with a resource list. This is a list of things, places, people or events and activities, that you enjoy doing or being around or participating in. This is a good place to go when you need to bring some warmth and kindness to yourself. Because it’s not always easy to think of taking care of yourself when you’re in the midst of tearing yourself down. I have one in my Bullet Journal and it’s nice to look at even when we are in need of a quick pick-me-up.

So now that we have the resources we need to show ourselves some kindness when we don’t feel we, or someone we know, is adding up to the standard that may be a little unreasonable, who knows what we’ll be able to achieve. Peace 🙂

An update on my relationship with my co-worker. Our relationship has changed for the better due to me actively listening with kindness to what was bothering them. The more kindness we bring to our interactions, with self and others, the better off we all will be for it.

Image Credits: “Stress” by topgold is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Reparenting-Resistance to Training: Why Working Out Builds More Than Just Strength

I’m an avid runner and yogi. I love the feel of being out on the road, ending my fourth mile at the top of a hill. Also knowing that the ocean and its breeze is just ahead of me, waiting on the other side. I love the calm on my mat right after we finish our vinyasa. And when I’m lying prone in savasana, letting the energy from the workout settle over me. But it wasn’t always that way.

For a long time I avoided exercise at almost any cost. Even though I played baseball and soccer in my youth and also took taekwondo lessons, I’ve struggled with any form of physical activity since I started middle school. With the exceptions of when I decided to lift weights for stints of two months every five or so years. So it was to my complete surprise when about four years ago I took to running as a hobby and practicing yoga fairly regularly.

I’m not sure what got into me. But I took to both yoga and running so quickly that I was running half marathons in a little under a year’s time and I was doing yoga twice a week. Making great strides in my overall health and fitness levels.

I attribute much of my motivation levels to my quitting smoking, drinking and playing video games. But also as much credit goes to my living situation being the most stable it has been since my early childhood. Probably around the time I stopped playing all the sports I used to engage with in the first place. I had been so worried about my survival first, and belonging second, that any energy I had went to those two efforts. These thoughts consumed my thoughts and actions.

As I would come to find out I had been hyper vigilant due mostly to my past abuse that lead directly to my developing PTSD. I didn’t realize it then but I was expending great amounts of energy keeping my feelings guarded and isolating from others. I was so guarded that I was dissociating from both my feelings and body almost constantly.

Once my living situation stabilized and I was able to take stock of what personal resources and achievements I had to build from, I realized I didn’t have many. I had spent so much of my time running from every aspect of my life that I had maybe two friends that were well adjusted and stable. I had loads of debt and was pretty unhealthy as well. So I suppose it was only natural to use something like running (because it was already second nature to me) to get in touch with my body and take control of my health. Yoga helped to slow me down enough to feel what was here as well as getting acquainted with the parts of my body I had been neglecting for so long.

Running specifically was a source of pride and accomplishment for me. I could track the progress in mileage in time and with tangible results. As I said above I was running 13.1 miles from 2 miles inside of a year. Also the neighborhoods and scenery I was running in and around were beautiful. It helped that I had some running buddies along the way as well.

I remember running my first rely-marathon with a friend of mine from Vermont. The course carved through downtown Burlington and the views of Lake Champlain while running up and down the city’s hilly roads were lined with rows of vibrant green conifers. This was set behind the clear, glassy lake which was reflecting the sapphire sky and its low lying supple clouds. It was beautiful. And along with so many people running along side of me which was more supportive than I would have thought. There’s always an excitement on race day, like this run REALLY matters. No matter how many times you’ve run the course or the race, it feels special knowing there are so many like minded people gathering to achieve the same goal.

The feelings of support and community are also true of yoga classes. The dimly lighted room, the open space filled with yoga mats politely distanced to give room to the people surrounding you. And soothing music softly playing as people prepare for the class by coming to stillness and quiet on their mats. The quiet flow of synchronized movement while each person follows the instructors direction to the best of their ability with focused intentions and minds. And finally the release of the session’s work as it melts away from your body leaving you feeling relaxed and filled with life, as you finish your day’s practice in savasana.

These two hobbies have been a large influence of my healing path as well. From the time of my abuse till I was in my early thirties, I had no real goals or aspirations to rise to in my life. I was listlessly floating around from situation to relationship to circumstance, completely uncertain about what was going to happen to me or my future. I didn’t feel as though I really had a future to speak of. After I woke up into my emotions, running and yoga were the two ways I was able to give some structure to my life.

Running was a way for me to understand that I could achieve something, however small. The distances I ran and the connections I made with the people I ran with were markers for me. Markers that allowed me to cultivate a sense of accomplishment. Even if it was only making the jump from mile six to mile seven, I was proud of that mile. As though that mile showed me I could overcome something. Achieve what I never thought I was able to accomplish. Or the five mile buddy runs I used to run with my friend Jenny, around the neighborhoods of my past. The unconditional friendship and feelings of accomplishment of consistently running five miles that accompanied me through the streets that I had so associated with past failures. They gave me the strength to feel better about the choices I was making. Instead of the choices I had made.

And with yoga it was a way for me to feel comfortable around people again. Something I was having trouble with while being present in my body. I had been so used to drinking and using medication to soothe myself while around others that I forgot how to be around someone while in an unaltered state. Yoga with its comforting setting and gentle flow while being a challenging workout, showed me how to be in my body. And to experience these emotions not only in my body, but while being surrounded by supportive, like minded people.

As I’ve mentioned above I had maybe two friends who stuck with me and were supportive. Most of the people I had surrounded myself with before I woke up emotionally were critical, angry and viciously mean. Both my friends and especially my family were very cold and very cutting. It was no wonder that I was so detached from my body and feelings. Every time I stepped foot inside myself I felt as though I was under attack!

Running and yoga were also ways for me to know I could achieve physical health goals if I committed to them. And that they were ways of being in my body and surrounded by people and feel safe. Furthermore, I felt that I could choose to make these healthy choices and choose to surround myself with people who felt safe to be around. That helped to show me that I had the agency I felt I lacked for so long. I could choose how my future would unfold. I could stop wandering so listlessly and find some focus. Some footing to regain control of my life.

I suppose this is why sports are so important for some young people. Something to give them the stable, supportive, community that they may be lacking elsewhere in their lives. A younger me would have scoffed at the idea. But looking back on what the self-driven, dedication and support from loved ones has given me, I could only imagine what it would do for someone who was hanging on by a thread. Who felt like they were just trying to survive.

Fortunately for us we don’t have to be experiencing some great trauma to develop a new healthy hobbie like running or yoga. The benefits are equally as gratifying either way. The more we make showing up for ourselves a habit, by way of commiting to our workouts and physical health, the greater the trust we nurture in our own lives will be. Tara Brach a Buddhist psychologist who I’ve mentioned before on this blog, gave a talk related to this subject. It’s about how “it’s not the survival of the fittest, it’s the survival of the nurtured.” And for me the more often I reflect on this piece of wisdom the truer it becomes.

So if you haven’t started a hobby like running or yoga, or maybe swimming has always appealed to you, I urge you to pursue your interests. Be inquisitive and explore your personality some. Maybe hiking has been in the back of your mind waiting for the time to be right to pick it up and see where it takes you. Make the time for yourself and show up. But be kind to yourself on the way and be consistent. One of the reasons yoga is so healthy is that there is no competition, no judgement. You show up just as you are. And that’s always be enough. Whatever interest or predilections you have, foster them. Who knows where they’ll take you but wherever it is it will be satisfying. And you’ll be building confidence and trust in yourself along the way. Happy trails and Namaste :]

Self-Care: Meditation, Am I Doing this Right?

Full disclosure, I’m a meditator, and I believe in God. That being said, I’m not here to sell you on my idea of what’s right or tell you what’s right for you, I’m only going to tell you what my process was and hopefully it will be helpful to some.

I’ve been meditating for about seven years, and it has helped to change my perspective on just about everything. That doesn’t mean that life is suddenly easier, or the emotional weight is any less than it was when I wasn’t meditating. I still experience the same frustrations and problems as I did before, only now I see things in a different light.

I believe the main benefit I’ve gained from meditation is that I’m more easily able to connect with my emotions and wants and needs than I ever was in the past. And things have slowed down quite a bit.

I used to drink. Coffee during the day, mostly espresso and about seven to nine shots. They were usually in the form of mocha lattes and also lots of energy drinks. Then alcohol at night, six to seven drinks. These were to slow myself down from all the coffee I drank. Sometimes I’d mix the energy drinks with the alcohol. It was tough. A constant cycle and not a healthy one or something that was sustainable by any means. If I went without either for to long I would get panic attacks. When the feelings I was running from would slowly start to bubble to the surface.

Don’t get me wrong, it wasn’t all bad. I had some fun times but I was never really aware of the consequences of living without restraint and only living for the fun times. The “difficult” emotions mounted on the doorstep not unlike stacks of unpaid bills waiting for the day that I would open them. Only to be bowled over by the amount owed.

As I’ve said above, my emotional debts sometimes came in the form of anxiety attacks. But they usually took the form of a listless floating around without direction and not knowing how to move myself forward in life. In the direction that I didn’t quite have a bearing on. And it wasn’t just myself that I was hurting by avoiding my unfelt emotions. It was everyone around me that relied on me in some way or for some form of support.

For example I was married for eight years. Looking back now I can see what a wonderful and supportive wife I had, but that’s exactly it. The wife I HAD. I neglected her emotions in our relationship in the same ways I was neglecting my own emotions. One day she even came to me and said, “I feel like we’re roommates”. This should have been a clue as to the extent that I had been disconnecting from her and my feelings for her in our relationship.

In the end I ran from her. To avoid the emotional bills that were pounding on my door for the ways I had been living. Unfortunately I ran straight into the arms of a woman who was also on the run from her own emotional debt. As you’ve probably already guessed it did not end well for anyone involved. Accept my ex-wife who is happily remarried and where she wants to be. I’m happy for her and wish her nothing but the best for her and her family.

But it wasn’t until I started meditating that I could even begin to see things from this perspective. Meditation helped me to open the bills one at a time and take stock of my personal resources. And allocate parts of myself, my resources, to myself to help ease the pain of so many neglected emotions.

Ironically one of the areas I had neglected was personal finance. So some of my emotional debt came in the form of monetary debt. In fact, most of what I was doing was reparenting myself around all the neglected areas of my life. Giving myself the care and attention that I had never received from my parents. And it wasn’t all their fault but without the chance to slow down and take a personal inventory, I would have went along in life repeating the same cycles that my parents lived through and theirs before them.

It isn’t always easy. Getting in touch with the parts of ourselves we’ve been avoiding. But for me meditation helped. It helped me to reach out to others for help when I needed it. I was raised by men who were men. Hairy chested, heavy drinking, take what they want and trample whomever is in their way, men. Asking for help was, according to the men (and women) who raised me, “a woman’s trait”. It took a long time for me to unlearn this and many other lessons I was taught.

Later a co-worker of mine at a past job (let’s call him Lance 😉 called this “toxic masculinity”. Something he learned while he was going to a private school. He, much like myself, was soft spoken and sensitive to others’ emotional needs. Something that is not acceptable in a toxically masculine culture. So clearly there was something wrong with us. Which means we were looked down on or just plain abused.

I tried to emulate this toxic masculinity because I thought it would grant me acceptance. But all it did was make me mean. And I burned a lot of bridges during that time period of my life. And again thanks to meditation I couldn’t see any of this until I slowed down enough and the made genuine connections with others like Lance, heard his stories and empathize with his situation. Because it was the same as mine.

I have another friend who, let’s call her laughing princess, when I told her I meditated said to me, “oh, you mean like deep prayer”. What I liked about her comment was instead of fighting over who was right about what to call it, she recognized it as a practice in her life by a different name and we both agreed that it was something that was helpful for each of us.

These are only a few of the areas of my life that have changed and improved because I chose to slow down and take a deeper look into my spiritual experience. Like my friend laughing princess, we can call it whatever we’ve come to understand it as. For some you may be discovering it for the first time. Wherever you are it’s okay. Give it time and space and trust you will find the way. Happy trails :]

Image Credits: “Smokey Temple” by Antonio R Vianello is licensed under CC BY 2.0 

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