Finding Belonging: Navigating Feeling Lonely For the Holidays

There has been a lot of talk lately about isolation and how it’s been affecting us as a global society. Being quarantined for such a long time has no doubt, taken its toll on peoples’ mental health. But what about those who were already isolating? Only not due to a virus outbreak. What if there are people whom are already quarantining, only to protect themselves from opening up emotionally to others? And not from a potentially deadly virus.

This was how I had been living for decades, not realizing what I had been doing. In this post, I’d like to take a look at what brought me to this place and what I’m doing about it now to help alleviate some of the pain of emotional isolation. Hopefully, helping both those who are too scared to open up emotionally, but also those dealing with pandemic isolation as well. So let’s jump right in with where it all began for me.

How the Past Shapes the Present

When I was young, things were pretty good. I had a best friend, support from family and interests I was developing. I was well on my way to a healthy version of person-hood. But things took a turn for the worse when I was about 8 years-old. My family fell apart and I lost my best friend, all at about the same time.

This is a difficult situation for anybody to handle, but when you’re 8 and emotionally abandoned, it’s nearly impossible to sort out and understand all the emotions tied into what’s happening to and around you. Also not to mention, to not take responsibility for what’s happening. Especially if the messages you were being sent were, as I was, “there’s something wrong with you, I know what it is, but I’m not going to tell you and I’m disappointed in you for it.”

These messages came from my family mostly.There was always a smug sense of knowing, of superiority that my caregivers carried about them. And when you’re a child just coming to understand how you affect the world you’re inhabiting, as I was, this is more than just a little confusing. I was second guessing my belonging, how I was seen by others and whether what I was doing made those I relied on and trusted, reject me. I was lonely, isolated and had absolutely no one to talk to, to help me to understand what I was experiencing. Fast forward to the pandemic and I had already experienced what others were coming to know well as a heartbreakingly lonely experience. Only for most, theirs was due to COVID-19.

And the older I got, the further apart my family drifted. To almost complete isolation. We never spoke to one another and when we did we didn’t have anything nice to say about anything or anyone. We were becoming less and less recognizable as a family, aka a group of people who love and support one another. It just wasn’t in us.

Okay, It’s Hit the Fan, Now What?

To watch something you felt loved and supported from fall apart, is no easy task. As I’ve said in earlier posts on this blog, I have very fond memories of my family as a youth. So getting used to the cold, emotionless, emptiness that was slowly growing in the place of where my love and support used to live was maddening. But it was also fact. No amount of wishing things were differently was going to make things change for the better. Especially around the holidays.

So I did what anybody in my situation would do. I had a breakdown. I left my wife for a woman I thought I loved, only to find myself rejected yet again. A pattern I later realized that I emulated from my family history. But it’s the best thing that could have happened for me at the time.

I realized I was living the embodiment of my family’s toxic ways of being, all the while running from what was healthiest for me. Which was to build lasting relationships based in mutual respect and love. Not on the image based and emotionally avoidant ways my family has been living.

I chose my ex-wife because she held strong opinions and knew what she wanted. These aren’t inherently bad qualities, only it left me without a voice in the relationship. But this was just what I was looking for. Someone to tell me how to live my life. And that’s exactly what I got from our relationship.

The woman I left my ex-wife for was more of the same. I was regressing in my emotional growth by choosing women who were obstinate, mildly self-absorbed, bullish, self-righteous and mean spirited. But if we’re being honest, I was exactly the same way. And I was also looking to avoid actually being a part of my relationships because it’s how I was hurt in the past.

So after my breakdown, I moved in with one of my childhood caregivers. This was a wakeup call In that most of the life events that I experienced, my caregiver had as well. Only I never knew because we never spoke. They were avoiding building a relationship with me in the same ways I was avoiding building relationships with them and at all.

So again, I was left alone and with little direction on how to move forward with and in my life. But luckily this time around, I had a few resources and some goals to work towards. These, in conjunction with one another, gave me the insight to help me move forward, and finally grow from the regressed, stagnant place I had been living from for so long.

What to Do When You Don’t Know What to Do

There’s a feeling I get when I go into a drug store or a thrift shop. It’s a feeling of knowing that I can probably get what I need from the place I’m in, but it maybe won’t match the ideal aesthetic of what I want. But there’s a potential that’s embedded in that feeling. What if I can make something of what I have. What can I do with where I’m at.

And that’s a good feeling. This was the feeling I got when I moved in with my caregiver after barely speaking for 26 years. We were finally in a position where we would be stuck in a place together, for better or for worse, and have to navigate our situation together. But it took a while. We had to get use to being around one another again. Get to know each other as the people we had become, with all of the life experiences we’ve accumulated. It was uncomfortable at times but we stuck it out and grew stronger because of it.

I started doing laundry every other week with one family member, which slowly allowed me to get to know them again. This is where I started to trust again. Then I suggested family dinner nights on Friday. Every Friday, one of us chooses a recipe and we all come together to cook. Dividing the tasks and enjoying the fruits of our labor, the conversations, the mistakes. It’s become a favorite night for all of us. Then I suggested just hanging out with one family member on Monday mornings when I wasn’t working.

Slowly, we were, are, learning how to be a family again. But no one of us could have done it alone. We all had to be willing to become a part of something bigger than just three people living in a household. We needed to be open to the idea of living in a home, foibles and all.

And this took a lot of work, for all of us, but on my part as well. I had to be open to being hurt again. So I could feel the vulnerability and the tenderness that comes with feeling connected. Because I will be hurt again. I’ll be let down by something somebody does or hurt when they leave me for the final time. But it’s worth remembering to open anyways. There’s a line from a Kings of Leon song, “The Immortals” that goes, “don’t forget to love, ‘fore you gone”. Something I feel as though a majority of us are too scared to do. And what I was running from for so long.

Tick List: Stay Connected

I have a list on my phone, next to my “Todo” list. This one is called, “Stay Connected”. It’s a list I wrote of my friends, the people I want to stay in touch with. What they’re up to and current plans I have with them. For someone like me, who has been isolated for the better part of three decades, this is an important aspect of my life for me to stay on top of. There’s a line from a song that goes, “being lonely is a habit, like drinking or taking drugs, I quit them both, but man was it rough” Jenny Lewis, Acid Tough.

And being lonely is both habit and rough. One of the reasons we may be isolating and why I was is, to protect ourselves. But it’s doing more harm to stay isolated than to take the risk and feel connected. This article from Tulane University explains how isolation can lead to anxiety, depression and heart disease. But do we really need scientific research to show us that we feel better after a talk with a close friend? Or the feeling of warmth while we’re cuddling with our S.O.? Sometimes we need only listen to the wisdom of our hearts to know what’s best for us, even if that wisdom is intertwined with fear.

Taking the Risk

I have a photo from “Man on Wire” on my desktop, where Philippe, the subject of the documentary, is on a high-wire between the tops of the two world trade center buildings in NYC. The photo is both terrifying and beautiful at the same time. This is what it feels like, for me, to risk feeling connected again after so much neglect and estrangement. It’s not safe, but necessary, to cross the void in order to feel loved and connection again.

So how do we begin to cross the void? Don’t look down! JK, but seriously, it takes a lot of feeling uncomfortable and swallowing a fair amount of pride in the process. For me, I had to recognize that I was actively withholding love from others. And what’s most surprising is, I didn’t even realize I was doing it. It became so engrained in my personality, in my defense against being hurt, I didn’t even realize it was happening. It was a lesson I learned from my family, who has been practicing it since I can remember. So to even wake up from this trance I was in, is a feat on to itself. But it’s doable. It just takes practice.

What practice looked like for me was, I had to find ways to make my environment comfortable for me to inhabit first. I started with my room. Filling it with plants, a diffuser and some candles. Things that imbue comfort for me. I then took some of that comfort and carried it into the next room I wanted to acclimate to. I started burning candles while I was learning to take care of my nutritional needs by way of cooking for myself while in the kitchen. I was then able to offer this peace I had found in myself to others. But the other aspect I needed was to learn how to be kind to myself first.

This took practice as well. I didn’t realize the ways I was beating myself up in most cases. Trying to reach that impossible standard to feel loved and accepted kept me from seeing a lot of the ways I was disconnecting from myself and how I was pushing myself too hard. But these were learned behaviors from my family. I was neglecting myself in the same ways my family neglected themselves.

For example, my family, for Thanksgiving, wasn’t going to buy a turkey for themselves because it was too expensive and too much food. I don’t eat meat, and they couldn’t eat a whole turkey with just the two of them. But they would buy it for another in a heartbeat if they were coming over for dinner.

These are the ways I had modeled for me in neglecting myself by way of neglecting what brings me joy, because I feel I need to settle for something lesser. This is due to not feeling as though I’m worth the effort, but if I’m always neglecting myself and sacrificing my happiness for no other reason than because I don’t want to spend the money or effort on myself, what kind of message am I sending to myself and others? That I’m not really worth or worthy of love. From myself or from others.

And my family members are good people. They’ve just been told time and again this unhealthy message of, sacrifice your happiness and joy in the name of being frugal, or for someone else’s sake. We never learned how to care for and love ourselves. But this is what I’ve been doing with my planned family dinners and time spent with family members again. Learning how to care for myself, as well as those closest to me. As a result, we’ve all come to trust and love each other a little more deeply because of it. It hasn’t been easy, but it is most definitely worth the while.

There’s a greater sense of ease around one another now. A place where uncertainty and distrust lay before. Something that wasn’t possible only a few years ago. It’s not perfect, but it’s fulfilling. And that’s good enough.

Begin With What You Have

So how do we make the U-turn from lonely and isolated to connected and loved? I’ve found that starting with where you are, and who you are with, is the best place to begin. But first, it’s important to assess your situation and whom is around you to make sure you’re taking care of yourself in as safe a way as possible. For example, if I was still living with the last woman I was staying with, I most likely wouldn’t have been able to grow in the ways I have. I just wasn’t in a safe and supportive environment and subsequently felt guarded and on edge. This was not an environment conducive to building trust.

Finding supportive friends is also fundamental to building trust and love as well. I’m so grateful for the countless hikes and conversations that have nurtured me when I most needed love and support from my friends and family that are closest to me. Time spent together was a soothing balm to the neglect and abandonment I experienced in my youth. And they are relationships I value more and more the more time I spend with them.

So if you’re in a similar situation to what I have experiences and are feeling lonely, find a relationship that feels like it has potential, even if it feels a little risky, and start there. Find a foothold in a shared common interest. For me and my family it was food and gardening. What do the people in your life value? Where does it intersect with where your interests lay? Explore these areas a little together. And remember, it doesn’t have to happen overnight.

Treat your relationships as you would something that is growing. Give them the time and space they need. The nutrients of your shared interests and what you discover along the way. Again, it won’t happen overnight, especially if there are hurt feelings to tend to. But be patient. Also, if you’re new to building healthy relationships, don’t be afraid to ask for help. I owe a great debt of gratitude to my therapist who has been a personal ally for me when I most needed them.

And also, don’t forget to have fun along the way! For me, I can get so wrapped up in thinking I need to constantly improve, be as healthy as possible, that I forget that I and those closest to me aren’t projects. We’re just people who want to connect, to be seen and heard.

The holidays can be lonely for some but they don’t have to be. If you are finding that you are in a similar situation, feeling a bit adrift and lonely, reach out to someone. Even if you haven’t spoken in years. You’d be surprised how many people I’ve contacted after years of not talking and fell right back into a rhythm of conversation again. Start where you are, with who you know. It’ll help, just be open to connecting and you’ll be part of the flow once again. Peace : ) and thanks for reading.

Image Credits: alone… by VinothChandar is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Where do You Draw the Line? When are You Taking on Too Much Responsibility For Other People’s Emotions

This is a loaded topic, and one I’ve recently had to come to terms with. It’s difficult enough in the day to day, sorting and responding to our emotions. But when you add a layer of taking on the responsibility of absorbing somebody else’s emotional state, it can be overwhelming. This is a skill that I definitely learned late in life, and one I’m still grappling with today, as I try to sort out my emotions from the unhealthy lessons and emotional baggage of my caretakers. This aspect of handling emotions in our daily lives is so important, I’m surprised that we don’t have a curriculum for it to help those who are navigating this in their early teens. Another topic for another post for sure.

What started me thinking about about the idea for this post was something I said in last weeks post on dealing with unreasonably high standards. I grew up in a family where my caregivers would often say, “you made me do this”, or “you made me feel this way.” These were powerful statements to hear, especially at such a young age. This was the foundation of me taking responsibility for not only my own emotions, but also those of my caregivers and just about everybody else in my life that I had an emotional bond with.

After hearing one of these statements, usually after a fight or some form of an argument, I would then take what was said personally. As though the entire argument we had just had, and all the hurt feelings and disappointment that was the result of the argument, was my fault. My caregivers almost always had an air of something being offensive to them. As though whatever was happening was not only personally being done to them, but there was also a sense of indignant righteousness. That they knew better than whom ever was offending them, and they (the offenders) were inherently bad for doing, thinking or being a way that was not to their liking.

And how could I not take responsibility for all the components of our relationship. With standards like my caregivers’, and coming directly from those who were supposed to teach me how to navigate life and my emotional world, I just assumed that they were in control, knew what was supposed to happen and that I just never added up.

So these were the broken and unsustainable lessons I then tried to navigate my world with. I held a sense of indignant righteousness and judgemental attitude in almost all of my relationships. I was unforgiving, of others and myself, when we didn’t add up to my unreasonably high standards, and I was mean. In just about all aspects of my personality.

From my harsh judgements of others, to the cutting and snide remarks I would make when I saw someone not meeting my standard. Or just when I thought they were showing some “weakness” that I didn’t approve of. I remember very distinctly, picking out one individual who I worked with, who I would pick on relentlessly. And the only reason I chose him to receive the brunt of my hostility was because he was kind and considerate without the egotism I thought men should display, by virtue of being a man. Toxic masculinity at its worst.

But picking on someone for showing kindness and consideration, traits I viewed as “weaknesses”, was really a way to stay loyal to the lessons I received from my caregivers. These were really there views, their reactions to their emotional landscapes and the lessons they were taught. And in order to feel belonging, I assimilated them as my own. I became the person that was expected of me by my caregivers by absorbing their attributes and taking them on as my own.

This, however, lead to me not understanding how to be, or what intimacy in a relationship was. This left me feeling that most of my relationships were very superficial and without feelings of connection. This was a very lonely place to be.

As well as not being able to develop and foster intimate relationships, I was also actively afraid of the people that reminded me of my caregivers. The ones who had taught me how to be in, and seek out these unhealthy relationships to begin with. So when I met a new co-worker, or was around someone who resembled my caregivers to some degree, i.e. being highly critical of others with a sense of malice for the sake of sport, there’s a sense of fear that comes on, with a feeling of, “this is my fault, the reason their being so mean is because of who I am.” Even if they are talking about somebody else, I was always in the position of feeling as though it was only a matter of time before their attention was directed towards me. That I was somehow always a moment away from displeasing and totally disappointing whomever was talking because I was always disapproved of by my caregivers.

This is a pattern that still plays out to this day. I feel as though I’m finally on the mend from a life’s time worth of feeling like a disappointment, but it’s taken some considerable effort to break free from the cycle of my caregivers lessons. The first step was recognizing how I was feeling while I was interacting with someone I have a relationship with.

This started for me while I was interacting with a co-worker of mine. Everything seemed fine at first, but later I noticed he would get really quiet around me when it was just us two. And the more I heard him in conversation with others, the more I came to know his personality. He would say things like, “I live to gaslight people”, which was something I would expect to hear from one of my caregivers. If you’re not familiar with the term gaslighting, it means, to “manipulate (someone) by psychological means into questioning their own sanity.” (Google Dictionary).

How I felt while I was around this particular co-worker, was as though I had done something wrong, but I had no idea what it was that I was doing. I felt the fear in my belly and groin, as though something were about to happen to me. This must be where the expresion, “gird your loins” comes from, because I definitely felt my fight or flight response kick in while I was around them, viscerally. I knew that I was uncomfortable around them, and as though something bad would imanantly happen, and that it was my fault.

But even this aspect, learning to trust my emotions was a difficult process. As I’ve said above, when you are surrounded by people who are constantly telling you that you are making them feel a certain way, and avoiding responsibility for their own emotions and reactions to them, it becomes more than a little fuzzy on how you feel, and if what you are feeling is actually your feeling. some of the questions may be, is somebody else making me feel this way? Is this my emotion, or the other person’s that I’m feeling?

This may seem elementary to most people, and I hope that is the case, but for those of us who were taught poor, or no emotional boundaries, this is a very confusing place to be. So building those boundaries became paramount to me being able to navigate how I feel in situations. One boundary being, knowing that no matter what, what I’m feeling is my own feeling, and therefore my responsibility, was an important one to learn. This allowed me to see how I am feeling, in real time, in reaction to a situation that is happening currently. I can then see the feeling, then see all the thoughts that I’ve learned to associate with that feeling, and work to separate them from one another, and deal with the present situation and emotions accordingly.

So in the example above, with the co-worker who “lives to gaslight”, I can hear the comment, feel the fear in my body, recognize that the emotion and the feelings are coming up because of the abuses I’ve received in the past at the hands of my caregivers. Then recognize that I am in a different situation, with different people, that I am in control of keeping myself safe, and that these are only feelings that are telling me that this person may not be a safe bet to trust with my emotional wellbeing.

Another example, I was in the middle of batch cooking for the week ahead, and cleaning out the cabinets and taking stock of what I need to use up before it goes bad. The counters were covered with food stuffs, and I had been in the kitchen for hours at this point. Someone I live with walks into the kitchen and asks, “what are you up to?” I was a little tired, but the question seemed kind of ridiculous to me. They had been sitting in the next room over for the entire time I had been in the kitchen cooking. And anyone who walked into the kitchen could clearly see what it was that I was up to. I did respond in a short tone with, “really?” But I wasn’t angry, it was more to point out how ridiculous the question was. They then became defensive and indignant, saying “it’s not ok to ask a question? Are you in one of your moods?”

What bothered me about this interaction was, the assumption was made that I was being mean on purpose, when I really thought the question was funny, I was just tired. I later apologized for being short, because it was rude of me. But these were the types of interactions that had laid the foundation of all of the communication efforts with my caregivers growing up, sans the apologies. This was also the source of a lot of hurt feelings and perceived abuses, when all we really needed to do was to not take everything that someone was saying so personally.

And this is no easy task. From my experience, if you have a foundation of misperceived comments and what feel like personal attacks based in malicious intent, then there is a lot of armoring that you pick up along the way to feel safe. Especially if you have to live with the people who are attacking you, and the attacks are more commonplace than loving gestures. From this perspective, being in relationship, with anyone, is a scary proposition.

So if clear communication takes a healthy dose of trusting one another, and not taking things so personally, how do we begin to loosen the armoring that comes with the distrust and thinking it’s all directed towards us? For me, not taking things so personally was a gradual process. I first had to let go of my own indignation. To have a little faith that not everybody had some ulterior motive to their actions. And as I’ve said above, when you absorb disappointment from your caregivers growing up, this is tough to break free from when you see it in others.

For me, in my affirmation I say during my daily meditation, “I’m strong enough to be who I am, while allowing others to be who they are”, has done so much for me to establish some much needed boundaries in my personal life. This was the foothold for me to be able to begin to trust others. Because if I knew I was strong enough to feel my emotions, and know that my emotions are my own, then I can begin to understand how to draw the line between feeling like a disappointment, and recognizing others displaying disappointment in me.

Once you start to own your emotions, it’s easier to see how others are feeling. For example, in the interaction with the person I live with above, when I shifted my focus on the anger and indignation they were displaying, it was easy to see that they were hurt by my short remark, which I said because I was tired from cooking and cleaning all day. Not because I was angry at them.

And this takes patients. With ourselves and with others as well. But also knowing when someone else may not change. This is a difficult one for most people. Learning to accept where people are. It’d be great if everyone could just immediately understand where we are coming from whenever we have a new thought or perspective. But the reality of relationships are, this just isn’t the case.

For me, I need to accept that there are some relationships that are just not going to change. For example, when I tried to explain how I wasn’t angry even though my response was short, with the situation above, it only caused more frustration and misunderstanding. In this case, I need to accept that I will be misunderstood, and not take it personal that they don’t understand where I’m coming from. This is just where we are in our relationship.

And that’s not to say that either person isn’t capable of changing, or coming to an understanding. Only that it can’t be forced on someone before their ready for it.

And in some cases, I’ve had to let relationships I’ve had with friends and family members go. There was just too many hurt feelings and unresolved issues for me to stay in relationship with them. This was no easy task, and not one I’m suggesting to do or think about lightly. For me, knowing that I had to draw a hard line on where I feel safe or comfortable with the relationship ending helps me to feel as though I’m taking care of myself. That I know I have my back, and my best interests at heart.

And that’s not to say that I’ve written these people off, or burned any bridges. I heard somewhere once, “never write a person off.” I’m not sure why, but this piece of wisdom has always felt right to me. That’s not to say I’m leaving the door wide open for them to come back in whenever they like. And relive some of the abuses of boundaries that I’ve lived through in the past. It means that I’m not giving up on their ability to change.

If they come back into my life, it will be a fresh start, and one I embark on very cautiously. Setting some strict boundaries around our relationship until I can feel confident in who they are now and how they’ve changed from the ways they used to be. And again, this isn’t easy. But for me, it’s worth it if you can salvage a friendship, because they are definitely worth the effort.

There is also a fair amount of vulnerability that comes with being in relationship as well. This can be difficult to manage on top of the other emotions that we are already trying to sort out. It can feel like at times trying to untangle a bunch of live wires! Trusting that others will not project their emotions onto you, while already dealing with your emotional perspective of the relationship can feel like you’re being overloaded.

These are the times where it’s best to find some time to resource. A little self care goes a long way when we’re feeling like we are being overwhelmed with emotions. Ours and/or somebody else’s. Don’t be afraid to take the time you need to sort through what your feeling. Alone or with a trusted friend, knowing how you’re feeling while trying to untangle your emotions from another’s is important to clearly communicate what your needs are and understanding what the other person is asking of you.

And take your time. Don’t feel as though you have to rush to a conclusion. You will get there eventually, and if you take your time, you’ll probably get a better picture of what it is that you are trying to understand along the way.

I hope this has been of some help. Emotions can be tricky, especially when we’re not sure whose emotions are whoms. Just remember to be kind to yourself and the other while your trying to sort it all out. And forgiving too, when you come up short on the kindness front! As always, peace : ) and thanks for reading.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Food and Family: How Cooking Together can Build Tighter Familial Bonds

It’s no secret, food brings people together. Culturally it creates bonds and even some good natured disagreements. I’ve been cooking for most of my professional career. But it wasn’t until recently that I really started cooking for myself. If you’ve read my post on self-care Sundays, you’ll know that food was an area that I neglected for a long time. What I hadn’t realized though, was that this was also true for my entire family.

This seems crazy to me now, knowing that most all my caregivers were involved in the food service industry to some degree. One was working in it and one had gone to cooking school!

But the more I thought about it, the more sense it made. If you have an insecurity around food it stands to reason that you would find a way to be immersed in it. After all, eating is one of the things we need to do to survive. If we experience abuse or neglect around this basic need, things can get really out of hand.

As I’ve said above, I know this to be true from my experience. Cooking for me as a career choice was a way to be surrounded by a source of nutrition so I didn’t have to worry about feeding myself. But this was no way to live.

I was just trying to survive at the time. I was barely able to take care of myself, and all I had down at that point in life were the very basics, just enough to get by. And I found that a lot of people are drawn to the food industry in some variation of this same reason.

When you work in the industry, the bonds you make can be pretty tight. There was definitely a sense of family when I showed up to work, or family as I had known it. With the hustle and pressure that came with the dinner time rush, to the beers we drank together while cleaning up, it definitely felt like gathering for a holiday or some special event like a graduation.

And while I have fond memories of working in the food industry, the ways I was living were not sustainable. And I imagine it was this way for my caregivers as well. I was certainly emulating their behaviors in the ways I was living. And it isn’t a great stretch of the imagination to think that they were experiencing what I was at some level. Another way to put it, the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.

Even more to the point, when I did gather with my caretakers, there was such a sense of urgency paired with lots of drinking. The same atmosphere that was present in most kitchen jobs I worked in. We were creating the same type of perpetual party that was the culture in the restaurant scene. And if it wasn’t sustainable in the restaurant, it definitely was less so at home.

I remember many mornings where my caretakers would be cleaning up after the night of rancorous drinking. Where there were as many cans as there were loud opinions being tossed around, figuratively. This was a strange place to grow up in as a child, and one I wouldn’t wish for anyone to experience. I’m not trying to imply that my caregivers are bad people. They didn’t know any differently and more to the point it’s how they grew up. But it was a scary place to be as a vulnerable child to be sure.

More recently, I’ve been cooking for myself as a way to care for my nutritional needs. Something I was never taught. Now I am coming to enjoy the process of bring my meals together. I usually batch cook recipes for the week. I’ll pick two to three recipes to cook, pick a day to go grocery shopping and cook my meals for the next two weeks all in one night.

I usually light a basil scented candle and put some of the more ambient lighting on in my kitchen. I clean out my fridge and gather my ingredients, ready my recipes on my computer, put some soft music on in the background and go through my recipes one at a time. Making sure that I take as much time as I need so as not to feel rushed or pressured in anyway. If it’s in the winter, I choose recipes that utilize the oven to generate more heat in the kitchen, to create a more cozy, comfortable setting. I also like drinking a few cups of herbal tea while cooking in the colder months. And in the summer, more salads and dishes with raw veggies. As well as some lemonade or iced herbal teas as a refreshing change for the warmer season.

The ease that I’ve brought to this aspect of how I take care of myself has become a great resource for me. I feel safe, calm and at ease in the kitchen. Instead of insecure, a bit of fear and the uncertainty I used to feel. What I realize now, was I was carving a space out for myself to feel safe, in control. I was so used to having almost every aspect of my life being so out of control that I literally didn’t feel safe anywhere. Once I established a foothold for safety in the kitchen, I padded my kitchen and cooking time with loads of resources in order to bring that sense of calm, ease and comfort I was working so hard to cultivate there. So after I made my kitchen and meal prep routine a resource, I thought to myself, “how can I share this with others?”

I’ve been having dinner with my parents more often lately. It’s been good, but I’ve always kind of had the feeling that something was missing from the experience. We typically would gather around the T.V. after serving ourselves from the kitchen. We’d talk a little, but the T.V. had always been the focal point while we idoly chatted about random events. Nothing too personal or in-depth. Just glancing the surface of what was happening around us and speaking in broad generalizations.

We never shared cooking duties. One person usually picked the recipes and the other would cook while we waited for the meal to be ready. It was very mechanical and without much feeling. We were eating to survive and not enjoying the process of coming together to share a meal. Then one day while I was making dinner, or cleaning up, I had the idea to make dinner feel more like a family event as opposed to just shoveling food in our mouths while watching the television.

So it was a natural transition that I thought to take the way that I’ve turned my meal prep into a self-care routine, and bringing those same principles to our family dinners. I thought that this way, we can practice taking care of ourselves and one another together, while also bringing an element of peacefulness to something that, for me, used to be a hectic and sometimes scary place to be.

Also, we’ve never cooked a meal together before. This was also something that kind of blew my mind. So as well as practicing self-care, we’ll be growing tighter bonds with one another and the food we’re creating. I suggested that we take turns picking the recipes. Each week someone can choose, and we’d all come together in a thoughtful way to create something we’ll all enjoy. The idea landed and we planned to come together the next Friday night to cook a meal I chose.

The recipe was chana masala. A simple dish I enjoy that I had just found a new recipe for. I was definitely nervous about the night leading up to dinner. I was really taking a risk by opening myself up and sharing something that has become such a resource for me. I felt vulnerable, uncertain, scared and a little on edge.

The reason I felt so unsure was that most of my childhood memories around meal times were filled with lots of angry yelling and shattered dinner wear. I knew that things were different now. We had all mellowed our tempers since those early meals together, but there was still a place inside of me that felt as though it could happen again. That I wasn’t safe.

As the time came nearer to begin cooking, we all gathered in the kitchen and readied ourselves for the event. I made myself a cup of tea and went around gathering the ingredients we would need for the dish. My father gathered some utensils and started in on prepping the veggies and my mother began gathering and measuring out the spices and herbs we needed. We all took to our tasks quickly and rigidly with pensive attention.

The atmosphere was tense. As though we’d all been here before, but hadn’t been there for so long that we forgot what to do. It should have been instinctual, but instead we were left with awkward half spoken sentences. Reading and rereading the same directions over and over again. Missing steps, forgetting ingredients, I was using a mortar and pestle to grind chiles, garlic, cilantro and ginger into a paste that took what felt like forever and the closest I came was a wet chunky mess. The lighting was bright and harsh, and the music I tried to play kept turning itself off. It was the opposite of the resource my meal prep had come to mean for to me.

But when I finished washing our dishes and went to the stove to see how the chana was coming along and how the ingredients we had prepped separately had come together, it looked good. It smelled aromatic and was thick and stew like. It was better than I had imagined. And as the meal prep went on, our conversation felt more natural as well.

We found out about how each other’s day’s had gone. My mother just got new glasses and we were discussing the differences she noticed from her old ones as compared to her new ones. My father told me stories about his past, something I know very little about. As I was cleaning the cutting board I asked where my father got it. He couldn’t remember and my mother didn’t know either, but I enjoyed cleaning that board as I always do knowing that’s it’s just always been there.

As we finished cooking our meal, I put the naan I had picked up for the meal in the toaster and my father had gotten some bowls from the cupboard, I felt more at ease. I wasn’t totally comfortable, but it was the start of feeling safe again. As though maybe it was okay to start to trust those I choose to keep company with. This was something I had been notoriously bad at when I was younger.

The friends I had kept in my youth were mean, spiteful and said hurtful things often and without reserve. It truly felt like a sport we were playing. Who could demean the other to the point where someone would break. And of course we all pretended not to be hurt, but we couldn’t feel anything to begin with because we were already so numb. The damage had already been done, the games we were playing were just practice from lessons we learned long ago.

This is what makes building new bonds so scary. Knowing How I used to be in relationship with others, and that I chose to be in those relationships was nothing but self destructive. And what’s more, I’m trying to rebuild some of my relationships with people I originally learned those old lessons from?! It felt a lot like juggling knives. So knowing that I can trust myself enough to create healthy bonds, or at least know what unhealthy relationships and boundaries look like was something I wasn’t wholly sure I was able to do.

But then I realized that I had already done this in some ways. I remember getting together with an old friend somewhere close to both of us. This was a step towards seeing if we were able to stay in touch, keep connected. When we sat down and started talking about old times, some of those same spiteful remarks were popping up in our conversation. It was as though they were poking around the edges, to see how close they could get to my core. To see if they could still walk right in, past security and do whatever they felt without meeting resistance.

Luckily I had established some healthy boundaries for myself. I was not my same old self, the one who would leave themself wide open to be abused in the ways I had been used to, all to feel a sense of belonging. I recognized what was happening and since have kept to my boundaries. And I feel much better for it though it wasn’t easy. I still miss the bonds I made but now recognize just how unhealthy they were.

And with the new bonds I’m creating, there is definitely a sense of mutual respect. We care for one another in that we respect one another’s space and boundaries in ways I wasn’t ever shown before. And that was one of the aspects of making dinner with my father and mother that was so reassuring. That we were all nervous about how we were affecting one another showed me that they were thinking of my wellbeing. And that makes me feel a little more secure in building new bonds with them.

This all seems pretty basic, but if all you know growing up are people without boundaries and saying and doing the most hurtful things to one another, it’s nice to know that you can change the ways you used to be. That there is hope for the future and future relationships. That was something that was definitely missing from my early interactions in all my relationships.

Now that we’ve cooked together once, we plan on making it an on going, weekly event. We ended the night by sharing how we felt and our hopes for the future. It felt more natural than it ever had and I think we all left that night feeling a little more hopeful for our future together.

And it’s something that has made me stronger in my other relationships as well. I went into the next day feeling a little more self confident in communicating to and interacting with other people, knowing that I had people I could rely on. That I had carved out another little space of safety in a world that sometimes feels as uncertain as it did in my youth. A place to go back to when I needed some support and feeling loved.

And all it took was for someone to come up with the idea and bring it into fruition. I am now looking forward to helping them this summer in the vegetable garden, knowing that the meals we’ll be making will be even sweeter using the fresh produce we’ll be harvesting from the yard. I’m also looking forward to helping them with projects around the house.

Helping them build a back porch or patio, a place to gather and enjoy the garden and grilling weather in the summer. A place to eat meals and gather outside. Carving out another place where we can all feel a little safer coming together. With a little luck and some work, maybe we can make the house feel more like our home.

So if you have some family you’re trying to reach out to but aren’t sure how, maybe cooking a meal together would be a good place to start. And if cooking isn’t your thing, find something you are all interested in, start there. Wherever it is, be the one to make the first step. I’ve found that people are almost always going to say yes when you ask them if they want to have a good time.

Usually it just takes someone to make the first step, make the plan. Be that person. You’ll be happy you did. But if it’s something that is still tender, or emotionally raw, go slow. It doesn’t help to rush yourself to try and feel comfortable because you feel you “should” be. Have a plan where you can take care of yourself if the need arises.

I am lucky in that the people I chose to rebuild my relationships with were not only willing to try, but also capable of doing the important work of self-introspection. Being aware of how they feel and how they affecting those around them. This is no easy task for people whom are used to isolating as a form of self protection. And not everybody is able to take to it so willingly.

Don’t be afraid to end your plans if you feel as though your boundaries are being violated. Above I mentioned that I had got together with an old friend who had not changed from our shared unhealthy past. I had ended our meeting early that day, telling them I felt uncomfortable with the way things were going. And now I keep very limited contact with them for this reason.

I was honest with myself, and with them about how I felt my boundaries were being abused, and took care of myself by removing myself from the situation. Also limiting future contact with them, until I am certain I can trust them enough not to violate my boundaries. This is how I’m actively taking care of myself, and building trust in myself in the process.

And it’s not easy. But if you don’t define your boundaries, others are more than willing to define them for you. From work, to romantic relationships, family and friends, if you don’t have a clear idea of how you want to be treated in your relationships, you leave yourself open to having your trust abused as well as many other important aspects of your connections. And it isn’t always the other person’s fault either.

Friends and family aren’t mind readers. What may be a sign of intimacy to one person may be an insult to another. This is why speaking your feelings is so important. When establishing boundaries, especially if you’ve had unhealthy ones before, you need to establish what is and is not okay to do in clear terms. This can be awkward, but however awkward it may feel in the moment, it’s worth it to know that you’ve established your expectations clearly on how you will be treated.

It’s empowering knowing you’re taking care of yourself in this way. And also a good indicator of the other person being trustworthy of being emotional support to you. By actively, not passively setting boundaries, you are building the trust and bonds that will last. If this is something you’ve had difficulty with historically, then it’s a good way to slowly rebuild healthy relationships knowing you have your best interests at heart.

Establishing boundaries, especially with those whom you may have already fallen into unhealthy ways of relating to one another can be tricky. And like anything else, it isn’t easy! This is an area where you will need to bring, and if necessary, cultivate a lot of patients with yourself and others. And it’s important to go slow. There’s no point in rushing into something if you or the other person aren’t ready for the changes. So go slow and keep an open mind, and know that you are good deep down, and worthy of trust. Peace 🙂 be well and thanks for reading.

Image Credits: “Lindell family cooking” by One Tonne Life is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Fear and Judgement: Fear of Being Judged

Judgement is a tough one for a lot of folks, including myself. It’s ubiquitous in American culture and can be used as a means to evaluate someone’s worth. In a lot of ways it’s used as you would use currency. To deem if someone holds value measured against your standards.

People fear judgement to be sure, and for good reason. It’s often times associated with guilt. Usually that guilt comes in the form of “what’s wrong with me that others are seeing me as bad or undeserving?” The idea of criminal comes up and paying back society for a debt that’s owed.

And not all judgements are loaded with fear. For example we may make a judgement call that it wouldn’t be safe to drive if we had another drink. This type of judgement is necessary for our survival, and to keep us safe. But what if judgements were placed on us because a caregiver wanted us to be different? In an attempt to control who we are and who we would become. What then?

This was the case for me growing up. I was criticized and judged so often that I just assumed that I would never add up to my caregivers expectations. And to make things worse, I was never really sure what I could do that would be acceptable by my caregivers. And thinking about it now, there was never any direction on how to improve, only negative judgements. So I copied their behaviors, their habits, hoping I would stumble upon the “correct” way of being.

We were big drinkers in our family. This was the first habit I picked up that was modeled for me. Also treating other people as though they were disposable. As though I didn’t really need their friendship, was another toxic habit I inferred. I burned a lot of bridges doing this. Though I wish I hadn’t now, some of the relationships I had during those times were unhealthy to say the least and at least partially modeled after unhealthy familial relationships. Knowing what I know now, I could have ended some relationships in a more amicable way, but I just didn’t know any better. And either did they (my caregivers) for that matter. We were operating under faulty instructions and doing the best we could with what we had. Which wasn’t much.

And that is one of the bigger issues that comes with consistent critical judgements. Being left with the paralyzing fear of either not belonging or the possibility of rejection. When you are reject by those who are supposed to love you unconditionally, you are left with absolutely no direction on learning how to have a felt sense of belonging. You just never feel like you belong. Aimlessly adrift.

For me this happened very early on. I remember there being such a loneliness and wanting to belong that I turned to anything that would bring me a sense of feeling apart of something. Regardless of how reckless or self destructive it seemed.

I can remember listening to The Grateful Dead’s, “Touch of Grey” in 1987-88 and connecting with the lyrics, “I will get by”. Later on when I was in highschool and hippy culture was making a re-emergence in the mid to late nineties, I took to it so quickly that I was making my own clothes and growing my hair out for dreads in less than six months. Everything I owned smelled of patchouli and I began drinking at the age of fourteen. All because I heard a song that had a seemingly positive message, mixed with the culture being popular at the time.

I was looking for someplace to belong. And if it wasn’t for those fond early childhood memories of feeling a little bit of optimism and hope while listening to the Dead, who knows where I’d be. I also imagine there was a draw to the gypsy culture that the Dead came to represent. A feeling of homelessness or at least a sense of misfits coming together, who have been roundly rejected by others to create their own sense of community and belonging.

But what’s so startling about the life choices I was making at fourteen, was that I was basing them on song lyrics I randomly heard when I was much younger because they gave me a sense of hope, however small. Instead of the loving guidance from capable caretakers, I had Jerry and hippy culture to show me how to get by. I had some good times for sure, but I’d trade them all for some love and support from those who should have been there for me.

This brings up another aspect of the fear of not belonging. The maddening fact that my caretakers had gone out of their way to make sure I knew I was not adding up by consistent criticisms about aspects of my personality or physical appearance. This led me believe that there was a thread of hope. That if I could somehow managed to please them by living up to their impossible standards in some way, then I’d belong. Of course what I didn’t realize at the time, but see all too clearly now is that the reason their standards were so impossible was because they themselves didn’t know how to belong. And if they felt as though they weren’t quite adding up, how would they be able to teach me?

So if this fear stems from not knowing how to belong, why then all the judgement? From my experiences with my caregivers growing up, the judgements came when we were too vulnerable to let one another in on a deeper emotional level. This was partly due to feeling as though we didn’t belong, but also as defence to keep each other at a distance so we couldn’t be seen as our authentic, vulnerable and hurt selves. The selves that felt like we aren’t good enough to be a part of a loving relationship because we had been hurt and abandoned so many times that we felt as though we deserved not to belong.

And to make things worse, this was a legacy we were handing down to one another. First because we didn’t know how to break the cycle, and second we were too scared to let people get too close because of all the damage we inflicted and incurred during past attempts to bond. So it became the undercurrent and foundation of all our unstable relationships. Built on fear of not belonging to something bigger, more supportive. Which is what I imagine we all wanted. And our negative judgements of each other swooped in to keep us from getting too close to one another for fear they would see our authentic “damaged” selves that had been tore down by ourselves and others so often. This was the cycle we were trapped in.

So if this was the legacy we had been handing down through the generations, and noone was feeling healthy, loved or supported, why haven’t we been able to go in a different direction and break the patterns? What was stopping us from giving up the ghost and finding the healthier, more supportive versions of ourselves and our relationships? The short answer is, because it’s difficult.

My experience was that I needed to feel through a life’s time worth of collected emotional wounds from those I was told I could rely on. And when our trust is abused by mixed messages about who we’re able to rely on, there’s a lot of confusion around who we are able to trust. And when our trust is taken advantage of, that’s when our defenses kick in. There’s a line from an Iron and Wine song, “Sacred Vision” that fits this mindset, “forgiveness is fickle when trust is a chore”. In my situation it was being critical of others using judgements to distance myself from those I felt I couldn’t trust.

But this had the effect of breading distrust, with myself and with others. With myself because I would often turn that critical voice inward and tear myself down. With others in that I was keeping them at a distance so as not to get hurt. But they were still feeling the sting and affects of my critical judgements of them.

In order to let people get close, I had to feel the hurt I was avoiding by keeping others at a distance with harsh criticisms. And those were some of the most difficult emotions I’ve ever had to feel. Sorting through those emotions was a kin to untangling a knot of live wires. Everytime I seized one, I’d get a shock from a past wound. But the more I untangled the easier it became. The more I allowed the emotions to flow, the more I was able to feel them as they came. Without anxiety and feeling overwhelmed.

And it takes patients with yourself, and persistence. But when I started I had no idea what I was doing. I had no healthy role models so I needed to find some Stat. I started with people I admire. People I didn’t actually know personally, so I could feel the safety of distance while experiencing their wisdom and trying it out for myself.

The people I thought of most were Oprah, Tom Hanks, Buddha, Adrienne from yoga with Adrienne and Dana Shultz from Minimalist Baker. As I’ve said above, I don’t know these people personally but it feels like they’re consistently projecting a positive and even tempered demeanor. Their characteristics are ways that I’d like to project myself in the world. Mixed with their work ethic and vitality, these are the people I want to model myself around. And the characteristics I want to use to build my relationships on and with. A firm and solid foundation based on support and caring interest, instead of harsh and critical judgements.

And with these new characteristics, I was then able to use them to build my values. Being loving support as one value and learning how to trust others and myself, another. When the characteristics of love and support are practiced, that is how trust is created. That is how a characteristic builds on or creates a value.

But this is all new territory to me. And with this new and steep learning curve came a fair amount of fear and emotional rawness. With noone around to show me what were the types of characteristics that built lasting and sustainable values, I was adrift again. Floating wherever the current took me. But once I started to build these values by practicing these characteristics, I was then able to set anchor and build the strong foundations that would be able to support lasting relationships.

And with the mutually built foundations of my new relationships, I found what I was missing in my old friendships. There was no effort put into building our bonds, so we didn’t value them as I would something that took time and effort. Emotion, understanding and forgiveness. All we had to build on in past relationships was a lot of alcohol and a few good times. What I’m finding now, building my relationships from my new set of values is that there is a greater amount of respect.

We appreciate the time and effort we’ve taken and put into the experiences we’ve had and are continuing to build. We value one another as a source of support and kind, genuine caring. We know that we can trust one another with what we’ve built together because we did it with love. And that’s what was missing from those relationships that were built on good times.

Support and the felt sense of belonging that comes with knowing that you are supported, trusted and cared about. The random text messages that get sent throughout the week as a way of checking in on how the other is doing. As opposed to finding out where we would be drinking that night. Asking for help in building shelves together to make a house feel more like a home, instead of cutting down a “friend” in front of a girl in hopes that you’ll hook up later. The examples are plentiful, but what remains is that feeling belonging and trust built on stable characteristics go hand in hand. Try to build them on anything else and it would be unstable at best.

And none of this would be possible if I didn’t first come to terms with the fear of my critical judgements. Of others, but mostly from myself. If we use critical judgements to keep others away for long enough, it begins to corrode our ability to connect with anyone, or anything at all. Critical thoughts work in the same ways acid does, circulate in and around the bonds we try to build, leaving them weak and frail. By turning inward and realizing how weak and frail all of my bonds had become, I then understood how important it is to actively work towards healing these weakened bonds by attending to the bond with myself.

This is arguably the most important bond because it paves the way for all of our other bonds to take shape. And this is where the tough work comes in. If you’ve left your internal landscape fallow for too long, the question then is, “I’m afraid of what I might find in there.” Incase this is where you are, let me just say that there are no monsters lurking here. Only the parts of us that are badly in need of some love and support 🙂

And there’s another benefit of practicing the characteristics of love and support. You become stronger in the process, building stronger bonds within yourself. You may be checking in with a friend who has had a tough day at work, but caring enough about someone else’s well being, to check in on them is also a way of attuning to your own sense of empathy. You are strengthening your empathic abilities by checking in with how you’re feeling about your friend, and acting with kindness, is a way to practice being support.

These are the healthy patterns that are possible when we choose to practice sustainable, healthy characteristics. We are then able to sustain these new relationships with healthier patterns, using our characteristics and values as a guide. It isn’t always going to be easy, but it is definitely worth the effort. And with some luck you’ll be surrounded by friends and family that are, sure irritating at times, but their value as a source of love and support will outweigh any habit that may rub you the wrong way.

Turning from critically judgemental to loving support is difficult. And maybe the most important characteristic that will have the biggest effect on how you make this change is through kindness. To yourself first and others. The more we practice kindness, especially toward ourselves, the more our actions, thoughts, moods and behaviors will naturally lean towards a kind disposition. And this will in turn affect how we connect with ourselves and with those close in.

These are only my experiences with trying to rebuild the relationships in my life after what feels like a life’s time worth of avoiding and neglecting my bonds. I hope this has been of some use to you. If you like me, have found yourself in a reconstruction phase of life, my advice is don’t give up! You’re much stronger than you think and help has a way of finding those who are in need, as long as you are open to the opportunity. Be well, good luck and peace 🙂 thanks for reading.

Image Credits: “Mean looking Eagle Owl” by webheathcloseup is licensed under CC BY 2.0