How to Know What Support Looks Like if You’ve Never Really Had It In the Past

Support and feeling supported was something that didn’t come to me naturally. This was mostly due to me feeling like a burden to my caregivers, whenever I expressed a need or a want. The term, selfish was tossed around all too liberally when we spoke about one another and how we expressed our needs. It seemed that no matter what we were asking, it was always too much.

I’d like to go into what the act of support feels and looks like, for me, in this post. If you grew up in an environment similar to mine, you’ll likely feel that anytime you express a need, you are putting somebody else out for just having this need. This is unhealthy. But if we’re never taught what healthy support looks like, then we simply don’t know what we don’t know. Though it is possible to feel supported in healthy ways. All it takes is some hard work and the right people : )

What Does Support Even Mean?

While I was growing up, there was a large emphasis placed on the rugged individual. Someone who could hold their own, usually a man, no matter what the situation was and that we don’t need support from others. We were expected to do everything on our own and do it perfectly. This is/was unreasonable. I didn’t know this at the time, but I was also idolizing action heroes such as Rambo and Arnold Schwarzenegger’s character from, “The Predator”, not realizing how unrealistic these ideals were.

I used phrases such as, “man up” in my youth, implying that if you were a real man, you’d be able to handle it, whatever “It” was. And this vein of thinking was carried throughout my family, as well as in popular culture at the time.

My parents got divorced when I was eight years old and I think I got the same speech from every male family member at the time. It was them saying to me, “you’re the man of the house now Adam.” I had no idea what this meant, and I’m guessing that they didn’t either judging from how they were acting as “men”. I was a boy, trying to understand what was happening to my family at the time. The prospect of being in charge was terrifying to me. And on top of that fear, my family was now my responsibility!? I had no idea what to do with this information at such a young age. So I disconnected from my family. Retreated into video games and stayed out late at night, avoiding coming home to the mess that was being left unattended.

When Your Environment is Corrosive to Support

In the environment that my caregivers created, we told the other how they were feeling. We never asked any questions about the other’s emotional states, or did any sort of mirroring. We never asked one another, “how did that make you feel?” When we did talk about emotions, it was usually in a way where one person was telling the other, what they were feeling. For example, comments such as, “you were just so selfish, pissy or narcissistic” were injected into our interactions without asking how the other person was feeling. We just told them how they felt, but if we dug a little deeper, behind the reactions, we most likely would have seen the hurt and neglect we were inflicting on one another.

And if we did speak about emotions, they were usually the more difficult ones such as anger. We did not have a vocabulary for what we were experiencing emotionally, because it wasn’t safe to explore our emotional worlds around each other in order to develop a language. This was due to us being viciously demeaning and mean to anybody who was foolish enough to let their guard down and share an emotion.

And it’s important to foster a safe place around our emotional selves if our goal is to create a supportive environment. This was something that we just didn’t know how to do, had never been taught how. Luckily, there are some resources for learning how to foster a supportive and nurturing environment. One where we can feel safe exploring our emotional experiences without trying to control them in ourselves, or maybe in my case and more importantly, in others, which I’ll be getting into towards the end of this post. But this type of environment is a difficult and crazy making place to be, if it’s all you’ve known about navigating emotions and receiving support.

Losing the Support I Once Knew

It was around the time of my parents divorce that I began to preform poorly in school and get into trouble more frequently. Since what I had known of support was no longer available to me, I just fell off the grid, so to speak. Everybody was so wrapped up in their own experiences of what was happening, that we were no longer available as a source of support or caring for each other. There was a lot of bad blood left during the process and everybody knew every detail.

We continued drifting apart, not even really knowing how to support one another even if we had decide to wake from our own emotional experiences for long enough to see that our family had fallen apart. We were quick to point out how someone had done harm to another, but not to help each other through the difficult emotions that came up from those hurts. And that’s assuming that we would know how to be there for each other if we could see what we were doing to one another.

So we all avoided contact, seeing each other only when we had to. This was our way of keeping ourselves safe from the wounds of the past being brushed up against by an old memory or from a current interaction. And it was in this environment that we forgot how to be support, for ourselves and another.

Licking the Wounds

We were so busy protecting ourselves and our wounds from one another, that we forgot how to be a support for somebody else in a healthy way. This was clearly for fear that we would find ourselves betrayed in the same ways we had in the past. Traumatic ways that left us wounded and untrusting. But we were also isolated, focusing only on the hurt as a reminder of what it means to get close to another. A defense mechanism that was much too built up to let anybody past.

And it was in this way of focusing on past hurts that we avoided growing beyond our smaller, wounded selves. Even now, 34 years later, we still have issues connecting due to how we’ve treated one another in our shared histories. Forgive and forget is a practice that is definitely not alive and well in my family.

But it’s also these mindsets that keep us locked in our old patterns of not being able to move past the emotions that feel too heavy, too scary to confront. For me, it’s a sense of feeling abandoned by those who were supposed to care for me. Leaving me alone at such a young age and then telling me I was in charge was a terrifying prospect to an eight year-old! So what am I doing to move past the old wounds and live the healthiest version of my life? It starts with taking ownership of my life, just as I find it.

Finding Support by Owning My Present

For me, I had to sort through a lot of poor choices I’ve made in the past. Regardless of how I was left, without guidance or to show me healthier ways of navigating my world, they were, and are, still my poor choices.

And I’m not beating myself up over the choices that didn’t have my best interests at heart. I’m owning them in a way that acknowledges I made a poor choice, but it was the best I could do under the circumstances. This gives me the comfort of knowing that now, that I am in a different place, one where I know how to ask for help, find resources and rely on people, I can make the healthier decisions that will move me forward in my life. And this is what I mean by support.

Types of Support

Debt

Support looks like, to me, finding people like Dave Ramsey when I was 100k+ in debt from the poor choices I made in the past. Following his advice on how to get out of debt, while I watch myself achieve my goals, slowly but surely, paying down what I owe.

And teaching myself how to make and stick to a budget. This was no easy task. Even when I was throwing as much money as I could towards my debt, I was still racking up $700 grocery bills, mostly in the form of taking trip to Whole Foods. That’s close to $500 a month I could have been putting towards my future! It was here that I learned the discipline to stick to the boundaries and limits I desperately needed to set for myself, in order to live a sustainable lifestyle.

Friends & Family

In terms of my relationships, support looks like asking the people who have hurt me in the past, to get together once a week and make dinner. To talk about who we are as people, revisit the past in a safe and comfortable setting, while forging new relationships with each other. Also, knowing how and when to take a rest when needed, from those close in.

Also, keeping in mind that I need to ask direct, clear questions, especially around how the other person feels. This also extends to me speaking up about how I feel during our interactions and knowing when it’s time to give the relationship and the conversation a break if things get too intense.

Internal & Emotional

While I was revisiting some of the ghosts from my past while writing this post, I was feeling overwhelmed with all the memories that were coming up. So instead of pushing past the feelings, ignoring and neglecting them in the ways they were ignored and neglected in me, from my past caregivers, I stopped, I asked what I needed for and from myself and the answer came, to take a walk by the ocean. So I stopped, listened to and attuned to my own emotional needs to take a break, and walked down to the ocean.

Reaching Out

These may seem like basic steps, but for those of us who have been severely emotionally neglected and abused, this is like learning a whole new language. And it’s difficult. In my situation, my caregivers had no idea how to attune to their emotional worlds, or listen to their own needs. They avoided themselves and their emotional needs at all costs, using denial and alcohol to subdue their internal worlds.

So it was necessary for me to reach out to somebody who had experience with healthy ways of helping me with and accepting my internal emotional world. I’ve been working with a therapist for a few years now, and the help I’ve received from her has been invaluable. Mostly just a safe place to explore how I’m feeling, while also giving names to my emotional experiences. Also having her validate that they (my emotions) are real and valid. Again, basic but so important if you’ve never had this type of mirroring and support.

Friends

And finally, friends are so important for our sense of belonging and need to feel heard, loved and supported. As I’ve said in previous posts, most of my friendships were based on the good times, avoiding the difficult work of supporting each other during the difficult ones. So when those times came, it didn’t take long for those bonds to break under the weight of hurt feelings.

I don’t speak to many of the people that used to populate my past, but the friends that did stick around for me are very dear to my heart. I literally don’t know where I’d be without them, one in particular being there for me at just the right time and place. It’s also important to feel a part of something more than just our own internal worlds. Best not to let the squirrels run to wild in the trees of our minds : )

And It Gets Easier

These are my experiences with what support looks like. If you feel as though you are in a place where you lack the support you need, go and find it. I wish someone had told me this a long time ago. I spent too many years wondering without direction, not knowing what to do with myself in my life. And it’s worth remembering too that, no one can go this life alone. It’s hard enough even with the support! So if you’ve experienced a general lack of feeling and being supported, know that it’s not to late to do something about it.

Find a therapist, make regular visits with friends or maybe try reaching out to some of the friends you have on Facebook you haven’t talked to in a while. Find a group to be a part of with shared interests. Building relationships can be tough work, but it is so worth the while. Start sharing yourself and good things are bound to come of it. Peace : ) and thanks for reading.

Image Credits: “Hug” by Hans-Jörg Aleff is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.

Giving Up What We Think We Need To Get Through The Day: “It’s No Easy”-Melba

I’ve spoken a lot about the different methods I’ve used to get through my days in the past. They mostly consisted of drinking too much coffee in the mornings, between 4-6 large lattes a day and alcohol at night, usually 5-6 drinks. And on occasion, I would take an Adderall or muscle relaxer to speed up or slow myself down. I used other methods as well, such as food and pornography, to escape my emotional world, which were also detrimental to me living a healthy, well balanced lifestyle.

Now I realize that as far as addictions go, mine were on the milder side. I never fell into the harder drugs, and for the most part they never interfered with my day-to-day responsibilities. What it did do however, was decimate most of my relationships. The most important one being with myself.

I had no idea what I was feeling most of the time because I was too busy running away from what I was unwilling to confront. My neglected self. First by others, but then I picked up the legacy and ran with it using the methods that were taught to me. I’d like to talk about this neglect, and how I perpetuated it by using what was shown me, and how I broke free from the cycle of neglect, mostly using self-care. So if you’ve found yourself in a similar situation, hopefully you can learn from my mistakes and help yourself a little sooner than I did myself. Let’s start by taking a look at the environment I grew up in.

Control and Belonging

I was raised by a rowdy bunch. There were quite a few of us in my early childhood, and we would get together often. We were loud and opinionated which wasn’t so bad, but we were also mean and drunk most of the time. This was no bueno. Children were dealt with swiftly and using harsh actions. I learned from a very early age that it wasn’t in my best interests to show up on my caregivers radar.

It seemed as though the children in my family were always being punished for doing something against the will of our caregivers. I realize now that it had more to do with my caregivers feeling a lack of control in their lives, so they needed to control those around them, starting with the most vulnerable. This imparted the lesson on me that, to be an adult meant to always be in control.

This is a dangerous mindset to be in, because being in control for my family meant, controlling those around us and our emotions. We employed multiple tactics to achieve our desired goals. Among them being, drinking coffee and alcohol to control our emotional states, while also carefully withholding our love and affection from one another in an attempt to manipulate the other into treating us or seeing us in the ways we wanted them to. As you’ve probably guessed, this did not bode well for any of us.

As a result of our attempts to control our surroundings and each other, we cut ourselves off from just about everybody in our lives. We withheld our emotions from one another so much so, that we became little islands, paralyzed by the fear of being seen as needy, weak, stupid, undesirable… you name it and we most likely had an insecurity surrounding it. And slowly, we spoke to and saw each other, less and less as we moved through the years. Drifting apart like islands in the stream.

Our reasoning being, that if nobody could truly know us, then we’d be safe from their critical judgements and cutting remarks which were omnipresent. But in the process, and what we didn’t realize was, that we also cut ourselves off from ourselves. The pieces of each other that are ingrained in our beings, the habits I learned from my caregivers, I then learning to hate those same habits in me, which left me feeling isolated and angry.

Isolated because we avoided each other and angry for not feeling accepted by those I was behaving like. Not to mention how confusing this all was to sort out. So confusing in fact, that it took me until my late 30’s to sort it all! And that was after I decided to stop running from my emotional world and the put down the habits I was doing to avoid them.

Coffee to Speed Past the Feelings, Alcohol to Numb Them

I’ve said so many times on this blog how I used coffee to speed past my feelings and alcohol to numb them. Of course, I didn’t realize what I was doing at the time. I only knew that there was an awful lot of pain that I hadn’t reckoned with and that I would use just about anything to keep myself from feeling it.

I was enamored of drug culture when I was younger, around my teenage years. This was a time where, ideally, I would have been guided by a loving community of family and friends, to navigate the strange times of changing feelings and journey into adulthood. Instead, I ran from both changing, and adulthood. Mostly because I was still looking for the security in my belonging that I had lost in my early childhood. In short, I didn’t want to grow up for fear of resembling my abusers, the “grown ups” in my life.

So I took whatever I could to run from it. Caffeine was cheap and widely available, so I drank a lot of it to speed through my day. Alcohol was equally as available and more than effective enough to numb out the feelings I was running from, so I drank, a lot. There was also the occasional Adderall and muscle relaxer when caffeine and alcohol weren’t enough. But these were the status quo in my family growing up. Accompanied by a fair amount of critical judgements and you have the environment I was raised in, massively unhealthy.

What to Do When You’ve Found Yourself Alone

And these were the methods we chose to isolate ourselves from one another. When the cost of getting too close, was too much to take. Running became our number one tactic in keeping ourselves safe. And rightly so. With the amount of abuse we were dishing out to one another, it’s amazing that any of us are still talking to one another, however little that may be.

But in order for me to get to this place, I needed to do a lot of work. First off, I needed to find some resources, otherwise the sheer amount of loneliness, and work I needed to accomplish in order to feel stable would have been overwhelming.

This mostly took shape in the form of me giving myself the care and attention, that I would give to somebody I cared about deeply. Something I was shamed for doing by those who raised me. Anytime I asked for something for myself, I was made to feel as though it was more than just an inconvenience, I was personally using the other or taking advantage of their “kindness” just by having needs. I’ve said before on this blog, the term martyr was used liberally around taking care of each other’s needs. We were as ungrateful and spiteful as we could be.

Taking the Time to Unlearn Old Habits

And it was here that I needed to do a lot of work to unlearn the ways I had been behaving. I was mean and spiteful, arrogant and condescending, ungrateful and felt as though the world owed me something and used people like objects. Focusing only on what I could get from them, not on how we could care for one another. No wonder I had no close friends.

What really got me to change my old habits was a combination of learning to sit with and through my emotions without the aid of some substance to help me run from what I was experiencing, mostly through meditation, then caring for myself as they, my emotions, came up. As I’ve said above, I was shamed for even thinking about caring for myself. So even the act of learning to be kind to myself was quite the feat.

But that’s what I did. When I felt worried or overwhelmed, I took the time to stop, ask how I was feeling, recognize and allow the feeling to be there, then I was able to care for myself by asking myself what I needed. Tara Brach has a great resource called R.A.I.N., and it’s what I use to navigate difficult emotional states when they arise.

Recognize, Allow, Investigate, Nurture

It starts out with R, which stands for Recognize. I simply recognize what is happening in the moment, as it’s happening. Then the A is for Allow. Whatever is present for me, I allow it to be Just as it is, no judgements. I is for Investigate. This is where I ask the emotion how it needs me to be with it. Do I need to respond with kindness, or does it just to be witnessed? And finally N is for Nurture. This is where I take the time to be the parent for myself that I never had. To show myself that I care about what’s happening in the ways nobody had shown me before.

This is a powerful tool and one that, when used regularly, has the ability to change the ways we see and interact with ourselves. And it does take some time. The big changes don’t happen in one fell swoop. As Tara would say, it takes many rounds of R.A.I.N. before it becomes a learned behavior.

Building Trust

And eventually what happened for me was, I started to trust myself. I could trust what was happening, the emotions that were coming up in the moment without running from them and into some mood altering experience. And this trust was paramount to building a stable foundation for all of my relationships to rest on. Most importantly the one with myself.

Because while I was running from myself, I was showing myself that I was not worth the time and effort to care for and nurture my own needs. And if I didn’t know how to be there for myself, how was I going to show up for somebody else? I just didn’t have the tools for that job before I learned to slow down without a substance.

So I practiced. I practiced showing up, and staying when it got tough. I cooked my self-care dinners on Tuesday nights, even if it was a budget friendly recipe and I enjoyed a beer with my dinner. I kept up with my yoga practice and meditation, even though I was working between 50-60 hours a week and was spent at the end of my work day. I cleaned and cared for my surroundings even though sometimes it seemed like that’s all I was ever doing, was ticking things off the list. But the efforts I put in were important for me building consistency.

I was so used to being left, time and again, by everybody that ever mattered to me that I had no consistency, nothing stable to rely on. So I needed to create that stability I sought, for and with myself, by building these routines that I stuck to no matter how tired I was. I was showing up for myself when everyone else said it was too much to stay. And here’s where the trust started to form.

Once I realized I wasn’t going back to the same old ways of living, I began to feel things again I hadn’t felt in years. I was learning to relax on my own, without the aid of chemicals while also appreciating the accomplishments I was achieving. I was growing up and it felt good.

So if you’ve found yourself in a place where you’ve been running from your emotional world for too long, don’t worry, there’s hope still. It may not be easy, and it may feel impossible at times, to overcome these feelings of being run down, anxious or fearful. But it’s not only possible, it’s doable.

Start somewhere small. Take stock of the areas in your life that have been neglected a little, or need some love and attention. Then make a plan to get involved with your own life with more sustainable resources, like exercise and self-care nights, whatever shape they may take for you.

Cut back on the caffeine and alcohol intake if you feel like they are getting to be too much. Get in touch with your body and see what it needs by spending some down time with yourself. Whether it’s in nature or in a clean room with some candles burning. Learning to listen to yourself is invaluable to building a relationship with yourself. Like my boss says, “be the driver of your life bus, not a passenger”.

And be consistent. The more you show up for yourself, the more you send yourself the message that you’re worth the time and effort, and most importantly that you care about yourself. Pretty soon, you’ll be a whole new version of yourself without the vices you once relied on for support. And most importantly, never give up on yourself. You just may surprise yourself with who you become. Peace, and thanks for reading : )

Image Credits: “Beer glass” by Bruno Girin is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.

Your Self Worth Is Not Determined By How Much You Do For Others or How You Are Perceived: Why Listening Matters

This is a difficult lesson for a lot of people, including myself. And how well we learn it depends on a lot of varying factors. From how we were treated in our early childhood to the ways we see how we’re able to effect our surroundings and make changes in our lives. If handled poorly, we can be paralyzed by fear for not adding up to our learned expectations. And these standards or expectations can sometimes feel impossible to meet.

Childhood’s What Makes You

For me in my childhood, I was told this message on a regular basis. There was a constant stream of criticism and negative judgements and a finite amount of praise or positive reinforcement. In fact, I only ever remember receiving one compliment from one of my caregivers in my childhood and it was based on how attractive my calves were. This did not make for a caring or warm, nurturing environment.

I was however, told how lazy I was regularly and regardless of whether or not I was doing what was asked of me. A task that usually took the form of a chore of some sort. And to add insult to injury, I wasn’t shown or taught how to do the tasks that I was being called lazy for not doing correctly, with any amount of patience or thoughtful guidance. It was just expected that I should know how to do the task and do it perfect. This is the definition of an impossible standard.

So with all these negative messages and impossible standards I was being pummeled with and measured against, how did I find my way out of the trap of beating myself up for never feeling enough? Short answer, I didn’t for a long time. I continued to abuse myself and others in the same ways I was abused.

Living Under Unachievable Expectations

These dangerously unreasonable expectations I was raised with, followed me throughout my life. I was using the insanity producing sentiment of, “is that all you are capable of?” to pass judgement on everything that not only I was doing, but of those who were close to me as well. I almost always had a condescending attitude towards what others were doing and nothing anybody did was ever good enough.

What I feel was most confusing about these impossible expectations I held and those holding me to them was, that there was nothing backing them. They had no foundation, but I held on to them with conviction. Never questioning why I was measuring everything/body up in this way. But I was holding onto this way of being while being gripped with a sense of fear that if I didn’t meet my own impossible standards, I would be abandoned again as I had felt I was in my childhood.

And the more I thought about it, the more I realized that my caregivers were acting under this same convictions of feeling unworthy of feeling belonging. For no other reason than because we were withholding our acceptance of one another from each other. We were keeping the very thing we wanted from ourselves by holding it back from those we were judging so harshly.

This is probably what is meant by we have the keys to our own prison. But if the keys are so buried under the rubble of our unreasonable standards, how do we even know what to look for? We need a guide, or a role model in the first place to begin the search for our own release from out of our prisons of unreasonable expectations and critical judgements.

Waking Up From The Unachievable

This is no easy task. I was so inundated with the ideas of perfection that were floating around in my head that the unachievable seemed reasonable. And this is a dangerous head space to inhabit. I was acting mean, entitled and made sure everybody within hearing range knew what my thoughts on the matter, whatever it was, were.

I was so entrenched in my unsustainable beliefs, that it took an act of God to wake me from them. This act came in the form of a woman. I met, and thought I fell in love with a woman who made me change my entire way of being. The relationship didn’t start out in a way that was romantic, or even healthy. But she taught me a few lessons that were essential to me changing the person I used to be. The most important one being how to forgive.

Learning to Forgive and Accept What Is

As I’ve said, we didn’t start out on the best note, but we were infatuated with one another. For me, the term, “real recognize real and you looking familiar”-Jay-Z, resonates with me because it describes the feeling of recognizing the same type of hurt in the other and knowing how to care for it. This, I’m convinced, is what was happening with us. We would have been much better as friends, but the alure of helping each other to heal from our similar wounds was much too strong to let our relationship just be casual.

So we stayed together. And again, we were tested every step of the way. Some things happened that I won’t go into detail about, but they were comprised of what usually bring most relationships to a bitter end without any chance for reconciliation. And I was asked to move past them in the first month of our relationship.

This wasn’t easy, but I was willing to come to terms with them, confront them and heal from them. Even giving up things I loved for her sake, hoping to make it a little easier for her to bear the cost of her actions. But all my efforts were for not as she continued to spiral down. Again, not easy to watch.

But I don’t for a second regret the changes and sacrifices I made on her behalf, mostly because they ended up making me a better person in the end. And for that, I am grateful to her. But forgiveness was easy when I felt heard and seen for the first time since I was a child. Real recognize real has a powerful effect on those who’ve been neglected, and it was just the remedy I was looking for from feeling as though I was never adding up.

Real Recognize Real, Or, Stellar Communication

The ability for me to learn how to forgive myself and others, for not meeting my impossible standards and just about every other infraction, perceived or real, came down to how well I felt as though I was being heard and seen and then reciprocating to that. And feeling heard and seen really comes down to how well we communicate with one another.

So the lesson I learned in that relationship was, that for me, communication and feeling heard and seen were most important to feeling enough. This may seem like a no brainer, but for the chronically neglected, this set off all sorts of lightbulbs. The ability to be recognized in my emotions and having someone react to them in real time was what had been missing from my emotional world for what felt like my entire life.

It felt so comforting to be held in a space of feeling heard instead of the feelings of not adding up to the others expectations, that I would do just about anything to hold onto that feeling. This is what made forgiveness so easy for me. This space of feeling heard and seen allowed me the courage to overcome the feelings of hurt and sense of being done wrong and not adding up. And it’s from here that I was willing and able to build a healthy relationship.

These were the tools I was missing, was never taught by my caregivers in my youth. No wonder my relationships all failed in the past. But I also learned from our relationship that, just because I was ready to communicate open and honestly with my partner, didn’t also mean that she was ready to. So in the end, our relationship failed. Though this time not for lack of me trying to make it work.

Finding the Right Person Being Willing to Do the Difficult Work of Communicating

As I’ve said above, it can’t just be one person doing the work of communicating. If this is the case, there will most likely come with it a feeling of unrest, of not feeling heard and not quite knowing why. This was how I felt when I was unable to communicate my feelings to my partners. And in my case, I chose partners who were outspoken and knew exactly what they wanted. They wanted somebody who would come along for the ride while they made the decisions and I was looking for someone to do the work of living my life for me.

It seemed like a win win, but this type of control over another usually leaves one person feeling as though they have no control over their life and as though they aren’t doing enough to feel loved. For me, I was feeling listless and left wanting more. More out of my life, out of my relationships, more belonging. I was drinking a lot to numb the dis-ease of these feelings of lacking and feeling isolated. This was a lonely place to be.

So now that I know what was lacking from my past relationships, what’s changed? How does what I know now change the ways I see and choose my relationships in the present? For starters, I’m more aware of the people around me and their ability to listen to what I have to say.

Listening to Feel Heard

A partners ability to listen to feel a sense of being enough is now at the top of my list of desirable attributes. Before I was looking for one thing only, and that’s how good looking my partner was. This seemed to be the only thing that mattered to me, but looking back now it was the number one value that all of my caregivers could agree on. You could do terrible things to others, but as long as you were attractive, it was okay.

Only, this type of foundation in a relationship leads to connections based on superficialities that do not last. It also breeds resentment from my experience. There is a feeling of distance between each other that translates into the question, am I enough? This is because our emotional worlds are usually left unattended, uncared for by our partners and probably ourselves. And if you don’t feel heard or seen in a relationship, then you have what I’ve described above. Something that is based on control over the other and feeling as though you have to do more or be more to feel loved. The sentiment in this type of relationship being, I have what you want and you’d better do as I say or or fit my idea of you or I’ll take it away.

But if we listen to each other, attune to each other’s need, then we begin to build true intimacy. Feeling heard brings with it a sense of feeling loved and belonging. So being heard and listening to one another is a way to feeling belonging to each other. Finally feeling enough for the other person. The sentiment in this type of relationship being, I hear you and I’m here for you. This is how we build connections that are strong and lasting. Not withholding love from the other to feel belonging, but giving love to be open to receive love.

Giving Love to Feel Enough

So in the search for healthy relationships, we don’t have to push ourselves to give as much as humanly possible to feel loved and accepted. This is a trap that we get caught in usually because we already don’t feel as though we’re enough as we are, in order to feel loved. Instead of focusing on what we can do for others to feel loved, instead focus on how do we accept ourselves and others as we are. Then we’ll be driven to do for ourselves and others, only not from a place as Brene Brown so aptly puts it as, “hustling for approval”, but because we want what’s best for ourselves and our loved ones.

So if you feel as though you’re not adding up in some way, or have to do more in order to feel loved and belong to and with another, slow down and take a look at why you feel this way. Question what you’re believing about yourself and your belonging. You may just find that you’re already enough. Peace : ) and thanks for reading.

Image Credits: “Impossible standards just make life difficult. #fortunecookie” by dziner is marked with CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

“It’s No Easy”, Sitting With The Difficult Emotions

Learning to Stay

This is something I have very little experience with. I’ve just started feeling my emotions again after running from them for so long, I had forgotten what they felt like. I used a lot of different modalities to run, among them being, pornography, alcohol, eating and just plain being mean to others. If a difficult emotion came up such as fear, anxiety or sadness, it was probably a safe bet that I was using something to avoid it. And as my old co-worker and friend Melba would say, “it’s no easy”. And she’s right.

Running from my emotions was not healthy. I saved up these difficult emotions until I released them in unhealthy ways as well. Anger for example was something I would hold onto and release in the form of cutting insults and condescending remarks. If you’re reading this and I’ve done or said something hurtful to you, let me apologize. I’m so sorry. I had no idea what I was doing.

This is something I’ve been skirting the edges of for a while because I’m not sure it is really who I wanted to be. Not in a way where I’m trying to defer how I treated others by saying my intentions were good, but I don’t think I ever wanted to be, or be known as, mean. Or maybe more pertinent, bad-ass and callous.

I think what was so confusing for me was, that the more often I was mean to others, the more I felt bad about myself. I thought by acting superior to others, I would somehow be above the feelings of self-doubt and insecurity. But I was riddled with anxieties and the fear of not belonging. Which seems strange looking back because I was pushing everybody away with who I was acting as, what did I expect would happen? And all this because I was to afraid to stay in the difficult feelings.

Difficult Feelings: What Are They?

I imagine the difficult emotions are the same for everybody. The fear, the distrust and anxiety. The anger and the hate. The shame and guilt. We all feel them, but what makes them unique to our situation?

When I think about it, it doesn’t make a lot of sense that we don’t have a single way to handle these emotions that everybody is feeling. We’ve been dealing with them for so long that it seems someone should have found a way to handle “that” emotion, whatever it is. But the reason this is the case, I believe is, that everybody has a different origin story for their difficult emotional stories, their narratives.

What’s Your Story?

I believe that everybody has an original source and situation for where their pain comes from. We aren’t born mean or looking to harm others. It’s something that’s learned, passed around from hurt person to hurt person. Just as the old adage says, “hurt people, hurt people”. I believe the source of our hurt comes from our initial, or most repeated infraction on our fragile selves.

This could come in the form of a constant stream of criticism from a care-giver. Or from years of emotional and physical neglect or abuse. Maybe one or more traumatic events happened through out our lives. Wherever the source comes from, the result is the same. We’re left with difficult emotions to process and feel our way through.

And if we’re not taught to handle or process these emotions using strong and healthy resources, the outcome usually isn’t good. I had picked up my care-givers’ tools for dealing with difficult feelings, the short list I listed above. But I wasn’t actually dealing with anything. These were the ways I was running from what would eventually catch up to me and lay me low without warning. I was only covering over what I didn’t want to come to terms with by pleasure seeking.

So when I was in a situation where I felt as though I were being judged, usually socially or with those closest to me, I drank. This helped to numb my experience of what was happening around me, giving me a false sense of confidence that I used to judge others in hurtful ways. I wasn’t constantly living in a state of fear or anxiety, or of consistent judgements of others, but I was spending an awful lot of time there. And that is not a health head space to be in.

Acting superior to others was another way of disconnecting from others and the possibility of being hurt by them. It was also something that was handed down to me by my caregivers. We had a sense of entitlement that was beyond reproach. God only knows why because we were just as flawed as everybody else, only we felt as though we were “better” in some way than what was happening around us.

I cringe a little now thinking about it, but understand the enormous amount of insecurity we were all feeling. Because when your self-worth hinges on one facet such as, how good you look naked, then being loved and excepted is an all or nothing condition. And that is a terrifying place to be, especially if you’re being judged by your family in this way. So with so much working against us, how do we begin to change the ways we are acting in order to stay and feel through what we’ve been running from?

So You Know Your Story, Now What?

Now that you’ve looked at some of the ways you were treated, which may have brought you to try and avoid the difficult emotions that were the result of said treatment, the question then is, where do we go from here? Running hasn’t worked for me, so the natural solution I came up with was, to stop the evasive tactics. I.e. the bad habits I picked up, then I could start the work of changing the ways I handled myself by acting superior or being liberal with my anger in condescending ways.

Social Pressure and Fear

For me, being in social settings was something that triggered a great deal of insecurity in me. I was so roundly rejected by my care-givers that the thought of being in a room with them while they pulled me apart like rabid animals feasting on a carcass, flooded me with emotions of anxiety and insecurities of not belonging and questioning if I was even loved. If they even could love was something I’m coming to terms with now.

And when feelings of fear mixed with the thoughts that I was somehow offensive to my care-givers just by being in their presence were some of my first social cues, I would there after find myself questioning if I was even wanted wherever I went. I was followed by a pervasive sense of self doubt in every social setting I found myself in, never quite feeling as though I belonged.

This was usually where I would pick up a drink and throw loudly spoken opinions around. Numbing the fear while keeping those at a distance by belittling them and trying to make myself seem superior. This did not work however and I found myself feeling more and more anxious the more I used these tactics to try and feel better about myself. So how did I stop the cycles or fear and anxiety in connecting with others?

Change What You Do To Become Who You Are

For me, I had to take stock of where I was in my life and how I got to feeling as anxious as I was feeling around others. I should mention that I still have feelings of anxiety in relationships sometimes, but not the overwhelming amount I used to. Leading to me having to drink my way through them.

The first thing I did was separate myself from the social scene I was a part of. I took a little time off from the people that I had been spending most of my time with and evaluated my relationships with and to them. How had I been acting around them and they me? Did I feel worse after hanging out? When we were together, what was the content of the ways we were connecting? Were they mean? Was I mean? Were we cutting others apart to feel superior?

Or were we building each other up? Being a support for the other when dealing with difficult situations? Did we share our hopes and plans for the future with one another? Did we say and do thoughtful things for each other? Sadly the answer to most of these questions were definitely not. Something needed to change.

Your Habits Matter

Once I took stock of my relationships, I slowly released myself back into the wild, one friend at a time. I got in touch with my old friends and started rebuilding my relationships with them. Only this time I used a new set of tools to connect with them.

Listening was probably the most important of these tools, inwardly and to others. In my past relationships, as I said above, I was loudly throwing my opinions up on whomever was around me. This did not leave me with the ability to listen to what others were experiencing. But I was also surrounding myself with similarly minded people. Loudly validating whatever venom the other was spitting. This was something I learned from my care-givers as a child watching them do the same.

So I stopped forcing my opinion on others and in the process changed some of my views to be more inclusive and kind. This was an added bonus to slowing down enough to listen to what the other was experiencing, but also listening to what was coming up in me. This is the most direct way to learn what the other person is like. I was asking more questions, about their likes, dislikes, what their experiences are and stories they had to tell. This may seem like a basic friendship building block, but to me these were all new and exciting lessons.

I made it a point to share well thought out opinions and advice when asked. Instead of telling the person what was “right” according to me, which was usually a blanket statement about how someone is, or group of people are or how they’re out to get us in some way, I was listening to and responding from my honest experiences. If someone had a question about finance, instead of me going on a rant about how the richest 1% are trying to control the world, I would ask what the specifics of their situation are, listen inwardly to use my experience with debt and the info I had from the research I’ve done for myself and give them an honest evaluation of what I think would be a viable plan.

And I slowly did this with more and more people, until I found myself surrounded with friends that I truly felt a connection with. And it’s important to say that not everybody I reached out to was in a place to be able to connect again. We are just in different places and that’s something that I needed to accept if I’m rebuilding my burned bridges from past relationships. Not everybody is in a place to want to connect again. And that’s okay. There will be more people willing to step up and be a part of our newly renovated lives.

Just from writing this blog, people have reached out to me that I never thought I would talk to again. And we’re better for it as well : ) Which leads me to another bonus of shifting our habits. Expect the unexpected!

And Be Patient

I’ve only covered a small section of the feelings that may be difficult to stay with. I’ll be talking more about these in other posts. But just know that this is a practice and something that takes a bit of time to feel comfortable with. It took me a great deal of practice to get to where I am and I’m still learning how to stay when it gets tough. There’s a phrase in the meditation community that I learned from Tara Brach that goes, “sit, stay, heal”.

I think is a nice way to think of the practice of, not only meditation if you are practicing, but also learning to handle emotions. Especially if you weren’t given much guidance in this area. So be patient, you’ll eventually get to where you’ll feel most at home in even the most difficult emotion. Peace, : ) thanks for reading.

Image credits: “creativecommons | incense burner” by *AndrewYoungPhoto* (writing_with_glass) is marked with CC BY 2.0.

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

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