Withholding Love: Growing Up Unlovable

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

Making the Choice to Withhold Love

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

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

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

Predictable Results, Feeling Lonely Not Love

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

The Armoring

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

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

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

Finding Yourself and Your Love Again

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

Being Bold Enough to Learn to Trust

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

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

Role-Modeling Destructive Behavior

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

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

Role Modeling Loving and Trusting Behavior

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

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

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

Finding Love Again

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

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

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

Family Dinner Fridays

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

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

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

Seeing Communication as a Weakness

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

“Love is Stronger Than Pride” – Sade

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

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

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

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

Relationships, Dating: The Ways We Connect Romantically

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

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

The Importance of Sex & Dating

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

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

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

Using the Wrong Map

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

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

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

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

Waking Up Into Our Emotions

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

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

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

Meditation & Yoga

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

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

Emotional Intelligence & Cultivating Intimacy

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

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

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

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

Resources for Emotional Growth

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Taking Care of Yourself & Your Close Ones’ Needs

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

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

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

Mind-Reading, a Relationship No-No

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

Take The Risks

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

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

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

Updated: 11/9/2022

When Feeling Loved is Scarce: How do We Find Care in Our Relationships When Love is Finite

It’s no secret that I grew up in a household that confused feeling loved and belonging with how we were seen by others. There were undercurrents, okay maybe tidal waves of insecure self-image that ran through my family. Starting with weight and extending to the clothing we wore. Or how clean our house was, whatever the focus was, there was always the feeling of being judged. And who we were was written all over us by the things we did and owned.

Growing Up in a Cold, Unloving Environment

This was a very cold environment to grow up in. Or rather I imagine it would feel cold if I had the ability to feel anything. There was always a numbness that came with the lifestyle. A heavy feeling. As though the air were ripe with criticism and it was only the work of a moment for someone to descend, dispensing with whatever it was that I was doing wrong. There’s a line in a song by Peter, Bjorn and John’s, “The Chills” that sums up this feeling, “your tongue is sharp, but I miss the taste of it.”

And that’s how it felt. There was a maddening search for approval from someone who constantly held it just out of reach. And feeling approved of was a precursor to feeling loved and belonging. But the game was rigged. I would never meet my caregivers impossible standards, because they in turn never met the impossible standards set by their caregivers. You can’t give what you don’t have. And in this case it was approval for reaching a standard they themselves never reached.

Lack of Feeling Loved is Generational

Looking back now, I’m able to see with some clarity as to how this has played out from generation to generation. Also the sheer amount of emotional manipulation my family has endured and doled out simultaneously has help me to piece together that, we all probably feel a little like frauds when it comes to feeling love and belonging. That’s how I felt for a long time.

The feeling still pops up from time to time. Something I’ve come to expect. You don’t experience years of neglect and abuse and suddenly expect those feelings of inadequacy to go away overnight. It takes years of self-care and reparenting to even begin to feel again. This was the case for me anyways. Then you’d better buckle your seatbelts because all those feelings come crashing in like the aforementioned emotional tidal-wave, taking with it just about all of your stability and core sense of self.

Navigating Expectations and Practicing Feeling Loved

So if we’ve only really experienced critical judgement from caregivers and the moments of care, love and tenderness were fleeting if present at all, then how do we chose love? From my experience, it helps to practice the actions that add up to feeling loved. The patience, with yourself and others. Keeping a nonjudgmental state of mind is another piece of the puzzle. Or at least not getting wrapped up in the story you tell yourself about what you’re doing wrong or how you or somebody else isn’t adding up to someone’s expectations.

And none of this is easy. So another aspect of practicing feeling loved is being forgiving. Of ourselves and others when we’ve stumbled. It’s inevitable that we will make mistakes. Maybe by judging somebody else for making a mistake, instead of asking if they’re experiencing stress in their lives that may be impacting them in the here and now. Or beating ourselves up for overlooking a task we should have gotten to. Where we could be appreciative of how much we’ve accomplished during the day.

Patience and Understanding Leads to Forgiveness and Change

So if patience and understanding are the pieces to feeling loved, forgiveness is the glue that binds them together. But don’t forget to be open to the feelings we have that follow, when we practice patience. Or how we feel when we’re being accepting of and listening to others. Because those are the spaces where we change. When we “be the change you want to see in the world” or ourselves.

And of course like anything worth the while, this all takes time. Another way to practice patients with yourself. When I started noticing how often I was judging others, it took some time before I could look at someone and not automatically deem them as overweight. Or unattractive. Two main areas of focus in my family when it came to being judgmental. And it still happens. The difference now is, that I can recognize the thoughts that come to mind. And now I can let them be, without judging myself for having them.

When Your Thoughts Aren’t So Loving

Tara Brach said something that really hit home with me in one of her talks. To paraphrase, she said that you don’t have thoughts, your mind secretes them. Saying you’re having a thought is like saying you’re circulating your blood. They just happen and the mind has no shame. And from my experience, I can get pretty worked up over the thoughts that are popping up.

Especially if you’ve experienced any sort of verbal abuse or emotional manipulation from those closest to you. Self-doubt, fear and frustration are only a few of the emotions that come to pay a visit. And the thoughts that accompany them just as unpleasant. So it’s nice to know that the thoughts that run through your mind aren’t a reflection of who you are. Or that you’re being too judgmental.

Once we begin to cultivate these traits in ourselves and with others, we then can have the experience of feeling loved. Also feeling caring and ease in our relationships. Emotions that may not have had modeled for us in our youth. It may not be easy, but it’s worth the while. To foster these aspects of our relationships in order to feel a deeper connection and maybe more fulfilled. So stay the course! It’ll be difficult at times, but it gets easier with practice. Peace, and thanks for reading :]

Image Credits: “Scarce blood enough in all their sickly veins” by harold.lloyd is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Updated: 7/29/22

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