Pushing Yourself & Resilience or Self Abuse: Where’s the Line Between Being Tough and Being Abusive?

Ahh, more lessons from the toxically masculine 80’s. And everybody had a good time… When I was a child in the 80’s, there was a hyper focus on what the roles of men and women were and what it means to be tough. These were crazy, polarizing times. What I was taught about how to be a man is pretty much summed up by Arnold Schwarzenegger’s character from “The Predator”. In this post, I’ll be going over the difference between being tough, and resilience, and how I’ve cultivated a new definition for myself around what it means to be, “tough”. So lets take a look at where my definition was forged.

What it Meant to be a Man in my Childhood

In summation, this meant that they (men) were always in charge and used force to keep control. They were unforgiving, especially towards those who were considered to be weaker (accept women and sometimes children), and displayed proudly their anger in destructive ways. I.e. by breaking things in the heat of an argument to show dominance of the situation.

I’m sure that all men weren’t like this, but the popular culture I was raised in valued and glorified this type of gender role assignment. I was often called sensitive as a child because I displayed a range of emotion that was greater than anger and confidence. Being scared as a man, regardless of your age, was unacceptable. And I was scared often. Due to the amount of abuse I was experiencing at the hands of my caregivers.

Manly Expectations

I’d like to talk about what some of the expectations were for me, growing up as a man, and the impact they made on me in my life. There was a lot of reparenting I had to engage in, due to the toxic lessons I was subjected to. And I know I’m not alone.

So if you’ve been measuring yourself to an impossibly masculine standard of self-reliance to the point of not being able to ask for help, or your emotional arsenal consists mainly of indignant rage, then keep reading. We maybe able to help one another by practicing another skill that most men from my generation were taught was too feminine for men to experience. That of listening and attuning to our feelings. And hopefully in so doing, find some ways to heal ourselves in the process.

Are We Being Tough or Abusive? Where do you Draw the Line?

Resilience is a word that’s tossed around a lot these days. I struggled with what this word meant for a long time. As a man, I was taught that we were supposed to be tough. This meant able to handle anything. Resilience was an unspoken part of that package. But what I’m finding out now is, the difference between emotionally resilience and how I was taught to be “tough” by covering over difficult emotions with anger or alcohol.

While I was taught how to be tough, there wasn’t really much of a lesson plan. There was however, a lot of bravado. Posturing and drinking were ways we covered over our emotions. There were other ways we covered over our emotions too. Pleasure seeking by abusing pornography and dissociating from our emotions by projecting them onto the women in our lives and denying we had them at all. We were neither tough nor showed resilience. We did however, run from our emotions to the point of denial. And numbed them out when we were too tired to run.

What we were doing was a form of self-abuse. By disconnecting from ourselves so thoroughly, we completely ignored our own needs for emotional attunement. To ourselves and with others. Being tough and resilience has come to mean something else completely, from how I was raised to imagine it.

Resilience Not Toughness, Why Words Matter

So if what I was taught about being tough was all a show, then where did that leave me when it came to face my difficult emotions? When they all came rushing in at once? It wasn’t ideal or fun, that’s for sure. When the fear and insecurities came flooding in, it left me feeling overwhelmed and filled with fear and anxiety. I had no tools, relationships or resources that I had been cultivating to help because I was relying on avoidance as my only coping skill. Also practicing extreme independence. And in case you don’t know, you can’t avoid your emotions forever.

This is when I started searching for better ways to manage my neglected emotional world. Meditation was one that came in particularly handy. There’s a phrase I learned while listening to Tara Brach’s Dharma talks, about meditation. It goes, “sit, stay, heal.” This is sound and straight forward advice. As I’m writing this, Kings of Leon are singing in the background, “ride out the wave”, which has a similar sentiment. Both suggest that you need to feel through it, in order to heal through it. This is also what is possibly meant by facing your fears.

And that’s the trick, that there is no trick. You just need to feel the fear, the insecurity and the sadness, and you’ll be all the stronger for it. But that’s a difficult task for a lot of us who are struggling to deal with our difficult emotions. A friend of mine once told me that the more you feel your emotions, the easier it gets. And he’s right. It isn’t easy at first, but necessary if you want to live a life free from avoidant and possibly addictive behaviors.

Quick Fixes are Not Long Term Solutions

Too often we get caught up in wanting to feel better in the moment. For me, I would drink lots of caffeine to alter my emotional state. Or alcohol if it was after work. Looking at pornography was another way of pleasure seeking in the moment. But pornography, along with going to strip clubs and objectifying women, and other ways of covering over difficult emotions, were the mark of a “real man”, as taught to me by my caregivers.

Of course, I didn’t realize I was covering over my difficult emotions. I didn’t even really know what I was feeling. I was just doing what was taught to me, and what felt good in the moment. So when I started feeling the emotions I was covering over without directly, without a quick fix of pleasure, they were most definitely overwhelming. But my friend was right. The more I feel my emotions, without covering them over, the less intense they become. It’s amazing what a little practice and patience can accomplish.

So what feels like abuse, subjecting yourself to staying in the difficult emotions, is actually the way to build resilience. And this isn’t to say that relying on aids such as medication isn’t wise. Especially if we’re dealing with very intense emotions. It’s when we self-medicate by abusing medications, or other drugs or activities, to avoid our emotions that we run into trouble. And when in doubt, ask a professional. Such as a therapist or counsellor. Mine has been an amazing resource for me.

When Pride is Confused for Being Tough

Muscling through difficult situations, as though we need to face them all on our own, is nothing short of foolish pride. This was a characteristic that was found in abundance in my family. We were all too proud to ask for help. This usually meant we were in over our heads. But for us, it was seen as a sign of weakness to ask for help. So we muscled through by avoiding the difficult emotions in the moment and actively sought to numb or speed pass them in lue of finding support. This is abusive behavior.

I think what we were avoiding the most was the ridicule we would receive if we asked for support. We would be seen as weak. And weakness was active sought out and used against us, by making fun of each other in the cruelest ways we could muster. I feel that this was a way to release some of our pain and resentment we were holding in from past wounds. But one thing is for certain, for me it was not safe to be seen as weak by those closest to me.

This is how pride became our main line of defense against each other. It was the one way we were able to keep ourselves as safe as possible, in an environment that was steeped in dangerous circumstances. There was no safe place to turn, including inwardly. So we dissociated from ourselves and one another in order to survive the thousands of tiny wounds we were constantly inflicting.

I think what perpetuated this way of being was, fear of being cut down in the ways we watched those closest to us cut others down. It’s a cycle that we repeatedly engage in. In order to keep the temporary illusion of safety, in an otherwise treacherous environment. And it takes willpower, strength and resilience to break this cycle.

Disengaging From Patterns of Abuse

This ain’t easy. In order to break free from the patterns of abuse, of giving and receiving it, we have to be the first to show our “weaknesses” or vulnerabilities. This is a scary proposition and one that needs resilience to be successful. As I’ve said above, my family was trained to maliciously attack any sign of “weakness”, as defined by our family’s unspoken rules. So putting yourself in a place where you know you will be abused, takes courage and, you guessed it, resilience. Especially because, once you’ve been torn apart, your intention will be to not attack the other. Hopefully breaking the cycle.

And the worst part is, there is no guarantee that the relationship will be salvaged once you put yourself on the line. If you’re ready to be done with the cycles of abuse, but the other isn’t, then you’ll be left wounded and alone. This is where it’s important to have supports already in place and to have built up resilience to these types of abusive situations. So if things don’t end up working out, or progress is slow, then you’ll be able to find comfort in knowing somebody else is there for you. Or that you are there for yourself.

Setting Boundaries

This was something I practiced a few years ago, when I attempted to reconnect with somebody from my past. We met at a local Whole Foods to get lunch and catch up. When we sat down to talk, I noticed that we were slipping into old patterns of verbally abusive behavior.

The person I was reconnecting with, was used to more hostile interactions. The ways we used to interact was by making small, cutting remarks, mixed in with the normal flow of conversation. Essentially being mean for no reason. When I recognized that this was happening, I knew I needed to give the relationship more time and space between us. So I ended our meeting early and took some time before reaching out to them again.

It wasn’t easy, but it was well worth the effort in order to properly care for myself in the relationship, while establishing a new standard of how I want to be, and will accept being treated. But it’s not enough to take space without explanation. If we can, we could tell the other person what we’re doing and why. Otherwise disengaging can be taken as an act of passive aggressive punishment. Withholding love without a proper explanation can feel, to the other person, like a cold slight. Leaving them to wonder why you aren’t talking anymore.

Finding Support

And while you’re working on your relationships by setting healthy boundaries and practicing resilience, it’s good to have people who know what you’re going through. People who can offer some advice, some insight or maybe just an ear to listen. It’s also helpful for these people to be practicing healthy boundaries themselves. This can be difficult if you are just beginning the journey of learning how to cultivate healthy relationships.

Therapy

A therapist is a great place to start when looking to expand your support network. They can offer unbiased insight into how you can go about establishing these new rules you’re setting in your relationships. They can also help you find other healthy resources. Ones that will aid you along the way. They can be a healing ally and guide, as you sort out the unattended areas of your life.

Friends

Friends are also invaluable during this process. I have one friend that I know I can count on for just about anything. To field a phone call about a hairy situation, get some logical advice about practical matters, or text about something that’s happening in the moment. I’ve talked to a few friends for their perspective of this post topic alone.

It’s also nice to feel the support of someone who knows you and what you’ve been through. To feel seen and recognized too. This is especially powerful if you’ve been emotionally neglected. If this is the case, the act of attempting to connect with others can bring up emotions of anxiety and fear. By having friends and other supports in place, the feelings aren’t as strong as they would be if you were facing them alone.

Finally, Being Tough Means Finding Support

And finally, if you’ve been closing yourself and your emotions off from others, you become weaker in the process. It’s not healthy to be isolated from those around you for too long. We need one another to be the best versions of ourselves. Staying connected and growing stronger in those connections, that’s what being tough really means.

So if you’ve been told that being tough means grinning and bearing it, or rub some dirt in your wound, you’ve been mislead. Caring for ourselves by knowing our emotional limits and checking in with how we’re feeling is our true strength. This and the support of others is where we’ll be able to stop the cycles of abuse and become the healthiest versions of ourselves. Peace : ) and thanks for reading.

Image Credits: “Tired” by Geoff LMV is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

Updated: 11/25/22

Paying Your Bills & Debt: How Being Buried in Student Loans Can Help You Get a Handle on Your Financial Life

I’m in debt. I’ve talked about my debt before on this blog, but with the COVID-19 student loan forbearance ending at the end of this year, I’ve decided it was time to take the deeper dive into finding out what my best options are for repayment. And I was a little surprised with what I found out. I’ll be going over some of the specifics about my situation, but also what I’ve discovered along the way. It can be overwhelming, when you’re staring out of the deep hole you’ve dug for yourself. But there’s hope. And I should say, it’s totally doable. You just need a plan, a positive attitude and a little help : )

The Short Road to Nowhere

If you’re like me, you borrowed a lot of money during the height of the student loan lending frenzy. I ended up with close to 87k in student loan debt that I am in the middle of paying back. And I went to an in state school! I was completely clueless when it came to getting my degree. I had no idea what I was doing, what I wanted to do, or what I was even good at. When I stopped going to high school I was 15. But thought I was supposed to go to college to get a degree so I could get a job. So that’s what I did.

I started in community college when I was 19. This was a poor choice given the circumstances I was in. I was past the age of being a dependent on my caregivers and one of them told me to go to school. When I failed by way of not going to classes, I was subsequently given the boot from my childhood home. I was 19 and as good as homeless. Years later, when I asked my caregiver why they kicked me out with no guidance and with such callous disregard, they responded with, “it’s what happened to me”. Hurt people hurt people.

So, with that in my rearview, I drifted around for the next five years in a haze of alcohol, seedy apartments and questionable life events (but some good stories, like the time one of the “Allman Brothers” was at my apartment), until a friend of mine got me a job at a residential program for at risk adolescent boys. This is when I decided to go back to school. Only this time for social work. I wanted to help people who were in similar situations to my own. But I still had no idea what I was doing when it came to navigating the educational system. This is when I started taking out loans.

Paying Your Bills & Debt

I would later switch my career focus two more times. First to architecture, but stopped that pursuit in it’s tracks when they said I would be working 80 hour plus weeks for the rest of my life. Then I switched for the second time to journalism. This is where I received most of my education and also where I racked up my student loan debt.

I did this with enthusiasm. No one told me to look for grants or scholarships, but this wasn’t surprising as I had no guidance. Nor was I seeking any or knew how to ask. I was again adrift, in a financial world where I would soon be in way over my head.

It took me close to nine years to finish my degree. And when I was done, I had close to 87k in student loans and 20k in credit card debt plus 10-20k in miscellaneous other expenses. This was a tough pill to swallow. I fumbled my way into just over 120-130k in debt, with little to show for it and no idea how I was going to dig myself out of the hole I had worked so hard to get into.

Okay I Give, How do I Get Out Of This Mess?

This, in conjunction with a few other realizations, left me in one of the darkest places I’ve been in my life. This was where I decided to make some much needed changes in my spending habits and the ways I was living my life.

This is around the time I found Dave Ramsey. Here was finally where I found the guidance I so needed to take hold of my financial house. This was also a confusing place to be, because growing up my caregivers were consumed with everything finance. Though they never imparted any of their wisdom to me about how to handle my finances. I had to stumbled upon Dave Ramsey in my mid thirties, by chance before I really began to take charge of my finances.

This was demoralizing. Mostly because I didn’t feel as though I could ask anybody in my life for help or advice, for anything really. Money was such a sore spot for my entire family growing up, that I felt as though it was off limits. I spent so much time not thinking about money, due to the unspoken lessons I was taught about how money was something to be feared, that I completely neglected my financial future. This was a difficult and terrifying realization to come to as well. I wrote about this some in my blog post about what to do when you’re starting to retire at forty.

But this is also where I learned that I needed to take the reigns for myself. Because I was the only one in control of my future. This doesn’t mean that I can’t ask for help when necessary. Which is and was the case considering how little I knew/know about how to handle finances. But I couldn’t wait any longer. I knew I had to do something about my future, regardless of how I had been neglected by my caregivers.

Taking the Reigns

As I said above, I started when I found Dave Ramsey and his baby steps, but it took discipline and patience to follow through with the plan. I had been so used to buying whatever I wanted whenever I wanted, that when it came time to exercise self control, I was at a complete loss. But there were a few things that helped to fortify my self-restraint.

Going Vegan, Running, Meditation & Yoga Helped Me Pay My Debt Faster

Going Vegan

Of all the changes I made in my life and my habits, going vegan was probably the most effective. I needed to learn how to cook using different ingredients while also making substitutions for staples I was in the habit of using when I ate animal products.

I also had to batch cook for the weeks ahead due to my busy schedule. This taught me how to put a shopping list together by choosing recipes and making a list by shopping from my pantry first. This was just another way to budget, only using food instead of money. But also if I didn’t cook, I had to eat pasta with Earth balance for dinner. I didn’t always want to cook, but I needed to eat, so I did.

Running

Running was another great way to cultivate a sense of discipline. Throwing shoes on and pounding out the miles week after week helped me to build a resilience while also helping me to find a rhythm.

For me, when running mid level milage, the first few miles of a run are the most difficult. It’s kind of like waking up in the morning. You’re a little tired, it takes some time to get your muscles warmed up and head wrapped around what your body’s doing. But once you’ve settled into the motion and movements of your body, the miles start to drop away with an ease that’s hard to describe.

It’s similar to when you’re paying off debt. The first few months take some adjusting to. But once you find your rhythm, and recognize that the discomfort of your sacrifices to your new budget won’t last forever, you find that same rhythm.

Meditation & Yoga

Meditation and Yoga help in sort of the same ways but from different perspectives. With yoga, learning to be still when you are in the midst of a difficult pose and sensation. And meditation when difficult thoughts and emotions arise, being still and present with what’s difficult builds resilience.

This is the same sort of resilience you need when you’re paying down a sizeable debt. For me it was important to sit with the discomfort of just how much money I owed. About 87k total in student loans alone. If that doesn’t put a seed of fear in your belly you’re either wealthy or in shock. Learning to sit and stay with what’s difficult, while coming up with and exciting a plan is what is most important when faced with a challenge of this size. Now let’s focus on some of the specifics of my loans and what I’ve found to be most useful.

Logistics of Paying Off Bigger Numbers

I have federal loans but when I first took out my loans I had both federal and private. About 9k in private and 78k in federal. I don’t remember exactly what the beginnings of my loan repayments looked like. I was in and out of school for 9 years. So my actual repayment date didn’t start until my mid-thirties. And probably for the best. I wasn’t in the habit of paying my bills regularly or at all before then.

Most of my bills I defaulted on with most likely the intention of never repaying them at all. But I had to start somewhere. And where I started was in my mid-thirties, under a pile of debt. I used the snowball method to start. This basically means paying the minimums on all your debt, but using all other available income to pay off your smallest debt first. For me this was all my credit cards that totaled 2-5k small debts. All together around 14k. Then it was on to my private student loans of about 9k total.

Some systems suggest you pay the highest interest rate percent first. Luckily my credit cards were all high interest and my loans much lower. So when I got to my private student loan, with about a 7% interest rate and my federal at a 6%, I put all available funds towards the private. My federal loans were in deferment, so I didn’t have to start paying them back until later. And with my private loans in the past, I could finally focus on the big one. My federal loans.

Federal Student Loans=No Bueno

When I started paying off these loans, they were in deferment. This means that you don’t have to make any payments on your loan for a specific amount of time for different circumstances. I believe the time available for deferment is 3 years, but check with your lender to make certain yours aren’t different. But what I hadn’t realized was that when my bill came due, I would be making close to 1k payments monthly. I was not making much at the time and definitely wouldn’t have been able to afford these payments. So I defaulted to my default. I planned on defaulting on my loans because it just seemed like too much.

But after I had done all the difficult work of paying off my other loans, I realized I didn’t want to head down the same road I had been traveling for so long. I needed to take control of my finances for my future. So I began looking into what my options were for paying down my student loans.

I Have a Plan… Sort of

My plan was to just throw money at my debt until it started to dwindle. But was that really my best option? As it turned out, yes. We all know, COVID hit about a year and a half ago. And since then there have been a lot of layoffs. As a way to ease some of the financial burden of student loan borrowers, the government put all loans on deferment without accrued interest. This has been a Godsend for those laid-off. But for folks like me, making payments interest free has been game changing. With all of my payments going towards principle, my debt is shrinking faster than expected. I’ve paid off close to 25k in principle since the COVID-19 forbearance began.

Private or Federal Loan?

But I was still concerned with the amount of interest I was being charged. 6% seemed like a high number for such a large loan. So I started looking at private loans to see if I could get a better rate. Turns out, I can. My rate would drop from 6% on my federal loans to almost 3% in a private one. Seems like a good deal. But when I ran the numbers, this only decreased my overall amount owed in interest by 1k over the life of the loan. Not even half a months payment. So I decided to stay in the loan with the higher interest rate.

I should also mention that I plan on paying my loan off in two years, so the interest doesn’t make that much of an impact. But if I choose a more traditional route, of say paying over ten years, I would be accruing up to 17k in interest alone. Then I would look into a loan with a lower rate. But another aspect to consider when thinking about switching lenders is, the benefits of federal loans far out weighs those of their private counterparts.

As we’ve seen with COVID-19, federal loans went into a period of deferment. Something that private loans did not do. Also, if you fail to pay a federal loan on time, you have considerably more time before your loans go into default. I’ve read up to 240 days, and you still have time to pay and be in good standing with your loan. With private lenders, it’s only 30 days and that’s it, default. You also have the option, with federal loans, to pay in an income driven repayment plan. This adjusts your payment to a percentage of you discretionary income. This is not an option with private loans.

Also, you are able to consolidate your loans with a federal lender. This takes all the small loans you’ve taken out each semester and consolidated them into one loan with one payment.

With so many benefits attached to holding loans with the fed., it just didn’t make sense to switch to a private lender. I may be paying 1k more over the life of the loan than if I was with a lower interest private loan, but peace of mind with the terms of my loan is worth more to me that a little under half a months loan payment. And when in doubt, ask.

You Don’t Have to do it Alone

If you have questions about your loan, contact you bank. Hey, even ask if they’ll lower your interest rate. Through my lender, if you’re enrolled in auto payments, they reduce your interest rate by a quarter of a percent.

And if you’re like me, you like to go hard. For me it’s do as much as humanly possible to pay off my loan in as short a period of time as possible. Don’t forget to practice a little self-care along the way. For me it’s a foot soak once and a while and a ten-pack at my local yoga studio for 175$. It’s good and healthy to take rests along the way. So incase no one told you, it’s okay to take a break every now and again : )

I hope this has helped in some way. Student loans can be daunting to take on, especially all at once. But don’t be deterred! Talk to your lender often and whenever you have a question, regardless of how silly it seems. They want you to be successful. So, if you have a ton of student loan debt, come up with a plan and have patience. You’ll get out of it. It just takes a little resilience. Peace & thanks for reading : )

Image credits: “The Big IOU” by brent flanders is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Updated: 11/8/2022

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