Finding Belonging: Navigating Feeling Lonely For the Holidays

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

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

How the Past Shapes the Present

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

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

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

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

Okay, It’s Hit the Fan, Now What?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tick List: Stay Connected

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

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

Taking the Risk

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Begin With What You Have

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

When is Enough, Enough? How to Navigate the World of Unreasonably High Expectations

This is something I’ve struggled with for almost my entire life. As soon as I knew what it meant to do a “good job” with something, I knew almost immediately afterwards what it felt like and meant to not add up in some way.

What’s strange though, thinking about it now, I don’t really remember much about how I didn’t meet the mark. Only that I just never met it. I can remember doing chores when I was younger, maybe eight or nine. I would vacuum the downstairs carpets, wash the woodwork around the base of the floors and dust the furniture for a small allowance every week. The chores started shortly after I experienced trauma that would change the course of my life, adding another layer of impossible expectations to an already daunting list, but I don’t ever remember being shown or told how to do them or if I was doing an adequate job.

The same was the case for school work. I remember before I gave up on school completely in the tenth grade, doing projects and homework, always on my own. Of course I was alone almost all the time, so this wasn’t new. But what I hadn’t realized at the time was that my situation was not normal. At some point it seems like there should have been someone there to help catch me, before I fell through the cracks, or just to help at all. But that just wasn’t the case with my situation.

And what’s more, I was consistently criticized for the poorly done work that I was doing. Again, thinking about it now, from the perspective of a fully functioning adult, I can see how maddening the whole situation is. Not only from the perspective of my younger self, trying to navigate life and discovering how I fit in the whole concerning other’s expectations of me, but also the fully actualized perspective of my adult self, I was just being asked too much of. From people and caregivers that had not only high standards, after all having a high standard can be a good thing, but impossible ones to meet. Asking me to meet their standards would be akin to asking a seven year-old to grocery shop and cook for themselves for the week while staying in budget and hitting their nutritional necessities. Impossible.

Later, I was however, excelling at meeting other of my caregivers standards. The ones where I would drink until I was so sick, I couldn’t see straight. Or being judgemental and cruel for no other reason than to fit in with the image of how my caregivers where acting. Thinking back now, I would have much rather have studied and done well in school, but when your very belonging is on the line with the people that are supposed to love you no matter what, you’re going to do whatever you’re able to, to feel a sense of love and belonging. Including trying to live up to not only impossible standards, but contradicting ones as well.

Because if you don’t feel like you belong, you don’t feel safe. And that’s when your survival instincts kick in. For me it was studying my caregivers like a detective, to try to read their minds of what it was that they could possible want from me so I could meet their standards and feel safety in belonging. I was also experiencing a fair amount of abuse from them as well, which added an extra layer of confusion. But when you’re in survival mode, nothing else really matters. Even the abuse.

These experiences were the foundation of the impossible standards that I in turn, adopted from my caregivers. I later, would set the standards so high for myself, that I was left paralyzed in not knowing how to move past where I was. If it wasn’t perfect, it wasn’t worth the effort, in my distorted view of how I learned to navigate my internal world of expectations. And I believe that I really thought perfection was something that was obtainable! This blows my mind now, to think of it. I was trying to achieve something that just doesn’t exist and tearing myself apart in the process. This was no bueno.

And it wasn’t just me, I was being told this impossible standard was possible not only by my caregivers, but most of the culture as well. I remember vividly sitting in an empty room with a desk I bought from some expensive retailer, with a decanter of whiskey and a few glasses next to it, thinking to myself, “just a few more pieces of furniture, and the right body, and clothes, then I’ll be who I want to be.” There was a sinister air about this affirmation. One that I associated with success, only in a way that was measured against someone else’s expectations. This was one of the ways I became my own abuser. By setting my self worth at something that was outside of myself and unobtainable. Because I wasn’t already enough to my, and everybody else’s measure.

So setting the standards too high, I discovered, was really an act of abuse. Trying to achieve something I never would, to gain acceptance from people who couldn’t accept me because they didn’t accept themselves. This was punishing. And to add to the confusion, I didn’t even know what I was doing to myself. So if it was this impossible standard I was pitting myself against, how did I wake up and realize that I was never going to meet it? I think I’m still finding out what it means in some of the areas of my life, to be happy with my efforts and self as I am and they are. But I know it has a lot to do with listening inwardly to myself. Knowing how I’m feeling and sitting with the uncomfortable feelings instead of trying to push past them when it feels like too much. When am I pushing myself too hard and are these really reasonable expectations I’m asking myself to meet.

When all you have are critical judgements placed on you, it’s difficult to understand what a reasonable request is, or when we’re calling for something to ease up inside. Our internal voice becomes mute and we take on the harsh critic that we are so used to. We also seek out others to fill this role, of harsh critic, that we are so used to trying to satisfy. For me, it manifested in many of the jobs I took. I didn’t know my own self worth, or what the work I was doing had via the value I was bringing to my tasks. For example, my current employer is very vocal about what their expectations are, and how nobody ever achieves them. I’ve been there for about a year and a half, and I don’t believe I’ve ever heard them compliment anybody for a job well done.

This is a difficult place to work, but in my case, it’s a place I was looking for because it is something that I’m so used to. Something I know well because I grew up under these conditions. Cold comfort. I already knew how to navigate this world, and the defenses that went along with it. The sense of superiority and indignation that came with thinking and feeling somebody else is inept because they are asking me to reach an unachievable standard, when I set the standard too high already. I would often think, “because they’re not meeting my standards they are inferior”. In other words, “you think your standards are high? I’ll show you high standards!” This is unhealthy.

But it’s how I kept myself at a distance from those I would have liked to have built healthy relationships with. Not only that, I was constantly disappointed, a little angry, ok, maybe a lot angry and never happy or satisfied with anything or anyone around me. While also burning bridges with people every chance I got. It is and was a very lonely place to be. And I’m honestly surprised that the few friends I have now stayed by my side.

For me, there was and is a lot to sort through. As I said above, the first and most important step towards releasing the impossible standards we place on ourselves, is listening inwardly when we find ourselves frustrated with ourselves. Where are the places in our daily lives that we get frustrated and disappointed. How are we feeling and what are we expecting from ourselves and others when we feel this way?

When the critic comes forward in my day to day, it is usually coupled with a sense of indignation. Most of the time I’m judging someone as selfish or insensitive and possibly inept, because they ignored the ways I expected them to act or respond to a situation. This is dangerous because; I’m measuring them up against a standard that they have no idea what I’m expecting, because they’re not mind readers, and I’m also expecting events to unfold the ways I think they would work best. This shows that I’m unwilling to change, and that I think my methods are the best methods for accomplishing tasks. This type of reasoning and thought train leads to black and white thinking, and isolating myself from others by feeling consistently disappointed in others.

To break this cycle, I have to be aware of my feelings, emotions and expectations when I interact with others. When I begin to feel frustrated, I need to make sure to focus on what is happening in the moment. I do this by acknowledging the emotion, clearing my mind of what’s happening in my thoughts, and ask myself, “where is this frustration coming from?” In some cases, there is a clear connection between my frustrations and what is happening in the moment. For example, while at work, if I’m expecting support from someone and I am left with little in the way of understanding how to proceed with a task or what their expectations are around the task, this is a frustration worth exploring.

But it is important to not take that frustration and discharge it towards the person you are experiencing the frustration with, or anyone or thing else. This is where many of us get tripped up, I know it was a sticking point for me for a long time. It’s important to feel the frustration, but then respond to the emotion inside yourself first. You can do this by asking it why it’s here, or what am I trying to tell myself? I know for me, if I feel like I’m not being listened to, or I’m not meeting the mark in some way, that can trigger some old emotions that are pretty charged. And if I’m not careful, that emotion can become destructive instead of constructive. So slowing down enough to listen to where the emotion is coming from and what it is trying to tell you is the first step to responding in a constructive way.

Then you can understand the emotion in how it is effecting you. Is this a situation that deserves this level of concern? Am I being too demanding of the other person? Is this a reasonable expectation that I am setting for another, or myself to meet? These are some of the questions that we can begin to explore when we aren’t so caught up in the initial reaction to the situation. And there will be times that you will need to respond in immediate ways with authority. But having this time to assess the needs for the situation could mean the difference between a situation handled with care or hurt feelings.

After we explore where the emotions are coming from, and what they are trying to tell us, then we can take the appropriate actions and begin the process of calming ourselves down. It doesn’t help any situation to react from a place of anger and frustration, especially where high standards are involved. This is where self soothing comes into the process and is an important part of communicating from a constructive place. Self soothing can help us to feel heard and taken care of. And coming from a place of knowing that our emotional response to a situation is valid, is important to us feeling as though we matter, in that we are part of the solution, and not just collateral damage in a situation.

This is the power of self soothing and how it can come to help us to communicate and be fully present with ourselves and others. We gain a sense of agency and confidence when we’re calm, and are better able to handle what the situation demands of us and how to respond to someone’s unreasonable expectations. And this isn’t a guaranty that you will get the support or help you need. For instance, my above example of not feeling or being supported to the necessary degree or if I’m meeting their expectations. I may calm down and recognize why I am feeling the ways I am in the situation, and I may even be able to communicate them from a clear and rational space, instead of expecting them to read my mind. But there is no way of knowing whether I’ll receive the needed support from those I ask.

The difference between doing the work to understand where your emotions are coming from and then sorting through them to know how best to respond to them, as opposed to getting angry at the person or situation is, you don’t take it so personal. You’ve assessed the situation and have done as much as you’re able to do. After you’ve done the work, it’s a matter of waiting for something outside of yourself to change for you to move forward in a situation. And this takes patients.

First with yourself. This is where sitting with difficult emotions comes into the picture. Especially those around feeling like we’re not meeting others’ expectations. And we will do just about anything we can think of to push past or numb that type of discomfort. For me it was drinking coffee to push past them, and alcohol at night to numb them. But other common modalities include, watching T.V., cleaning or constantly staying in motion, reading or constantly having your nose in a book, or constantly checking social media or flipping through your phone or some other device. Another one is ruminating or obsessing over something. Also thinking of how unfair the other person’s standards are and ways that you would right the situation if it was up to you.

What all these modalities have in common is, that we are trying to push past the discomfort of sitting in the emotion of feeling whatever is causing the discomfort. In my example, the discomfort is not feeling supported by those who I am supposed to rely on for help by never meeting their unachievable standards. This leaves me feeling underappreciated and slightly taken advantage of. These are the difficult emotions that need my attention and that I need to reconcile inside myself first.

Second, we need to have patients with those who we are in conflict with. This is also difficult, and really difficult if you haven’t found patients with yourself first. It helps if you or the other person are able to see different points of view from differing perspectives. But this isn’t always the case, and we need to have the patients necessary to help others to understand where we are coming from.

Unfortunately, this is where a lot of arguments spark. Misunderstanding another’s perspective can feel like, to the other, that you’re not listening to their point of view. So it also helps to add a healthy dose of kindness in the conversation. To help set the tone for an understanding mindset and defuse some of the tension that can arise in these types of situations, especially where unrealistically high expectations are involved.

And even with all these precautions, sometimes people will just disagree. It’s especially important in these situations to not take it personal. This was a tough lesson for me to learn due to being raised in an environment where everything was taken personal, regardless of the actual intentions. My caregivers never took responsibility for the ways they were feeling or how they responded to them. “Somebody made me feel this way” or “you made me do this” were statements I heard a lot in my youth.

Looking back, it’s no wonder I had so many issues with boundaries around whose feelings were whom’s. I was just never taught how to own a feeling and how to set healthy boundaries around them. And to add being unable to live up to an image of a perfect standard on top of that was just plain maddening.

For me, the process of creating these boundaries worked to help me understand what my responsibilities were, what healthy expectations are, and even what feelings were mine. I did this by simply labeling the feelings that were coming up in me as they were happening and then connecting them to an event while also telling myself that my best was good enough. The more I did this, the clearer it became what or why I was reacting to what was coming up for me.

So labeling emotions as they happen, followed by sitting with them through the discomfort and reminding yourself that your best is good enough, can help to loosen the grip that takes hold of us when we’re trying to push ourselves too hard to meet unreasonable expectations, from ourselves or others.

And it takes practice. LOTS of practice. As I’ve mentioned above, I’ve been dealing with these high standards for most of my life, starting in childhood! They don’t go away overnight. But the good news is that they do lessen over time. Practicing forgiveness is another way to help soften the edges of our unreasonable standards. In my daily affirmation, I tell myself, “I’m strong, brave, courageous and forgiving… it’s okay to be me, just as I am”. This helps me to gain a bit of much needed perspective. It allows me to put some distance between the expectation and the emotions that come along with them, long enough to practice some self-care and reality check what I’m expecting from myself.

I feel better knowing that I’m looking out for my best interests, while stopping myself from tearing myself down from trying to reach an impossible goal. And the more often I do this, the more trust I gain in myself. So if you struggle with impossibly high standards, just know that there are ways of easing up on yourself and letting go. You just need to be persistent and kind to yourself. Thanks for reading : ) peace.

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

Self Confidence: How Surrounding Yourself with Positive Messages can Help to Heal the Old Wounds of Not Feeling Like you’re Adding Up

I’ve been thinking about how I view myself lately. Where I am in life as opposed to where I thought I would be. What I’d like to be doing for a career. How I’d be spending my days, who I’d be spending my days with. Where I’d like to be living… The list goes on. But I’m realizing now that I spend an awful lot of time focusing on where I’d like to be as opposed to where I am.

This isn’t a new story. For example, it’s what the meditation community means when they say, “be here now”. But it’s amazing how much of my time goes to focusing on where I think I should be. Especially since I know that focusing on the here and now would be so much more beneficial for my peace of mind. So why do I and most likely others focus on the future, or where we feel we should be instead of the where we are?

I find it’s because I’m not accepting where I am in the moment. I feel I should be in a different, better place than the one I’m in. So my brain makes plans and fixates on how I can change my current situation for the better in my future. And we need to make plans for the future. It’s an important dimension of how we grow as humans. But when it’s all we think about we’re not allowing ourselves to grow into the future. Instead we remaining stagnant in the past and present.

It often feels like we’re focusing on how nothing is ever good enough in the here and now and we’ll always be working towards some brighter future. And if we ease up and let ourselves enjoy the moment, take our eyes off of our goals, we will be failors. Doomed to live an unfulfilling life, or at least that’s how I feel.

This seems a little dramatic, but that’s often how it feels most of the time when we get hyper focused on where we should be. There’s a psychological term for it that Tara Brach sometimes talks about. It’s called the negativity bias. It’s when your fear of the possible negative outcome of a situation takes control of your thoughts and emotions. And if you’ve dealt with trauma in your past, the negativity bias may be a stronger force for you than most.

I know this is true for myself. Especially when I’m building relationships with friends or new acquaintances. I was made fun of and belittled so often by my caregivers in the past and nothing was off limits. Living under the constant critical eye of my caregivers, I felt like no matter what I did it was never enough. And to make things worse, I had noone to tell me what to do to gain the approval I so desperately needed and was searching for frantically. I just wanted to feel loved and belonging. This was a confusing setting for me to grow up in.

As I said in my post about How we treat our pantries and how it’s related to how we nourish ourselves, one of the ways I was criticised for was being overweight. This was an area of great confusion, since my caregivers were feeding me and criticising me for being overweight at the same time. And all the while with no clear direction on how to properly feed myself, or ways to live a healthier lifestyle. I’ve since learned how to regulate my body weight, but it’s been a bumpy road to say the least.

I remember coming home from a long day at work, running three miles and doing yoga for 40 minutes. And all of that on only a small breakfast I ate at 7am. By the time I got into the shower after my workout at 5:30pm, I passed out. The likely cause was from pushing myself too hard for too long and with too little food to run on.

These were the ways I taught myself how to manage the feelings of being criticized and neglected by my caregivers who were supposed to show me how to love and be loved. I ignored my body’s limits with little nourishment and a harsh exercise regiment. Instead of showing myself love, I pushed myself beyond what I could handle. And I looked at myself with the same critical eye that had been handed down to me by my caregivers. I essentially became abusive to myself in the ways I was abused in the past, all so I could feel a sense of belonging. If I could look thin enough, be attractive enough, maybe then I would finally feel like I belonged. As though someone approved of me.

I didn’t want to “belong” that way anymore. I knew that something needed to change with the ways that I was relating to myself, but I wasn’t sure where to begin. That’s when I decided to start where I was. In the here and now. Taking an active role in finding out the ways I was criticizing and neglecting myself. I focused on the areas where I either couldn’t feel anything because I was so numb, or where I just plain felt bad about myself and who I was.

Turns out there were a lot of areas in my life where I felt this way. I had been punishing myself in the same vein as my caregivers before me for so long, that I realized I didn’t even know how to be kind to myself! And I needed to learn how to attune to my own needs desperately. Essentially I was reparenting myself because I had no one to show me how. I had no map to guide me.

I believe my reparenting started with me saying affirmations to myself during my meditation. If you’ve read my post on affirmations you’ll know that I say them daily. They are like an anchor for me, when I’m feeling adrift. A way to help refocus on what my intentions truly are and the positive I’m trying to cultivate in my life.

And almost as a natural extension of saying my affirmations, I leave them around my personal space as well. For example I make a lot of lists. I use Google Keep which is a great tool for me, because you can make a ton of lists or notes and they update in the cloud. So if you take a note on your phone, you can read it later on your laptop.

And I’ve been in the habit of putting short affirmations in with the titles of my lists or notes. On my todo list I’ve written, “never give up on your dreams”. This helps me to stay focused on the goals that I set for myself on how I’d like to live my life. On the note I keep for my journal, when something comes to me and I don’t have my bullet journal to write it down, I put, “I’m here, I care.” I also have a few more scattered around to help me keep with a positive mindset.

My parents keep a daily affirmation calendar in the kitchen and will often leave pages laying around that strike a chord with them. I took a page from their book and hung one near my night stand that says, “work hard, relax harder”. It’s a little cheesy, but the message is something that I definitely need to heed more often. Read about my exercise regiment above as an example 🙂

I also put the pictures of two of my role models as wallpaper on my phone, Dana from Minimalist Baker and Adrienne from yoga with Adrienne. To remind me of not only what my goals and purposes are, but also that there are healthy role models out there. Growing up there just weren’t any healthy adult role models in my life. Knowing now that I can choose to surround myself with the presence of those who inspire me and bring me comfort is a great source of strength. Feeling that connection, even if only online, is a huge resource for me when I’m feeling low about something. When I turn on my phone I see one of their smiling faces and it brightens my mood almost instantly.

In the same vein as my phone wallpaper, my laptop screen saver is a half dozen or so photos of how I’d like my future home to look and feel. Like the messages on my todo list, these photos help to keep me focused on what my future goals are. They also bring the added comfort of knowing that I’m actively working towards these goals here and now. That I’m not giving up on them no matter how far away they seem.

Pinterest has a similar feeling and approach to affirmations in the ways I use and talk about them. Visualizing what you are dreaming of as a way to bring them into fruition. Visual affirmations, aka vision boards. For example it’s one thing to know that you’d like to live in the mountains some day. But if you keep some of your favorite photos from hiking trips you’ve loved in the past around, you have pictures as reminder of what the hard work you’re putting in toward your future goals could manifest.

A self-care routine is another great way to practice affirmations. When I cook dinner for my self-care sundays ritual, I’m sending myself the message that I’m here, right now, to take care of my emotional needs. To build the emotional support around the areas that I was criticized and neglected for, by myself and others in the past, like food and cooking. And knowing that you’re here for yourself is so important to knowing that you are worth the time and effort you take for yourself. To feel valued as a person and confident that you are not only able to take care of yourself, but worth that time and effort. This is what self love looks like.

Also the relationships we keep are a huge part of the ways we can boost our confidence and feel more supported. And if we’re not careful, a quick way to tear ourselves down as well. As I mentioned above, I was cut down so many times by the people that were supposed to show me how to love, and how to love myself that I had almost zero ability to maintain a healthy supportive relationship. First with myself, then with others.

First with myself in that since I was never shown how to be kind to myself, all I had were the negative messages bouncing around in my mind from past experiences. So I picked up right where my caregivers left off. By taking those messages of criticism and replaying them in my mind. If a feeling of fear came in, I would tell myself “a real man could handle this. Are you a real man?” And when I couldn’t handle the fear, I would turn to some other way of self soothing. Either with lots of coffee in the morning or beer at night.

And when you’re dealing with neglect and verbal abuse, it can feel like you’re being bleed to death by a thousand tiny cuts in the form of negative messages. These small but effective affirmations are akin to fixing a thousand tiny bandages to those cuts. It isn’t always easy and it’s definitely a practice, but the more often you patch up these tiny wounds by way of these small affirmations to yourself, the more your affirmations come together to soothe and protect you. From all the old wounds of the past.

The second aspect of the relationships we keep are those of close friends and family. My caregivers and support system growing up weren’t held together by feelings of love and belonging. There aren’t many times where I can look back and say, “those were some good times”.

For the most part we were mean, critical and judgemental towards one another. Most of the ways we communicated with and to one another was through making someone feel less than you, or by making them feel excluded, as though they don’t belong. This was a difficult environment to grow up in. And I imagine it would have hurt emotionally if we weren’t so numb from all the alcohol we were drinking to keep ourselves from feeling the extent of our actions and attitudes towards one another.

The friendships I cultivated weren’t much different from the ways I learned to belong with my family. This isn’t too much of a surprise, but it’s one that left me hollow. I would go out drinking with my friends and we would say and do the most hurtful things to one another. But by the time we had another drink, we would have almost completely forgotten about it.

This was fine while we were drinking. But when I stopped drinking to excess and focused on living a healthier lifestyle, I realized that almost all of my friends had vanished. Without the alcohol to hold us together we drifted apart. It’s sad to think about now, but the relationships I was keeping weren’t sustainable in the least.

It’s worth mentioning that I had to sever a few ties I had with friends who were just unhealthy for me. They aren’t bad people, but their way of seeing things as they do and how they live their lives runs counter to the ways I am now showing up for and taking care of myself. I didn’t do this lightly, so if you plan on reevaluating some of your friendships, do it with care. It’s painful to cut ties. My advice would be, for your own peace of mind, make sure there isn’t something you can do to salvage the relationship. But don’t hold on to something that isn’t working at the expense of your self worth. It is definitely not worth it.

As a part of learning how to be in healthy relationships, I’m now in the habit of complimenting people more often, especially friends. When I enjoy something someone took time and effort to put together, I let them know. Or if someone does something well at work, I’ll mention it to them. It may not seem like much, but these small interactions and comments add up over time. These are the foundations of feeling like a trustworthy and supportive friend. Someone who is there when you need them and not afraid to show their affection. Someone who will not withhold their love from you to feel more desired. Especially from those who are supposed to be our support network! I once had a girlfriend who would often say, “pay the compliment”. And she was right, it makes a difference.

This type of support is so important to feeling a sense of self value. Feeling confident in who we are, as friends, husbands, wives, parents, co-workers… We need one another to feel this value, to build one another up. To be the love and support for one another that will help us to be and live the healthiest versions of our lives. But this can be difficult to obtain if you were only ever taught to tear one another down.

Affirmations help, as does finding a healthy, supportive community. Finding your tribe. And it’s worth mentioning that it’s something that takes effort to sustain. It’d be nice to believe that once you’re friends with someone, all they’re ever going to be is loving support. So you have that covered 😀 But the reality is, we all do and say things that rub each other the wrong way. Maybe someone’s having an off day or being insensitive to how we’re feeling.

Those times will come up, and it’s especially important to keep an open mind in those moments. Try not to focus on how you were hurt and think of ways to communicate how you’re feeling to your friend. Most likely they weren’t looking to hurt you. A simple, direct conversation will most likely leave everybody feeling a bit more at ease. And this will also work to build a stronger connection in your friendship. Patching up the cracks together and working to resolve problems usually leads to tighter bonds.

Healing from the ways that our confidence has been abused is not a simple task. It takes a lot of self-care and support to feel like you are valued again as a person. And usually the person that is holding ourselves down the most is ourselves! But it’s possible. With the support and love from friends and family, also showing up for yourself in the form of self-care and positive affirmations, we can learn to give ourselves the value that we never had. It takes time and patients, but don’t ever forget that you’re worth it.

I hope this helps in some way. Tara Brach has some dharma talks on healing self doubt if you’re looking for some more support. Her talks helped to keep me company when I felt completely alone. Knowing that there is a community of people out there doing good work for the sake of helping others feels like a warm hug. Seeking the help of a professional is also an excellent resource. I worked through some difficult emotions with the help of my therapist. And I am grateful for their kind natured ability to listen without judgement. Let me know of any resources you found that work for you in the comments section below. Maybe we can be each other’s resources together 🙂 Peace, and thanks for reading.

Image Credits: “Nervous?” by Freddie Peña is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

Where We are, Where We Want to Be: Accepting Your Current Circumstance May Help Get You to Where You’d Like to Be

I’m a baker. I have been for a while now. But I started schooling for a variety of different occupations. I began my college career as an aspiring social worker. After social work, I tried my hand at design and went to architecture school for a semester. Then when I heard that architects worked an 80 hour work week, I decided to try my hand at writing, and earned my degree in English with a communications minor. The plan was to become a newspaper writer. I hadn’t given the idea a lot of thought, otherwise I may have looked around and realized that maybe that wasn’t the most stable career choice. With newspapers becoming part of a bygone era, when I graduated I didn’t have a backup plan for what I’d do if my career of choice didn’t pan out.

In my defense, I didn’t have a lot of guidance. None actually. I was taking stabs in the dark at what I thought might bring me a sense of satisfaction. I realize now a lot of the choices I made were ways of keeping me locked in a trauma cycle. Reliving parts of my past, but that’s another story for another time. I still needed to find out how I was going to pay back the federal government for supporting me through my extended college years!

So I baked. It was easy because I was already doing it, and I was pretty good at it considering I had fallen into the job. What got me thinking about it is that I’ve been thinking about what I’ll be doing in the next five years and where I’d like to be in my career and also that I had to recertify for my “serve safe” certificate. I enjoy some aspects of baking, for example when you have a good bake, and the ears, those pockets of dough that rise up during the bake, leaving almost and elegant envelope of smartly creased crust, pop up all in a row down the length of the oven in a symmetrical pattern, it’s a good feeling.

But there are some aspects of the job that aren’t so pleasant as well. For instance, the Serve Safe certificate I had to recertify. In the online course I took, I never heard the term, fecal-oral route, used so many times in 8 hours. Then I was tested on it!

It’s situations like these that are the drive behind my wanting to change careers. And it’s not that I’m squeamish. I just don’t have the memories associated with baking that, I imagine most people do. I never watched my grandmother lovingly labor over baked goods. My grandmother was more the type to slam your thumb in the car door of an old Buick Regal at the tender age of 5.

Which brings me to my most current iteration of my career outlook. I’m planning on going back for social work. I know the pitfalls of growing up in a family that is unstable at best. I feel as though I may have some wisdom to impart and the ability to tolerate horrific stories, more than most. But to make it from bread baker, to social worker, it’s going to take some maneuvering.

When I was getting recertified for the serve safe certificate, I had to take an eight hour long course before I could take the test. I found myself getting a little restless. As though I deserved to be elsewhere, instead of stuck in front of a computer. I should be doing work that matters, but instead I heard the term, “fecal oral route” more times than I could count, and I just wanted to be done with the whole experience. Not just the test, but the early, cold mornings, the stressful environment, not getting any holidays off save for Christmas day, all of it. I was a little grumpy.

Then I took the test and got in the 95% and crossed the task off my todo list, brought the invoice into work to be reimbursed for, and told the GM I would give him a link to the site so we could get other employees trained. In short, I took care of myself, took stock of the small accomplishments I achieved along the way, and helped a few people in the process. It felt good to know that I could count on myself and achieve goals, no matter how small they may seem.

Because it’s in these moments, of understanding where you are, and what needs to be done to move yourself forward, that we build accountability to ourselves, knowing that we are the resource that is going to get us to where we want to be. I could have kept putting off taking the exam, but knowing that I will take care of business, no matter how unpleasant the task may seem, and move forward by accepting where I am and pushing through, makes me feel as though I’m capable of achieving greater things. And I feel that it’s this mind set that ultimately will guide us to the places we’d like to be, while navigating through the here and now.

This may seem common sense to most, and I honestly hope this is the case. But I’ve seen to many friends, people, loved ones, stall in their lives because they had no one model the mindset of accepting where they were by using wise discernment to devise a course of action and follow through with the plan. God knows the role-models I had all complained about how so and so was doing them wrong, or how unfair life is, rather than take some accountability for it (life). That said, when we’ve experienced abuse, it’s difficult to navigate the waters of accountability, and being in that category, I have empathy for those making an honest go of moving forward regardless of how difficult it gets. And it gets weird at times, that’s for sure!

And it may seem a little cheesy, but if you’re constantly wishing things were different, you may miss out on some of the tender moments along the way. I used to bake in Salem MA, so every Halloween, there would be swarms of people descending on the city. My shift was the 3-11pm bake shift, so at the end of the day, I’d be sitting in the bakery waiting for my loaves to finish in the oven, with the door cracked open to let the crisp autumn air in along with the sounds of merriment from the festivities happening around the city. Drunk people would stumble by, asking for bread, make-up smeared in unintended ways while struggling with gravity. It was nice. If I stopped to think about how I didn’t want to be there in the first place or all the negative things that happened during the day, I may have missed those relaxing moments, or how good my bake looked.

Never give up on your dreams, no matter how crazy they may seem, but don’t forget to make room for the present while you’re chasing after your goals, because that’s where life is ultimately lived. Accepting where you are leads to accountability, leads to trust, leads to ease, which leads to living in the present. Long story short, pay attention to your surroundings while you’re on your way and you may have some good stories to tell.

peace, and thanks for reading :]

Image Credits: “Winding Path Draped in Mist” by Moose Winans is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

Self Absorbed, or Hyper-Focused on Others: What do we do When we Can’t Stop Worrying About How Others See Us

Image. It’s something all of us are worried about to some degree. How we’re seen by those close in to us. Friends and co-workers too. What do they think of us? What type of person do they sense we are? What do they say about us when we’re not around? These may be some of the thoughts that go through our minds when we’re feeling uncertain about ourselves or self conscious. And if we’ve experienced love that was conditional at the hands of our caregivers, then this turns an already bad situation to worse.

As I’ve explained in my, “search for a blog” page, my family was hyper focused on image. My parents never felt as though they were adding up, so the odds that I could get from my parents, what they themselves felt as though they never had, was unlikely. What I got instead was what felt like a constant stream of critical judgements.

This, I’ve come to realize, is most likely how my parents felt, being critically judged. But while I was growing up, looking for the love and acceptance of my parents, my caregivers, and not finding it, it was difficult to understand that it wasn’t my fault in some way. That they were the ones transferring their feelings of deficiency onto me. And when you’re constantly being criticized as a child, especially by caregivers, you just assume that there is something wrong with you. Otherwise why would the adults, the people keeping you safe and who are in charge and know best, be so disappointed in you all the time.

So as I grew up, I found myself more and more internalizing my caregivers critical eye towards myself and others. I was constantly judging myself and my actions, to see if I added up to what I cobbled together from my past critical judgements. A mosaic of unreasonable standards I surmised from my caretakers. And they were unreasonable. I remember a physical one year, when I spoke to my GP about anxiety I was living with, only I described it as, “a weakness in myself I just couldn’t live with anymore”.

I cringe a little now, thinking of the standards I used to live under, but that was what I felt I needed to live up to in order to feel accepted and loved, to survive. And I was so focused on what others thought and felt of and about me, that I hadn’t even realized that I was focusing on myself. I was so focused on the thoughts and actions of others that I had stopped seeing myself as a person reacting to a situation, but rather only a reaction to others responses. I couldn’t see the forest for the trees.

This is at the heart of the fear based thinking that I referred to above. My fear based thinking was fueled by years of neglect and abuse but I feel we all experience this, to some degree, and it stems from our maybe feeling a lack of love and belonging from those closest to us.

This fear is also something that can be preyed on by those looking to capitalize on it. This is the trap my family fell into when they began to confuse looking and acting a certain way with being loved and valued for who they are. Essentially, we’ve been handing down this cursed family heirloom of critical self judgement, from generation to generation.

So how do we make the change from critical judge to a sense of self acceptances? How do we shed the impossible standards we were raised to embody? For me, it began when I started attuning to my own needs, as I wrote in Attunement and Self-Care. Knowing how I’m feeling and then responding to those feelings with what would make me feel most at ease, instead of being focused on how I expected others wanted me to behave was what helped me to understand what my values are, as opposed to what I was told I should be.

For example, I workout regularly and eat healthfully. But when I was feeling tired and sluggish, I knew something needed to change. So I investigated my feelings and listened to my body and came to the conclusion that three days a week were too many to sustainably workout, and that my skipping breakfast and sometimes lunch, and the scraps of food I was eating at work, weren’t enough, even though I was having a healthy and substantial dinner.

After investigating how I felt, I put a plan into action where I reduced my workouts to two days a week and cooked and prepared breakfast and lunch for myself to bring to work. And it’s these small changes I made, after listening and attuning to myself, that I began to build trust and an open dialogue with myself. Also where I stopped looking outside of myself for validation.

That being said, I had a life’s time worth of negative reinforcements that were pushing me in an unhealthy direction, so it may be a bit tricky knowing what needs our attention, and what are the unhealthy messages and recordings that have been left playing in our minds. A phrase I repeat to myself often is, “don’t believe everything you think”.

For me, it was helpful to know what I felt like when I was in fear. I feel my fear in the lower half of my body, and it’s accompanied by a low lying sense of panic. So when thoughts pop into my mind that I know are remnants of old messages I was given as a child, they are usually followed by a sense of fear, and panic, as though I want to latch onto whomever will offer me a felt sense of safety.

And it’s sometimes difficult to pull feelings apart, to know how we’re actually feeling. Especially if our feelings have been manipulated by those who are supposed to be our caregivers. For example, what do we make of love when we are abused and neglected by a caregiver, who say they love us while at the same time are the cause and source of great fear and confusion.

When asked if we know the difference between fear and love, we may say, of course we do. But if we’ve been immersed in an environment of abuse and neglect for most of our lives, do we really know the difference? We may be lulled into feeling it’s as simple as knowing the difference between, to use an extreme example, being suddenly burned by something hot, and relaxing at the end of a tough workout. Two extremely different sensations and situations, but they are only transient sensations of pain and pleasure, not sustainable feelings of love and connection.

And what’s more, if we can’t tell the difference between love and connection and pleasure seeking, we may end up trying to fill that void with things like shopping or drinking alcohol. This can be a dangerous combination. If we never quite feel filled by the pleasure seeking activity, then we may follow it as far as it will take us, and mix that with drugs or alcohol, and you have a deadly combination.

So how do we build sustainable connection? Stop the pleasure seeking and find what truly makes us happy? It starts with knowing our fears, knowing how it feels to have a healthy, unconditional relationship with ourselves and by stopping the chase after what feels good right now and instead focus on the things that will support and sustain us in the future. It’s similar to having a friend who you know you can count on to listen, or be there for you in a pinch, only having that friend within. Knowing you can count on yourself to make the right decisions, to keep you safe and focus on your best interests in the future.

And it’s then that we can then make the healthy choices in finding friends and romantic partners, that will be supportive, caring and loving, because we will be able to recognize them in ourselves.

It sounds so simple, and it is, but simple doesn’t necessarily mean easy. It takes practice and patients, but if we persist, we will be able to stop focusing so intently on what others are thinking of us, and begin to think about how we can be support for them, because we know how to support ourselves. I hope this has been of some use to you reader. I know in my journey there are definitely times where I was, and still am filled with self doubt. So be patient with yourself, and be persistent, it may be difficult, but it’s worth the while. Peace :] and thanks for reading.

Image Credits: “#Ireland: The woman with a red coat” by Frédéric Poirot is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0