I Have a Work Problem: When You Can’t Stop Pushing Yourself

Work in a “Busy kitchen” by VV Nincic is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

Work has been a problem. For me and my family. We have no idea when to stop pushing ourselves past what’s healthy. Or how to set boundaries around who owns what feelings. What has been true for us is, that we feel responsible for the emotional states of others and this pushes us to work ourselves past the point of what we’re capable of handling in order to rectify or cover over our feelings of guilt and shame. In short, no bueno.

The Root

This became clear to me not too long ago when a few things happened that coincided with a perspective shift. I have been working in the restaurant industry for most of my working career, the same as my family has been doing for decades. In the restaurant industry, we work long days, through rushes and under difficult conditions. It was tough, but we had a lot of fun too.

Recently, I’ve switched to a new position that is office based work. I went into the job expecting the same type of environment. High stress and high energy. After all, the people I worked with seemed to be constantly busy and stressed in the same ways we were in the restaurant biz. So I jumped in with both feet, ready to wade through the human services industry. Things did not go as planned.

Change of Perspective

As I said, I started the position with the same tenacity that I was used to from the restaurants I’ve worked in. I was reaching out to people, making plans to meet with them, to find new resources. I was going hard and expecting that everybody else was on board. This however was not the case.

It seemed that the more I was doing, the more I was making others uncomfortable. I hadn’t realized it at first, but I was definitely stepping on some toes. When the situation finally came to a head, my supervisor and my boss’s supervisor called me into a meeting. We spoke for a few minutes when I realized that we were talking about how my attitude had become a problem.

At first this made no sense to me. I was doing my job and doing it well. My instinct was to think, “everybody else needs to step up their game.” But reflecting on this situation now, this isn’t the first time I’ve been in this situation.

Difficult to Manage

One of my old jobs was as a bread baker in a popular, local bakery. I was good at the job, worked hard and not afraid to jump in where they needed a hand. Unfortunately, I was arrogant, mean and not afraid to let my opinions be known. And I had a lot of opinions.

It was in this bakery that I had experienced some major life changes. One being ending my marriage with my then wife. I was in a bad place and hostile. More so than was the norm for that environment, which was pretty hostile to begin with. I was baking with the owner one holiday when I made a big mistake. We got into an argument and he ended up letting me go.

What was so memorable about the experience was, he told me I was a good baker, as he told me to leave in frustration. But difficult manage. And this was essentially what I was being told again. Good at my job, difficult to relate to. Only this time, by the grace of God, I didn’t get fired. So I decided somethings needed to shift.

Impossibly High Standards

Why do we do this to ourselves? Why was I putting myself in these strange and confusing situations. I was good at my job. It was my personality that was the problem. I do this because I feel as though my self worth and value hinges on how hard I work. As a family member of mine would say, “how serious I take myself”. That was confusing too, translating “serious” to “works hard”.

But what happens if you take yourself too seriously? What happens when you take your responsibilities to the extreme, work too hard? Placing your productivity over the relationships you have with those you work with? As I’ve found, you put yourself in situations where you get talked to. Not for your job performance, but for your interpersonal skills. Something I need to work on.

Relaxing Your Standards

Upon further reflection, this too was a learned behavior. I was taught to have a good work ethic. I was also consistently being told I was lazy by my parents in my youth. Their standards were what I would call unreasonably high for a child to add up to. But I tried. And in so doing, I inherited their impossibly high standards. Something I’m now in the process of unlearning.

And it’s no easy. I find myself picking apart every job I see done. Whether it’s by myself or another. Nothing is ever up to my standard of how I would like it to be. My motto was, “if it’s not done perfectly, it’s not done right”. This is also an unhealthy stance to take. The perfectionist in me is something that took a long time to come to terms with. Something I’m still coming to terms with.

What has helped me is, to sit in the uncomfortable feelings, the dis-ease of my standard not being met. Reminding myself that it doesn’t have to be perfect to be done well, or that good enough is sometimes good enough. Also, reminding myself that I’m not perfect. Which is something I definitely thought I was when I was younger. And another reminder, that even if I feel as though I’m coming up short, I still care for and love myself.

You Are Loved Regardless

And ultimately, this is the message that we send ourselves when we tear ourselves down for not being perfect. Or are being criticized for not adding up to an impossible standard: that we are not loved unless we are perfect. Anything short of an impossibly high standard and you are forced to sit outside of the feelings of love and acceptance. This is a cold place to be.

It’s also a place that needs a lot of inwardly turned attention and affection. Because when the affection of those who were supposed to love me, was withheld, I learned to withhold it from myself. Not knowing why I “wasn’t loveable”. But if others didn’t love me, there must be something wrong with me. This was how I saw myself until somewhat recently.

This changed for me around the time I started practicing self-care Sundays. I realized that I had been living under the harsh and brutal régime of my family for far too long. Beating myself up in ways such as skipping meals, while also upping my workouts. This resulted in me passing out after a shower one night. This is a dangerous mindset to occupy.

Loving Another Starts With Loving Yourself

I was so used to the critical side of me, that that’s all I listened to. I realized, after practicing self-care Sundays, that I didn’t really know what self-acceptance and love felt like. It had been so long since I’ve been able to accept where I am, or even who I am, that I had completely forgot what those states felt like.

This was quite the discovery. And further more, I had no healthy role models to show me how it worked! So I started practicing self-care on faith, really, hoping something would change.

Wading Through Old Emotions

And slowly but surely, new ways of being began to raise to the surface. Patience was one of the more important ones for me. Because without patience, I wasn’t able to sit with the uncomfortable emotions that I was feeling and had run from in the past. The emotions of feeling inadequate and unlovable were two big ones. With the patience to sit with them, I was able to recognize them for what they were. Old messages that had nothing to do with who I actually am.

Patience for me came in treating my self-care dinners as the opposite of working in the food industry. I chose a recipe I knew I would like. Then I would go out and gather the ingredients at my local grocery store. When it came time to prepare the meal, I would slowly and mindfully, gather and prepare all the ingredients. Usually while a candle was burning with a favorite scent of mine in low, ambient light and with soft, gentle music playing and a cup of herbal tea. I took my time and enjoyed the process instead of rushing through it.

I also realized, during these dinners that these were ways my family had felt neglected as well. They were also withholding love and acceptance from themselves by rushing through their emotions. But if we can learn to withhold love and acceptance, we can learn to reengage with them as well.

Practice, Practice, Practice

The key to why my self-care dinners worked so well for me was, because I kept doing them. It was something I dedicated my time to and did regularly and consistently. Showing myself that, “I’m here, I care”, is important.

And the more I think about it, the more it makes sense. If it was the consistent disapproval from my family members that brought me to a place where I wouldn’t approve of myself, no matter how much work I did, then it would be the consistent, positive reinforcement of caring for myself that would show me that I was worth the while. I am lovable. I am worth the time and caring affection I was seldom shown in the past.

But again, this is no easy. For this to take hold, you have to make it a part of your routine. I scheduled mine on Sundays, because that was the first day of my weekend. I knew I would have this day to myself, and seeing how I’m still paying down student loan debt, I don’t take many days off. So scheduling is important.

Find a Routine That Works for You & Stick to It

For me, my routine is my self-care Sunday meal. But I do this this because I enjoy cooking for myself, as long as I can take my time doing it. Because if I’m rushed, it feels like work to me. I enjoy slowly bringing the meal together while burning a candle and listening to some of my favorite tunes. The low-lighting and the aromas from what I’m cooking and my tea are soothing to me. Plus, the meals I make are pretty good. Thanks in large part to Minimalist Baker. But this is my routine and not everybody finds peace in the kitchen.

For your routine, find what brings you joy. This isn’t always an easy task. Before I was more attuned to myself, I would find relaxation at the bottom of 4-5 beers or mixed drinks while vegging out in-front of a screen. Either playing videogames or watching T.V.. None of those are inherently bad, but I was using them as an escape from my emotions. I enjoy having a beer or two while I’m out, or with my self-care dinners. But I no longer drink to excess. I’ve stopped playing videogames only because I haven’t found something I like and I still enjoy T.V., just a few episodes here and there.

When finding what brings you peace, ask yourself, “what are the things I do that I enjoy, that I’m good at.” Having a sense of mastery in a hobby brings with it a feeling of satisfaction. Knowing that you are good at something, like my cooking ability, can bring more overall joy to the experience. Or maybe start a new hobby or pick up a new interest. You never know where it could lead to.

Schedule Time For Yourself

And finally, if you’re busy as most of us are, find some time to carve out for yourself. I know what’s true for me is that responsibilities tend to multiply, not decrees. So finding a dedicated time for you to come back to again and again is important for consistency. Because it’s that consistency, that practice that shows us that we love ourselves by giving ourselves our time.

And it’s not selfish to take time to take care of yourself. This is something a younger me would scoff at. My opinion used to be that self-sacrifice was a given, and if you took the time to treat yourself then you were the worst kind of selfish. Self centered and arrogant were adjectives I would have used in my youth to describe who I’ve become today.

But we change. And healthy change can be a good thing. So long as we don’t over indulge. And finding the balance is key. Not going to extremes in either work, or relaxing too much. Take it from someone who’s seen both sides of the equation. Find your balance and you’ll find peace. Peace & thanks for reading : )

Image Credits: “Busy kitchen” by VV Nincic is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

A Late Start: Planting Veg In July to Build Tighter Bonds

I was looking out at the garden the other day and realized there were quite a few empty spots and a lot of weeds needing pulling. It was the end of June, and I thought for sure that it’d be a late start for us to get anything into the ground and have a successful harvest. But I decided to look up the growing schedule for my zone anyways and see if it wasn’t too late to put something in the ground. And to my complete surprise, it was not.

In fact, the beginning of July is a great time to start a bunch of plants from seed, seeing as how the soil is warm and some of the crops like a cooler finish to their growing season. So I got out into the garden, weeded and planted a few different types of seed. I was happy with my efforts, but what I think I was more thrilled about was starting something when I thought it was too late and the help I received along the way.

Our Garden In All Its Mid-Summer Glory! My dad ripped up the front lawn one day because we weren’t using it and he wanted a bigger vegetable garden.

Starting Late

This is a subject I know something about. By the time I was in middle school, I had already started the process of dissociating from my life. I was doing poorly in school, not making many friends and not finding things that I was excited about doing or even liked doing. When it came to my future, I wasn’t focused on it, mostly because everybody that traditionally would have guided me had checked out of my life already.

Now I understand that it wasn’t entirely their fault. They were dealing with a mountain of disruption, an unruly teen (aka me) being the lest of their problems. Sorry guys. But still, this left the twelve year-old me in a very vulnerable position. I had no idea what I was doing and all I really wanted was to feel some sort of belonging and to feel loved. So naturally by the time I got to high school, I checked out completely.

Confusing Street Cred for Acceptance

This is where I began to rebel against just about everything. And for no good reason. I was watching those around me live life styles like rock stars, so naturally that’s the route I took as well. But this left me in a place where I was unable to take care of myself, or build lasting relationships and find fulfilling work. This wasn’t entirely true, as I was surviving, but without the close and loving connections and only a bottle between us, I wasn’t really connected with many people. I was mostly buzzed, in front of a screen playing video games.

For me, it was about how I was being seen by others that mattered. This was where I confused my image with self worth. And this is nothing new. We seem to be caught perennially in the cycle of forgetting our own value and seeking it outside, somewhere else. So if that’s true, then the times we stray from ourselves to seek validation or acceptance, we’re really in need of the work of coming back to ourselves to feel that wholeness of being again.

This is something that I’m just coming to understand now, two decades after my initial fall. And even after realizing what I’ve been missing for so long, it still feels fresh. The chance to start something anew. Like a new version of myself is emerging, ready to begin again. Just like planting new seed in the beginning of July, there’s still plenty of growing season left to enjoy the new crops.

The Help Along The Way

It’s also equally as important to recognize the help I’ve received along the way as well. Because without help, we’d all be a little lost. While I was in the garden, planting the seeds, I was really only working on the foundation of my father’s work. The garden is his labor of love and I jump in and help where and when I’m able to. So together, with the help of my step-mother, we’re all working to create something that will hopefully yield more than just the fruits of our labor along the way.

The time spent together weeding, laughing at how a volunteer squash plant has taken over a good portion, nah, all of the compost pile! Or the fresh salad that we were able to make for our neighbors 4th of July party, that everybody enjoyed. And hopefully, with any amount of luck, we’ll be harvesting gourds that we will be able to decorate our Thanksgiving table with. And this is all to say, that we haven’t been very close for very long. But by gardening together, we’ve found a place where we can connect, let down our guarded emotions and feel a little more belonging with one another.

Volunteer Squash Plant Taking Over The Yard!

Building a New Foundation

About seven or eight years ago, I was in a difficult position. The woman I loved intensely had just left me, leaving me with no where to go accept one place I kept returning to when times were tough for me. My dad’s house. This seemed to happen every decade or so, so this was rote by now. Only this time was different.

Something inside of me had changed. What made the woman I was with so special to me was, I had made the decision to change the ways I was living for her, in hopes that she would change her ways as well. This however, did not work in my favor. And more to the point, I made the decision without all the information I needed, in order to see clearly what was happening to me. The reasons behind my actions, what was motivating me to change. But it forced me to come to terms with somethings I had been ignoring for a long time. Mainly my relationship with the family that stood by me.

The Early Years

When I was young, I remember things being pretty good. Our family gathered often, we did things together like go to baseball games and cookouts at family friends’ houses. But things changed rather abruptly, leaving a lot of people very hurt and unable to move forward. Me being one of them. We stayed loyal to our state of suffering, choosing to keep ourselves locked away from one another for fear of opening up and being wounded again. But all throughout the years, even when things got very bad for everybody, there was one person who kept the home fires burning, so to speak. My father.

He had been hurt traumatically, just as the rest of us had been. But he chose to stay inside his vulnerability. Instead of covering it over with alcohol or viscously mean defenses, he chose the life more vulnerable. It was solitary for a while, but he never gave up. In fact, that is one of his values, perseverance. Sure, he had his own battles to fight, but he is always willing to help another in their battle, with a supportive and understanding quality that is rare.

It was with him and my step mother, who I’ve returned to time and time again, when I’ve fallen on tough times. And I feel, until fairly recently that, I’ve ritually taken their kindness and support for granted. I stayed loyal to the self destructive ways of building relationships for so long, that I saw genuine kindness and support as signs of weakness. This was a backwards way of seeing the world for sure, but it was how I had survived for so long.

Stronger Together

And that’s not to say that One day I woke up and we all hugged it out and sang and danced in a Pollyannaish way (full disclosure, I had to Google Pollyanna, if you’re interested). It took a few years of awkwardly brushing up against our overly cautious boundaries before we understood what it meant to be a family. One example being, I bought my father two chord of logs for us to cut and chop for firewood. I thought it would be a good bonding experience. Father and son chopping chord wood together. But instead, he ended up cutting the entire two chords himself! And he was in his 70’s! He just didn’t see it as anything but another chore to do.

But that’s how my family was raised. You don’t ask for help, and you don’t make any waves. But we’ve slowly been breaking free from the mindset that we have to do everything alone. We’ve been spending more time together as a family. Cooking meals, talking and making plans for the future. These are all the small events that we were just too afraid to do with one another because we were so uncertain of where we stood in each others regard. But once we started to connect, these types of experiences came more naturally. It was as though everybody was waiting on anybody else to make the first move. And that’s all it took.

An example, I suggested that we start family dinner Fridays. An idea I took from my self-care Sunday routine of taking good care and cooking a special meal for myself on Sunday nights. Only I suggested we do the same on Fridays as a family. Before we knew it, we were all excited about the new recipes we would be making. The meals came together in no time and we spent more time talking around the dining room table than we did any other time during our week. While usually using the fresh veg we planted in our garden for our meals, making them all the more special and gratifying.

A Late Start Is Better Than No Start

And it’s with this in mind, our family meals, the time spent gardening together, the nature walks we take, that I look back and recognize that, yeah, we may have gotten a late start, but that’s not to say that it wasn’t worth the while. Because it most definitely is.

And I recognize that it’s not always easy to see past the defenses that we’ve built up. The ones we cling to because we were just trying to survive, a difficult or abusive family situation. Or maybe you were left on your own with no one to guide you, only knowing hurt along the way. But it is a far better thing to be open emotionally, than in a constant state of fear for your emotional well being.

Sometimes it’s wise to set rigid boundaries. Especially around those who are all too willing to trample all over you when you let them in. But just know that there are people out there who are not only capable of, but enjoy taking good care of their relationships and loved ones. It’s possible to open up and feel safe and loved.

And it’s never too late to start on this journey. It may feel overwhelming at times, or even as though it’s not worth the effort. But it most definitely is. And you will be all the better for it. So be persistent! It isn’t always an easy journey, but it’s almost always an interesting one. Peace : ) and thanks for reading.

Image Credits: “Helmsley Walled Garden productive garden vegetable plot bordered with apple trees – 2018-05-09 DSC_6104” by mattcornock is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0.

Sexual Boundaries: What Happens When There’s No One To Give You Guidance

This is a tricky topic to navigate. There are a lot of people with very strong beliefs on what is right/wrong and there are even more people unwilling to talk about the topic at all. Neither, from my experience, are very helpful when it comes to figuring out what are healthy boundaries to maintain. I’m not an expert on the topic, but I have been around some pretty unhealthy environments pertaining to sexuality.

I’d like to talk about some of my experiences and what I’ve learned from them while trying to sort through these situations and my emotions surrounding them. It isn’t easy, and it is definitely strange at times, but it doesn’t have to be a source of anxiety. In fact, sex is something that can be fun, and if handled with respect, something that adds to our quality of life.

Unhealthy Lessons From The Past

In the environment I was raised in, there were very few boundaries around sex. However the one boundary we did keep was, that no one should ever talk about it. This was confusing to sort out as a child. Especially when the number one message being sent to me was, your self worth is mostly determined by how attractive you look. And being attractive was directly correlated to sex appeal in this environment and under these rules I was raised under.

There were a mind blowing amount of critical judgements being made about our appearances as well. It seemed to be the only thing that had any value. But what was even more confusing was, being surrounded by sex, via the act itself, pornography, sexual devices and contraceptives, and without any explanation as to the role these things have in our lives.

I was just left to figure it out on my own, with ample unspoken and unhealthy messages to guide me. And it took me a long time to begin to understand how these messages would manifest in my life through my actions, and what healthier versions of these lessons are. The following are just a few areas that manifested in my life where I was left to fend for myself when trying to make sense of this new sexuality I was coming to understand.

Pornography

This was something that had entered my life at a very early age. It was also something that I was surrounded by and that was endorsed by my caregivers from the start. For whatever reason, people back in the eighties and nineties had huge collections of pornography laying around their houses. I remember vividly that it was a staple in one of my caregivers bathrooms as a child.

The first, and one of the only times my caregivers ever spoke about the subject, was to tell me not to make the pages stick together. I couldn’t have been more than 8 at the time and I had no idea what they were talking about. I was just excited about this new discovery. But what young boy wouldn’t be?

From then on, there was a pretty consistent stream of being surrounded by pornography in one shape or form. As I’ve said above, there were large collections of all sorts. From devices and magazines, computer files full of paraphernalia… The list goes on. And since nobody was talking about this massively unhealthy relationship we all had developed to sex, I was left to navigate this terrane all my own with exception of the examples I had modeled for me.

I remember vividly, one of my caregivers, upon me walking downstairs in the mornings, covering himself with his robe with a guilty expedience in front of the computer and then turning it off. Not to mention the giant collections of digital and physical pornography they had. This happened for years. The poor role modeling and everybody being too embarrassed to talk about it left me wondering, “what am I doing wrong?” Not realizing how unhealthy the environment I was in, was.

So when I was old enough and on my own, I was mildly surprised to find out that I had picked up right where my caregivers had left off. I was embodying the ways in which my caregivers were living, mostly because I was looking for someone to tell me why I didn’t feel as though I was loved and belonged even though I was doing the same things they were.

Love & Sex Are Not The Same

The more I thought about it, the more this made sense to me. If the only thing that ever really mattered to my caregivers was looking attractive, and the only things I knew about their emotional lives were from the large caches of riske materials they had squirreled away, than the way to feel loved and belonging, according to this dynamic anyways, was to be obsessed with pleasure seeking behaviors. So that’s what I did until something inside of me changed.

I hadn’t realized that love and sex weren’t the same thing. From my previous lessons, I thought the more attractive you were, the more loved you would be. At the time, and for a long period of my life, my role model was Brad Pitt’s character from Fight Club. I wanted to look like he looked, act like he acted and pretty much, be him. I thought that this was the way to be accepted and loved. Looking good naked was what I thought the foundation of a “healthy” relationship was built on because it was the measure against which I was judged.

When Things Change

But this all changed for me one day when I found someone who I felt accepted me as I was, and where I truly felt a sense of belonging. Not because I looked good naked, not because I met some unreasonable standard, but for simply being me.

This was earth shattering. I had no idea what to do with these new emotions I was experiencing. I was scared of feeling accepted because every sense of belonging I had in the past was hinged on me fitting a certain criteria. But I also wanted to cling on to this newly found sense of unconditional acceptance for fear that I would never experience something like it again.

My newly found sense of belonging was the catalyst for what drove me and my now ex-wife apart. When I told her what was happening with me, the weight of her feeling betrayed was too much for the relationship to bear as it was. I can understand where she was coming from because we both had similar outlooks on acceptance at the time. But the change that was taking place in me hadn’t fully actualized yet. I was willing to work through what I was experiencing but unfortunately, she wasn’t willing to do the same.

Left on My Own Again

After I attempted to communicate what was happening with me, and falling short of feeling understood, I was left on my own again. I jumped into a relationship almost immediately with a person who was more of a match with the former ways I had been living, but not for the new ways of being I was cultivating. So this relationship ended, but it was for the best.

I was still coming to understand the relationships I had with my emotional self and how I was cultivating a sense of belonging to and with the other people in my life. Only this time I was learning to leave behind the old lessons from my past.

Wanting to be Fit, Not Look Good Naked

This was a huge stumbling block for me. As I’ve said, so much emphasis was placed on how good I looked by my caregivers that I thought as though looking sexually attractive was the only way to feel loved and belonging. So I became vegan because I read that eating a plant based diet would help me maintain a low body fat percentage.

It took a long time for me to even admit that that was why I had made such a drastic change in my life style. I was telling myself I was doing it for the animals mostly. But when it came down to it, the messages from my past were too strong for me to just let go and be free and clear.

Now I have a different outlook on my eating habits. I eat vegetarian when I’m out due to it being difficult to eat vegan most places, but cook mostly vegan for myself. I’m doing it for a combination of reasons that I feel is more honest to me. The reasons now are: for the environment, for my health and for animal well-fair.

The environment is in dire need of our love and attention, and the less we support big agriculture, the better off our planet will be. This article from the BBC explains that a 5th of the worlds total carbon emissions are created by the meat and dairy industry. That’s a big piece of our planet’s health.

And my health is just as important as the planets health, as is all individuals. Before I made the change in my diet, I weight 240lbs and was drinking more than half of my daily calories. I now weigh about 180lbs and feel much better overall. I have more stamina and am able to exercise with greater ease leaving me feeling healthier. It also helps that I quit smoking cigarettes in my mid-twenties and drinking large amounts of alcohol in my early thirties.

And finally, yes I am concerned about the well-being of the animals on this planet. I have a hard time stepping on insects, let alone knowing that animals are literally being slaughtered for my meals. But also knowing that not eating meat and dairy naturally leads to lower levels of unhealthy fats and cholesterol, as well as being healthier for the planets carbon emissions is reason enough for me to make the change from wanting to look good naked to being a part of the solution to the health problems of our selves and our planet.

Stronger Alone Means Stronger Together

And all this work that I’m doing for myself is something that ultimately will make me a stronger person. I’m learning to accept myself where I am, so I can make changes towards a healthier, stronger version of myself. Because when my belonging hinged on how attractive somebody else found me to be, I was putting all of my self worth in the hands of the beholder. This is why I felt as though I had no agency in my life, and didn’t feel a sense of belonging. Because my worth was not something I had a say in.

Instead, I had to find a person that found me sexually attractive, then do whatever it was that they wanted of me in order to hope to feel a sense of being loved and feeling belonging. This, as Melba would say, was no bueno.

Now that I’m feeling and looking healthier, and for healthier reasons than to get laid or to feel loved, I’m stronger for it. And it’s the practice of this mindset that is helping me to stay grounded in what matters most. And that is to feel strong in my self-worth by taking the best care I’m able, of myself, to lead the healthiest and happiest version of myself. Aka, living my best life.

And it’s once I’ve learned to live from this place of intrinsic self-worth, that I’ll be able to be in a healthy relationship with another. As my boss likes to say, “I need to be a better one before I can be a two”. It’s also helpful to remember that it’s a practice and that it isn’t always going to be an easy one.

There are definitely times where I just don’t feel strong enough to carry the load I have. But it’s in these times that we need to be gentle with ourselves. I know from my experience that my self worth was attached to somebody else’s perception of me for so long, that I forgot I even had a say in how I felt about myself. But once I started practicing the self-care and giving myself the love I needed, it became easier and easier to feel into these states and the load was easier to carry. But I had to ease my way in, little by little.

As I’ve said above, it isn’t always easy sorting out how we feel about ourselves from how others project onto us their expectations. But with some practice, we can begin to sort out what is ours, from what is expected of us. And along the way we may even pick up the tools to find those who will accept us for who we are, instead of who they want us to be. So don’t give up! You are much stronger than you give yourself credit for 🙂 Peace, and thanks for reading 🙂

Image Credits: “Melissa Adret, Model” by Melissa A. N. (Model) is licensed under CC BY 2.0.Copy text

What Happens When We Confuse Self-Sacrifice for Caring

For as long as I can remember, it’s been common practice for my family members to act as though any favor or deed, no matter how small, was an unconscionable burden to be born and a great sacrifice. I’ve said before on this blog, we used the term “martyr” liberally and with harsh judgement. Anytime somebody did something that was akin to self-care, it was viewed as selfish. And the person committing the act was made to feel as though they were inherently bad and selfish.

Sacrificing Our Resources for Those Who Didn’t Ask for Them

From what I’m able tell, and since no one in our family ever spoke about how they were feeling was, that we felt resentment for other people doing for themselves. This was due to feeling as though we were already giving everything we had to the other, so why would they need anything else. Wasn’t that enough? It makes sense in a way, but it is also unhealthy. And also a sign of codependent relationship.

And even though we were doing for one another, there was never a sense of feeling grateful for what was being done. It was almost always viewed as an obligation. And seldom were we happy to receive what was being given. Looking back on it, the whole exchange seems so strange. Who wouldn’t be happy to have a loved one do something for them? Or the chance to make someone close to you happy?

Fear & Resentment in Our Relational Ties

From what I can tell, there was a fair amount of resentment tied to the experience of giving and receiving between us. And one thing is for certain, resentment will erode most all bonds in any relationship. So if we were all so unhappy with one another, on such a consistent basis, then why were we still doing for each other?

I’m not entirely sure to be honest. But I’m going to take a few guesses at what our motivations were. Duty was a big one. We felt as though we had to. Because if we didn’t, our very belonging was in question. The fear of not belonging was quite possibly the one constant in all of our connections. There was a lot of validation happening, with rancorous overtones. We were willing to say pretty much anything if we thought it would make us look better than, or to, somebody else. No matter how mean spirited it was.

Also, self-righteousness was another trait that was in abundance. Making ourselves look good at the expense of somebody else was a lesson I learned very early on. We always wanted to have something we could use to make the other person feel bad about themselves. AKA, emotional blackmail.

A good example of this is something I felt often, “all the things I do for you and this is how you treat me?!” I’m not sure that we spoke those exact words, but that was definitely the unspoken message being sent. No wonder there was so much resentment flowing so freely between us.

Why Resentment Leads to Codependent Relationships

The ways we were treating our relational connections were unhealthy. One of the hallmarks of this way of being was by abandoning our needs altogether, to take care of those of another. We then expected the same in return from the other person. The reason for this was, because we were never taught how to take care of ourselves. Or because we were told we were selfish for doing so.

It wasn’t until very recently that I even understood what self-care is. And even more recently since I’ve begun practicing it. But these were not values taught in my family. The values that were taught in their place were, the man takes care of the woman by making money and providing for her. And the woman takes care of the domestic needs, feeding, clothing, cleaning, including the man. There was a whole host of life skills that, as a man in my family, I was just never taught.

And anything outside of these constraints was considered to go against the natural order of what it means to be a family, according to our unspoken rules. But really it was just a thin covering to veil the deep-seated fear of having to take responsibility for our own lives. The fear was of not being strong enough to live this life on our own. So we needed somebody else to do it for us.

Choosing a Partner to Resent

This, sadly, was true for me in the relationships that I chose to be in. I was usually with another who would make all the decisions in our “shared” decision making. When I spoke about past relationships, I would complain about not having a voice in our relationship, and how it led to us braking up. But I was secretly grateful that I didn’t have to accept the responsibility of living my life as my own. I was a coward in that regard. Life is most definitely not for the faint of heart. And what I’ve learned from my experience is, that there will almost always be someone to pick up those reigns for you, if you let them.

So if we’re so used to neglecting ourselves for the sake of another, or because we just don’t want the responsibility of living our own lives, how do we take control of our lives again? For me, following the fear has been a helpful guide to understanding what I’ve been running from.

Self-Sacrifice: Pros & Cons

Self-sacrifice isn’t always a bad thing. If done with good intention and knowing how to recharge afterwards, it can be a rewarding experience. But done to often and without concern for your own emotional needs, it can leave you depleted, empty. The latter was what was most common in my family. And led to unhealthy ways of relating to one another. The following are some of the lessons I’ve learned from the unhealthy ways we would sacrifice ourselves in the name of taking care of each other.

Emotional Blackmail

As I’ve said above, if somebody was sacrificing themselves for somebody else in my family, there was usually a catch. This is where emotional blackmail enters the equation. We were constantly trying to feel better about ourselves by making the other person feel bad for taking our sacrifice for granted and not doing or being enough. And also, making sure they knew how we felt about it. What we didn’t realize was, that this makes both people feel worse. This leads to feelings of resentment towards one another. And trying to control each other using guilt and fear, only breeds more guilt and fear. No surprises here.

This is a difficult habit to break though. Because you have to feel through the fear of what’s keeping your need for control so strong. Finding and confronting that fear is what will set you free from the cycles of using fear and judgement to control and manipulate others. What triggered my fear was, feeling as though I wasn’t worthy of somebody else’s time, love or efforts.

Reality Check Your Fears

For me, love and acceptance was constantly being held just out of reach, over my head. So when I start to feel as though I’m not worthy of love and attention, fear sets in. This is where I need to reality check my thoughts and beliefs. Because the fear is usually coming from a very young place of feeling rejected, and I will want to act in unhealthy ways in order to feel belonging.

Now I’m able to take stock of the caring and loving relationships I’ve built and fostered with those closest to me. I remind myself that I can choose to build and keep healthy relationships. Instead of relying on a set of caregivers to provide all my relational needs for me. As was the case when I was a child.

Using Self-Sacrifice to Feel Superior

This was another way we held love back from each other. The more we did for one another, the more we sacrificed, the more material we had to use to feel as though we were better than the other. Because we were being so “selfless” in our sacrifice by not asking for anything in return. But what we hadn’t realized was, that we were expecting something. The feeling of superiority over the other, at the expense of somebody else feeling emotionally indebted to us, because of our sacrifice. Because we never asked for reciprocation, we just made the other feel as though their emotional needs were a burden to us. A part of our sacrifice to the other.

We did this, I believe, because we didn’t understand how to feel valued in relationships any other way. We didn’t know how to feel relaxed around each other without having three or four drinks first! Feeling valued in our relationships for who we are, might as well have been a trig course while we were still trying to figure out basic addition. And again, fear was behind our motivations. If we stop sacrificing ourselves for the other, we thought we’d no longer be needed. And therefore, our self worth would cease to exist.

This is a sad and terrifying place to be. I know I felt alone, isolated and without value. It’s no wonder we used each other the ways that we did. We built our relationships on a common fear of one another not needing us anymore, all the while trying to feel loved and accepted by the same people we feared would leave us. Confusing for sure. So how do we untangle this mess? This mass of confusion?

Finding Self Worth

It starts with understanding our own self worth, absent of the judgements from others. Your value as a person, is not contingent on somebody else’s good regard. When we understand this, then we can take a look at the relationships we’ve been keeping. How do those we keep closest to us make us feel about ourselves? Are they overly critical of us and others? When you speak about other people, is it usually a negative conversation? These are some indications that our relationship may need some tighter boundaries.

But you don’t have to completely abandon your relationships either. It’s possible to take care of yourself, while connecting with someone who is acting from a place of being judgmental. You just need to know when to step away from the relationship. To give yourself time to feel strong and confident enough in yourself and in the relationship. Not giving in to the judgments we used to connect to others with.

Not Falling Back into the Cycles of Petty Judgments

Because these cycles are easy to fall back into, it’s best to keep an eye on how you are being in the relationship, while interacting with these types of people. So as not to pick up where you left off. But try not to close off completely to them either. From my experience, when I was acting from a fearful place, when I would sacrifice myself to gain acceptance, I didn’t even realize I had an effect on others. I was so concerned about how I was being seen, that I was self-absorbed to the point of being oblivious to the hurtful things I was doing and saying.

This may also be the case with others who seem to be self absorbed as well. Maybe they just don’t know what they’re doing. That doesn’t change the fact that what they do can still be hurtful. But it helps to know that it’s most likely not out of malicious intent. So if you have the patience, try to stay open enough to be connected, but without draining yourself completely. And don’t forget to set boundaries with these types of relationships too. Because the other person is most likely incapable of seeing how they are abusing yours.

And don’t forget, it’s not your job to “save” or “fix” the other person. Whether or not they change is up to them, and is in no way within our control. The best we can do is lead by example and by setting and sticking to healthy boundaries in our relationships. And always make sure that you’re taking care of yourself first. Otherwise we’re back at square one. Where we sacrifice too much of ourselves, without reciprocation.

And Don’t Forget, be Kind : )

For me, one of the traps I used to fall into was belittling others so I could feel morally superior. And those that I surrounded myself with followed suit. So if we’re looking to make the change from finding belonging by demeaning others to feeling inherent self worth, we need to be kind. To ourselves and others.

Being petty and judgmental were some of the main foundations of my former relationships. In order to make the shift to kindness, I needed to be conscious of how I was speaking to and about others. And also what I was thinking about them as well. Because being needlessly negative to fit in is a habit that gets stronger the more we practice it. And it takes a great deal of willpower to recognize this habit as it’s happening, and to change its course.

So when old patterns of negative thoughts come up, don’t try to block them. Recognize that they are there and reality check them. Are you thinking this way because it’s how you used to fit in? Or maybe it’s a stroke of bad luck that you’re in a difficult situation. Make sure you’re not just defaulting to negativity out of old habit.

Actively Seek the Good

I’ve also been making it a point to pick out the positive I see in either people or situations too. In hopes that the more I practice this habit, the stronger it will become. And this doesn’t mean I’m being nice to cover over the discomfort of the negative thoughts that do come up. This can turn into denial if left unchecked. Rather allow both negative and positive thoughts to coexist, but choose to practice the positive.

I hope this has been helpful in some way. Making positive changes in our life isn’t always easy. But if you’re looking, you can usually find help and support when you need it. I hope this has been both. And as always, peace & thanks for reading : )

Image Credits: “Ritual Sacrifice of the Gummulate Tribe!” by Grizdave is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Updated: 11/24/22

I Want to Be Like Everybody Else, Or Do I? What It Means to Be Yourself

This is a tough one for many, to be yourself. And something I’ve wrestled with for a long time. Not to mention the unintended consequences it’s had in my relationships while I was in the throws of becoming me. I’d like to share with you my perspective and some of my experiences in coming to understand who I am and how I separated that from who I thought I was supposed to be. Like The Grateful Dead said so long ago, “what a long strange trip it’s been”. Let’s start this trip with who I thought I was supposed to be.

What Makes Me Likable?

My journey to personhood began long ago. About the time I started high-school. This was a strange time for me, but that seems to be the hallmark for that age bracket. This was also when and where I began to figure out who I was becoming and what my likes and dislikes are.

My Music?

In the mid-90s, when I entered the awkward age of adolescents, hippie culture was making a come back. Bands like Phish and The Grateful Dead were prevalent in the culture at the time and I took to them. Both the culture and bands pretty quickly. The sense of community, the colors and the attitudes all appealed to me. The music, too was something I had grown up with. I remember watching The Dead’s, “Touch of Grey” on VH1 often as a younger child. Its positive message, “I will get by” that’s sung in the chorus, spoke to me then and still does.

My Clothing?

The clothing was something that I connected with as well. There was the tie-dye, which was colorful and unique, but also the comically large pants that were in style at the time. Some, including the pair I made, had panels of different colored material going up both the inner and outer seams. They also had 36 inch cuffs. Like I said, comically big! I had one pair that I must have worn for months straight. This must be where the term, “dirty hippy” comes from.

My Trendiness?

And even with all the drug and alcohol abuse that was happening in the culture, for me it was never about the drugs. I enjoyed the community and the diversity of colors most of all. It wasn’t until I was chastised one car ride long ago for not knowing who The Doors were, that I started down the path of drinking and doing drugs occasionally. As I’ve said before in my post on feeling unworthy of love, at the mere mention that Jim Morrison was more liked in my family than I was, I studied him to feel belonging to any degree. With family, with friends, whomever. I just wanted to belong.

Am I Liked Yet?

So I made choices in life the ways Jim would have. And the strange thing was, that even though I was doing the “right thing”, according to my family’s unspoken rules, I was being punished for behaving the ways I was. Which were also the ways my family was behaving. Because we were all living like Jim Morrison to a lesser degree. So the more I tried to act and behave the ways that I thought I was supposed to, the ways my caregivers had, the more rejection I felt.

The reason, I’ve come to realize is, that we really didn’t like who we were. This was a sad wake up call to be sure. But the silver lining is, that it wasn’t ourselves that we didn’t like. It was who we were pretending to be that we were uncertain of. All we really wanted to be was liked. Deep down there was this feeling of not being accepted by one another. So we had to do what others were doing to be and feel accepted. But we were just covering over what we truly are. For me, I’m coming to realize that there’s a great deal of strength and other positive traits beneath what I was trying to cover over, for the sake of being loved by another.

So If I’m Likable, Why Don’t I Feel it?

It took me a long time to realize this. And I had to do a lot of internal cleaning in order to get to a place where I could see the patterns of wanting to be accepted. From what I can tell, and why I didn’t realize sooner that I wasn’t feeling liked or belonging was for two reasons. Because I was so busy chasing the good times, and searching for external validation from friends and family. I was blinded to who I really was, outside of the bars and drinking, but also the show I was putting on to be liked.

We were so busy avoiding what we were uncomfortable with in ourselves by seeking others approval, that we didn’t realize that we weren’t taking care of our most basic needs for self esteem or feelings of self acceptance. We also didn’t have healthy connections with ourselves or each other. For me, this extended to both family and friends. No shared responsibilities, no facing hardships together and coming out stronger in the end by making healthy choices and building strong bonds. It felt as though we were on our own, together, but alone. The foundation of our relationships were built on the times when we would drink to avoid the work of living our lives, by connecting with one another with kindness.

Being Cruel & Severed Connection

But what is most disheartening is, that we were intentionally mean to one another. This worked to erode what little connections we had. And feeling as though we had to do everything on our own was a given. Because asking for help was seen as a weakness. This lead to the term “martyr” being tossed around often and liberally in my family. And we all made it well known that we resented feeling as though we had to do it all alone. This was not a healthy way to build strong and lasting bonds. Or a way to feel liked or lovable. Not to mention how incredibly self-righteous and arrogant we all were acting.

Clinging to Belonging & Just Surviving

So what held us together if we were so consistently mean to one another? What was it that made us likable enough to want to be around each other? We were so desperate to feel belonging, that we were grasping onto whatever form of acceptance we could find. One of my first apartments is a good example of the desperation to be accepted in action. When I moved in, I never actually had a conversation with my friends who were living in the apartment. I just moved in and we never talked about. And what I moved into wasn’t even a bedroom! It was a pass through from the kitchen to the living room.

And this is in no way a judgement on us at that time and place in our lives. I was so focused on surviving, not being homeless, that I was clinging to whatever form of belonging I could find. Even if I had to force it from somebody. Along with trying to survive, for me, came an apathy towards how I was living. Surviving was priority one. And that’s not to say that we didn’t have some good times while we were together. But this was no way to live my best life by a long shot. And I wouldn’t wish the situation I was in on anybody else either.

Waking Up From Not Feeling Liked

Tara Brach describes this way of being as, in a trance. This makes a lot of sense. Because when you’re in the trance, AKA survival mode, it’s hard to see anything outside of how to survive. Kind of like tunnel vision. You have one focus because that’s all that matters.

Brene Brown’s research on hustling for approval is another apt way to describe how we were living. We were just so scared to be our vulnerable, emotional selves around each other, due to all the scarring from past relational wounds, that we numbed out all of our emotions. To scared to get close, but also to be alone. So fear, and being numb by way of drinking, were the binding forces behind most of our connections. This is also what stopped us from feeling likable or belonging.

So if fear is what’s holding us back from feeling connected, how do we drop the fear and be our whole, vulnerable selves around each other? That’s the trick. You have to feel your way through it. Thaw out the numbness and feel the fear as it is. And unfortunately there aren’t any shortcuts or easy ways to do this. The way out is most definitely through. Feeling the uncertainty and vulnerability, the fear, all the emotions we’ve been avoiding in the first place. Allow them to all reside in us at once. This is how we begin to feel lovable again. But we need to go slow. Otherwise trauma ensues.

How to Feel Uncomfortable, Vulnerable & Uncertain

I’ll say it again, this is difficult work. As a friend of mine used to say, “it’s no easy” (thanks Melba : ). And she was right. After all, I was spending great amounts of energy and resources trying to avoid all of these difficult emotions. I’ve been thinking about it some lately and I believe I was avoiding them because feeling unpleasant emotions, in a way, feels like a betrayal.

The uncertainty and fear were caused at the hands of my caregivers while I was being abused and neglected. So there was that betrayal to come to accept. But also too, that I was capable of producing these difficult emotions. The ones that had the effect of making me feel as though I was my own abuser in a way. That these emotions were inherently a part of my being. And that I could be that terrified. I could be fearfully uncertain. This is what lead to me trying to numb these difficult emotions. Feeling as though I was betraying myself.

But as my therapist once told me, “you can’t just numb one emotion, if you do, you numb them all”. And she couldn’t have been more correct. When I was drinking large amounts of alcohol and caffeine, I only really felt two emotions. Either feeling totally relaxed, or riddled with fear and anxiety. There was no nuance of emotional diversity. I was living very much in a, black and white emotional world. So How did I unthaw?

Unthawing the Difficult Emotions

Something switched in me around the time I left my ex-wife. I thought I had fell in love with another woman. But what I was really recognizing were the similarities we shared and that she seemed to accept me unconditionally. Something I had been looking for since my parents abandoned me. I didn’t understand what I had had with my then wife. But I was emotionally stunted and unable of reciprocating love in an emotionally mature way.

But in all honesty, I don’t think that either woman I was involved with at the time, my then wife or the woman I left her for, was able to either. We all had our own versions of what I was going through. The difference was, my choices affected three lives for the worse. Something I’m not proud of. But this was also when I began to live my own life. By taking charge of what was happening in it.

I was so used to letting things happen to me that I was leaving the job of living my life up to whomever would step in and take up the task. I had to thaw from this trance of being completely submissive, to being intentional about what I was doing to move my life forward. Exercise and running were some of the first ways I was becoming intentionally in charge of my life. Along with meditation and listening to Tara Brach’s Dharma talks, I was beginning to understand that I was still very much a child in the ways I was living.

Okay, so as I said in the beginning of this article, I was definitely not able to get to everything in 2,000 words. Next week I’ll be posting more about the ways I’ve woken from the trance of living the subdued life and started living a life with more focus and direction. Until then, peace, and thanks for reading : )

Image Credits: “You’re Lovable & Worthy of Love” by edenpictures is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Updated: 11/23/22

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