Giving & Taking: When to Draw Boundaries Around How Much of Ourselves We Feel We Need to Give

Knowing how to draw boundaries around how much of ourselves we feel we need to be giving is a loaded topic for many. This was one of the chief concerns in my family growing up and something that, thanks to the help of my therapist, I recently got a much needed new perspective on. In this post, I’ll be going into the different aspects of giving and receiving in relationship, especially with those who are closest to us, and how giving too much of ourselves can put a strain on all of our relationships. Also, I’ll be adding a few tips at the end to help forge some new boundaries. Hopefully, we can break some of our old patterns and start a new.

Guilt & Feeling a Burden for Simply Being

In my family, doing for others was something that brought up a lot of resentment. It seemed that anytime something was needed of another, there was usually an accompanying, cutting comment that came with the chore. Regardless of how small the task, or if it was even difficult, whomever was asking was made to feel a burden to the other. It was second nature to us. It was our way of acknowledging that the other had a need or needed support.

But what made this so insidious was, that these comments started immediately upon entry into our family. Imagine being 5 years old and hearing the resentment in your parent’s voice as they responded to you after you asking them for something as simple as a snack. I was barely old enough to open the fridge, let alone make something to eat for myself! But whatever the request was, the reactions were the same. The roll of the eyes and incredulously, indignant sigh while they begrudgingly lifted themselves up to attend to whatever task was being asked of them.

The term martyr was used liberally around our household to describe someone who thought they were doing too much. Usually said with venom. As if to say, “you think you’re doing a lot! Take a stroll in my shoes!” And most of the time, the “martyr” was only setting a boundary around what they were willing to do. Even as I’m typing this post, I felt guilty about typing the words “willing to do”, in stead of, capable of doing. Because in our family, if you were able to do what was asked, it was expected of you to do what was asked. Your will didn’t even enter the equation. And this mentality, breeds resentment around something as simple and possibly joy inducing as giving. So why were we so venomous towards one another? If all we wanted was to feel accepted and loved? Because our self worth hinged on how much we were doing for one another.

Self Worth & Value

In my family, we definitely had a lack of self esteem. We were always so uncertain of how we stood in each others regard. We seldom received positive feedback or reinforcement, so we were usually looking to gain some social capital in the family. One of the ways we did this was by doing things for one another. However, we were all so self-conscious about how we were perceived by the other. And with no one being brave enough to tip our hands, to show our true feelings, that even when we did something from a sincere place, we wouldn’t know because we were always so guarded.

With all of this uncertainty, it’s no wonder why we were so resentful of each other! We inevitably drifted further and further apart from the thousand tiny wounds we inflicted on one another. Our surroundings grew cold and void of affection, with fear and resentment residing in their stead. As Melba would say, it was “no easy”.

What is most difficult about how we ended up, is that we were once close. I can remember large family gatherings where children, me being among them, would run wild while the family humming in the background preparing meals and watching games. It was nice, comforting. We felt connected and vital. And all it took to rent our family apart was to hide our emotions from one another in an attempt to feel more needed and loved by the other. All because we didn’t feel we had self worth apart from somebody else’s opinion of us. Or what we were capable of doing for them. That and a fair amount of shared family trauma. So if we were so hurt by one another and all we wanted was to feel appreciated, why did we not just say what we needed from each other? Why hold our feelings so close in? I believe this was for fear of being seen as weak.

Fear of Exposing Our Weaknesses

It blows my mind to think how unforgiving we were in my family. To think about how we viewed our vulnerabilities as weaknesses to be routed out makes me wince a little. And in our family, giving was seen as a strength. But only because we made it known how much of a burden we were taking on by giving ourselves so “selflessly” for the other’s benefit. This was how we turned asking for help, into a weakness. Something to be ashamed of. Or, at least that’s how I felt.

And of course, this is something that is perpetuated in the culture. With role-models such as Rambo, The Terminator, Taylor Durden, John Wayne… the list goes on. But with role-models like these, it’s hard to escape the message that strength is the absence of vulnerability. However misguided that message is.

And just because we pretended that we don’t have our vulnerabilities, doesn’t mean that they are not there. But we pretended and covered them over whenever they would inevitably show themselves. And for what? To cover up the fact that we felt flawed because we didn’t feel accepted or acceptable. By ourselves or by the other. So how do we break this cycle? How do we find the strength that isn’t based in how much of a burden we can take on by giving ourselves to the point of emotional burnout? I think some of the answer lay in how we take care of ourselves.

Learning to Give & Set Boundaries Around how Much We are Giving After Not Knowing How to Give

Setting boundaries around what we’re willing to give is tricky business. Saying no to a task or a need is tough enough when you truly want to be helpful. Add guilt or feeling like your worth hinges on whether or not you say okay and it’s paralyzing. I used to be in the camp of not doing anything for anybody. Of course, I could barely take care of my own needs, let alone help someone with theirs. But I was also taught this sort of, lived helplessness by those who were constantly doing for me.

So it was a double edged sword. I didn’t know how to do for myself due to those who were taking care of me never showing me how. Maybe they did this for fear of feeling less valuable if I was independent. Though when I asked for something, a need to be met, they made me feel as though I was a burden for asking. So when I struck out on my on, I had no life skills or self esteem from feeling like a burden for so long. I didn’t even know how to ask for the help I needed, for the life skills I didn’t know I didn’t have. It was a difficult first few years for sure.

I don’t like to think how long I floated along in life before I realized I was lacking these essential skills. But regardless, I came to a place where I now understand and appreciate giving and what others give to me. But, like with all of the other areas in my life, I needed to set some boundaries around what I gave.

When is it too Much?

When I woke from the trance I had been under, things began to change rapidly for me. For the first time in my life, I understood and appreciated the sacrifice that those supporting me were making on my behalf. It felt good, knowing that I have this support, but also as though I needed to express my gratitude more often. And for me, acts of service is one of my main love languages. So giving for me can quickly turn into spreading myself too thin.

I need to keep an eye on how much of my time I’m giving, so I don’t over commit myself. Because this will lead to me burning out. I mainly do this by keeping a to-do list in my bullet journal, with a calendar for the next three weeks opposite my list. This way, I can allocate tasks to days on my calendar and check in on my progress.

Also, I need to keep an eye on whether the other person even wants what I’m offering or doing for them. I’ve often times found myself thinking that I’m “helping” someone with a great idea I’ve had, only to realize that they were just fine with the way things were. This is an embarrassing situation to find yourself in, so it’s best to read the room before you jump in!

Have a Conversation

This seems like a no brainer, but talking to those who are closest to you is what’s most helpful in finding out what they need. It’s also a way for you to set the tone of the relationship. As a child, I was sent the message that communication in all its forms, especially around my needs, was dangerous. Dangerous in that simply asking for something, however small, threatened my very belonging to those who cared for me.

But by asking those who you are close with what they need or what you can do to make life easier for them, you’re sending the message that, as a friend of mine used to say, “I’m here, I care.” And something so simple as having the coffee ready for your partner in the mornings because they told you they don’t feel as though they have enough time in the mornings, sets the tone for a more stress free environment. It’s these small gestures, done with love that cultivates feelings of acceptance and appreciation.

And talking about our needs also brings with it feeling heard. Something that is in short supply from my experience. I know this to be true for me, that sometimes I feel so focused on my goals, or the task in front of me, that I forget that one of the simplest gifts we can be giving one another is our time and attention. To really listen to what someone is telling us and respond in authentic and caring ways. Never underestimate the power of feeling heard and seen.

Healthy Give & Take

With the holidays around the corner, there’s no better time to jump in and practice setting some boundaries around what we’re capable of giving to each other. If you’re anything like me, you like to go all out in the gift giving department. Maybe this year, take a step back. Take a look at what you’ve done in the past and how it’s made you feel. Do you dread the holidays? Does it feel as though you’re the one who who is consistently giving directions and planning events? Maybe do some more delegating this year. Take a look at you’re budget and try to stick to it better when purchasing gifts.

And while you’re reigning in your spending and the time you’re spending on various projects, don’t forget to take some time for yourself. Treat yourself to a bath during the week. Or a special meal. Something that will bring you sense of ease and peace. Because there’s no point in fostering a healthy and happy relationship, if you’re making yourself miserable in the process. Peace : ) & thanks for reading.

Image Credits: “Give, take ‘n share” by Funchye is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.

Relax, You Don’t Have to be Dying to Take a Sick Day

The result? Feeling tired and run down most of the time. Also never having time to relax or do something for the fun of it.

I’ve recently been reading a travel book about New England, to get to know Boston and the region a little better and to relax a bit more in my place of origin. Also to look for some places to travel to, maybe for a weekend or a day trip. While I was reading the bio of my people, I was informed that we are known for or thriftiness and our being industrious. This struck me as odd. Mostly because I don’t see New Englanders as having these traits in abundance. But the more I thought about it, the more the evidence started to pile up. I just couldn’t see the forest for the New England Foliage.

My family in particular are very thrifty. We will go a great distance to find the best prices and deals on the things we buy. I remember many a car rides to outlets and discount retailers, looking for a bargain to bring home. And I think we did it mostly for sport. For the bragging rights, to say we got the cheapest price. We are intense about the things we do. And the intensity we bring to shopping, we bring to other areas in our lives as well. Which brings me to number two on the list, our work ethic.

Being Intense on the Job

Thinking back to the travel book, I was realizing how spot on their assessment was. At least of my New England family. Growing up for me, hard work was a given and to relax was to be lazy. There was no tolerance for those unwilling to pull their own weight. This was made clear to me in one of my first jobs as a bus boy in the restaurant my mother worked for.

I was probably 13 years old at the time and my only other working experience was when I had delivered news papers. I never experienced a traditional work environment before and especially not one as tough as a kitchen. On my first day, no more than 3-4 hours into my shift, my mother pulled me aside and yelled at me for being lazy. I was 13, three hours into my first shift and at the only place I had ever worked and I was already expected to know how to preform my duties and do them perfectly. These were the expectations that were set for me and my family. We definitely needed a lesson in how to relax.

How We Look Doing What We Do

Looking back now, I understand how connected my performance was to how my mother viewed herself moving through her work environment. In her eyes, I was a direct reflection of who she thought herself to be. And the one thing she was not going to tolerate was being correlated with being lazy. This was where my work ethic was forged.

So I worked hard. Mostly because I wanted to feel accepted and loved. But I worked from a fearful place. One where I was afraid to relax for fear of being seen as lazy. I adopted my family’s serious demeanor because I wanted to be seen as someone who doesn’t play games. Someone who gets the job done and does it without having to be told how. Also to garner respect. Because this, I was taught, was the mark of a man. But this way of living left me with an intensity that made me slightly mean and definitely unapproachable. And little in the way of tools to help build solid foundations for relationships.

In a more recent experience, while at work, I was being told that I was working too hard. Also that I was difficult to talk to because I had an air of undeserved superiority about me. This wasn’t the first time I had been told I was difficult to manage either. I was let go of a job that I was particularly good at because I didn’t have any people skills. This was jarring because it flew in the face of the values I had been raised with. Which was that working hard and productivity are first priority. Everything else is inconsequential. Being able to relax was at the bottom of the list. But what I was coming to learn was, I had been mislead.

Listening to Our Bodies & Learning to Relax

This type of intensity doesn’t come without its toll. More recently, I decided to take a day off from work because I was exhausted. I had just worked two doubles, back to back, 12 hour days and was feeling worn out. So I called in to my work place and told them I needed the day. They said “I hope you feel better”, and I got back to taking some much needed rest.

Later on in the day, when I was speaking to my father about taking the day off, he was growing agitated with the topic as we discussed it. He was asking probing questions about my decision until I finally asked if he felt uncomfortable with what I had done. Calling in without actually being sick. He said he was and that it was something you just don’t do. He also told me that I don’t work that hard anyway so it shouldn’t be such a big deal to muscle through the day. Unhealthy to say the least.

Well, as the week progressed, I was feeling worse and worse. I worked through the last two days of the week, but by the time Friday night came around, while I was finishing up dinner I knew I was definitely feeling ill. I knew that I would wake in the morning feeling sick and that me taking the day off in the middle of the week was most likely my body telling me that I was tired, stressed and getting sick. So it’s time to take care of yourself and relax. Something I’m not used to doing and if it were up to my family, something I wouldn’t do at all.

Take the Day, Trust Yourself

My body was telling me something that I have been ignoring for far to long. Me and my family have been neglecting our physical needs for as long as I can remember. “Muscling through it” should be at the top of our family crest. And if the need to feel belonging wasn’t drive enough for me to try and work myself to death, I was also being guilted into working more than my body could handle. All because it was making my family feel “uncomfortable”.

I had been stripped of my autonomy because it was too difficult for someone else to see me as being unreliable, or even worse, lazy. Even though I was receiving nothing but encouragement from my places of employment. I was 13 all over again, trying to live up to an impossible standard at the expense of my better judgement and overall health. This, I declared, was unhealthy and unreasonable. Something needed to change in my life and I was the one who had to put it into action.

Trust Your Intuition But Know Your Limits

This is where I am deciding to take the time if I feel I need it. There are some things I’ve come to know about myself. I know I’m a hard worker, to a fault. I take pride in a job well done and usually, enjoy the work. But I can push myself beyond my limits. Knowing these characteristics, I am now able to search for feelings and flags around my work ethic.

How this looks in action is, if I’m thinking about taking a day off, I first need to trust that this is coming from a caring and trustworthy place in myself. This way, when the voice of my family chimes in with phrases such as, “you don’t work that hard anyway” or “don’t be lazy”, I can challenge those thoughts and the emotions of guilt and shame that make me uncomfortable and accompany my thoughts. I can then sit in the dis-ease and make a decision based on what is best for me and my body’s needs. Not the expectations of my family.

These are the healthy self-care lessons I was never taught. And they’re ones that I’m deciding to implement while reparenting myself. It isn’t easy, but neither is the alternative of working myself to death. And I’d rather be in a healthy mental space than buried under stress from the unachievable standards of a dysfunctional past.

Finding the Support to Make the Change

And none of what I’ve laid out above would have been possible if it wasn’t for the healthy support I received from my friends and role models along the way. For instance, my therapist has been a huge wealth of support for me. If I didn’t have a trained professional who was able to give me another perspective asides from my dysfunctional world view, I don’t know that I would have been able to see outside of what I was steeped in. The unhealthy values of my family.

And without a friend to text, or to grab a beer and burger with to talk about what’s happening in my life, I could have easily withdrew. Losing out on a much needed perspective shift. Or some understanding and empathy. And these are the elements that I was missing when I was too afraid to connect. Especially because connecting with others has meant being hurt and taken advantage of in my past.

Luckily for me, when I decided to change my way of living, I had a few friends willing to stand by me through the change. And it was these friends, who allowed me to change without the judgements or criticisms, that showed me what it felt like to be supported. Something that had been lacking in almost all of my previous relationships.

Why Support Matters

Because if it wasn’t for my newly found support, I would have gone on living my life as though I had to meet the impossible standards of my past. The standards that said it is not only normal to work 6 days a week and that 12 hour days are the norm, but it’s also expected. And not that difficult.

The result? Feeling tired and run down most of the time. Also never having time to relax or do something for the fun of it. That’s why we need the kind of support that says, “you look tired, when was the last time you had a day off?” Otherwise, life is a difficult mess. And it’s from this mindset that I want to approach how I budget my resources. With self-care being at the forefront of my assessments. And this is so much easier when you have people in your corner cheering you on. Reminding you what the healthiest version of you looks like.

Because we need these reminders when we wake up after working two, 12 hour days back to back. The reinforcement that gives us the nudge to pick up the phone and text or call our boss to tell them we need to take the day off. Reminders to tell us to do what’s bet for us.

Take the Day & be Kind

If you’re anything like I am, when you decide to take care of yourself you’ll be inundated with guilty thoughts and feelings. It’s difficult enough feeling fatigued and vulnerable when we are feeling sick or super stressed. Then add on the guilt and feeling that you’re failing in some way and we’re making an already bad situation worse. So remember the kindness that we’ve cultivated in our relationships with our supports. Once we do that, we can then extend that kindness to ourselves.

And don’t forget to relax! I know this is a tough one. Especially by those who are riddled with feelings of guilt for feeling as though they’re underachieving. But it is an essential part to feel your best. Nobody has ever guilted themselves into a healthier version of them self ; ) Recently I’ve come up with a few lines to repeat to myself with the help of my therapist. These are there to remind me that it’s okay to relax. And maybe most importantly, to take it a little easier on myself.

So keep an eye on your self and your energies, emotions and physical being. Rest when you are tired, eat when you are hungry and take the space you need to feel your best. If you need a mental health day to recoup, take the day. Nobody knows what you need more than yourself. It may be a big responsibility, but it’s a rewarding one. And head over to The Good Trade if you need some inspo on ways to relax. Peace & thanks for reading : )

Image Credits: “sick day” by jamelah is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

Just Relax: Easier Said Than Done

Being able to relax doesn’t come naturally for everybody. For me, it was a lesson that took a while, and one I’m still coming to terms with. In the past few years, I’ve been pushing myself beyond what my limits are. I feel this was in reaction to the ways I used to live and be treated. By seeking external approval now, to validate who I am. That I’m worth something by my work.

I used to be sedentary. I over consumed, just about everything and watched enough T.V. for a family of four. This was a direct result of my upbringing. While I was growing up, I wasn’t taught the value of keeping an active lifestyle. I didn’t have many interests and what’s more, no one to help me discover and foster healthy and active hobbies.

I was left alone for what felt like days at a time. And it seemed as though I had nothing but T.V. and videogames to occupy myself with. There was a short stint where my stepfather tried to get me into lacrosse. But it never took. I had never heard of the sport before my freshman year in high school, when he signed me up for it. And I was terrible at it as well. I had no one to practice with and my stepfather wasn’t available or lost interest. So it was a short lived experience. Nor one that built confidence in my abilities as an athlete.

Being Active to Prove Myself

The most active I remember being in high school was playing frisbee and hacky-sack in the courtyard. The “slacker sports” as we used to refer to them. We were cultivating a life of being sedentary. My friends and I had no goals to aspire to, nor guidance from healthy role-models to show us how to set and obtain goals, had we made any.

We were just drifting through life aimlessly. But we didn’t know any better. For me, and I’m sure for most of the people I hung out with, I was called lazy and put down verbally for most of my youth. I had nothing to aspire to, because I had no one show me how to aspire to something. Only consistent negative reinforcement from my role models. In case you are wondering, this was not a great parenting strategy.

Staying Busy to Overachieve

Though, I imagine my parents had been raised under more harsh, critical familial expectations. I knew my grandparents well. And they were not the happy, go lucky type. They were intense in all aspects of the word. My grandfather once yelled at me without restraint, when I was maybe 5, for forgetting to tell my father to bring a screwdriver to their house. Restraint and temperance were not words in my grandfather’s vocabulary.

My grandmother was image obsessed and cold. She had a standard that nobody could live up to. Considering, I had it pretty easy growing up. But the legacy of impossible standards that our family handed down through the generations, left us all feeling as though we had to work double, and triple time in order to gain any form of approval. This directly impacted our ability to relax. Mostly for fear that what ever small amount of belonging we felt, would be pulled out from under us, for taking some much needed rest if we did relax.

So we kept ourselves busy. We stayed busy to gain approval so we could feel belonging. But we always felt as though we had to keep producing, in order to cull what little approval we could from those that were keeping it so well guarded. This is an exhausting way of being. And one that does not lead to a sustainable way of feeling approved of. And it also leaves us little, if any, time to relax.

Sorting Out Integral Support From External Validation

With all of our hustling for approval, we never left ourselves with the time to take care of our basic needs. Let alone allowing ourselves the time to relax or enjoy what we do for ourselves. And if our tendency is to seek external forms of approval, then we’ll always be hustling for that approval. In order to break the cycle of seeking external validation, we need to validate ourselves first, for who we are.

This can feel like a strange reversal. Especially if you were brought up, as I was, constantly chasing the feelings of approval from those who held it just out of reach. But learning that you can approve of yourself while having that approval be an integral part of who you are, is empowering. And this may look a little different for everybody. As I’ve found approval is something that is a personal experience.

Self Approval

This, like most things, is a practice. I wish I could tell you that it will just magically appear one day and you’ll be solid in your sense of feeling adequate. But even still, it’s something that’s obtainable. It just takes work. For me, I’m still finding the ways in which I approve of myself. Two big parts of feeling self-approval for me lay in two areas: First in feeling accomplished and second, taking care of myself.

Withholding Accomplishment

Accomplishment was something that I had not really felt until very recently. I have vague memories of the felt sense of accomplishing as a child. But since, the standards were set so high, and for so long, that I just forgot what it felt like. This makes me sad to think of now. But this was just the norm for our family. And what makes this so tragic is, this was the foundation on which we built our connections.

We wanted to feel better than the person who was struggling with the standards we had set for them, when inevitably, they would fail to meet those standards. But this just left everybody feeling frustrated and angry. Sure, we felt superior for a while, but that feeling of superiority only carried us so far. Before long, we would have to accept that we pushed everybody close to us, away. Leaving us feeling all alone.

Feeling Accomplished to Feel More Content, Relaxed

Thinking on when I feel most accomplished now, and nothing comes to mind. But the feeling is present, however vague. And the more I dwell on the feeling, the more I recognize where in my life, and what I do, that brings that feeling with it. For example, when I think of No Labels Living, I think about all the time and effort I’ve put into crafting these posts. Turning my feelings and experiences, into pages of, what I hope are, helpful advice.

And when I think about cooking for myself, the food I make for the weeks ahead in an attempt to allow me the time to get after other goals that need attention in my life. I think about the rows of freshly cooked meals in Mason jars that contain my week’s nourishment and feel a sense of accomplishment.

Taking Care of Myself & My Needs

Taking care of myself, in a way, brings its own sense of accomplishment. In the example above, when I cook for myself, I feel a deep sense of pride and accomplishment for taking care of my nutritional needs. I’m making the food I love that nourishes my body. And this is a whole other felt sense of accomplishment. Like pride, mixed with care and doing for myself. Which in turn translates to time for me to relax.

Or like promising that I’ll take a bath at the end of a long work day. Knowing that I’m taking care of my emotional and physical needs, brings with it a sense of accomplishment and way to relax. Knowing that I’m caring for myself in a way that aids me in becoming the healthiest version of myself is gratifying.

Relaxation is Free

There’s a big industry focused around making money from peoples’ inability to relax. I’m not saying that you shouldn’t splurge on yourself once and a while. Especially if it’s something that you enjoy. But try to make doing, or enjoying your treat an event, where you can really savor it. But also keep in mind that the ability to relax is innate in all of us. Not achieved by something we purchase.

For example, I feel so much more relaxed soaking in a warm bath, than I do out at a restaurant. And you don’t have to go to a spa in order to feel as though you’re getting the spa treatment. I’ve been in the habit of burning candles and using an essential oil diffuser to create a more relaxed atmosphere nightly. If this is something that helps you to feel more relaxed, try creating your own spa experience at home. Add a few Epsom salts to your bath water. Maybe some essential oils as well. Add a few candles to the mix and you have something people spend good money on.

Other Ways to Relax That Won’t Cost You Anything

Exercise

Exercise is a great start if you’re looking for ways to sooth your nerves. My go to for exercise now is yoga. It’s low impact on your body, which after running for years is a nice break. And whether you are new to yoga or a seasoned pro, YWA has a ton of free videos on her site. Check her out here, or head over to my Community page for a link to her site and other resources for relaxing.

While we’re on the topic, taking a walk in your favorite stretch of woods will do wonders for your level of calm. Maybe you’re more of an ocean person? Walking by the beach is also soothing in ways that few other activities are. Being out in green space helps to reduce anxiety levels and has a calming effect. So the more you can be out in nature, the more you will be able to relax.

Cooking

This is something I especially enjoy. There is something about being in the kitchen, where so many elements come together. And with the right atmosphere, brings with it a sense of joy, ease and excitement. Burning a scented candle while slowly bring together the ingredients for each recipe is soothing to me. I know I’m nourishing myself with the tasty and healthy foods I’m making, but also engaging my senses with the colors of the fresh veg and the smells from the simmering sauces.

It’s a treat and one that reminds me of the times when I used to cook in a restaurant. It was a small take-out place where the lines would be out the door most nights. We made Mexican food with an Indian/Asian twist. The results were phenomenal and wildly popular in the city where we were.

My nights on the sauté station were most memorable. I had ten burners going full throttle with a line of slips piling up as the night got steadily busier. From the dimly lighted atmosphere complimented by flashes of ignited cooking oil, to the slow jazz playing in the background, it was a busy, yet soothing experience. And something I carry with me into my current cooking experiences. Only this time with fewer items to make : )

Journaling, Reading & Listening to Music

Journaling, listening to music and reading are a few other ways I’ve learned to sooth my nervous system. For example, today I spent most of my day reading about New England’s history while listening to old sea shanties, to really get me in the mood. It was like being transported to another time and place and all while feeling completely at ease.

Journaling is something that has been invaluable for me as well. I bullet journal, so planning out my weeks and organizing my household is something that brings me a great sense of feeling relaxed. Knowing I’m taking care of the parts of my life that need my attention allows me to move on with my day without wondering, “am I forgetting about something”. Being organized is a gift to those who feel they’ve been stretched too thin.

Winding Down

These are some of the ways that I relax, and some of the benefits I garner from feeling relaxed. If you have any go to ways of decompressing, I’d love to hear about them in the comments section below. It’s so easy to get wound up during the course of the day. And it’s even easier to open a bottle or smoke something to take your mind off of your accumulated burdens. But there are healthier ways of being at ease in your body that don’t need the aid of something other than a calm night, cup of herbal tea and maybe a hot bath. So take a load off and get into something more comfortable. You deserve it. Peace, & thanks for reading : )

Image Credits: “Relaxing feet – 20100417 – IMG_3171.jpg” by Dhammika Heenpella / CWSSIP Images of Sri Lanka is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0.

More on Forgiveness: When We’re Our Own Worst Enemy

Forgiveness. This is not an easy topic. And if you’re anything like I am, nothing gets past your ruthlessly critical eye. Especially your own doings. This has been the case for me for a very long time. Something I’m just now learning to tamp down. But it took some doing to even recognize how unforgiving I was. Also, how the people I chose to surround myself with shared my sense of self righteousness. I cringe a little, thinking back on how I was acting with those around me following suit.

But things have changed for me for sure. I’ve given up many of the old beliefs that were holding me back. I’m no longer the “score keeper” I once was and I’m more willing now to let things go. But if we’re being honest, that was never my intention. My goal was to be kinder, not as mean or petty as I once was. But there in lies the catch. In trying to whip myself into shape, to be kinder, more forgiving, I was unwilling to forgive myself for the ways I was behaving. So I needed to learn to extend a little of that forgiveness inward, before I could be kind and forgiving outwardly.

Forgiveness Starts with Yourself

This is so rote, so cliché that it should be a no brainer. But I feel as though each family, or person has to learn this anew each generation. I know from my experience that forgiveness was something that was held just out of reach from me by my family. And to be fair, I don’t know that any of us felt as though we were even worthy of being forgiven. We carried with us such an air of feeling as though we weren’t enough, no matter what we were doing, that it just didn’t register that we could be forgiven.

Knowing What Forgiveness Feels Like

So instead of trying to practice a little forgiveness, we chose to cover over our unworthy feeling selves. We did this with our holier than thou attitudes. This however, did little in the way of making us feel better about ourselves.

As a result, we all had very low self esteem. We were lonely as well. Mostly because we were pushing everybody away but, also due to us feeling as though we were the only ones feeling that we didn’t deserve forgiveness or kindness. We were trying to be perfect to avoid the critical judgements of each other, while holding everyone to the impossible standards we had created for ourselves. This was a dangerous combination.

The result? Not to my complete lack of surprise, we didn’t know what forgiveness felt like. We were so busy holding it back from each other, that we held it back from ourselves a well. And in the process, forgotten what it had felt like. However there was, for me, a lot of free floating anxiety and fear. Mostly of not feeling accepted by others. Or feeling loved and belonging. Like I said, it was lonely.

Holding Back

What’s so strange about this experience was, that I could actually feel myself unwilling to let go. I could feel myself withholding love and forgiveness from myself. It feels like when you see a small child throwing a tantrum because they are told to stop doing something against their will. And that’s what made this feeling so difficult to manage. Because there was also a feeling of contempt for the part of me that was withholding forgiveness.

The part that I feel should have known better. The part that should know that I’m only hurting myself. But then how should I have known if it was the only way I knew how to relate to my ability to forgive? I wasn’t taught another way. So I continued to hold back my ability to forgive myself.

Realizing Something is Off

It wasn’t until very recently that I put the pieces together of what I was doing and the effect it was having on me. I noticed when I was speaking to someone about how unreasonable my standards are and how I didn’t want to go back to my old ways of being. Then she said something to me that made me physically feel well, cared for. She asked me, “have you forgiven yourself for the ways you used to be?”

The answer to that question was most definitely a NO. And to be asked that, to directly recognize that I was treating myself as unforgivable, a criminal, was eye opening. A feeling of being relaxed, full, washed over me from head to toe. As though I had been waiting for a person to ask me just that for a very long time.

And finally, I turned my attention to that place. The place that had been treated as though it were volatile. But I couldn’t have done this all at once and without a little prep work. The years of self-care I have been practicing, paved the road for me to be comfortable enough to open up as I did.

Listening to Ourselves & Taking Good Care

Here was where I was able to listen to myself with a different kind of focus. I had been listening inwardly for a while now as part of my self-care routine. But now I’m able to differentiate between the parts of me that need my attention. Now I’m able to respond with more patience and know what I need.

Now I know that the part of me that was holding back was doing so because my love and forgiveness have been so abused in the past. I am scared to be open and loving enough, to forgive. Because then I’ll be wide open to the ruthless critical judgements I’ve been so used to from the past. Including from myself.

The feelings of being turned on by those who are supposed to love me. Supposed to be there for me and show me care. I could be left again, as I had been so many times in the past.

Reparenting Our Wounded Parts

And it’s here where the work really begins. We need to guide those parts of us we had trained to turn their backs on us and others to show forgiveness and love again. Even in the face of inevitable pain. Our wounds will be opened again. That’s an unavoidable part of life. But it shouldn’t stop us from living and loving fully. This is the part I keep getting stuck on. And I’m sure I’m not alone.

It feels crazy to open up again after so much abuse. Abuse of trust mostly. And of not being able to rely on others to take care of us when we’re at our lowest. But it’s a part of being connected. For me, I had to open up slowly. I was so confused as to what trust and love meant, that I was guarded all the time. Not knowing when the other would finally turn on me. Because in my experience, it was a matter of when, not if.

So I started small. Really small. After I set up a safe and cozy place that I could use as a retreat, I started venturing out into what had been historically unsafe territory.

Sitting With Those Who Hurt Me

I moved in with my father after my last relationship ended. It was the best thing that could have happened for me at the time. I needed the time and space to put my life back together after the mess I had made of it. It was pretty bad. I alienated almost all of my friends, wound up about 115k in debt, with no plans for my future and no idea how to move myself forward in life. I was a drift.

But while I was licking my wounds, I was spending more time with those who had hurt and abandoned me in the past. I was spending time in physical proximity to them. Even if it was just watching T.V. together. For half hour increments, I was slowly getting used to the old feelings that were arising while just experiencing their nearness. And it was tough at times.

I remember dissociating a few times just sitting on the couch watching a show. This was how badly my trust and emotions had been abused. I felt unsafe in the safest possible environment. I’m in an affluent neighborhood, surrounded by (now) loving and caring parents, no concern for food or shelter, surrounded by a network of caring and loving support, financially stable and genuinely cared for. It couldn’t have been any safer for me.

But there were those parts of me that still remembered what the pain felt like. It was here that I needed to turn my listening ear towards.

Knowing When to Take Space for Yourself

And I needed to listen inwardly. I had no idea that there was an entire world inside of me that had gone unnoticed for as long as I can remember. Numbing it out with the drinking and the medication. The mean natured opinions I would dispense towards anybody who would listen. Anything I could use to quell my inner emotional world, I would use to numb.

So when I started practicing self-care, I begun to slowly learn that I could be kind enough to treat myself with respect. This was also a slow process and one that needed time and space apart from those around me. Because there’s a part of all of us, who wants to feel a part of something. Some belonging. But in the process of seeking that belonging externally, if we’re not strong enough in ourselves, we can drown out the inner voice that so desperately needs our caring and loving attention.

This is where taking space, along with practicing self-care, paid off. My safe and cozy place acted as a center for me to come home to. To feel at ease just being. The clean atmosphere, the ambient lighting and the refreshing scents, all coming together with gentle music playing, creating a sense of ease. Safety. It was here that I found a way to listen to myself. Slowly and with care.

Releasing the Expectations

This is also a place without expectations. A place where I can allow myself the space to explore what my needs are. To slow down and repair some of what has been damaged by the missteps of my past misguided self. A place to heal, and to quote a Peter Bjorn and John song, a place where “I am more me”.

Growing up I had nothing but expectation after expectation piled on top of me. First from my family but then by my peer group. It seemed a never ending stream of rules dispensed to hammer me into something that was acceptable to others. Not true to who I actually am.

And who I am is a sensitive man who feels deeply. I’m a hopeless romantic and lover of music that’s a little on the lighter side. I’ve been listening to Mree a lot lately. The antithesis of how I was raised to be “manly”. I do still appreciate some things from the past. But I wouldn’t say that they define me. And I feel that this is an important distinction to make.

Be More You

Because we all have a version of ourselves that is the truest form of ourself. I know I do. And I’m uncovering a little more of it everyday. It’s strange at times. Scary too. But there are also tender moments mixed in with crests of excitement. A journey worth the taking to be sure. But a journey that starts with letting ourselves be fully us and that starts with letting go of the past. Forgiving ourselves and moving forward.

So if you’ve been on the edge of letting go of the past, let this be your permission to let go. Forgive yourself and move on to the next challenge. There’s too many possibilities to explore that we won’t be able to if we’re dragging the past around with us. Don’t worry what others will think. They’ll come around or they won’t. What’s most important is, to be there for yourself. Peace : ) and thanks for reading.

Image Credits: “forgiveness” by cheerfulmonk is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.

Withholding Love: Growing Up Unlovable

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

Making the Choice to Withhold Love

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

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

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

Predictable Results, Feeling Lonely Not Love

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

The Armoring

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

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

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

Finding Yourself and Your Love Again

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

Being Bold Enough to Learn to Trust

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

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

Role-Modeling Destructive Behavior

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

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

Role Modeling Loving and Trusting Behavior

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

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

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

Finding Love Again

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

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

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

Family Dinner Fridays

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

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

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

Seeing Communication as a Weakness

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

“Love is Stronger Than Pride” – Sade

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

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

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

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

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