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.

How to Know What Support Looks Like if You’ve Never Really Had It In the Past

Support and feeling supported was something that didn’t come to me naturally. This was mostly due to me feeling like a burden to my caregivers, whenever I expressed a need or a want. The term, selfish was tossed around all too liberally when we spoke about one another and how we expressed our needs. It seemed that no matter what we were asking, it was always too much.

I’d like to go into what the act of support feels and looks like, for me, in this post. If you grew up in an environment similar to mine, you’ll likely feel that anytime you express a need, you are putting somebody else out for just having this need. This is unhealthy. But if we’re never taught what healthy support looks like, then we simply don’t know what we don’t know. Though it is possible to feel supported in healthy ways. All it takes is some hard work and the right people : )

What Does Support Even Mean?

While I was growing up, there was a large emphasis placed on the rugged individual. Someone who could hold their own, usually a man, no matter what the situation was and that we don’t need support from others. We were expected to do everything on our own and do it perfectly. This is/was unreasonable. I didn’t know this at the time, but I was also idolizing action heroes such as Rambo and Arnold Schwarzenegger’s character from, “The Predator”, not realizing how unrealistic these ideals were.

I used phrases such as, “man up” in my youth, implying that if you were a real man, you’d be able to handle it, whatever “It” was. And this vein of thinking was carried throughout my family, as well as in popular culture at the time.

My parents got divorced when I was eight years old and I think I got the same speech from every male family member at the time. It was them saying to me, “you’re the man of the house now Adam.” I had no idea what this meant, and I’m guessing that they didn’t either judging from how they were acting as “men”. I was a boy, trying to understand what was happening to my family at the time. The prospect of being in charge was terrifying to me. And on top of that fear, my family was now my responsibility!? I had no idea what to do with this information at such a young age. So I disconnected from my family. Retreated into video games and stayed out late at night, avoiding coming home to the mess that was being left unattended.

When Your Environment is Corrosive to Support

In the environment that my caregivers created, we told the other how they were feeling. We never asked any questions about the other’s emotional states, or did any sort of mirroring. We never asked one another, “how did that make you feel?” When we did talk about emotions, it was usually in a way where one person was telling the other, what they were feeling. For example, comments such as, “you were just so selfish, pissy or narcissistic” were injected into our interactions without asking how the other person was feeling. We just told them how they felt, but if we dug a little deeper, behind the reactions, we most likely would have seen the hurt and neglect we were inflicting on one another.

And if we did speak about emotions, they were usually the more difficult ones such as anger. We did not have a vocabulary for what we were experiencing emotionally, because it wasn’t safe to explore our emotional worlds around each other in order to develop a language. This was due to us being viciously demeaning and mean to anybody who was foolish enough to let their guard down and share an emotion.

And it’s important to foster a safe place around our emotional selves if our goal is to create a supportive environment. This was something that we just didn’t know how to do, had never been taught how. Luckily, there are some resources for learning how to foster a supportive and nurturing environment. One where we can feel safe exploring our emotional experiences without trying to control them in ourselves, or maybe in my case and more importantly, in others, which I’ll be getting into towards the end of this post. But this type of environment is a difficult and crazy making place to be, if it’s all you’ve known about navigating emotions and receiving support.

Losing the Support I Once Knew

It was around the time of my parents divorce that I began to preform poorly in school and get into trouble more frequently. Since what I had known of support was no longer available to me, I just fell off the grid, so to speak. Everybody was so wrapped up in their own experiences of what was happening, that we were no longer available as a source of support or caring for each other. There was a lot of bad blood left during the process and everybody knew every detail.

We continued drifting apart, not even really knowing how to support one another even if we had decide to wake from our own emotional experiences for long enough to see that our family had fallen apart. We were quick to point out how someone had done harm to another, but not to help each other through the difficult emotions that came up from those hurts. And that’s assuming that we would know how to be there for each other if we could see what we were doing to one another.

So we all avoided contact, seeing each other only when we had to. This was our way of keeping ourselves safe from the wounds of the past being brushed up against by an old memory or from a current interaction. And it was in this environment that we forgot how to be support, for ourselves and another.

Licking the Wounds

We were so busy protecting ourselves and our wounds from one another, that we forgot how to be a support for somebody else in a healthy way. This was clearly for fear that we would find ourselves betrayed in the same ways we had in the past. Traumatic ways that left us wounded and untrusting. But we were also isolated, focusing only on the hurt as a reminder of what it means to get close to another. A defense mechanism that was much too built up to let anybody past.

And it was in this way of focusing on past hurts that we avoided growing beyond our smaller, wounded selves. Even now, 34 years later, we still have issues connecting due to how we’ve treated one another in our shared histories. Forgive and forget is a practice that is definitely not alive and well in my family.

But it’s also these mindsets that keep us locked in our old patterns of not being able to move past the emotions that feel too heavy, too scary to confront. For me, it’s a sense of feeling abandoned by those who were supposed to care for me. Leaving me alone at such a young age and then telling me I was in charge was a terrifying prospect to an eight year-old! So what am I doing to move past the old wounds and live the healthiest version of my life? It starts with taking ownership of my life, just as I find it.

Finding Support by Owning My Present

For me, I had to sort through a lot of poor choices I’ve made in the past. Regardless of how I was left, without guidance or to show me healthier ways of navigating my world, they were, and are, still my poor choices.

And I’m not beating myself up over the choices that didn’t have my best interests at heart. I’m owning them in a way that acknowledges I made a poor choice, but it was the best I could do under the circumstances. This gives me the comfort of knowing that now, that I am in a different place, one where I know how to ask for help, find resources and rely on people, I can make the healthier decisions that will move me forward in my life. And this is what I mean by support.

Types of Support

Debt

Support looks like, to me, finding people like Dave Ramsey when I was 100k+ in debt from the poor choices I made in the past. Following his advice on how to get out of debt, while I watch myself achieve my goals, slowly but surely, paying down what I owe.

And teaching myself how to make and stick to a budget. This was no easy task. Even when I was throwing as much money as I could towards my debt, I was still racking up $700 grocery bills, mostly in the form of taking trip to Whole Foods. That’s close to $500 a month I could have been putting towards my future! It was here that I learned the discipline to stick to the boundaries and limits I desperately needed to set for myself, in order to live a sustainable lifestyle.

Friends & Family

In terms of my relationships, support looks like asking the people who have hurt me in the past, to get together once a week and make dinner. To talk about who we are as people, revisit the past in a safe and comfortable setting, while forging new relationships with each other. Also, knowing how and when to take a rest when needed, from those close in.

Also, keeping in mind that I need to ask direct, clear questions, especially around how the other person feels. This also extends to me speaking up about how I feel during our interactions and knowing when it’s time to give the relationship and the conversation a break if things get too intense.

Internal & Emotional

While I was revisiting some of the ghosts from my past while writing this post, I was feeling overwhelmed with all the memories that were coming up. So instead of pushing past the feelings, ignoring and neglecting them in the ways they were ignored and neglected in me, from my past caregivers, I stopped, I asked what I needed for and from myself and the answer came, to take a walk by the ocean. So I stopped, listened to and attuned to my own emotional needs to take a break, and walked down to the ocean.

Reaching Out

These may seem like basic steps, but for those of us who have been severely emotionally neglected and abused, this is like learning a whole new language. And it’s difficult. In my situation, my caregivers had no idea how to attune to their emotional worlds, or listen to their own needs. They avoided themselves and their emotional needs at all costs, using denial and alcohol to subdue their internal worlds.

So it was necessary for me to reach out to somebody who had experience with healthy ways of helping me with and accepting my internal emotional world. I’ve been working with a therapist for a few years now, and the help I’ve received from her has been invaluable. Mostly just a safe place to explore how I’m feeling, while also giving names to my emotional experiences. Also having her validate that they (my emotions) are real and valid. Again, basic but so important if you’ve never had this type of mirroring and support.

Friends

And finally, friends are so important for our sense of belonging and need to feel heard, loved and supported. As I’ve said in previous posts, most of my friendships were based on the good times, avoiding the difficult work of supporting each other during the difficult ones. So when those times came, it didn’t take long for those bonds to break under the weight of hurt feelings.

I don’t speak to many of the people that used to populate my past, but the friends that did stick around for me are very dear to my heart. I literally don’t know where I’d be without them, one in particular being there for me at just the right time and place. It’s also important to feel a part of something more than just our own internal worlds. Best not to let the squirrels run to wild in the trees of our minds : )

And It Gets Easier

These are my experiences with what support looks like. If you feel as though you are in a place where you lack the support you need, go and find it. I wish someone had told me this a long time ago. I spent too many years wondering without direction, not knowing what to do with myself in my life. And it’s worth remembering too that, no one can go this life alone. It’s hard enough even with the support! So if you’ve experienced a general lack of feeling and being supported, know that it’s not to late to do something about it.

Find a therapist, make regular visits with friends or maybe try reaching out to some of the friends you have on Facebook you haven’t talked to in a while. Find a group to be a part of with shared interests. Building relationships can be tough work, but it is so worth the while. Start sharing yourself and good things are bound to come of it. Peace : ) and thanks for reading.

Image Credits: “Hug” by Hans-Jörg Aleff is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.

Living Space: How Our Built Environment Affects Our Emotional State

I’m currently searching for an apartment. I also work part-time for a family shelter. Anyone who’s in the middle of an apartment hunt right now has probably felt the sting of pricing going up. Way up. It’s estimated that the median cost of rent for housing has gone up between 12-17% since 2020. That’s a huge increase, considering that the previous increases were roughly .6% a year.

From my experience working at the shelter, the environment you’re steeped in has a great affect on a persons emotional state. For families experiencing homelessness, the term itself brings up images of destitute individuals in unwashed clothes living in tents in the woods. So if you add unkempt surroundings to an already loaded label of being homeless, this makes for a sad way of feeling about who you are and your circumstances.

I’ve lived in a variety of houses and apartments, but none of them ever really felt like a true home. I’d like to explore a little what it is that makes a house, a home for me and maybe it’ll resonate with a few others out there, too.

First Living Experiences

The places I grew up in, in my childhood were first an apartment, and second a single family house. The apartment was on the top floor of our building and I have some fond memories of that apartment. I was also very young, so my memories aren’t that crisp. The house I later moved to was the one where many of my childhood memories were made and therefore remember with more clarity.

There were good memories, such as family gatherings and being taken to soccer games as a child. But there were also difficult ones, like the time we spent nursing a family member while she lay dying in our living room. Or the void I was left in, not seeing my caregivers for what felt like weeks at a time. This was a cold place and one filled with traumatic memories that nobody would want to revisit.

The environment in both were clean, only in the first apartment was much more cozy, felt warmer. The house however, was a cold place, sterile feeling. Clean, but without the warmth of the connection and love that makes a house, feel like a home.

The Difference Between Clean and Sterile

I was made to clean as a child, do chores. This was something I hated doing at the time, but what kid doesn’t. Though I’m glad I had the experience of keeping something up and living in a cared for environment. And it felt as though the house was always in the process of being cleaned in some form or another.

Laundry was constantly being done, there was a fair amount of cooking happening as well. But there were also times where this felt like a little too much. As though we were cleaning to cover something up. Everything had to be in its right place, no exceptions. In recent years, I’ve been in one of my childhood caregiver’s home and the kitchen was so clean that it felt as though you could preform surgery in it.

This was mildly unsettling and reminded me of a sterile environment, a place that can’t sustain life. And I feel like this is the difference between a house and a home. A home is a place where mistakes are made, people come together in their difference and accept one another as we are. Imperfect. And it’s about the people. And incase you haven’t learned this yet, people are messy creatures. Hence the phrase, “life happens”.

So if we’re constantly rejecting the messy aspects of our lives, then we’re also rejecting the parts of ourselves that are equally as messy. This is no bueno. And that’s what it felt like while I was living in my caregiver’s home. Until I got kicked out.

On My Own, Now What?

When I was 19, I was kicked out of my childhood house. A little background on my situation, I had stopped going to school when I was fifteen, had no life goals or direction, all the role models in my life had abused and neglected me and I was roaming the streets in my town looking to get messed up in some way. Thinking back now, this brings up feelings of fear and terror in me. But then I was just surviving. And on top of that, I had no one to show me how to take care of myself. I was pretty much already on my own.

So when I got the boot from my caregivers, this was only the official decree stating that I was definitely now, on my own, not wanted. In recent years, when I asked my caregiver why they kicked me out at such a young age, they said, “it happened to me.” This is what I mean when I say we were handing down a legacy of trauma and abuse to one another. And I was scared. So, I talked to two friends and a few weeks later we were living together in our first apartment. And for three nineteen year-olds, we kept the apartment pretty clean.

I remember sleeping on the couch, in the living room of my first apartment, the first night we moved in, with one of my new roommates sleeping on the floor next to me. I was feeling excited and terrified about my circumstances all at once. Uncertainty was pervasive, and I had no idea what to do next. Unfortunately for me, this was the theme of most of my living situations throughout my life.

I moved from that apartment, and in with another childhood caregiver of mine briefly, then to an apartment with one of my previous roommates. Only this time, I just moved into their entry way and didn’t ask if I could stay there. I cringe a little thinking about this now, but I felt one step away from being homeless. And again, survival took precedence. And that apartment was so dirty that it should have been condemned. How we felt about ourselves was definitely reflected in our surroundings.

Even when I was married, my feelings of drifting were still pervasive. The apartment we lived in felt comfortable, felt a good expression of our personalities and cleaner than the others I had lived in, but it didn’t feel like home. I was still reliving the patterns of my past, while avoiding the responsibility of being my own man. My now ex-wife was looking for someone who was just along for the ride. I was looking for some guidance in the form of someone making all the decisions I needed made for me, and she was looking to tell someone what to do.

So with all of these past experiences of what feels like drifting through life, what’s changed? How have I taken the reigns of my life, and as my boss says, “get behind the wheel and drive my own life bus”? It starts with recognizing where you are and where you’d like to be. Also, what you want out of life.

Lessons On Life Some Of Us Never Get

There were quite a few lessons I never received before I was kicked out of my house. One being how to budget. Another being how to care for my nutritional needs… The list goes on. But I feel the most important lesson I missed out on was, where I’d like to be and who I wanted to be as I matured.

My caregivers were too concerned with how others saw them to be their own people. This left me with almost no role models to show me how to be confident in who I was, but more importantly, foster me as I was cultivating and exploring my interests, likes and dislikes. I was hustling for my caregivers approval, only they never felt approved of. So in-turn, they didn’t know how to approve of others, or nurture my budding interests.

These basic feelings of not measuring up were pervasive in my family, and ones that were handed down through the generations. We just didn’t know how to break the cycle of looking for approval from others instead of looking for acceptance of ourselves. For my caregivers, this manifested in cleaning to the point of being sterile, but also in buying things we didn’t need.

We were constantly shopping in our family. I remember vividly in one of my apartments, looking through the Pottery Barn catalogue, at my Pottery Barn desk, circling the things that I wanted in my dwelling, while I was sleeping on a futon mattress without a bed frame. Another thing I never learned how to do was to prioritize my need. I got caught up in the same trap of trying to curate a personality by the things I bought and surrounded myself with. It was a sad and lonely place to be. But it was also all I knew and had modeled for me growing up.

It wasn’t until much later that I realized that no matter what I bought, it wasn’t going to bring me a sense of a sustained happiness. I could look how I wanted to look, play the right part, but that’s not what would bring me a deep sense of joy or satisfaction. In fact, I’m still looking for that sense of joy and happiness. I know that I’m much less anxious now that I’ve let the ideas that my surroundings have to fit the image portrayed in the pages of a catalogue. And think a big part of the puzzle is spending time with those who support and love me.

Cleaning Cabinets Even When They’re Going To Be Torn Down

As I’ve said above, I work at a family shelter part-time as direct care. This means I help the guests with their daily needs, such as doing laundry for them or getting them food items they may need. But between fulfilling my duties, there is a lot of down time. So it wasn’t too long ago that I decided to take on some projects that needed some love and attention around the house.

I started in the kitchen and for good reason, it was a mess. The cabinets had what looked like years of grease and grime rubbed into every crevasse across their surfaces. And if you opened them, they weren’t in much better shape.

The only way I can describe them is that it looked as though an animal had been nesting in them. There were packages torn open with their contents strewn about the shelves. There were piles of things in no particular order or reason. It was a mess. So I started by scraping and scrubbing the cabinet exteriors.

There was so much caked on grease that I was using a butter knife to clean it off the way you would use a putty knife to scrape off excess plaster from a wall. It reminded me of one of my first apartments, the one I moved into without asking. But the more I cleaned, the more the guests began to take notice.

They made comments about how hard I was working and how good the cabinets looked. It was nice to receive the compliment, but what I’m sure felt better was that someone was taking the time to care for the place where they cooked their meals. Later on, while I was cleaning the cabinets, my boss came over and told me we were going to tear down the cabinets in a few weeks due to a kitchen renovation, so I didn’t need to put so much effort into something that was going to be torn down anyway. But I continued cleaning all the same.

Mostly because I was almost done, and the cabinet really started to look good. But also because and more importantly, the guests were taking pride in their newly cleaned environment. The place they came to live because they were “homeless”, started to take on a new feeling. A feeling of being cared for, paid attention to. And later when I stocked the cabinet with the food from our pantry the way you would see the shelves stocked in a grocery, they started cooking and using the resources that were there for them to use in the first place. Only in a cleaner environment.

And these are the differences that a clean, inviting environment can imbue in a person living in them. A sense of pride in the place they call home. It really is amazing what a little love and attention can do for our surroundings. And if you think about it, it’s happening all around us. This is the reason why shows like “Fixer Upper” were so popular. They show what’s possible by simply taking care of the things that have been neglected.

Where is this true in your life? Instead of going out and buying something new to fill a need for change, is there something that is maybe right in front of you that could use a little TLC? I’ve almost stopped buying new things completely and have thrifted most of my major purchases in recent years. I still have the desk from Pottery Barn, but it’s now probably 15 years old and I’ll be keeping it for years to come. And most importantly, it doesn’t define my personality anymore. I am more than the desk I own, but rather now it’s an extension of my personality.

So take some time and take stock of the things you bring into your life. Ask yourself, “why do I like this so much?” Is it because it’s pleasing to you and adds comfort to your life? Or is it something you’re trying to build a life style or self image around? Because that maybe the difference between you finding things that fit your personality and finding personality by buying things. Peace and thanks for reading : )

Image Credits: “Dirty kitchen sink from a condo in Palm Springs” by Eco Bear Biohazard Cleaning Co. is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

Giving Up What We Think We Need To Get Through The Day: “It’s No Easy”-Melba

I’ve spoken a lot about the different methods I’ve used to get through my days in the past. They mostly consisted of drinking too much coffee in the mornings, between 4-6 large lattes a day and alcohol at night, usually 5-6 drinks. And on occasion, I would take an Adderall or muscle relaxer to speed up or slow myself down. I used other methods as well, such as food and pornography, to escape my emotional world, which were also detrimental to me living a healthy, well balanced lifestyle.

Now I realize that as far as addictions go, mine were on the milder side. I never fell into the harder drugs, and for the most part they never interfered with my day-to-day responsibilities. What it did do however, was decimate most of my relationships. The most important one being with myself.

I had no idea what I was feeling most of the time because I was too busy running away from what I was unwilling to confront. My neglected self. First by others, but then I picked up the legacy and ran with it using the methods that were taught to me. I’d like to talk about this neglect, and how I perpetuated it by using what was shown me, and how I broke free from the cycle of neglect, mostly using self-care. So if you’ve found yourself in a similar situation, hopefully you can learn from my mistakes and help yourself a little sooner than I did myself. Let’s start by taking a look at the environment I grew up in.

Control and Belonging

I was raised by a rowdy bunch. There were quite a few of us in my early childhood, and we would get together often. We were loud and opinionated which wasn’t so bad, but we were also mean and drunk most of the time. This was no bueno. Children were dealt with swiftly and using harsh actions. I learned from a very early age that it wasn’t in my best interests to show up on my caregivers radar.

It seemed as though the children in my family were always being punished for doing something against the will of our caregivers. I realize now that it had more to do with my caregivers feeling a lack of control in their lives, so they needed to control those around them, starting with the most vulnerable. This imparted the lesson on me that, to be an adult meant to always be in control.

This is a dangerous mindset to be in, because being in control for my family meant, controlling those around us and our emotions. We employed multiple tactics to achieve our desired goals. Among them being, drinking coffee and alcohol to control our emotional states, while also carefully withholding our love and affection from one another in an attempt to manipulate the other into treating us or seeing us in the ways we wanted them to. As you’ve probably guessed, this did not bode well for any of us.

As a result of our attempts to control our surroundings and each other, we cut ourselves off from just about everybody in our lives. We withheld our emotions from one another so much so, that we became little islands, paralyzed by the fear of being seen as needy, weak, stupid, undesirable… you name it and we most likely had an insecurity surrounding it. And slowly, we spoke to and saw each other, less and less as we moved through the years. Drifting apart like islands in the stream.

Our reasoning being, that if nobody could truly know us, then we’d be safe from their critical judgements and cutting remarks which were omnipresent. But in the process, and what we didn’t realize was, that we also cut ourselves off from ourselves. The pieces of each other that are ingrained in our beings, the habits I learned from my caregivers, I then learning to hate those same habits in me, which left me feeling isolated and angry.

Isolated because we avoided each other and angry for not feeling accepted by those I was behaving like. Not to mention how confusing this all was to sort out. So confusing in fact, that it took me until my late 30’s to sort it all! And that was after I decided to stop running from my emotional world and the put down the habits I was doing to avoid them.

Coffee to Speed Past the Feelings, Alcohol to Numb Them

I’ve said so many times on this blog how I used coffee to speed past my feelings and alcohol to numb them. Of course, I didn’t realize what I was doing at the time. I only knew that there was an awful lot of pain that I hadn’t reckoned with and that I would use just about anything to keep myself from feeling it.

I was enamored of drug culture when I was younger, around my teenage years. This was a time where, ideally, I would have been guided by a loving community of family and friends, to navigate the strange times of changing feelings and journey into adulthood. Instead, I ran from both changing, and adulthood. Mostly because I was still looking for the security in my belonging that I had lost in my early childhood. In short, I didn’t want to grow up for fear of resembling my abusers, the “grown ups” in my life.

So I took whatever I could to run from it. Caffeine was cheap and widely available, so I drank a lot of it to speed through my day. Alcohol was equally as available and more than effective enough to numb out the feelings I was running from, so I drank, a lot. There was also the occasional Adderall and muscle relaxer when caffeine and alcohol weren’t enough. But these were the status quo in my family growing up. Accompanied by a fair amount of critical judgements and you have the environment I was raised in, massively unhealthy.

What to Do When You’ve Found Yourself Alone

And these were the methods we chose to isolate ourselves from one another. When the cost of getting too close, was too much to take. Running became our number one tactic in keeping ourselves safe. And rightly so. With the amount of abuse we were dishing out to one another, it’s amazing that any of us are still talking to one another, however little that may be.

But in order for me to get to this place, I needed to do a lot of work. First off, I needed to find some resources, otherwise the sheer amount of loneliness, and work I needed to accomplish in order to feel stable would have been overwhelming.

This mostly took shape in the form of me giving myself the care and attention, that I would give to somebody I cared about deeply. Something I was shamed for doing by those who raised me. Anytime I asked for something for myself, I was made to feel as though it was more than just an inconvenience, I was personally using the other or taking advantage of their “kindness” just by having needs. I’ve said before on this blog, the term martyr was used liberally around taking care of each other’s needs. We were as ungrateful and spiteful as we could be.

Taking the Time to Unlearn Old Habits

And it was here that I needed to do a lot of work to unlearn the ways I had been behaving. I was mean and spiteful, arrogant and condescending, ungrateful and felt as though the world owed me something and used people like objects. Focusing only on what I could get from them, not on how we could care for one another. No wonder I had no close friends.

What really got me to change my old habits was a combination of learning to sit with and through my emotions without the aid of some substance to help me run from what I was experiencing, mostly through meditation, then caring for myself as they, my emotions, came up. As I’ve said above, I was shamed for even thinking about caring for myself. So even the act of learning to be kind to myself was quite the feat.

But that’s what I did. When I felt worried or overwhelmed, I took the time to stop, ask how I was feeling, recognize and allow the feeling to be there, then I was able to care for myself by asking myself what I needed. Tara Brach has a great resource called R.A.I.N., and it’s what I use to navigate difficult emotional states when they arise.

Recognize, Allow, Investigate, Nurture

It starts out with R, which stands for Recognize. I simply recognize what is happening in the moment, as it’s happening. Then the A is for Allow. Whatever is present for me, I allow it to be Just as it is, no judgements. I is for Investigate. This is where I ask the emotion how it needs me to be with it. Do I need to respond with kindness, or does it just to be witnessed? And finally N is for Nurture. This is where I take the time to be the parent for myself that I never had. To show myself that I care about what’s happening in the ways nobody had shown me before.

This is a powerful tool and one that, when used regularly, has the ability to change the ways we see and interact with ourselves. And it does take some time. The big changes don’t happen in one fell swoop. As Tara would say, it takes many rounds of R.A.I.N. before it becomes a learned behavior.

Building Trust

And eventually what happened for me was, I started to trust myself. I could trust what was happening, the emotions that were coming up in the moment without running from them and into some mood altering experience. And this trust was paramount to building a stable foundation for all of my relationships to rest on. Most importantly the one with myself.

Because while I was running from myself, I was showing myself that I was not worth the time and effort to care for and nurture my own needs. And if I didn’t know how to be there for myself, how was I going to show up for somebody else? I just didn’t have the tools for that job before I learned to slow down without a substance.

So I practiced. I practiced showing up, and staying when it got tough. I cooked my self-care dinners on Tuesday nights, even if it was a budget friendly recipe and I enjoyed a beer with my dinner. I kept up with my yoga practice and meditation, even though I was working between 50-60 hours a week and was spent at the end of my work day. I cleaned and cared for my surroundings even though sometimes it seemed like that’s all I was ever doing, was ticking things off the list. But the efforts I put in were important for me building consistency.

I was so used to being left, time and again, by everybody that ever mattered to me that I had no consistency, nothing stable to rely on. So I needed to create that stability I sought, for and with myself, by building these routines that I stuck to no matter how tired I was. I was showing up for myself when everyone else said it was too much to stay. And here’s where the trust started to form.

Once I realized I wasn’t going back to the same old ways of living, I began to feel things again I hadn’t felt in years. I was learning to relax on my own, without the aid of chemicals while also appreciating the accomplishments I was achieving. I was growing up and it felt good.

So if you’ve found yourself in a place where you’ve been running from your emotional world for too long, don’t worry, there’s hope still. It may not be easy, and it may feel impossible at times, to overcome these feelings of being run down, anxious or fearful. But it’s not only possible, it’s doable.

Start somewhere small. Take stock of the areas in your life that have been neglected a little, or need some love and attention. Then make a plan to get involved with your own life with more sustainable resources, like exercise and self-care nights, whatever shape they may take for you.

Cut back on the caffeine and alcohol intake if you feel like they are getting to be too much. Get in touch with your body and see what it needs by spending some down time with yourself. Whether it’s in nature or in a clean room with some candles burning. Learning to listen to yourself is invaluable to building a relationship with yourself. Like my boss says, “be the driver of your life bus, not a passenger”.

And be consistent. The more you show up for yourself, the more you send yourself the message that you’re worth the time and effort, and most importantly that you care about yourself. Pretty soon, you’ll be a whole new version of yourself without the vices you once relied on for support. And most importantly, never give up on yourself. You just may surprise yourself with who you become. Peace, and thanks for reading : )

Image Credits: “Beer glass” by Bruno Girin is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.

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