Relaxing: As a Man This Isn’t So Easy

Recently, I’ve been making relaxing a priority in my life. Though this has proven to be much more difficult than I thought it would be. Just sitting still was difficult. I felt as though I was supposed to be productive in some way. This led me to feel guilty about just being as I was. All of this seemed strange to me, seeing as how I used to have no problem relaxing. But when I thought back to those times I was relaxed, I realized I was usually in front of a screen, drinking a beer or mixed drink. Something I’ve gotten out of the habit of doing. So I thought about what most people consider to be a relaxing endeavor and I settled on taking a bath.

How Fixing My Bathtub Led to Me Relaxing

But before I could take a bath, I needed to fix the overflow drain on my bath tub first. I had tried taking baths in the past, only my attempt was thwarted when I realized a large amount of water had pooled under the bathtub drain. Then I watched a few videos that suggested looking at the gasket on the overflow drain to see if it was cracked. I checked the gasket and it seemed to be fine, except when I went to unscrew the plate, that held the overflow drain to the pipe, it was barely screwed in.

So I assumed this was the issue. I tightened the plate and went to my local hardware store to get a drain stopper for the tub and to get a second opinion. They said that should probably do it, but to give a call back if I’m still having trouble. So I paid for my stopper, left the store and hopped on the bus, eager to try my newly fixed bathtub. But something didn’t feel quite right.

What Taking a Bath Says About Being a Man

When I got home, I was excited to see if I had taken care of the issue. So I set myself to cleaning the bathroom (something that was long overdue) and try out my new way of relaxing. I cleaned the bathroom, and after finishing up with the tub, I popped the new drain stopper in and turned on the water. Hopefully the tub would fill, the overflow drain would do its job and I would be on my way to relaxing that evening. Fingers crossed, I filled the tub.

To my surprise, it worked! I had a working tub and it only cost me the price of a rubber stopper. Bathroom clean and tub working properly, I set out to a local store to buy a bath bomb to enhance my bath taking experience. But still, something didn’t feel right. I wasn’t quite sure what it was. But I left the house again in search of a bath bomb.

And I can’t remember if I Googled ways that men destress while I was on my way to the store or at home, but when I did, it was eye opening. The first page was filled with, not things men do to relax, but how a woman can relax her stressed out man. This was crazy to me! Somehow, men had outsourced the job of relaxing to their partners?

Taking Responsibility for Our Relaxing & Emotions as Men

I still couldn’t believe some of the advice I was reading, or rather, the audience it was directed to. “Give your man a massage” and “actively listen to your man” were some of the items suggested to calm down your stressed out man. Now don’t get me wrong, I feel that these are good things in general practice, but not as the only source of stress release for men.

As it was, self-care is something that is relegated to the domain of the feminine. Now de-stressing and relaxing are also the responsibility of women as well. This seemed strange to me. Upon further inspection, when I found a Men’s Health article about how men are relaxing, they suggested activities such as playing golf or hitting the heavy bag. This was also unhelpful.

One suggestion said to “Hit the sauna after you workout”. And later in the slide mentioned that men felt more relaxed after a therapy session if they sat in a sauna. The title and the content weren’t even correlated, leading to more confusion. No wonder men have a difficult time relaxing. With advice like this, it’s easy to see the disconnect.

It’s Okay to Like What You Like

So I went out for the night on a date with a woman I had recently met, with plans to take a bath in my newly fixed tub when I got home. We went to a local restaurant, then for a walk on a near by beach. The night went well and we parted promising to make plans to meet again.

After the date, I was on my way to try out my newly fixed bath tub. I got home, readied the tub, brought a few candles in the bathroom and settle in for the night. Ready to enjoy the feeling of weightlessness. I hopped in the tub after putting in the bath bomb and relaxed for a long while. It was better than I expected.

The scents and the feeling of lightness and the dimly lighted room all helped to set the the tone for a relaxing post date evening. While I was in the bath, I was thinking about how so much of what we like is determined by what others perceive is likable, depending on our gender or other measures that have nothing to do with how we feel doing them. For example and from my experience, it’s okay to like being in a hot tube as a man, but a bath is too feminine. This doesn’t make sense to me. You like what you like. And that shouldn’t be an indicator of anything other than, liking what you like.

Relaxing Shouldn’t Be Relegate to a Specific Gender

More to the point, relaxing and what we do to relax also shouldn’t be judged to be the task of a specific gender. It seems our culture has made the act of relaxing, the job of women. I’m not sure how this happened socially, but for my family, I think it has something to do with feeling taken care of.

In my family, the men were hard and the women were soft. It was the man’s job to take care of the family. And all the toxically masculine ideals that went along with the job. And the men had to always be seen as “strong”, physically and mentally, never “weak”. But what we perceived as “weak” was actually being sensitive, kind or caring. All of these traits, we collectively off loaded onto woman. Deeming them as “weak”, because we were too afraid to feel these traits. Most likely because they had been abused in us. All too often by those we made carry them for us. Creating an unhealthy power dynamic.

And these were the relationship dynamics I grew up under. As men we never spoke about emotions because that wasn’t our job. But unfortunately those we were carrying were stressful ones. For example, needing control, anger and unforgiving were a few of the default ways of being as a man. So, we were usually stressed and frustrated with those around us. This left us unable to relax.

When Relaxing is Provided By Something or Someone & Not Found In Yourself

As a man, I learned that relaxing was something I needed to acquire outside of myself. For me, this meant drinking lots of alcohol at night and sitting in front of a screen. Or eating something unhealthy and lots of it. This was also something I had modeled for me in my youth. There weren’t many trips to a local hiking trail, or time spent around a board game. We seldom spoke about feelings. And when we did, we usually told each other how they were feeling. This added another layer of confusion to knowing whether or not what we were feeling was actually true.

So I never learned how to just be, without help from something else. This lead me to adopt unhealthy behaviors. Habits such as smoking, drinking too much coffee/alcohol, over eating, using pornography. The list goes on. Whatever I could do to distract myself from sitting and just being, I would. But this changed for me when I fell in love with a woman.

Learning That Relaxing Happens From the Inside Out

Something switched in me one day when I was working with someone I truly felt seen and heard by. This combination made me feel as though I could finally be accepted and loved. I was in love with the idea of being loved as I was. That’s when I started meditating, stopped drinking and started other healthy habits.

Habits such as running and yoga. I was cooking more often and more healthy meals as well. I was cultivating a healthier lifestyle around the person I wanted to spend the rest of my life with. Only I hadn’t realized our foundation wasn’t as solid as I had thought it was. She left me and I was left on my own. But fortunately for me, I had a host of healthy habits I had cultivated that would serve me well.

I continued to meditate and learned I could relax, on my own as I was. It wasn’t easy. And I still get caught in what Tara Brach calls, “the trance” of cravings. But now I’m able to know that they are fleeting. The old adage of, “this too shall pass”, fits well this description.

Another way to look at it is from a post I read on New Buddhist, “It’s odd. Instead of feeling like I have to do something about it – if I just relax, recognize it for what it is – I find that it’s not such a driving force as I was thinking it was.” – Michael.

Find What Helps You Most

And finally, we all have different experiences and different circumstances in our lives. Finding the situations that trigger your stress is the first step to handling your stress as a man. In healthy and caring ways. There’s no need to muscle through your stress. Or to taking it out on others. Find what brings you peace in a way that’s in line with your needs. For me, it was taking a bath being surrounded by the scents I love.

For you, maybe it’s a walk in the woods. Or finding a cozy place to curl up and read a book. I like to listen to music in a ambient lighting, listening to a few of my playlists tailored to my moods. Finding what brings you peace will serve you well over time and lead to a healthier way of relaxing. Peace : ) & thanks for reading.

If you have ways you enjoy relaxing as a man, I’d love to here about them in the comments section below! Thanks : )

Image Credits: “bath caddy with book wine in glass and scrub brush with foam bubble bath tub towel” by PersonalCreations.com is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

Isolation and Being a Man Shouldn’t Go Hand In Hand

The Man Standard

I spoke about this some in last weeks post, about what it means to be a man. My experience, while growing up in the eighties, was a very polarizing one. Views and mindsets were on the verge of changing to be more inclusive, but there was still a stronghold of intolerance that shaded everything a stark black and white.

The lessons I gleaned from the opinions modeled for me were, men acted one way and women acted another. There were no shared emotional experiences or characteristics. In my family, men were hard, in charge, responsible for everything and got what they wanted, when they wanted it and could resort to force to get it if the other did not comply.

Women on the other hand were objects to be won, raised the children, had no responsibilities, said and did cruel and cutting things with impunity as long as they did whatever the man wanted from them. Spoiler alert, this did not end well for anybody involved.

Why is that so? Because this way of being bred an awful lot of resentment. And if it’s one thing I’ve learned it’s that resentment is corrosive to relationships. I say corrosive because it seemed as though every action was being judged and criticized while every intention was called into question. And at the heart of this resentment was the limiting ideals of who could feel what or could be who they were, aka a human being with emotions, outside of the polarized views of the expected roles of who men and women should be.

This, was, crazy making. I’ve talked about my abuse before on this blog. An experience that shaped my future interactions with people, making me meek and timid around others. My timid nature was the subject of a lot of ridicule among my caregivers. I was called “sensitive”, which under the regime of my family, was a trait that men simply didn’t have.

It didn’t matter to them that I was traumatized at an early age and habitually abused and neglected. The reasoning being, if I were a real man, I should be able to handle it and do it on my own. This was/is an unreasonable expectation of anyone, especially from an eight year-old. But I soldiered on under these expectations, not realizing the damage they were imparting.

Doing It On Our Own

I’m not sure where this standard originated, but it’s one that’s been alive and well for a very long time. From my experience, asking for help was akin to showing vulnerability. And vulnerability was seen and preyed upon as a weakness. In my family anyway, if you showed that you weren’t able to handle something on your own or asked for help in anyway, the other person would show a deep sense of resentment.

Mostly because we all already felt like we were stretching ourselves to thin. So the burden of one more request was sharply felt in the form of resentment. But also because we never thanked anybody, or showed gratitude for anything anybody ever did. We definitely had a martyr complex and did not hesitate to proudly display this to others.

So instead of normalizing relying on and asking for help from others, I was taught that this was an act of aggression. One of disrespecting the other’s time and resources. In reality, I was just too scared to ask for help and to feel the scorn of any would be aid. But since fear was another emotion that men weren’t supposed to feel, I pretended that I was better than asking for help. This was how I tricked myself into believing that asking for help was for the weak.

Weakness Ain’t So Weak

But this wasn’t something that was unique to my family. This was a cultural phenomenon. For example, most all of the Rambo movies were about just this. One man fighting against all odds to make right the situation. Also, Arnold Schwarzenegger from “The Predator”, was another solo male role-model. Doing it all on their own without any help and leaving a wake of destruction wherever they went.

When I was young and felt like I could take on the world, these were definitely two dangerous role-models for me to have. Learning that having to rely on others is a form of weakness, is no way to navigate challenges that come up in the day to day. But this was the playbook I was given. And one I jumped at the chance to emulate. Everybody I looked up to was doing it, why couldn’t, shouldn’t I?

What I hadn’t realized at the time was, that most of the male role-models in my life were scared to death of some sort of version of coming up short. Whether it was due to social pressures, pressures from their loved ones, societal expectations… The list goes on. But instead of owning these limitations as “unreasonable expectations”, the men in my life chose to fake it till they made it. Only, there wasn’t anywhere to go. This however translated to a lot of drinking, belittling others and an awful lot of machismo bravado. And all of it designed to show how independent and manly they were, not realizing they were seeking somebody else’s approval. This did not work in their favor.

Most of the relationships in my family failed in one way or another. Family gatherings became strained events, where we would all inevitably drink too much and talk about those closest to us in demeaning ways. There was an awful lot of hurt feelings and bruised egos as well. And everybody was too scared of one another to share how they actually felt and what was on their mind. It was a suffocating environment to grow up in.

Making The Change: From Man-Up to Cool-Down

When I was in high-school, as I said above, I was meek. I was quiet and timid but also outspoken in other ways. I did not go to classes, and made a few enemies along the way. One of them was a bully, but no ordinary one. Once, when I was confronted and cornered by this bully in the hallway during a class we were both skipping, she punched me in the eye while here two oafish friends held me in place. I had a black eye for a few weeks and on top of that, I had to tell everybody that a girl beat me up.

This was tough for my 15 year-old ego at the time. Especially growing up in the culture I had. If it was one thing that men didn’t do, it was get beat up by a woman. One of my caregivers even came to my defense and said, “what were you supposed to do, you’re not supposed to hit a woman.” There’s a lot of thing that aren’t right about this statement. Among them being, nobody asking why I was getting beat up in school instead of going to classes. But they were too ashamed of my “sensitive” nature to ask the important questions and set things right.

So asides from being taught that it wasn’t okay to be “sensitive”, how did I find a way to take better care of myself even with the years of harmful lessons I was taught? It started with embracing my sensitive nature and calling it for what it was, me being a man having emotions.

Emotional Experiences: From Traumatic Fear to Just Plain Afraid In a Good Way

The road I took wasn’t a straight forward path. There were a lot of twist and turns and quite a few ignored emotions that needed to be felt. When I started “driving my own life bus” as my boss likes to say, I had to swallow my pride and admit that I had made a mess of the life I was living. Not asking for help from anybody left me alone and with few options as far as how to move myself forward.

I moved back in with family members and had to learn how to be a part of a family again, only this time in a healthy way. And this was difficult. The more I was around my family, the more old emotions were coming up that I had been running from. This was when I began dissociating. I would feel an intense emotion come on, and my mind and body just wouldn’t be able to handle it. So I checked out. People have described it as there being nothing behind my eyes, empty. That was the traumatic fear I was unable to fully feel.

But the longer I stayed with the feelings, meeting my edge and softening, the more I could embody them without dissociating. This took a lot of work in the way of, self-care, learning to be able to trust others, accepting support from others and trusting myself that I wasn’t going to carry on the legacy of the lessons that were taught to me.

Practice Makes Perfect: Wait, Maybe That’s an Unreasonable Standard

And what made this work possible, was a whole lot of practice. My default settings were to rely on the harmful lessons of my caregivers past. I had to consciously work to recognize when a situation would arise where I was operating under old, unhealthy ways of being and willfully work to change the course of my old teachings.

A great example of this is the ways I used to view women. As I said above, I was taught that women were objects to be won. This also meant that they were only to be seen as objects and their purpose was to fulfill desire. This meant sexual desire in my family. So my default teaching was, when I saw a woman, I immediately put her in one of two categories: attractive or unattractive. In my family, this was the extent of a woman’s value.

I hadn’t realized how demeaning this was because I wasn’t really driving my own life bus. I was acting on auto pilot, mostly for fear of being rejected by the people who where teaching me these unhealthy lessons in the first place.

So I first had to recognize that these views I held were unhealthy. This came with getting to know the women I was already relying on in my day to day relationships as first; people with emotional worlds all their own, and second as smart, funny, caring and loving individuals. To my surprise, they were fun and loving people with loads of personality and lots to contribute to just about every area of life. This is a bit of hyperbole, as I’ve always had a respect for women.

But treating them as equals was something that went against my initial teachings and something I had to actively recognize, when I was judging them solely on their appearance. Because how can you really see someone as equal if you decide their worth boils down to how hot they look in an outfit or naked?

So I was relying on the aid of these women to teach me how unhealthy my views and lessons learned were, by them being amazing and strong women. I was also recognizing the judgements I was making that were popping up in my mind as they were happening, while also challenging them in the moment.

This was tough, I’m not gonna lie. And I can see how some would choose to bury their heads in the sand and pretend it doesn’t need their attention. But the quality of my relationships has grown exponentially with these women and I’ve learned so much just by being around them. For example, my boss is an amazing woman who’s, started her own business after leaving a successful career in finance where she traveled around the world while raising a family. She’s like an unstoppable machine and I’m pretty sure who Merion-Webster had in mind when they defined the word and phrase, “capable” and “excels in every area.”

I could go on and I want to take this opportunity to thank all the women, especially those who go unrecognized, for putting up with people who I used to resemble for as long as you have without killing us. You are much stronger than we’ve ever given you credit for being : ) Thanks.

So the new lessons I’m choosing to live by are, men don’t have to go it alone. There are loads of people that are more than willing to lend a hand, women being among some of the the most capable. And asking for help is not equivalent to weakness. If you’ve found yourself in a situation similar to mine, know that you are not alone. It takes some work to break free, but it is most definitely worth it. I’ll leave you with a song that’s given me strength on my journey. Peace 🙂 and thanks for reading.

Strength, Courage and Wisdom. India Arie

Image Credits: “Lonely Man” by Nickeeth Lopez is marked with CC BY-NC 2.0.

Am I A “Real Man”? Or, How to Know When You Need to Flex on Some Turkeys : )

I was walking to a local shop not to long ago, to attempt to pick up my phone from being repaired after it stopped holding a charge. While I was on my why to the train station, I noticed a flock of wild turkeys bobbing around, looking for grubs to snack on. I thought that it was nice that I’ve been seeing more wildlife in the area, turkeys and rabbits being among them. So, with that in mind, I continued on my path towards the train station.

About a minute after passing the turkeys, I turned around for some reason only to notice that two of the turkeys had begun following me. I figured it was mating season, and I must have infringed on their territory. So I continued walking thinking they’d soon get bored and quit the chase. This however did not happen.

The turkeys got more aggressive, getting closer to me while pecking in the air in my direction. I turned around to face them, walking backwards while swinging my backpack at them in an attempt to shoo them, only to find that this was not helpful. While this was happening, a passerby drove up behind them and started honking the horn at them. This did not deter the turkeys. They raged on in my direction with an arrogant indignation of my presence.

The girl in the front seat of the car couldn’t have been more than 13 years-old, and was laughing hysterically. And trust me when I say, the humor was not lost on me : )

It was in this moment of levity, that my savior came. It was a little Yorkie Terrier guided by a man in his thirties. The man was explaining how waiving my bag was only making the turkeys more bold, while a dog one fourth the size of one of the birds, chased them into the nearby woods. It was a site to see, for sure and if I had my phone I would have definitely taken a video for documentation.

Is That What a Man’s Supposed to be Like?

Being chased by turkeys got me thinking, “how should I have handled this situation” and “does being chased by turkeys make me less of a man?” The conclusions I’ve come to are, no and let me tell you why.

My Role Models Growing Up

In the time and place I grew up, being a man was usually paired with gratuitous violence and a black and white way to choose and practice your morals and values. Characters like Rambo and Arnold Schwarzenegger from “The Predator” embodied these behaviors, that men were supposed to emulate in order to be a man. That was the unwavering standard of what makes a man, a man.

And needless to say, these were unreasonable. But to an eight year-old, they make perfect sense. Through the eyes of a child, there is most definitely evil in the world and it needs to be smote by a muscle bound savior. Most likely fighting against all odds to save the day for the masses, or a woman. The dangerous part of this message is that, we were all led to believe that deep down, we (real men) are the good guys and we could use whatever means necessary to achieve the end goal of, fighting for the greater good.

This is, from my understanding, the way we rationalize using violence to achieve our goals. But as I see it, this use of violence is a form of letting our emotions take the wheel and control our actions. I could have charged the turkeys and released my anger and frustrations on them for trying to chase me and do them harm in the process. And I have a few people in my life that would have told me that a “real man” would have drop kicked those turkeys into the next zip-code. But would I be more of a man for doing that? No. Losing control of our emotional states is more a trait of immaturity. More child like.

And of course, this reaction takes root in the male role models we had in our childhoods. Professional wrestling was a huge proponent of this type of machismo attitude also. All the posturing and flexing, mixed with the bravado worked to normalize the use of violence to alleviate the discomfort of feeling unsafe. Because at the core of conflict is that somebody, something or animals in my case, are threatening my safety. Perceived or physical.

So if I’m right, most aggression is really a way to avoid the difficult emotions of feeling unsafe, or not in control of our safety and surroundings. So how do we make the shift from feeling unsafe and acting from our fear based emotions to a more stable emotional place? I think it starts with practice and a little help from some healthier role models. Let me tell you how I’ve been practicing this.

My Role Models Now

I have a few photos on my phone’s wallpaper that rotate at random. They are, Dana Schultz from Minimalist Baker, Adriene Mishler from Yoga With Adriene, 2 Pac, Tom Hanks, Damon Albarn from Blur, Tara Brach, Mark Twain, Rumi, D’ Angelo the R&B artist and Tommy Caldwell and Alex Honnold the rock climbers. As well as a few photos of things I’d like to have or achieve.

Adriene, Dana and Damon are there to remind me to keep at it, whatever it is. They are so prolific as artists, writers and doers and give me inspiration to keep writing or stay on top of my yoga practice or do my best in my work. Whatever it is I’m doing, when I see their photos, I’m reminded to try a little harder.

Tom and Tara are on there to show me that I don’t have to be so hard all the time. The lessons I learned growing up, the ones that told me I had to be calloused and unfeeling as a man just aren’t true. Tom, especially his role in “Sleepless in Seattle”, illustrates the vulnerability we all have. And not that it’s only a female trait, but a humane one. Tara reminds me to be patient and also to nurture myself along the way. All ways of being that I was taught weren’t a man’s job.

Mark, Rumi, Tommy and Alex are there because they are great at what they do/did. And what made them great was their persistence, resilience and dedication. When I see them, I know that if I work hard enough, I’ll accomplish my goals. Anything’s possible. “Courage is mastery of fear, resistance to fear, not absence of it” – Mark Twain.

D’ Angelo made the list to remind me that as a man, it’s okay to show emotions deeply. To feel deeply and to be seen. I was taught that men didn’t have emotions other than anger. And even though we showed anger freely, we were shamed for showing it. Of course we were relating to it in reactionary ways. This was unhealthy. I now recognize the full spectrum of my emotions as they happen and wait before I respond. Giving myself a little more leeway.

And 2-Pac made the list because “everybody and their lady got a little bit o thug in em.” I sometimes need to be reminded that it’s okay to break the rules sometimes. We’re not perfect and that’s okay.

So with these new role models, I’m rebuilding a new version of myself. One that is strong and flexible. Loyal and dedicated. Feels deeply and is not ashamed of it. Not afraid to take some risks, but also knows how to be soft when I need to be. Especially with myself. I’m building a better man, from the new resources I’ve been collecting. And it’s not easy.

The Road Is Most Definitely Difficult

There are definitely times that I want to give in to the feelings of being overwhelmed, or fatigue. As an old co-worker of mine used to say, the days when you “just don’t wanna.” Thanks Chris. But it’s worth remembering that feelings are fleeting. They never last.

There are times like today, when I wake up at 6:30am to work in a bakery/restaurant and then go directly to my second job at a family shelter, where on top of my professional duties, I also plan my personal responsibilities for the upcoming week. After 16 hours of working straight, I am definitely ready to do absolutely nothing.

And it may be easier to take the road I once did. Where I would work minimal hours and spend the rest of my time playing videogames and drinking. Chasing pleasure rather than building the connections and experiences that would persist and bring me joy in a sustainable way. But the “easier” way of living brought with it a consistent sense of fear and anxiety. Not to mention I had almost no close friends to share my time with. I was alone and I had no idea that it was connected to the ways I was isolating from everyone.

Isolation is yet another lesson I learned on how to be a man by my caregivers and culture. Something I’ll be exploring some more in next weeks post. There’s something deceptively comforting in thinking you can do it all alone. Though impossible to actually accomplish, we still try. This is mostly due to, I believe, being told and shown we can by the culture. Being afraid to ask for help because it means you aren’t in control was another lesson on manhood I received in my childhood.

But avoiding connection was all connected to running from the fear of being hurt in relationships. We all get hurt by one another eventually. It’s only a matter of time really. But we need one another. Because being connected and sharing experiences are what makes life worth living. We can’t do that on our own.

So When Is It Okay To Flex On Some Turkeys?

This is by no means an exhaustive list on the many pitfalls we face when measuring ourselves up against the standards of what it means to be a man. These are only my perspectives of the lessons I’ve had impressed on me and what I’ve learned from them. But know that if you have some fears or questions on what it means to be a man, you are not alone.

It’s hard to come to the conclusion of what being a man means to us on an individual level. And what it means to you may not be what it means for me. But we’re all on the same journey together. And sometimes our paths do cross and we walk for a little while together. Hopefully my experiences have helped you in some way understand your experience a little better.

And I think the answer lies in something that Adriene from “Yoga With Adriene” says often, “find what feels good”. Only I’d add, in a sustainable way. Peace : ) and thanks for reading. Oh yeah, if you found that you’re being chased by turkeys, the common wisdom is to show dominance by waving your arms wildly while shouting and slowly walking towards them. Also having a dog on a leash helps as well. One more reason to own a dog : )

Image Credits: “I had to inch my way past this gang of local hooligans to get out of my driveway this morning. #lifeinthesuburbs #morningcommute” by Lorianne DiSabato is marked with CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

Healthy Responsibility: How to Tell What it Looks Like & How Our Past Shapes Our Idea of What it Means

When I was a child in the eighties, responsibility was a word that was used liberally. It was also gender specific. This usually meant that the man in whatever situation, work or family, was responsible for the well-being of, well, just about everything. They were the breadwinners, kept those in his charge safe, and provided for them and their needs as well. The women were prizes to be won and looked after what the man provided and who he provided for. This was/is a large amount of responsibility and was solely on the shoulders of the man.

How to be a Man

As a child taking this role in, using black and white thinking to navigate my world, this was overwhelming. It was most definitely the case for me growing up and what I was taught about what it means to be a man. And I’m certain that I’m not alone. So my question is, if we’re taught what the role of a man is, while we’re using black and white thinking to make sense of our world, how do we broaden our perspective to take in other ideas of what it means to be a man? I.e., what does a healthy amount of responsibility look like?

This is no easy task. But necessary if we want to become whole and healthy individuals. I’ll be sharing some of my experiences and the lessons I was taught growing up. What I was told and how I made sense of the role I was given to fit into. And also, how I’ve changed the definition of what it means to be a man for myself.

Man Up… or Don’t?

The phrase, “man up” was used a lot when I was a child. It essentially means to be tough. Whatever is happening in the moment, if you were a “real” man, you’d be able to handle it. No matter what. This was definitely the unspoken rule in my family and in society at large at the time.

So this is how I lived my life. To the measure of a “real” man. This meant drinking way to much, to prove I could “handle it”. I was also mean and condescending to others that I viewed as ineffectual or “weak”. Which I later realized was me preying on vulnerabilities I saw in others as they (the vulnerabilities) had been abused in me. In short, I was angry, abusive and uncertain of myself and supported in this iteration of my personality by those closest to me. Largely because it was how those who supported me were as well. And all of it monumentally unhealthy.

When I realized how unhealthy my definition of a man was, it was terrifying for me to realize what I had been striving to become. I had turned into my own abuser in a way. By punishing myself for not being invulnerable in the ways I was taught I needed to be as a man, as defined by my family. And to top it all off, I was supposed to be responsible not only for myself, but being a man meant, I was also responsible for the women and children in my family.

You’re the Man of the House Now…

I think this advice was dispensed to every boy whose parents divorced and whose mother had custody of the would be new man of the house. I was told this by every male family member when my parents split. As well meaning as their sentiment may have been, it felt like the world had just been laid on my eight-year old shoulders. Overwhelming.

And the worst part of the entire experience was, no one told me what that meant! I was eight, my family was falling apart, and according to all the adults in my life, I was in charge. It’s so absurd to think about now, that it’s funny. But it sure didn’t feel that way then. But I took on that responsibility none-the-less.

I studied my caregivers like science projects. To find out what it was that I was supposed to be doing. As I’ve said before on this blog, that didn’t turn out so well. I ended up living as they did, which happened to be how Jim Morrison lived. As my friend Melba would say, this was no bueno.

And even after watching “The Doors” movie on repeat through my high school years, I still had no idea what was expected of me. I drank a lot, found myself in some pretty dangerous situations, but never had any direction on what I should have been doing. While my peers were studying to get good marks, so they could attend a respectable college, I was drinking to numb the pain of the neglect I had experienced while fumbling around and looking for some center. Some stability.

And I never did learn what it meant to be the man of the house. Because all the men who were supposed to show me how, left. Also, the female caregivers in my family were consistently saying how they didn’t know how to raise a man. So I was abandoned and alone. And as a result, I made some pretty poor decisions. Later in life, I had left my then beautiful wife, for a woman two thirds my age and who had been racing towards the bottom in the same ways I had been. The Marla Singer to my Taylor Durden. But Luckily, this is where I turned it around and started making healthier choices.

Choosing to Be a Better Man

Exercise

It took me until I was in my thirties to recognize that I needed to make a change. But when I did I hit the ground running. Literally. I started my journey with exercise. First running, then yoga. I had been so sedentary for such a long time, that I had become unhealthy and out of shape. I was playing enough videogames to satisfy the hour requirements for a part-time job, and drinking maybe half my caloric requirements for the day in alcohol.

Running and yoga were ways for me to reconnect physically with my body. and the world around me. I had spent so much time staring at a screen that it was almost like I was living in a two dimensional world. Taking care of my body’s needs, helped bring me back into the third dimension. I remember asking a co-worker what the third dimension was once. He did a comical rendition by bouncing up, down, left, right and back and forth. I had spent so much time in front of a screen that I literally didn’t understand practically how dimensions worked. And I went to architecture school for a semester!

And the more I got up and out the door, or on my mat, especially when I didn’t want to, I became more uncomfortable with the feeling of wanting to avoid my responsibilities. I began to enjoy the work I had previously avoided. By playing video games and drinking. And I now work harder because of it.

Learning to Cook for Myself

This was a big portion of my life that I had been neglecting for a very long time. And what’s strange is, that I worked in the restaurant industry cooking and baking for a majority of my career. It should have been second nature. But drinking was still my main priority when it came to my caloric intake.

Again, in my thirties is when I started to take responsibility for my nutritional needs. It was also the first time I started viewing eating as fulfilling my “nutritional needs”, instead of just eating what I felt. This was a big shift from eating whatever I could find around the house and ordering takeout three to four times a week. Also better for my budget. Something I’ll be going over in more detail next week.

I began my nutritional journey by going vegan. It was a little extreme looking back on the decision now. I’m eating vegetarian currently, but still cook mostly vegan for myself. My weight is the healthiest it’s ever been and I’m also feeling much healthier. Win win. And the long term health benefits for going veg are undeniably the healthier nutritional option. Also cutting back on large amounts of processed foods helps as well. Reserving them mostly for occasional treats or snacks.

Budgeting

When I began making the switch to healthier choices and decisions about my life, I was also about 130k in debt. Health bills, student loans, credit cards… If someone was lending money, I was most likely looking to borrow it. Getting on a budget and taking responsible for my financial world, came rushing in all at once. This is when I found Dave Ramsey and started following his baby steps to getting and staying out of debt.

I began by taking stock of what I had. All my debts, all piled up in one place. So I could see just how deep a hole I had dug for myself. I then came up with a plan to pay down my debt by making and sticking to a written budget. This wasn’t easy.

There were definitely months where I looked at my grocery budget of 250$ and realized that I overshot it by 500$! These were difficult months. But the more effort I put into sticking to my budget, the more it paid off. I started to make some real progress on my debt goals. And have cut my debt to nearly half of what I originally started with.

Not to mention, that I’ve also had the time and resources to make plans for retirement. As well as setting up an emergency fund for a little financial peace of mind. I’m feeling more responsible for my life now and it’s also given me more focus and direction on my career path and goals. Taking charge of your money is a great place to start recognizing what healthy responsibility looks like. Because it touches so many different aspects of our lives.

Being a Man & What it Means to Me Now

The messages I received as a child, of what it means to be a man, the gun and porn collections of my childhood caregivers, the bravado, these were not sustainable ways to be a man. Let alone sound advice on how to live your life. I’ve come to realize that those who were showing me the way in my youth, were struggling themselves with what it means to hold healthy amounts of responsibility.

For me now, being a man means to take care of my needs first. Not in a selfish way. But in a way that allows me the security and peace of mind to know that I’m on a solid foundation. That no matter what comes up, I’m able to take care of myself while it’s happening. Then I can begin to focus on helping others on their paths.

Knowing Your Limits

But it begins with understanding where our unhealthy patterns of taking on too much responsibility lay. Are we consistently spreading ourselves too thin by feeling obligated to do as much as possible for others at our own expense. Our first obligation should be to ourselves, then we can judge how much of ourselves we’re able to give, without completely overwhelming ourselves.

So if you’re struggling with feelings of being overwhelmed and exhausted at the amount of responsibility you have, maybe it’s time to check in with yourself. What are the areas of your life that are feeling too much. What can you do to ease some of the stress? Are there small changes you can make to your routine that will shave off some of the responsibilities you have, to a more manageable level?

These are all little ways where you are able to make a large impact on how you view and manage your responsibilities. And above all, know your limits. If you’re feeling overwhelmed and like you’ve taken on too much, trust that your intuition is right. Listening to yourself is the first step in taking on a healthier amount of responsibility. As always, peace & thanks for reading : )

Image Credits: “What’s a weekend?/Resource overload” by AllieKF is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Updated: 11/27/22

Affirmations: More than Just Positive Self Talk

“Affirmations? Really?” That used to be what I thought about them. Of course my introduction to them was from the Saturday Night Live’s character, Stuart Smalley. His daily affirmation of, “I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and doggonit, people like me.” This scathing introduction to the world of self-help was just the type of fuel an adolescent me needed, to show me that self-help was for the “weak”. It also give me the fuel to make fun of those willing to look for something that would help them. Making them stronger and more resilient. Of course I was thirteen and knew everything at the time. So I should probably cut my younger self some slack : )

Toxic Masculinity and Other Lesson On How Not to Be a Man

All joking aside, I’ve come to see affirmations in a much different light as when I was a teenager. I’ve been using them as a way to help create a stronger sense of self worth. To build confidence and help give myself the guidance I so desperately needed in my childhood. Of course I had to swallow a little bit of pride first. If you’ve read my post on toxic masculinity, you’ll know I was raised to believe that affirmations were for the ineffectual, the weak.

According to my family, I was a man at eight years old. Right after my parents divorced, I became “the Man of the house”. Or so I was told by almost every male role model I had at the time. It seemed a way of consoling me. As if to say “buck up son, no time to be upset, you have new responsibilities to get after”. Looking back now this all seems so ridiculous. But when I was eight, it felt like the weight of the world was just dropped on my shoulders.

Rigid Values Added to the Confusion

From my younger perspective, men took what they wanted and were the embodiment of confidence and strength. If there was a problem, the man would take care of it using sheer force. There was no need to account for feelings. Or even others points of view. So from this mindset, affirmations weren’t something a man needed. Because he already imbued strength and confidence by virtue of being a man. They were a given.

I even came to live life to my family’s standard of what it means to be a man in the ways that made them comfortable. Something I’ve created an affirmation around to combat the toxic masculinity that was handed down to me. Because that way of living left me feeling hollow. I pushed everyone away with cutting criticisms and needed to numb the feelings I had been ignoring in order to be who I thought needed to be. All based on how I saw those closest to me behave. It was anxiety producing. And most of the time it filled me with fear.

Consequences of Living the Toxically Masculine Life

And all this fear that was growing unchecked, was fueled by pride and bravado. I was perpetually putting down others to make myself seem more confident, more capable than I actually was. The nature of my thoughts were negative and born from insecurity. And I was practicing them constantly. The more I practiced them, the deeper I sunk into the hollowness I had creating. There’s a Modest Mouse album I used to listen to often and its name embodies this sentiment for me. “Building Nothing out of Something”. A chilling reminder of my past self.

And that’s what it felt like for sure. After I had burned all my bridges, I was left completely alone. With only my negative thoughts to keep me company. That was about six years ago. And since then I’ve been rebuilding well, just about every aspect of my life. From relationships to people, to food, and maybe most importantly, to myself. I had to find a way to replace that constant negative self talk. Also the doubt that had become my M.O. for so long. That’s when I began using positive affirmations.

Positive Affirmations and Self Talk

I think the idea took root while I was taking a psychology course at my local community college. My professor Gerry, was an upbeat woman in her early sixties. She spoke a lot about positive psychology which is branch of psychology that focuses on the individuals strengths. To help us live a fuller, happier life with more meaning. Affirmations for me, are a way to focus on these. The positive qualities of my life.

Checking the Baggage

But there was a lot of unchecked emotional baggage I needed to go through (that I’m still going through), in order to know what aspects of my life to focus on. Also, how I was relating to both my emotions and areas of my life. This was a way for me to give my life some direction using affirmations to help me stay focused.

I mostly narrow in on the ways that I’ve experienced trauma and how unsafe I feel around others. Also on the loneliness from the neglect and verbal abuse I experienced. I should also mention that I’ve been doing this work with the help of a therapist. They’ve been an invaluable resource for me on my journey. So if there’s one bit of advice I can give, it is do not go this alone.

There are many times where I needed the guidance of someone who knows about the path I’m on. And if you had caregivers like mine, you may not have many healthy lessons to draw from. This is exactly where outsourcing some healthier, new perspectives on how to handle your experiences in the present that may bring up old ways of reacting to emotions would come in handy. It also may help you to see them from a new, positive and strength based perspective. A therapist’s help may be the difference between establishing a healthy, lasting change, or opening an old wound that you may not be capable of processing alone.

Practice, Practice, Practice

And it’s after understanding how we react to our emotions and experiences, that we’re able to forge affirmations that help us to facilitate change. Mine are a work in process. They also alter slightly as I come to understand how I react to the maladaptive lessons I’ve learned.

Because I’m now just finding out that my emotions aren’t anything to be ashamed of. No matter how I was shamed for having them as a child. It took decades of repeated reinforcement of harmful lessons on how to be with my emotions that got me to where I am. So I’m not surprised to discover that it takes practice to reinforce the positive perspectives I wish to embody. Lots of practice. And sure, it’s little frustrating, but not surprising.

One way I’ve been frustrated and veered from the path is, when I’m caught in the grip of an irrational fear that I know stems from my abuse. When the fear sets in in the form of negative thinking, my mind wants to believe the thoughts that are running through my head. This usually leads to more fear and anxiety. It’s then that a part of my affirmations will come to mind. like a firm place to hold on to. Some stability. But it’s because of how persistently I practice positive self-talk that I’m able to create this. The space necessary to gain a clear, positive perspective when I’m in the thick of difficult thoughts and emotions.

And I cannot stress enough that it takes practice. The more often you say and focus on the positive, the more often your mind will default to it when thoughts and circumstances pop up. For example if you’re insecure about meeting new people or being judged, then the more often we say to ourselves, “it’s okay to be me just as I am”, the more likely we are to remember this sentiment when we are in a situation where we are being introduced to someone for the first time.

Context Matters

I say mine once a day. Though sometimes, if a part of them comes to mind, I scan my circumstances to see if it’s tied to an old belief. To see if I’m relating to it (the affirmation) and my current situation and am I using old negative beliefs to define my current experience. If so, I’ll remind myself of the positive ways I want to relate to my thoughts and emotions, in the here and now. Then sometimes I’ll repeat the whole of my affirmations for a little extra boost of confidence. This usually helps to subside any of whatever anxiety and fear may be present.

And it’s not always easy. To be completely honest, sometimes it just plain sucks. But it never lasts very long and it subsides much quicker now than it ever has. Also, the more often I practice them, the better and more confident I feel about myself. All while being able to endure the difficult emotions and finding my footing onto more positive and stable ground.

Sometimes Being Kind Means Going Against the Grain

Practicing affirmations probably isn’t in style. I’m not sure how people would react to me if I told them I regularly give myself pep talks to build confidence. As well as to generally feel better about myself. But maybe that’s part of what helps to build the courage we’re seeking. Doing something that isn’t in line with what others see as “tough” or “strong”. But striking out on our own and finding what helps to make us feel stronger and more courageous.

I know it seems cliché but it’s true. Finding the strength in ourselves first is how we come to feel stronger. It’s not out there, in someone or something else. It’s right here. All we’re really doing when we use affirmations is reminding ourselves of the strength that’s already right here.

The phrase namaste comes to mind when I think about finding strength in ourselves first. “The divine in me, recognizes the divine in you”. The “divine” is what we’re “recognizing” when we decide to reinforce the search for the strength in ourselves. We do this by focusing on the positive in us by using affirmations to help us reinforce how we want to feel, confident. It’s already right here, we just have to recognize that it’s here.

And Remember, Be Kind To Yourself

Using affirmations can be a good foundation to find the personal strength you need to build healthy self image. Or as it was in my case, rebuild the basics of healthy relationships with others. Also building a healthy self-image and how I care for myself. It takes work and it can be tough at times. But learning to use the tools of positive self-talk has the ability to strengthen every other aspect of our lives. From who we choose to surround ourselves with, to where we feel we deserve to live or work. And also how we care for ourselves. If you haven’t thought about it, or are on the fence about them, it may be worth your time to explore them some. Because the nature of your thoughts holds the power to shape your world. Thanks for reading, peace :]

Image Credits: “Ben Eine – The Strangest Week : Smiley Faces / Acid House Faces – Hackney Road / Diss Street, London E2” by bobaliciouslondon is licensed under CC BY 2.0

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