Gaslighting: “It’s Not Me, It’s You”

it's you

Trigger warning: Emotional and Mental Abuse

Let me tell you a story. It is a difficult story to put into words, so please bear with me.

When my second husband and I first got married, he worked as a paramedic. Not long after we were married, he switched to working with a full time female partner. I would imagine that any spouse in that situation will tell you it makes them a little uneasy. There is a reason ambulance crews are called partners. They work long hours together, go through some very traumatic situations together, and often end up knowing each other really well due to conversations had when the call volume is low or when they are posting (waiting for a call to drop). They depend on each other in potentially dangerous situations and must be able to read each other’s verbal and non-verbal cues well enough to anticipate needs during emergencies. Trust is key in their working relationship.


Partner: “A person with whom one shares an intimate relationship: one member of a couple” (n.d.).


Initially, I had no issues with his new partner. She was married with several children, so I did not see her as a threat in any way. The thought really didn’t even cross my mind. The longer they worked together, the more he talked about her. He seemed to know every detail about her personal life, including her marital issues. It was clear they were forming a close bond, so a small bit of doubt began to worm its way into the back of my mind. I started making jokes about how she was the “other woman,” which always annoyed him. He said it was an unfair, tasteless joke. I felt bad enough that I kept my thoughts to myself, despite the fact that he literally spent more time with her than me and continued to gush about her every word or action.

One day, my best friend and I were out to lunch. Low and behold, my husband walks into the restaurant with his partner, unaware that I was there with my friend. I caught their attention and invited them to come over and sit with us. I ended up sitting on the same side as my friend, while my husband and the partner shared the other booth. My husband made no move to try and sit with me. The way they interacted made my stomach churn. They kept laughing and giggling and sharing private jokes. Later, my friend told me that she felt like they were a couple on a date and that she and I were their friends. Anyone observing would have thought the same thing.

dating

Partway through lunch, the partner says, “Tell them about the table.” My husband turned bright red and stayed silent, which immediately piqued my interest because he was the type of person who was embarrassed by nothing and had a witty comeback for everything. She said, “Fine. I’ll tell them. It’s a great story. We probably won’t ever be allowed in that store again.” She proceeds to explain that it had been a quiet morning, so they had posted at a local furniture store. She continued on by saying that they went in to look at kitchen tables. My husband and I had just moved into a house and were planning to look for a kitchen table the following weekend, so I was horrified that he would go do something so personal – something I had been so looking forward to – with her before he’d even gone with me. He took her furniture shopping for our house! To my horror, she then proceeds to say that when he found a table he liked, she hopped up on the table, made an action wholly inappropriate in public view, and suggested they make sure the table was sturdy. She maintained eye contact with me the whole time. In case you missed it: She. Told. This. To. His. Wife.

scream

Needless to say, there were words when he got home from work that night. I was a wreck. He became increasingly upset with me, saying that it was just a joke and that I should be more trusting. He said that I should know that he would never stoop so low as to cheat on the love of his life. He expressed disappointment that the thought would even cross my mind. I had no right to be upset because he’d done nothing wrong. He couldn’t help it if she had a raunchy sense of humor and no shame.

He played my guilt complex strings like a first chair violinist. His performance was flawless. And it worked. I felt so terrible that I would jump to conclusions and assume her joke could only mean his guilt. I told myself I had absolutely no reason to not trust him. Till death do us part, right? He made that vow right along with me. I owed it to both myself and to him to stop reading between the lines or imagining things that could never possibly happen. The trouble is, doubt kept creeping in, so I had to keep smothering it and shoving it back into a locked closet deep inside my heart.


gaslamp

The actual term gaslighting was only recently introduced to me. It stunned me when I did a little research. Gaslighting is a verb. The action “is a malicious and hidden form of mental and emotional abuse, designed to plant seeds of self-doubt and alter your perception of reality. Like all abuse, it’s based on the need for power, control, or concealment” (Lancer, 2018). I also find the following Urban Dictionary definition to be alarmingly accurate:


Gaslighting: “An increasing frequency of systematically withholding factual information from, and/or providing false information to, the victim – having the gradual effect of making them anxious, confused, and less able to trust their own memory and perception” (Your Reality Check, 2009).


Doesn’t that just make you feel all warm and fuzzy?

Dr. Robin Stern, as quoted by NBC News, says that gaslighting “is always dangerous. The danger of letting go of your reality is pretty extreme.” She goes on to say that “the target of the gaslighting is terrified to change up [the relationship] or step out of the gaslighting dynamic because the threat of losing that relationship – or the threat of being seen as less than who you want to be seen as to them – is quite a threat” (DiGiulio, 2018).

Looking back on that marriage, if I had to identify one word that was constant through it all, it would be turmoil. The trouble was, all the turmoil was internal. The war that raged inside of me on a regular basis is difficult to explain. It was a combination of 1) mistrust because his words didn’t always line up completely with his actions, 2) negative self-talk over the fact that I was a terrible person for not trusting him completely, and 3) frustration over the fact that I was experiencing these volatile feelings but could not talk to him about them for fear that he would finally have enough of my unfounded concerns and be done with me. There were a handful of occasions during which I attempted to have a conversation with him about the fears that were eating away at me from the inside out. I always ended up in tears. I would even try writing out bullet point lists so I wouldn’t forget anything or miss any example or supporting detail. Inevitably, he always convinced me of the same conclusion: I worry too much and it’s just my anxiety creating problems that aren’t actually there. It was all in my head. I read an article in Psychology Today that suggested “the person gaslighting you might act hurt and indignant or play the victim when challenged or questioned. Covert manipulation can easily turn into overt abuse, with accusations that you’re distrustful, ungrateful, unkind, overly sensitive, dishonest, stupid, insecure, crazy, or abusive” (Lancer, 2018). This is what he did. He wore me down until I was blind to the truth and doubted my ability to identify red flags that were clearly evidenced by his actions.

blind


Fast forward a few years. I was actually at the point of being at peace in my marriage. I was happy. I felt that we were in a good place…a loving place. I really did trust him at this point. I had finally succumbed to the brainwashing and saw absolutely no reason to ever doubt anything he said. He wouldn’t dream of cheating on me. Ever.

Enter stage left: long-time colleague and friend who is taking a biology class. This friend is lab partners with a nice young mother. She talks non-stop about her amazing boyfriend, the father of her adorable baby boy. The more she talks about him, the more my friend begins to feel a sense of familiarity with this so-called perfect boyfriend. His name. His ethnicity. His background story. The act was up when the friend looked up his lab partner’s Facebook page and saw that her profile picture was of my husband snuggling her close and looking at her with utter adoration. The cover photo was a picture of a smiling baby who looked exactly like the man I thought I’d be with for the rest of my life.

game over

I never actually understood the term “having the rug pulled out from under me” until that moment. I was blindsided. I trusted him. I had convinced myself I was crazy every time I even considered his actions anything but innocent. I’d been a fool. Fool me once, shame on you. True. But that doesn’t change the fact that I’d been fooled, brainwashed, and had believed that it was all in my head.

When I confronted him with my knowledge, I did not tell him that I first went to the woman to hear her side of the story (It was not the ambulance partner from before, but was still someone from the EMS community). I wanted to see how much their stories differed. Of course they were wildly different. When I finally told him that I had already spoken with her and that the only consistency between their two stories was that he was indeed the father of the child, he had the audacity to tell me she was a pathological liar. He told me she had gotten pregnant intentionally to trap him into leaving me. He said she railroaded his life, that he felt betrayed by her actions, and that he was the one who had truly been wronged. She ruined his life. End of story. Oh…and would I please forgive him, make a fresh start, and forget it ever happened. I did forgive him (best thing I’ve ever done in my life), I declined his offer for a “fresh start,” and chose to never forget. Forgetting leads to repetition. I hope to never have a repeat of that experience.


I share this deeply personal story not to receive pity for being a gaslighting victim, an outpouring of sympathy for the pain I experienced, or praise for how strong I was to come out of that situation on top. I don’t want any of that. I want others out there to know that this happens. I want others to know that it’s not okay. You don’t have to tolerate that behavior from anyone, no matter how much they claim to love you or need you.

Dr. Stern, again quoted by NBC, lists out some big red flags that would have been wonderful to know back then. Think of it as a “you might be a gaslighting victim if…” list:

  1. “You’re constantly second guessing yourself or have trouble making decisions”
  2. “You’re ruminating about a perceived character flaw (like being too sensitive or not a good enough person)”
  3. “You feel confused about your relationship”
  4. “In a confrontation with the person that might be gaslighting you, you feel like you suddenly find yourself in an argument you didn’t intend to have, you’re not making progress or you’re saying the same thing over and over again and not being heard”
  5. “You feel fuzzy or unclear about your thoughts, feelings, or beliefs”
  6. “You’re always apologizing”
  7. “You’re frequently making excuses for your partner’s behavior”
  8. “You can’t understand why you’re not happy in your own life”
  9. “You know something is wrong, but you just don’t know what” (DiGiulio, 2018)

If you are noticing those red flags in your own life, or in the life of a loved one, do something. Say something. It is a toxic situation and I can’t even begin to explain how important it is to get away. Stop the abuse. Don’t be afraid to reach out or ashamed of being fooled. We are all human and all make mistakes. What’s important is what you do about it going forward. Stand your ground and find courage in the fact that you are an incredible individual who deserves to be loved by both yourself and others.

If you don’t know who else to reach out to, send me a message. I’ve been there. I’m here now. I see you.


“I can never understand which is more painful, the lies I believed or the truths I did not.” – unknown


 

References

DiGiulio, Sarah. (2018). What is gaslighting? And how do you know if it’s happening to you? NBC News. Retrieved from https://www.nbcnews.com/better/health/what-gaslighting-how-do-you-know-if-it-s-happening-ncna890866

Lancer, Darlene. (2018). How to Know If You’re a Victim of Gaslighting. Psychology Today. Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/toxic-relationships/201801/how-know-if-youre-victim-gaslighting

Partner. (n.d.). In online Merriam-Webster Dictionary. Retrieved from https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/partner

Your Reality Check. (2008). In Urban Dictionary. Retrieved from https://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=Gaslighting

Photo credit: Unsplash.com

The F Word

silence

There are words in the English language that make me cringe. For example, the word varicose makes my skin crawl. Scabies is another word that makes me want to take a bleach bath because I find the sound of it to be so disgusting. I have a love-hate relationship with the word weenus – part of me thinks it’s fun to say, while the other part of me can’t stand it. Yes, weenus is a real word…a part of your anatomy, in fact…go look it up.

There is another word…the F word…that absolutely scares the living crap out of me. We all know the F word. We all struggle with the F word. Some go their entire lives without experiencing the F word. Certain people don’t know how to express the F word. Others don’t know how to ask for the F word. It is a terrible and powerful word. It’s absence can cause relationships to end, while its presence can change the world. In the end, every single one of us must embrace the F word.


Forgive (Verb): “Stop feeling angry or resentful towards (someone) for an offence, flaw, or mistake” (n.d.).


Why is the concept of forgiveness so difficult to wrap our brains around? The short answer, I believe, is that is requires us to let go. We as humans like to be in control. We like to hold onto things and to own them, which allows us to feel in control of our world. It’s easier to be angry and know what’s going on than to be vulnerable and face unknown emotions.

angry

According to Thesaurus.com (n.d.), which pulls its list from the 2013 Roget’s 21st Century Thesaurus, some antonyms for forgiveness include: condemn, accuse, blame, sentence, charge, and punish. Ouch. Those are some heavy concepts. When I think of the opposite of forgiveness, I think of a festering resentment that is seeping into the deepest corners of my being. It is a disease – a disease that will likely be fatal if left untreated. I like how the Mayo Clinic describes what happens if forgiveness is withheld: “If you dwell on hurtful events or situations, grudges filled with resentment, vengeance and hostility can take root. If you allow negative feelings to crowd out positive feelings, you might find yourself swallowed up by your own bitterness or sense of injustice” (Mayo Clinic Staff, 2017). Oh…and guess what can happen if you hold onto a grudge? You can “become depressed or anxious” (Mayo Clinic Staff, 2017). Seems like an important detail, so I’m just going to tuck that away for future reference.

Although the list of situations resulting in a need for forgiveness are too numerous to count, in my world there are only two main types of forgiveness. Those two type are forgiveness of others and forgiveness of self. I personally think the latter is much more difficult for a number of reasons. Before I get into those reasons, my stream of consciousness is telling me to turn left at the fork in the road. In case you were wondering, left takes us to the topic of forgiveness of others.

Saying F You to others.

At some point in our lives, we have all been hurt by another human being. The fact of the matter is that many things in this world hurt because this world is ugly, but some things cause significantly more pain than others. For example, if someone snatches up the parking spot I had my eye on and then flips me the bird, I may be less likely to hold a grudge than if a significant other were to cheat on me with someone else. Two uncomfortable situations with two vastly different resulting pain scales.


Grudge (noun): “A strong feeling of anger and dislike for a person who has treated you badly, especially one that lasts for a long time” (n.d.).


Look at the parts of speech for forgive and for grudge. A grudge is a thing. It’s alive. It’s feeding on your resentment and thriving on your anger. Forgiveness is an action. You can’t passively forgive. It is a conscious decision that must be acted upon. In a Psychology Today article, Dr. Alex Lickerman says, “To my way of thinking, forgiveness involves recognizing that the person who harmed us is more than just the person who harmed us… At its core I believe forgiveness is an acknowledgement that a person who’s harmed us still has the capacity for good” (2010). I mean…wow. I can’t say I’ve ever really broken forgiveness down to the point that I see one broken person acknowledging another broken person. Forgiveness has a lot in common with namaste. We are looking at someone who has wronged us and saying, “Hey…I’ve messed up plenty of times before too. I owe it to both myself and to you to find peace with this situation.” You are looking past the wrongdoing and seeing the humanity that surrounds it on all sides.

humanity heart

What’s more, “as you let go of grudges, you’ll no longer define your life by how you’ve been hurt” (Mayo Clinic Staff, 2017). Speaking from personal experience, there is something so degrading and humiliating about being hurt by another, especially if it is a conscious act on their part. There have been times in the last few years when all I can see in front of me is the action of another, and how it drastically changed my life forever. Infidelity is a big one. Finding out that my husband of several years had been actively cheating on me with the same woman for nearly all of those years made me feel like a character out of the movie Honey, I Shrunk the Kids or Antman. Tiny. Insignificant. It’s hard not to see it as a reflection on yourself when someone carries on in a way that they know is going to cause irreparable damage to the relationship, not to mention the wellbeing of the souls involved. But what he did to me does not determine who I am as a person. It certainly has no bearing on my worth as a woman, as someone’s potential partner, or as human being. Likewise, I would argue that is has no bearing on his worth as a man. I would certainly think twice about being his partner, but he is human and no less worthy of forgiveness than me.

The important thing to remember is that forgiving someone doesn’t mean you have to let them hurt you again. If you want to give them another chance, more power to you. But forgiveness does not mean turning a blind eye and painting a target on your back so it’s easier for them to hurt you next time. You do not forgive at your own expense, but rather for your own sake. “There is great value in mastering the skill of forgiving but not forgetting,” says author Dr. Kurt Smith, “Taking good care of ourselves requires regular forgiveness of others. Remember, we do it for us, not for them. And we don’t obsess, but we don’t forget, either, so we can take the valuable life lesson with us” (2014). Always forgive, but guard and protect yourself too.

guard

I remember sitting on the couch next to my soon-to-be ex-husband after finding out about his secret “other” life. We were sitting in silence because…really…what is there to say at that point? When life as you know it ceases to exist, it’s hard to find any words. I remember looking at him and saying, “I forgive you.” And in that moment, what took my breath away was that I realized how deeply I meant it. I can’t even begin to describe the weight that was lifted. I still grieved. I still hurt at a depth I had never experienced before and will hopefully never experience again. But I was at peace. I forgave and moved on with my life, making sure he was not part of it so that I could heal and find out what I was truly made of. I still haven’t found out what I’m made of, by the way, but each year seems to chip a little more of my façade away and I’m starting to catch glimpses of who I am.

Saying F You to yourself.

This. This is the hardest task of them all. I was able to forgive my ex-husband and the pain got easier because he was no longer in the picture. Out of sight, out of mind. But when it comes to forgiving ourselves? There is no escaping ourselves. There is no running away from our thoughts or self-abuse. When it comes down to it, “it’s easier to forgive others. After all, they don’t live in your head, reading you the same old riot act” (Lawrence, 2003).

We have all done things we are ashamed of. We have all hurt other people, whether we care to admit it or not. As someone with a self-proclaimed guilt complex, it comes as no surprise to me that “difficulties with self-forgiveness are linked with suicide attempts, eating disorders, and alcohol abuse, among other problems” (Breines, 2012). Figuring out how to forgive ourselves is kind of a big deal and may have hefty consequences.

As with any good apology, I think the best place to start is to say “I’m sorry.” And we have to mean it. A truly heart-felt apology is one that acknowledges the pain and suffering caused. We may have apologized to the other person, but we also need to apologize to ourselves. I feel this is important because it is the first step in recognizing that, yes, you screwed up big time, but you are human and will only poison yourself by starting a long term relationship with self-hate and regret. I find the following statement incredibly encouraging in my own battle to forgive myself: “Importantly, self-forgiveness need not be all-or-nothing. It’s a slow process that may not result in a full release of negative feelings or an exclusively rosy view of oneself. Rather than being a form of self-indulgence, self-forgiveness might be better seen as an act of humility, an honest acknowledgment of our capacity for causing harm as well as our potential for doing good” (Breines, 2012).

For years I have had the unhealthy perspective that I have been paying an ongoing penance for wrongs done to others in the past. I have accepted each bad or painful thing that has happened to me as karma’s way of making sure justice is done. Combine that with my knack for overthinking, a raging guilt complex, and a depression streak a mile wide. Probably not a healthy outcome. I’m working on it. I have reached out to specific individuals I have wounded in the past and expressed sincere apologies. I felt better after doing that, but still have been unable to reach the point of fully being able to accept my human flaws. In the meantime, I try to do my very best to never cause that kind of pain again.


The emotional impact of withholding forgiveness can be devastating. If we refuse to forgive someone else, it can cause bitterness, anger, and maybe even a sense of entitlement. If we refuse to forgive ourselves, it can cause our self-worth to plummet and may take away our fragile belief that even broken people can make a difference. I have to remind myself on a daily basis that the good I do now is for the sake of the here and now – I am spreading love and goodness to those around me in this moment, not because I need to pay for my past sins. This is life…not some purgatory. Forgive others so that you may live without bitterness. Forgive yourself so that you may see your own worth and then spread love and joy in a world that so desperately needs some TLC. Go on – don’t be afraid of the F Word.


Resources

Breines, Juliana. (2012). The Healthy Way to Forgive Yourself. Great Good Magazine. Retrieved from https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/the_healthy_way_to_forgive_yourself

Forgive. (n.d.). In online English Oxford Living Dictionaries. Retrieved from https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/forgive

Grudge. (n.d.). In online Cambridge Dictionary. Retrieved from https://dictionary.cambridge.org/us/dictionary/english/grudge

Lawrence, Jean. (2003). Learning to Forgive Yourself. WebMD. Retrieved from https://www.webmd.com/balance/features/learning-to-forgive-yourself#1

Lickerman, Alex. (2010). How to Forgive Others: The freedom forgiveness brings. Psychology Today. Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/happiness-in-world/201002/how-forgive-others

Mayo Clinic Staff. (2017). Forgiveness: Letting go of grudges and bitterness. Retrieved from https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/adult-health/in-depth/forgiveness/art-20047692

Smith, Kurt. (2014). 4 Reasons to Forgive but Not Forget. Psych Central. Retrieved from https://psychcentral.com/blog/4-reasons-to-forgive-but-not-forget/

Thesaurs.com. (n.d.). In 2013 Roget’s 21st Century Thesaurus (3rdEd.). Philip Lief Group.Retrieved from https://www.thesaurus.com/browse/forgive

Cover photo credit: Pexels.com

Other photo credits: Unsplash.com

Silent Night, Sleepless Night

insomniaI’m trying to do a better job of being positive, or at the very least attemptingto put a more optimistic spin on things. After a lifetime of sleep issues, I can confidently say that Insomnia is an artform and I am a skilled artist. I utilize diverse mediums such as anxious thoughts, wide-eyed stares at the ceiling, and burrito wrapping myself in the sheets, which all allow me to become unproductive for many additional hours a day. While other people are busy sleeping and rejuvenating their spirits, I am awake solving all the world’s nonexistent problems and unraveling the mysteries of the universe. Everything would basically collapse without my added efforts each night. To borrow a phrase from my friend Sandy: “I have to tuck the moon in each night and then worry that the sun won’t be able to rise without my help.” I kick ass every night so everyone else can shut their minds off and not worry about a thing. That’s right. I graduated summa cum laude with a double major in insomnia and anxiety, plus a double minor in loneliness and problem solving.

I’m all out of positivity and BS now. That was exhausting. Let’s talk about insomnia.

According to the National Sleep Foundation (2018), one in ten people suffer from insomnia-related “daytime functional impairment.”  I promise you…it’s as bad as it sounds. If you think about it, a prevalence of 10% makes insomnia relatively common. But what is it? The Journal for Clinical Sleep Medicine explains that insomnia is “the presence of a long sleep latency, frequent nocturnal awakenings, or prolonged periods of wakefulness during the sleep period” (Roth, 2007). I personally prefer definition number four from Urban Dictionary, which states that insomnia is “when little demons keep poking your brain with little pokey things to make damn sure you can’t sleep” (Insomnia, 2007). That basically sums it up.

I have struggled with insomnia for as long as I can remember. It certainly goes hand in hand with my anxiety. My earliest memory of my sleep problem is when I was only a few years old. I remember going down to the living room to sit with my mom so she could tickle my back until I fell asleep again. (If only I could make a machine that could tickle my back the way my mom does, I wouldn’t have any more sleep issues!) In that memory in particular, I recall the neighbor’s bug zapper going off on a regular basis. Even at that point, the noise disturbed me and caused a great amount of anxiety. I’m sure I thought our house was 1) about to be overrun by all the bugs that were missed by the zapper or 2) the zapper was actually a bad guy coming to get us.

pug

Another memory is from when I was seven years old. My family was vacationing in Oregon, visiting family, and enjoying the ocean. I distinctly remember lying in the living room in a sleeping bag, listening to my dad and my uncle discuss this terrible thing called HIV and AIDS. I was awake for much of the night because I was so terrified that my entire family was going to contract and die from that disease. That fear lived with me for weeks afterwards and caused ongoing sleeping issues.

There was a tape player near my bed growing up, so each night my sisters and I would put on various children’s stories, audiobooks, or recorded radio programs. I will never forget the sense of dread I developed if I knew the tape was almost over. If it finished and I wasn’t yet asleep, the anxiety would creep in and I’d be wide awake in a flash. Just in case, I kept myself surrounded by an army of stuffed animals. If all else failed, they stayed awake to keep watch over my family and me while I tried desperately to drift off to sleep.

Over the years, I certainly have not discovered the secret to overcoming insomnia. I no longer surround myself with beanie babies, teddy bears, and a larger than life purple dinosaur named Grape. I have traded those guardians out for sleeping medication and the occasional glass of wine. Unfortunately, this still does nothing to stop the flow of internal chatter. Insomnia is more prevalent among women (Medline, 2016), which makes sense since our thought process is like a plate of spaghetti – all jumbled together…can’t tell where one thought ends and the other begins. My stream of consciousness is comparable to the black hole that is YouTube –  you start by watching one video about puppies, then six hours later you find yourself watching some obscure foreign language documentary with no subtitles and no recollection of how you got there. One anxious thought leads to a semi related thought, which leads to something vaguely correlated, and then it’s all downhill from there. Good luck making any sense of anything. Someone somewhere was describing my nighttime brain when they sent this statement out into the internet world: “My mind is like my internet browser: 19 tabs open, 3 of them are frozen, and I have no idea where the music is coming from” (unknown author). Spaghetti and internet tabs that are permanently frozen or loading. That’s me. Every. Single. Night.

spaghetti

In all seriousness, the sleep debt that piles up night after night is pretty devastating. In fact, “insomnia is associated with substantial impairments in an individual’s quality of life” (Roth, 2007). For me personally, I get pushed into this vicious game of which came first – the anxiety or the insomnia? The Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine (2016) puts it far more eloquently by stating that “a comorbid psychiatric disorder such as depression or anxiety may be a consequence of – as well as a risk factor for – disrupted sleep.” Great. So I already have anxiety and depression, which is going to make it difficult to sleep, which will in turn exacerbate my anxiety and depression. I just can’t catch a break! Throw in the other vicious cycle of no sleep, then caffeinating to get through the day, which also makes it difficult to sleep that night. I’m losing the battle AND the war.

The hardest part for me is that the dark, quiet wee hours of the morning are where my demons live. Just as that Urban Dictionary definition suggests, that is when they come out to play. One of my all-time favorite songs is “Inner Demons” by Julia Brennan. The first verse in particular always speaks to me:


They say don’t let them in
Close your eyes and clear your thoughts again
But when I’m all alone, they show up on their own
‘Cause inner demons fight their battles with fire
Inner demons don’t play by the rules


It’s easy to tell yourself to just stop thinking about everything and go to sleep. It’s something entirely different to actually accomplish that task. Think about how much deeper shadows seem at night. Now take the stuff of nightmares, throw them into those shadows, convince yourself that every worst case scenario that could happen is going to happen, and remind yourself that you are facing all that alone in a cold bed. More than once I have been relieved to see the first glimpse of dawn, if for no other reason than because the sun chases away some of the fears and I can get to sleep. Unfortunately, that’s usually about two and a half minutes before my alarm goes off. Medline Plus (2016) explains that one symptom of insomnia is “feeling as if you haven’t slept at all.” It is a terrible feeling that lingers and can really bring down the entire day. Keep all that in mind when you see someone who looks tired or mentions that they have insomnia and didn’t sleep well. It can be devastating and makes life so much more difficult than it already is. Be kind to everyone – you never know what kind of demons they fought the night before.

In closing, I can tell you that I have two wishes when I wake up each morning (if I have actually slept):

  1. To feel rested
  2. To have 20/20 vision

I can’t remember when the last time the first one happened. I’m still holding out for the second.

 

Good night. I hope you all sleep like babies and have wonderful dreams.

Namaste.

 

References

Brennan, Julia. (2016). Inner Demons. Tunecore Inc, Kobalt Music Publishing Ltd.

MedlinePlus. (2016). Insomnia. Retrieved from https://medlineplus.gov/insomnia.html

National Sleep Foundation. (2018). What is Insomnia? Retrieved from https://www.sleepfoundation.org/insomnia/content/what-is-insomnia

Roth, Thomas. (2007). Insomnia: Definition, Prevalence, Etiology, and Consequences. Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1978319/

Insomnia. (2007). In Urban Dictionary. Retrieved from https://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=Insomnia

Photo credit: Unsplash.com

Battered Self Syndrome

crying

Trigger warning: Abuse

Disclaimer: I have never personally experienced domestic violence, which means I can’t even begin to understand what these women (or men) go through on a day-to-day basis. I hope and pray that anyone who is experiencing, or has experienced, domestic abuse does not take this post as demeaning to your circumstances and experiences. I am not trying to compare my own struggles to yours. It is the concept of a specific thought pattern I am considering.

Anyone who works in emergency medicine or emergency response (ER, fire and EMS, police) can tell you how devastating a mental illness known as Battered Woman Syndrome can be to its sufferers. This form of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is often seen in women who experience “sustained and serious domestic abuse” (Gotter, 2017). The reason this illness is so devastating for any woman is because of the “learned helplessness that causes her to believe she deserves the abuse and that she can’t get away from it. It many cases, it’s why women don’t report their abuse to police or avoid telling friends and family what’s really going on” (Gotter, 2017). So many women stay with their abusive partner until they end up disabled or dead, despite urgings from family, friends, and often emergency responders and hospital staff. Many people would be quick to judge and say that these women are too weak to leave. I would argue that they have a strength no one else could even begin to fathom. It’s like any mental illness – until you yourself have experienced it, there is no way to truly get it.

I have a paramedic friend who once told me about a woman he ran calls on regularly. Each time, he showed up on scene to find her beaten and bruised in some new and creatively explained way. Each time, he transported her to the hospital and urged her to seek help…to press charges…to get away. Finally, he ran one last call on her and was the one to call a physician for pronouncement and time of death. That woman haunts him to this day. In some way, he feels responsible for her death. He was unable to save her, even though he was technically by her side for each new gruesome injury. The reason he was unable to prevent a very preventable death is because only the woman herself had the power to change her circumstances. Due to her mental illness, she refused to press charges time-and-time again. She always went back to that place of torment.

abused woman

I see many similarities between the mentality of that woman and my own struggle with anxiety and depression. The difference is, I am my own abuser. If my thoughts could be transformed into physical blows to my body, I too would likely end up with fatal injuries. Human bodies are resilient, but can only sustain so many beatings before the internal damage is just too much. The same applies to the human mind – we can only take so much before sinking into despair and reaching the point of giving up. It just becomes too difficult. Would it be unfair to say we also suffer from a sort of PTSD? From Battered Self Syndrome?

According to Jennifer Rollins, an MSW and LCSW-C, “a variety of factors could contribute to people developing an abusive relationship with themselves. One might be internalizing emotional abuse that you experienced from someone else and unintentionally re-enacting it through your own inner critic. Another might be having an intense fear of judgment from others, so one subconsciously wants to ‘beat them to the punch.’ Additionally, having a trauma history, or struggling with an eating disorder, depression, anxiety, or self-harm can all contribute to developing a very harsh inner critic” (2018).

For me personally, I am certainly my own worst critic (to put it mildly). I take self-criticism to a whole new level. From how I look physically, to the words I speak, to my own internal thoughts and emotions, I have nothing good to say about myself to myself. The more anxious I get, the more cutting my remarks become. As my remarks get uglier and uglier, I in turn become more and more discouraged and continue the vicious loop until I can barely face the world. At that point, I have officially convinced myself that I am worth nothing, can contribute no good in this world, and that I’m better off hiding under my covers like the scared and hurting soul that I am.

Psychologist Brett Steenbarger (2017) describes emotional self-abuse as “something more subtle” than domestic violence that happens between two or more individuals. The reason it is so subtle, he says, is because we often “don’t recognize the emotional violence, the self-abuse. That lack of awareness perpetuates the self-destructive dynamic.”

In the same way that women return to their abusers, we continually cycle back to our malicious thoughts about ourselves. The difficult part is that it is literally impossible to get away from ourselves, even for a few seconds. If we don’t learn to control our negative and degrading self-thoughts, we will push ourselves to the point of hopelessness. Again, much like a battered woman, friends and family can try to help, but it all must ultimately start with us.

mission

 The hardest part for me goes back to that hateful task of recognizing that I have worth. I deserve to be loved, both by myself and by other people. I recently participated in a core value exercise with a large group of work colleagues. We started with a giant list of character traits and behaviors, then did various processes to narrow that list down to the top five traits that drive us. My core values are listed below:

  1. Act with compassion
  2. React with empathy
  3. Offer loyalty
  4. Seek ways to make a difference
  5. Radiate open-mindedness

I was proud of this list! It really encompasses the way I try to behave towards others. But then the lady asked for volunteers to read a couple of their values. Everyone else had values related to other people (such as my “react with empathy”) and at least one or two related to self (“find joy in…” or “seek peace by…”). I realized that I created my core value list with 100% of my focus on other people, leaving no room for valuing myself. Yes, each point can be turned inward, but that was not intentional. Instead of reinforcing my core values, this exercise reinforced how little regard I have for my own heart, mind, and soul. Naturally, instead of being a positive source of enlightenment, I started to beat myself up for not loving myself enough.

put yourself down

From time to time I think about something a church small group leader said to me twenty years ago (Linda, if you are reading this – your words will be with me forever!). I remember that I made some disparaging comment about myself and she actually snapped at me! “Don’t talk about my friend like that, young lady!” It completely caught me off guard. At first I thought she didn’t realize I was talking about myself and that I had made a rude comment about another individual. But then she explained, “I wouldn’t let anyone else talk about you like that. I’m not going to let you talk about yourself like that either.”

be quiet

What a simple concept, yet it blows my mind every time I think about it. If I would never in my wildest dreams tell someone else the things I tell myself on a daily basis, why do I find it appropriate to talk that way to myself? Here’s the thing, though – we usually don’t have someone else championing that cause. 99.9% of my self-abuse is all internal. No one else hears it, which means no one else can protect me from myself. The only way to protect me from myself is to practice self-compassion and self-kindness.

Dr. Kristin Neff, as quoted by Brown (2010), defines self-kindness as “being warm and understanding toward ourselves when we suffer, fail, or feel inadequate, rather than ignoring our pain or flagellating ourselves with self-criticism” (p. 59). Right. Easier said than done. I know I’m not just going to wake up tomorrow and stop emotionally abusing myself. It’s BATTERED SELF SYNDROME, people. It wouldn’t be such a problem if it was easy to reform my way of thinking about myself. Jennifer Rollins says, “If your current emotional default setting is harsh self-criticism, it will take some time to rewire your neural pathways to make the self-compassion response feel more natural” (2018). I’m trying to break a lifelong, learned behavior. Breaking bad habits is no walk in the park. But it is a worthy undertaking. Robert Taibbi, another wise LCSW, reminds us that “it will take time for the new brain connects to kick in, for the old brain-firings to calm down, for new patterns to replace the old. Don’t beat yourself up for slip-ups or use them as rationales for quitting. Take it one day at a time” (2017).


In closing, I think it’s important to note that breaking myself out of this cycle of self-abuse will not only improve my own emotional and mental health, it will also have a ripple affect – “when we’re kind to ourselves, we create a reservoir of compassion that we can extend to others” (Brown, 2010, p. 61). If I truly want to love others, I must first love myself.

So what say you? Would you like to join me in my battle to overcome Battered Self Syndrome? Only I can do it for me. Only you can do it for you. But together, we can make it happen.

Namaste.

be kind to yourself

References

Brown, Brene. (2010). The Gifts of Imperfection: Let go of who you think you’re supposed to be and embrace who you are. Center City, MN: Hazelden Publishing.

Gotter, Ana. (2017). Battered Woman Syndrome. Healthline. Retrieved from https://www.healthline.com/health/battered-woman-syndrome

Rollins, Jennifer. (2018). Are You Emotionally Abusing Yourself? You can learn how to treat yourself more kindly. Psychology Today. Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/mindful-musings/201803/are-you-emotionally-abusing-yourself

Steenbarger, Brett. (2017). When Frustration Becomes Self-Abuse: How we can undercut – and rebuild – our own success. Forbes. Retrieved from https://www.forbes.com/sites/brettsteenbarger/2017/03/26/when-frustration-becomes-self-abuse-how-we-can-undercut-and-rebuild-our-own-success/#792b118e30b5

Taibbi, Robert. (2017). How to Break Bad Habits. Psychology Today. Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/fixing-families/201712/how-break-bad-habits

Photo credit: Unsplash.com

The Lotus List

lotus

I believe God sends us people, songs, quotes, etc. exactly when we need them. I recently had a conversation with a friend during which I began to dredge up some of the things that will forever exist on my Coulda-Shoulda-Woulda List. (We all have that list. If only I would have tried… I should have done… Instead of choosing this, I could have chosen…) Even as I was speaking, I knew it was a pointless exercise, but I couldn’t help bemoaning that I didn’t act on a certain inkling at a specific point in my life. This friend wisely reminded me that “time is linear” and we can’t play those games with ourselves – every moment, regretted or cherished, brings us to where we are at right now. Every choice, and each unique outcome, helps mold us into who we are and who we will one day become. It was the kick in the butt I needed to fold up that Coulda-Shoulda-Woulda List and toss it over my shoulder. Naturally I went back and picked it up later (chronic anxiety…duh), but I slipped it in my pocket for future reference instead of reading or studying it just then.


Regret: “Feel sad, repentant, or disappointed over something that one has done or failed to do” (n.d.).


It’s true that we all have regrets. I think if anyone says they have absolutely no regrets, they should probably regret lying. When I was young and dumb, I used to arrogantly say that I would live my life with no regrets. After well over a decade of making adult choices and facing the humbling consequences of said choices, I have realized that living without regrets is an unrealistic goal. I would be better off setting my sights on facing those regrets, living with them, but not letting them control me. While mulling over these things, I was again slapped upside the head with words I needed to hear:


 “Reflection is necessary, but dwelling is an issue. When reflecting, remember how it felt, what it was like, but don’t stay too long there because that dwelling opens the door for regret and disappointment, which then leads to longing and depression.” – Amy Thompson (a kick ass woman I am lucky enough to call a dear friend)


It’s like my other friend had a conversation with Amy and said, “Hey…say something to Amber about regret. She needs it right now.” What a beautiful thought that it is okay to reflect on our struggles, on choices we perceive as incorrect, and our experiences that came about because of our choices or the choices of another. But not dwelling on these things? I mean, come on… you’re talking to a an olympic gold medalist in overthinking, over analysis, and anxiety. If there is one thing at which I’m a pro, it’s dwelling on mistakes. Amy hit the nail on the head by saying that focusing on mistakes, or simply looking back more often than forward, delivers us into depression’s waiting arms while swaddled tightly in a cloak of shame and self-loathing.

After dwelling on the fact that I dwell on things too much, I’ve realized something today. Rather an epiphany, really – see Amy…good things can come from dwelling too long! Maybe not. ANYWAY. What I realized is this: I cannot value my personal growth from struggles if I cannot love my mistakes as well. Wait…what?! You mean that minor mistake that kept me awake for three nights straight? Or the big mistakes that led to three failed marriages? I’m supposed to love those?!

Yes and no. I’m not saying that if you are actively making a bad decision you should stop, take a selfie to celebrate the moment, and then hang the framed photograph on your living room wall. I’m not saying you should make decisions without any real thought because either way it will lead to growth. I’m not saying you should consciously make bad decisions to see what kind of profound, existential awakenings you have as a result. I’m also not saying that when others make bad decisions that negatively impact or even hurt you, that it’s okay to stay in that situation or relationship because you will grow through it.

What I am saying is that hindsight is 20/20. We can look back on our choices, at the fork in the road where we went left instead of right, and say we made the wrong choice. We can also look back and say there would have been less pain if we had gone right instead of left, but we don’t actually know that, do we? All we know for sure is that we made a choice that forever impacted the direction of our life and it will ultimately make us into a more beautiful individual if we only embrace the challenges and grow.

This is a nice segue into showing off more of my new ink (I have to give ink credit to Johnny Tracey at at Elysian Ink in Des Moines. He’s an amazing artist!). I absolutely love everything about the Lotus flower. Not only is it breathtakingly beautiful in nature, it’s symbolism is moving.

8C8D3491-F5E0-4175-941B-824EB0D258DC

In Buddhism, the Lotus represents enlightenment and spiritual awakening because “the wetlands flower begins life as a seed in muddy riverbeds, and must rise through muck before blossoming in the sunlight” (Mind Fuel Daily, 2018).

When we are in the grips of depression, an anxiety attack, a divorce, the death of a loved one, or any other emotionally traumatic situation, it’s difficult to picture surviving at all, let alone seeing beauty in the end. The Lotus reminds me that in the dark times – in those moments when I am surrounded by muck – it takes perseverance. It takes patience. It takes courage.


Perseverance: “Continued effort to do or achieve something despite difficulties, failure, or opposition” (n.d.).


My question to myself is this: when a regretted decision leads to painful experiences that in turn break me and make my soul a little more beautiful, can I appreciate the new me without also saying a prayer of thanks for the bad decisions? Can a decision actually be called “bad”…? I have regrets. I have lots of regrets. However, I am who I am because of what I could have done and did not. Those regrets are a gift in disguise. Maybe that Coulda-Woulda-Shoulda List should be renamed the Lotus List?

I leave you with wisdom from the Skin Horse.

Namaste.

velveteen

 

References

Mind Fuel Daily. (2018). Symbolism of the Lotus Flower. Retrieved from https://www.mindfueldaily.com/livewell/symbolism-of-the-lotus-flower/

Perseverance. (n.d.). In Merriam-Webster online dictionary. Retrieved from https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/perseverance

Robinson, Katie. (2017, Apr 28). The Secret Meaning of the Lotus Flower. Town&Country. Retrieved from https://www.townandcountrymag.com/leisure/arts-and-culture/a9550430/lotus-flower-meaning/

I See You.

i see you

“The real warriors in this world are the ones that see the details of another’s soul. They see the transparency behind walls people put up. They stand on the battlefield of life and expose their heart’s transparency, so others can finish the day with hope. They are the sensitive souls that understand that before they could be a light they first had to feel the burn.” Shannon L. Adler


One of my favorite words of all time is Namaste. I wish it’s because I’m some super fit yoga master, but it boils down to a love of the concept. Namaste essentially means that my soul honors and respects your soul (Spiritual Science Research Foundation, n.d.). Regardless of your own spiritual persuasion, how simple and yet utterly powerful is that? What’s even more amazing is that it is a common greeting in India. Can you imagine someone coming up to you, looking you in the eye, and saying, “I see you. My broken and beaten spirit respects your broken and beaten spirit.”

Besides the fact that this would be way out of the norm and borderline creepy, think about the implications. That person is acknowledging that there is more to you than just skin, bones, and some gooey insides. You aren’t just social status, a political party, or a mental illness. You aren’t a religion, a sexual orientation, or even a gender. Strip all that away and you are a soul – a soul that deserves respect and love in equal parts. You deserve to be seen.

Here’s the kicker, though – the only way to truly see someone else is to look outside of ourselves. How true that “when we zoom out, we start to see a completely different picture. We see many people in the same struggle” (Brown, 2010, p. 68). We are all human. We are all stumbling around in the dark looking for meaning and hope. It should not be a solitary, lonely journey to find the light that does exist. If we hope to come together, this will require a great amount of respect, empathy, and compassion.


“When compassion wakes up in us, we find ourselves more willing to become vulnerable, to take the risk of entering the pain of others.” Sue Monk Kidd


give

Respect is a noun: “Esteem for or a sense of the worth or excellence of a person” (n.d.).

Empathy is a noun: “The ability to share someone else’s feelings or experiences by imagining what it would be like to be in that person’s situation” (n.d.).

Compassion is a noun: “A feeling of deep sympathy and sorrow for another who is stricken by misfortune, accompanied by a strong desire to alleviate the suffering” (n.d.).

We all learned in school that a noun is a person, place, or thing. I like to think of respect, empathy, and compassion as living, breathing things. They must be nourished, cared for, and exercised on a regular basis, otherwise they will become emaciated and possibly even die. This society is sinking fast because we have lost sight of the humanity – the souls – that surround us every day. We don’t acknowledge and respect each other. Empathic actions are few and far between, rarely without some sort of agenda.

The sooner we realize that life is a level playing field, the better equipped we will become to face our challenges together. Brené Brown says that “compassion is not a relationship between the healer and the wounded. It’s a relationship between equals. Only when we know our own darkness well can we be present with the darkness of others” (Brown, 2010, p. 16). I love the almost negative vibe this statement gives off. It would be great if a little compassion would kick start a revolution that would make life happy and full of butterflies and unicorns. But we live in a broken, dank, stinking world full of lonely hearts. True compassion brings lonely hearts together. It may not bring happiness or even joy, but it will bring shared hurt and darkness to the surface so that status, income level, or politics are no longer a barrier to camaraderie.

Misery loves company. Empathy brings our miserable selves together so that we can face the uphill battle as a team. I may carry you today, but tomorrow you will need to support me.

love breeds love

Empathy breaks down walls. Whenever I am feeling upset or frustrated with someone, I try to take a step back and consider times in my life when I have behaved in a similar manner. Again – the key is recognizing that we are all fallible, imperfect humans…kindred spirits in our brokenness.

An everyday example is when someone makes a mistake while driving in front of, behind, or beside me. Instead of diving head first into road rage, I think about the time a few months back when I did something similar. I have failed to start right away at a green light. I have failed to use my blinker when changing lanes. I have unintentionally swerved into the lane beside me while fiddling with the radio. Who am I to get upset with them for doing something I myself have done (probably more than once!)?

Another example is if a server at a restaurant is running behind, seems distracted, or makes a mistake. I’ve noticed that people who tend to fly off the handle about these things have never worked in the restaurant business, so they don’t necessarily understand the many possible causes of a delayed order or a drink mix up. Also I/we don’t know what’s going on in their personal life. For all I know, they may be going through a particularly traumatic divorce, are mentally preparing for some grueling finals at school, or just had to put their pet to sleep. I know when I am stressed or just went through an emotional experience, my memory suffers and I have a more difficult time keeping track of things. Knowing how I feel when I’ve had a rough day/week/year, how can I judge someone else for not smiling or for taking 10 minutes to bring me my salad instead of five. Unless you know exactly what is happening in someone else’s life, it’s so much better to see the humanity in their actions and acknowledge that they are no different from you or me.

If you see a homeless person, a drug addict, or an alcoholic, don’t get on your high horse and behave as if they are a lesser human than you. Likely, whatever caused them to go down their chosen path is a combination of genetic disposition and some sort of traumatic life event. When stigma is placed and stories are forced underground, we end up alone and seeking out unhealthy coping mechanisms. Just because I am currently living with a roof over my head and don’t self-medicate with alcohol every night doesn’t mean my own coping mechanisms are any healthier. We can judge a person until we’re blue in the face, but ultimately, they are no different from us.

Another thing worth pointing out is that, just because you disagree with their lifestyle or don’t condone some of their choices, it does not give you the right to treat them with anything other than respect, empathy, and compassion. It’s like saying the color blue is better than the color yellow. Why? Because it’s my favorite color and I like it better. But yellow is just as beautiful a color, but because you are biased, you declare that blue is right and yellow is wrong. That may seem like an absurdly simple example, but it dumbs down a tragic epidemic that has been sweeping this nation for years – the loss of respect for every human’s beauty and the appreciation for basic human goodness. We are all in this together, folks. The sooner we as a collective group can see the beauty in that, the sooner our society’s rifts will start to heal.


“Allow beauty to shatter you regularly. The loveliest people are the ones who have been burnt and broken and torn at the seams, yet still send their open hearts into the world to mend with love again, and again, and again.” Victoria Erickson


I’ve felt a growing sense of urgency about this post over the last few days, especially going into Christmas. I challenge myself and everyone else to make a conscience effort to live in a way that spews forth love, not hate…mercy, not malice…forgiveness, not blame.

A message to the hurting (which is basically everyone): You are not alone. You don’t have to face your mountains and valleys by yourself. Don’t be afraid to reach out and ask for help. A little vulnerability has the potential to save lives. Don’t give up. Hold out your hand and someone will take it. I see you. Dear, sweet, struggling person….I see you.

Namaste.

References

Adler, Shannon L. (n.d.) Retrieved from Goodreads.

Brown, Brene. (2010). The Gifts of Imperfection: Let go of who you think you’re supposed to be and embrace who you are. Center City, MN: Hazelden Publishing.

Compassion. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.dictionary.com/browse/compassion

Empathy. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.google.com/amp/s/dictionary.cambridge.org/us/amp/english/empathy

Respect. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.dictionary.com/browse/respect

Spiritual Science Research Foundation. (n.d.). Definition and Meaning of Namaskar (Namaste). Retrieved from https://www.spiritualresearchfoundation.org/spiritual-living/how-should-we-greet/define-namaskar-namaste-meaning/

Photo credit: http://www.unsplash.com

A Chronic Rescuer: The darker side of love

broken heart

It took me a long time to be able to look in the mirror of life and see my own patterns. And in that time, I forgot how to love myself. I forgot that I have worth. I forgot that I matter too. Let me tell you a story.


Growing up as the youngest in a family comes with certain responsibilities. I am a firm believer in the role that birth order plays in personality development and familial relationships. According to Alfred Adler’s work on birth order and personality, some traits often seen in youngest children are “confidence, ability to have fun and comfort at entertaining others” (Swanson Topness, 2014). Regarding youngest children, a 2006 CareerBuilders.com article says that “because they often identify with the underdog, they tend to champion egalitarian causes.” It goes on to list famous babies of the family, including Cameron Diaz, Jim Carrey, Drew Carey, Rosie O’Donnell, Eddie Murphy, and Billy Crystal.

Speaking as someone on the inside, I’ll let you in on a little secret: so many youngest children are comedians because we like to make people feel good. When we observe someone in pain or in a glum mood, our reaction is usually, “What can I do to make this person’s day a little brighter? What can I do to make them forget about their pain for just a little while?” As a child, I always saw my role as the family comedian, not because I like the attention so much as because I want happiness and joy for those who mean the most to me. This is a beautiful trait, but can be turned into something not so beautiful. In my case, I allowed that innocent behavior to morph into a people pleasing mentality that led me down the path of a chronic rescuer.

love

I had goosebumps when I came across this definition of a rescuer: “A person who prevents something from failing” (Rescuer, n.d.). If you believe that your purpose in life is to prevent love, joy, and happiness from failing for those around you, but forget that you yourself are a valuable factor in that equation, it can lead to depression, anxiety, and all sorts of dark places. For me it led to one unhealthy relationship after another – one broken marriage after another. I put others before me, sometimes to a fault. No, not sometimes to a fault. Always to a fault. I will compromise and cave to any demands if I believe it will make the other person happy. While this is often successful in the short term, it is far from sustainable. It cannot last.

Let me tell you why it cannot last. As much as I would love to believe that I can provide endless support and happiness, I can only give so much for so long without receiving anything in return. Ah, but what if I live in denial and simply don’t acknowledge that fact? What if I just fake it till I make it? If those around me are happy, that’s all that really matters…right? Right?!

Wrong. Take a long look at the image below. At first glance, this photograph might make you think, “Wow. What a true representation of a wonderfully symbiotic and supportive relationship.” Look again. Look how that hand is bent at the wrist. How long can it be expected to hold that position before fatigue causes it to slip in a way that will likely damage both itself and the tree. In life, I end up supporting the full weight of someone else’s hopes and dreams (not to mention their extensive physical possession wish list), with no hope of reciprocation. Without the give-and-take support of a truly loving and committed relationship, we will fail, which is exactly what happened with my last marriage. But that just opens a can of worms. If I am not enough for someone else, who am I really? Where is my purpose?

support

As I am left picking up the pieces after the divorce, one of my realizations is that I have no idea who I am and I certainly don’t love the glimpses of me that I do see peeking out from the shadows. I have always become whatever my significant other or friends or family need me to be. Instead of loving myself for who I am, which will in turn encourage others to love me for who I am, I try to be whoever they want or need me to be. I find my identity in creating a self that matters to a specific individual. Whoever they need me to be so that I can bring joy into their life and make it just a little bit better, well, that’s who I will be.

While reading through some past journal entries, I came across this entry: “I hit the physical checklist items for [ex’s name]’s dream girl, so at least I have that going for me. Now I have to face the hard journey of becoming his emotional/mental dream girl.” Umm…excuse me? Even I can see how unhealthy that is and I WROTE IT.

I also do my very best to cover up, hide, or extinguish the mental health issues I have battled my entire life. Who wants to be with a crazy person…a bonafide mental case?! I’ve always hated those parts of me, so I thought anyone else should hate them too. I have spent my adult life being told by my significant other in every serious relationship that 1) you worry too much and should just stop stressing, 2) you have issues, 3) you need help, and eventually 4) I can’t deal with this. There comes a point when, no matter how hard I try to keep it hidden, my anxiety and depression bleed into the life I have created with another person. In the end, their rejection is always what hurts the most. It leaves me wondering why my all just wasn’t good enough.

You might be asking yourself right about now why I would ever stay in or prolong such unhealthy relationships. The answer is simple: I’ve never felt worthy of anything better. I thought that if I could love others so completely, I would somehow develop worth over time. If I could just prove to the world that I make it a better place and that I contribute a little bit of joy, then I have a purpose. If someone needs me, I am valuable, if not valued. I became a victim of my own good intentions. The unfortunate side of this mentality is that it draws a certain manipulative and selfish person – one who uses and abuses a giver until that giver has nothing left to offer. Sometimes the abuse is intentional, sometimes it’s not. Either way it is present. Because I have never understood my great value as an intelligent and loving individual, I accepted the abuse and then stuck around for more.

And there it is. Therein lies the true symbiotic relationship between ourselves and others. We must love ourselves so we understand how much we are worth. In turn, this will bring our standards up so we don’t tolerate being treated as less than we are worth – “if we want to experience love and belonging, we must believe that we are worthyof love and belonging” (Brown, 2010, p. 23). What’s more, according to Brown, “we can only love others as much as we love ourselves” (p. 26). How do you like them apples?

As my failing marriage heaved its last dying breath, I wrote this in my journal: “I need to focus on me, not rescuing someone else who doesn’t actually need or want to be rescued. This time I get to rescue myself. And hopefully turn into a wiser, stronger human in the process. I need to let myself be me – not whoever someone else needs me to be or wishes I was. I need to fit into my own world…not someone else’s.”

I leave you with this quote from an unknown author, as well as a brief message to all the “takers” out there.

“There is a rare breed of people that go all in. They keep their word, they give it all, they go the extra mile for those they care for. These individuals hardly ever receive the same passion and effort in return, yet never change and always give their all, hoping that one day maybe, just maybe, they find someone as rare as them to love them as fiercely and with as much devotion” (unknown).

To all the takers out there: You are as worthy of love as the next person, but it should never be at the expense of someone else. You are not better than anyone else. You are not more deserving. No one owes you anything. The only thing we owe each other is such a high degree of respect and kindness that it is virtually impossible for us to take advantage of or abuse another soul. Step away from your selfish tendencies, realize the world does not revolve around you, and start to show some appreciation for the people in your life who give without expectations. We are all worthy of love, but that love must be a two-way street. A dear friend put it this way to me recently: “It’s okay for someone to use and abuse you only if you are able to use and abuse them right back.” That’s what being there for each other truly means in the end.

worthy

References

Brown, Brene. (2010). The Gifts of Imperfection: Let go of who you think you’re supposed to be and embrace who you are. Center City, MN: Hazelden Publishing.

CareerBuilders.com. (2006). Oldest, Middle Youngest: Who’s Most Successful. Retrieved from https://www.google.com/amp/s/www.aol.com/amp/2009/01/26/oldest-middle-youngest-whos-most-successful/

Chronic. (n.d.). In Merriam Webster online dictionary. Retrieved from https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/chronic

Rescuer (n.d.). In online English Oxford Living Dictionaries. Retrieved from https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/rescuer

Swanson Topness, Ellen. (2014, Jan 31). Adler’s Birth Order Theory. Retrieved from https://www.livestrong.com/article/73327-adler-birth-order-theory/