january blues

Where I live in Northern California, January shows up with fog, rain and cold. We’re lucky not to have to deal with winter storms of ice and snow or negative temperatures, but it isn’t warm and balmy, either. Here and there we might catch a sunny day, usually with a biting chilly wind—not the best weather for being outside, but still more livening than fog or a thick layer of clouds. The holidays are over, but winter has only just begun, with springtime still months away and summer a far-off glimmer in the distance.

This is the time of year when I often experience a low. I’m in it before I really understand what’s happening. And then I see friends and family going through something similar, reminding me that I’m not alone in this.

It helps to remember that it isn’t unusual to feel an emotional lull in January. Finances can be tight because of holiday spending, outdoor activities limited, and social plans suddenly dwindling—which in my case doesn’t help counter my tendency to curl up under thick blankets in my softest, most forgiving pants. From being invited to an almost overwhelming number of holiday gatherings with a long list of presents to buy and wrap and travel plans to make, suddenly nothing seems to be happening.

Of course we can make new plans, start new projects and think about trips we want to take in the coming year (even if we can’t afford them yet), but it’s not the same when you feel a little down. It’s more work, and harder work, to get excited about things, and even though the payoff would be bigger, knowing that doesn’t seem to increase my motivation. Anything extra, even the fun of organizing and anticipating a trip or a party or an outing, feels like too much to take on.

As with most funks, the very things that would probably make us feel better are the same things we feel most like avoiding.

So that’s where we are. Kind of stuck.

Stuck between the bright rush of the holidays, however stressful, and the bright warmth and energy of spring. Wedged oddly in a place where we feel sort of bleh and lousy because we have nothing to look forward to, and feel too bleh and lousy to start actively planning things to look forward to.

Dampened by the weather, weighed down by internal baggage (not to mention all the celebratory food and drink I consumed in December), I don’t feel inclined to start a new writing project, book my summer travels or commit to more than a sporadic evening out in the coming weeks.

There’s nothing wrong with feeling this way. We don’t need to feel lousy about feeling lousy and make the whole thing worse by rampant self-judgment and even more intense cycles of sloth, shoulds and guilt—but we also don’t need to aggressively push ourselves out of it.

We’re feeling this way for a reason. It’s the fallow of the year, and while it isn’t something we’re required to enjoy, we also don’t have to reject it. We can find a way through it that allows us to have the experience it but not wallow in it.

After I’ve acknowledged that this is happening, and that it’s OK that it’s happening, what helps during these doldrums is just to give myself a little more room. I consciously try to loosen my expectations and open my mind.

I allow myself more space to feel vulnerable and weird and loose-endish, if I need it. It isn’t comfortable to feel those things, but not allowing the space to feel them doesn’t help, either. I allow for more time in my sweats on the couch—especially if I’ve managed to jump on the treadmill for a walk or quick jog first, but even if I haven’t. More room to imagine what might be next, without having to do one damn thing about it. More quiet to call in what I want, even if I’m not ready for it to arrive.

I don’t make long lists of every chore I want to do or everything I want to accomplish this year. Not unless I feel inspired to do that, which, let’s face it, I probably won’t. I spent 10 minutes looking at flight and hotel deals the other day, was quickly overwhelmed and immediately closed the browser. There’s time to decide later on. I’ve thought about my next book, even scribbled a few notes for it—and that’s it. When I’m ready to start writing, I will.

Our emotions, minds and bodies have cycles for a reason. We need the fallow, subdued, empty times, whatever season they happen to fall in, in order to have the creative, exciting, dynamic times when we stuff our calendars and achieve goals right and left. It also makes so much sense that a lot of us would experience an emotional down after the holidays, which can be such an emotional high, or just heightened emotionally, or both.

Added to that are also the physical repercussions of a lack of vitamin D, a nasty flu season and the possibility of winter-onset seasonal affective disorder (SAD), which can hit hard in these darker, colder months.

So let’s give ourselves a little more room. Prioritize the basic things we need to care for ourselves like drink water and walk and sleep and eat well, and not worry about anything too ambitious over that—not unless it feels good. Ignore the pressure of resolutions and instead set authentic intentions. Allow ourselves space to dream, to journal, to call in, to go to the movies, to binge watch Stranger Things again, to doze over a book. Feed ourselves good things, mind and body: healthy food and funny shows and compelling stories, and avoid junk as much as we can.

And if we need a little moderate junk here and there, an Its It or “The Bachelor” or a glass of wine? That’s OK, too. I feel better when I indulge myself right along with jogging and cooking vegetables, and it keeps me from swerving into any exhausting extremes.

If we can acknowledge and honor this letdown feeling, we can use it as a time of finding our balance again, of consciously slowing down, becoming more mindful of ourselves, and looking forward to what the year can bring. We don’t have to rush through the low, or judge ourselves for our desire to hide, or worry over our lack of plans to look forward to. We can let ourselves be in it and see what it can offer us.

It starts with giving ourselves a lot of extra compassion, reaching out to people we trust (who are probably feeling the same, if we only knew it), and taking the extra space we need to re-align with what bring us joy, fulfillment and gratitude.

And, if nothing else, remembering that spring will be here soon.

 

Advertisements

the heavy weight of shame

I carry some extra weight with me right now. Some of it’s on my body, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

Recently one of my coaches talked about feeling stuck with weight loss—you might be doing everything right, eating well, exercising, sleeping, doing all the things that being health conscious asks of us, yet not making progress. I think that describes me pretty well. I can’t seem to lose the extra weight that has slowly crept onto certain parts of my anatomy over the past three or four years, so I related to what she was talking about.

At times I’ve been able to lose up to 10 pounds by what can only be called crash diets. They do work, but they aren’t sustainable, and my weight creeps back up. I can cut way back on alcohol and sugar, eat only low-fat protein and vegetables, work out every single day, and only see a small effect or no effect.

Of course, it could very well indicate some kind of imbalance in my body, thyroid or hormonal. But it could also be something more covert than that, in addition to, instead of or even a cause of the imbalance itself.

When it’s not affected by lifestyle, the coach brought up the idea of our extra weight serving us, in some way. To protect us, to cover a wound, to hide us, to make us invisible or bigger, to manifest an emotional burden. She suggested we first thank our body, thank the weight for serving us, and then spend some time asking it what purpose it serves and feeling grateful to that purpose. I do believe that our feelings, beliefs, emotions, repressions, fears and traumas manifest themselves in our bodies, especially if we aren’t conscious about releasing, feeling, addressing or accepting them. With that in mind, I started reflecting on what purpose my weight could be serving.

I’ve thought a lot about this. I now know that the weight, whatever its cause, is there to make me whole. In what way, I’m not sure, but that’s what it told me very clearly. Knowing that, the question I’ve opened myself to is why? Why have I felt it’s been necessary to create this extra padding in order to be whole?

Over a number of days of coming back to this, asking for guidance, and meditating about it, I realized this morning that I do have a heavy emotional burden, manifesting in the past few years, which I haven’t fully processed. This burden is a deep mortification, shame and anger toward myself.

While I’ve processed a lot of trauma in the last decade, I recognize that I’m still deeply ashamed that I let myself down, compromised, disrespected and betrayed myself by choosing to be involved for more than two years with an abusive, manipulative and dishonest partner. I take no responsibility for his choices or actions, but I do for mine. I allowed him into my life. I participated in the process of conditioning and manipulation. I knew it was wrong from day one, and I overrode all my instincts for the sake of a fantasy, instant gratification, the drug that he became to me.

Do I hold this man accountable? Absolutely. But I’ve spent a lot of years effectively dealing with my fury, resentment and contempt for him. I’ve purged him through fire and water, written angry letters and poetry, poured out my feelings in my journal and released his toxic presence from my body, home and mind. I came face to face with him earlier this year and felt nothing but a sort of glad gratitude that I felt nothing else—not fear, not anger, not even scorn. He’s nothing to me now, no longer the bogeyman that he was during and right after our relationship nor the dark shadow once I’d started to heal. That’s been the easy part.

The hard part is forgiving myself.

My closest friends know the truth about the relationship. They know—not during it, but now—that he stole from me repeatedly over two years. That I supported him and his children by other women and received no repayment of any kind, in spite of endless empty promises. That he emotionally abused me, using intense manipulation techniques from rages to coldness to accusations and word garbage to love bombing when he wanted something. They know that sex could be nonexistent or aggressive bordering on violent, depending on his mood, and that I believe that he was cheating on me throughout the entire relationship, going on late night “music drives” in my car in order to engage sexually with other women.

This was just some of it.

I’ve never told my family more than the barest shreds of these truths. I’ve been far too ashamed to admit that I allowed this. Not once, but for 26 months. I allowed it, allowed him to use and disrespect me, to violate my boundaries, my home, my body, my emotions. Not only that, I protected him, lied to my loved ones and made excuses for it.

I imagine most victims of manipulation and abuse, any kind of abuse, will understand this self-recrimination. It isn’t unique to me, and it’s very real. The trauma isn’t just that I was violated, but that I, in some measure, chose the violation. Invited it into my home. Offered it money, and more money. Said yes.

Said yes.

I wasn’t robbed at gunpoint by a stranger. I was robbed by my trusted partner—and robbed again, and again, and still trusted. I was so desperately attached I couldn’t see any other choice. I didn’t even end it. I was starting to become stronger and less tolerant, less emotionally flexible, and that set him off so that in a fit of pique, he broke up with me. Then demanded, and got, I’m sorry to say, a second chance, which he naturally blew by violating all our new agreements. When I worked up the courage—and it took great courage—to ask for an explanation, he suggested we break up. I agreed.

From that moment on, I’m not ashamed. I stood my ground. I said no when he asked me to get back together, two days later. I said no when he asked me for money. I was unmoved when he tried to manipulate me. When he wrote pleading emails, I saw through his lies and exaggerations.

From that moment on, I’m proud of myself. Proud that I took the chance offered to gain freedom and make the most of it. That I chose not to date for a year so I could focus on healing myself and figuring out what the hell I was doing with men who let me down. Proud that I worked extremely hard to make reparations to myself, to repair my home and finances, become a much better friend and partner to me. To understand why I’d been so vulnerable at the time we met that I was a perfect target for him, and heal those older wounds as well.

The choices I made from that moment on brought me here today, in a place of authentic contentment and alignment. I’m in a secure, loving second marriage, financially stable, firmly centered in self-respect and the practice of listening to my instincts.

I know that my growth required those 26 months of anxiety, pain and struggle. I wouldn’t be the person I am without them, and I’ve learned to be grateful for that. I see that it had a real and positive purpose. It’s helped me forgive (not to accept his behavior, but forgive) the man for his failures and transgressions and learn about the psychology of narcissistic personality disorders, sociopaths and aggressive personalities, leading to my growth in setting boundaries and recognizing manipulation. Without that relationship, I might very well not have chosen to date my husband, or been able to create our partnership. I wouldn’t have become so committed to following my instincts even when they don’t make rational sense, and to fiercely honoring my own needs and feelings.

I’m always going to be lugging some kind of baggage around. Life creates baggage, we never get rid of it all. And aging changes our bodies, there’s no denying that. Maybe my extra weight is purely physical and I just need to eat fewer and burn more calories, or cut out all cheese and chocolate entirely. (As if I could.)

Maybe. Very possibly.

But it’s also possible that this deep shame is a burden that’s manifesting in some extra pounds, or compounding an existing physical imbalance. It said its purpose is “making me whole”—perhaps it’s helping me understand that this trauma and mortification is still a part of me, a literal weight that I carry. And while I’ve done a lot of impressive work in processing and forgiving and healing, there’s more to be done.

I deserve it. I deserve to forgive myself as I’ve forgiven the man who abused me.

It’s hard to talk about this, to be honest. Even as I write this post, I feel the choking hand of shame at my throat, the tingles creep up my neck, as if something menacing is standing just behind me. But hiding it only gives it more power, which is why I choose to share my experience today and commit to bringing it into the open and the light.

I may never tell my family the full truth of what I went through. I may never share every sordid detail with my husband. And I don’t have to. I will find the support I need to let go of my anger, disappointment and humiliation, and to be whole in a healthier way. I will invest in the resources, the time and the honest reflection to come to a place of self-acceptance.

I’m ready to release this weight.

 

 

If you have any resources to recommend, books or support groups that have helped you through releasing shame and self-forgiveness, please share them in the comments.

the reality of this moment

Yesterday I had one of those days that chews you up and spits you out. I got all caught up in multitasking on a bunch of complex and somewhat frustrating projects at work, as well as reading the news, as well as trying to get everything ready for my upcoming vacation. By the end of the day, I could tell that my fuse was much shorter than usual. I went home and sat down with some marinated mozzarella and a small tot of bourbon, all riled up but still aware that in order to be OK, I needed to recharge my batteries. After 10 minutes, I felt calmer and more at ease. I could laugh at my reaction to the day’s events. But I needed enough self-awareness to pamper myself first.

Now is the only reality we know. If it’s stressful, if it’s blissful, it’s all we’re capable of being fully aware of. It’s distracting and all-encompassing—even while it’s utterly transient. Now never lasts for long. Even hours of jury duty, even the worst date, the worst relationship, ends eventually. It might take time, months or even years, but ultimately the state we’re living in will change, end, transform and bring us to another state. More often than not, states last less than a day, to the point where we could look back in five days, five weeks, five months or five years and not remember what happened.

When I look back at the worst times in my life, drenching and awful as they were, I clearly see how they were also transient. They passed, though I couldn’t see the future at the time of their passing—they did pass. Most of my early adulthood was worst times and all-right times. There weren’t a lot of best times. Now that I’m in a better place, I can look back on the last four years as really, really good times. I don’t see it in terms of bad and OK. I see it as my life, with temporary periods, mostly days or partial days, when I’m not at my best, when I fight with my partner or fight a cold, when I’m cranky at work or things just aren’t going my way. But the baseline is good. The status quo, the reality of now, is good. I feel at home with myself, I feel free to create my life as I need to, I feel aligned with what matters to me.

This wasn’t always the case. And I have endless empathy for anyone struggling with a baseline, with a whole series of days or weeks, which doesn’t feel right. Doesn’t bring them joy, doesn’t open them up to greater understanding or compassion or gratitude. Instead life brings them confusion, pain and suffering—which they survive, as if living in post-apocalyptic Earth, scrambling for basic needs, hoping for a release. I lived through that with my ex-husband, who didn’t feel like he would ever measure up to the world and decided not to try, eventually embracing the soothing torture of Oxycontin addiction to ease his pain. I lived it even more with my ex-boyfriend, a manipulative ex-addict who created drama for drama’s sake, stole from me and used me mercilessly to achieve his own ends. I lived it within myself, a person confined and smothered by the expectations and approval of others, unable to truly see or acknowledge myself.

Life will never be perfectly easy or purely delightful. No matter what we do, how much money we have, who we love, what we value, life challenges and irritates and surprises us. But we can live aligned with our values, and feel centered in that.

We can stand in our own truth, surrounded by those who support us, keeping at an emotional or physical difference those who don’t, and feel strong.

We can ride the news of each day with a balance of attachment and distance, recognizing that change is possible, that hope is not foolish, that united we are stronger, and each small step is valid—and now is not forever.

Now is our reality. Our consciousness only exists in this moment, for better or worse. We can’t go back, we can’t fast forward. Life is now, as we build it, as we create it, as we submit to it.

We can’t control it. But we can control the self we bring to it. We can determine how we act in it—not our reaction, necessarily, but the choices we make, what we say, what action we take.

The only way to thrive is to see, feel, and honor yourself in this now. Not to live only for now, because now leads to an endless series of nows, and one now’s impulse can create a lifetime of consequences. But to live within the now. To understand that it’s both transient and forever. To be self-aware enough to recognize the options and actions we’re presented with, to give ourselves the time and space to think through the consequences and sit with our inner wisdom.

It isn’t always possible, but there’s always another opportunity coming, another now, to practice in.

standing up to the storm

The moments I’m most proud of in my life are the ones when I stood up for myself. Really stood tall and strong in my values, stood firm in my boundaries and centered in my truth. These were pivotal moments that changed my life.

I can think of many times—many more times, in fact—when I did not stand up for myself. Mostly that was out of fear of not being loved, fear of rejection, fear of abandonment. Fear of rocking the boat and changing the status quo. I was afraid, and so I took the abuse or the unfairness, I was a passive and silent accomplice, I bent myself to the other person’s will in order to keep the peace. I was a pushover in every sense. I wanted everything to just be OK, and I believed that by keeping my head down and letting the storm crash around me, I had a better chance of getting through unscathed.

There were other times when I maneuvered around standing up for myself—I didn’t curl up into a ball mouthing abject apologies, exactly, but I wasn’t centered or steadfast, either. I allowed myself to be pushed to my furthest limit—even beyond it—and then mustered up the courage to push back a little. Still out of fear, still letting the waves and water move me from where I knew I should be. It never worked all that well.

These situations have ranged from petty to profound. Being bullied by friends or in the schoolyard, cringing with shame and fear. Or acting as mute witness to someone else being bullied—not participating, but not stepping in. Allowing those I care about most to manipulate me with guilt trips and silent treatments, feeling mortification for disappointing them and panic at their chilly rejection of me when I didn’t meet their expectations. Having the man who claimed to love me make unreasonable demands, one after the other, caught off-balance in his cycles of manipulation, love-bombing, fury and emotional abuse. Allowing him to effectively control, punish and use me, invading my home, claiming things I had already said “no” to, diminishing me with his very presence in my life. I didn’t truly stand up to him, not until the very last days of our withering relationship, when I finally realized I had nothing to lose by not giving in.

I regret every moment I accepted the unacceptable, cowed and inactive and miserable. It was never the right choice. It never created less conflict, nor inspired greater intimacy and understanding, nor changed anything for the better.

However, there were a few, critical times when I stepped forward—right out into the stormy waters, the thunder and lightning crackling above, the ocean black and roaring below. I climbed onto my rock and refused to move from it. Refused to be buffeted off by the winds of blame and guilt, refused to be frozen off by silent treatments and withholding of affection, refused to be frightened off by the storm of words or threats crashing around me. I stood in the center of my own truth, my own values, in the very center of myself, and refused to look away.

And every single time, without exception, it was the storm that failed and died away. The ocean that calmed. And my rock that remained dug into the foundation of the earth.

These moments created positive, lasting change—for myself, my relationships, my happiness. Not only that, but they didn’t cause the sky to fall. I didn’t lose the love or security I’d so feared losing. Because standing up for yourself doesn’t come at the expense of someone else’s values or truth. It only comes at the expense of their manipulations, bullying, boundary-crossing or other toxic behavior.

I’ve learned that there’s a huge difference between making reasonable compromises in friendship and partnership—compromises that respect both people’s needs, triggers and preferences—and compromising myself, my core values, my essence.

In one, I’m still standing in my own truth. No one is asking me to feel or be anything I’m not in order to satisfy their needs. There’s no angry or threatening push from either side. I can honor myself fully, and fully honor the other person, making choices and considerations that take both people’s comfort into account. No values are compromised. No one is giving up any truth.

In the other, I am asked or expected to compromise the very integrity of who I am, to relax, change or abandon my boundaries without regard for my comfort, to accept responsibilities and burdens that are not mine, or, at best, to find tricky ways to placate the situation that don’t exactly align with my truth—but hey, at least the boat stopped rocking.

You know something about that boat? Screw the boat. The boat can go to hell. I’ve spent enough time and effort carefully working to prevent that leaky little thing from shaking, failing miserably at every turn, frantically bailing water when the waves got restive and someone demanded more of me than I was willing to give.

The first time I ever leapt out of that useless boat, I found my rock there waiting for me.

I stuck myself in the boat again many times after that, imprisoned by the threat of loss or disgrace, felt myself being crushed against an unforgiving shore when even the boat failed me. And felt the weight of my fear holding me down.

I don’t allow that to happen anymore. I still get pushed at sometimes. I still find myself needing to find that center, seek out my rock, and stand there ready for the storm. I still have to separate my stories and triggers and fears from what’s really true and what really matters.

But these days, all it takes is remembering all those different moments. When I caved and crumbled and when I stood tall. When I honored another above myself, and when I couldn’t imagine doing so. When I chose fear over strength, and when I chose truth over keeping the peace.

I could continue to regret my choice to surrender, or I could celebrate my choice to fight.

And I will burn my damn boat rather than ever climb aboard again.

honoring ourselves

I like to use my birthdays as opportunities to look back and forward, taking stock of myself and my life story. It’s a different experience than at New Year’s, when I’m more focused on releasing from the year before and creating intentions for the year to come. Birthdays seem to give me a longer view of myself, a different way of marking my growth.

I recently turned 41, and found myself thinking about my situation 10 years ago: who I was, what I believed, what I feared and hoped. A lot can change in 10 years. A marriage I was deeply committed to ended in that decade. I made and walked away from friendships, creating a strong, supportive circle of women friends. I learned how to (and how not to) date consciously. I lost two beloved pets and adopted three new furry babies. I fell in love and out of love twice. I was broke, betrayed, robbed, manipulated and abused—and I was strong and resilient. I turned everything around.

In those 10 years, I learned what it means to honor myself. I learned to trust my instincts, fearlessly face and embrace my own truth, define and stand by my core values and live in alignment with what matters most.

I learned through trial and error, stumbling into toxic love affairs, trusting where it wasn’t deserved, struggling against intense grief and anger, playing roles that I’d outgrown or that never fit me in the first place. I learned it in the failure of my marriage and the loss of my husband and married identity, and I learned it as I came to understand exactly why my marriage failed.

Honoring myself became a priority after the two unhappy, overwhelming years when I allowed someone else to hold me hostage in my own life. I allowed my home to be invaded, my emotional space to be crowded, my boundaries ignored and overrun. As I emerged from that black hole, I began to understand that I’d been compromising myself to earn the approval of my partner, and when that didn’t work, compromising myself even further. I faced this truth, recognizing that I’d done the same thing during my marriage. A different situation, a different man, but the same pattern of choosing them, and their validation, love and approval, over me and my own self-respect, fulfillment and values.

Coming out of that second relationship felt oddly like a second chance to recover from my divorce—I was in the same place, just two years older and hopefully somewhat wiser. After my husband and I separated, I had the opportunity to examine myself and create a new life. But caught up in an emotional hurricane of rage, grief, resentment, loss, fear and disillusionment—feelings I’d suppressed and pushed aside in the months leading up to our final separation, I didn’t embrace the chance to build that life.

Instead I ran headlong into the worst relationship possible, speedily and efficiently binding myself into a web of lies, mistrust and conditioned responses. I was on edge for two years, always anxious, always fearing what was around the corner. A blind and punishing rage. A wheedling demand for money. A cold, dismissive response.

When I’d finally thrown myself free, as if from a moving car, I stood up and found that I was bruised and battered and scarred—and intensely relieved that the sickening ride was finally over. I was more ready than I realized to reclaim my life, to restore what I’d taken from myself and commit to a new sense of purpose and balance. To embrace my independence, my singlehood, my values.

Since then, I’ve lived with greater joy, self-awareness and freedom than I could ever have imagined.

It’s just as well that myself at 31 didn’t know what was in store for her. She was getting by on autopilot, earning money, forming a codependency, growing out of the novice period of adulthood and beginning to define who she was. My husband was not, and the deep chasm this created between us ultimately and dramatically fractured both our lives, as well as many other relationships. I was about to enter years of heartache, anxiety and pain, years that would define the person I am today.

The last decade taught me to trust and value myself first. Before I can honor anyone else, I need to honor and respect myself, with a clear understanding of my own values and intentions. Before I can give my trust to anyone else, I need to trust me—my truth, my story, my boundaries, my gut.

It taught me not to suppress emotion, but to accept how I feel, study it and let it go. To never place a higher value on the opinion or approval of someone else than I do on my own self-respect and self-awareness. To be conscious in my interactions with others, to be intentional, to be honest with myself.

I continue to work on all of that, of course, but it’s really empowering and inspiring to acknowledge what I’ve learned and how it’s impacted my life.

I also take a moment to wonder: if I’m lucky enough to have the chance, how will I look back 10 years from now? How will I view myself at 41, how will I have grown, what will I see that I can’t see in the present?

It’s impossible to know, but even just asking the question provides even greater perspective on where I am. Because as happy as I am, and as much as I believe I honor myself, I probably thought the same a decade ago—just measuring by a different scale.

Whatever the future holds, I can only bring the best of what I’ve learned to each day and be open to learning each new lesson as it comes, honoring every step and stumble along the way.