instincts

the opposite of survival

I still remind myself often of the stark, manifest differences between my life without my abusive ex-boyfriend and my life with him. The strain so overwhelming I had to numb myself against it. The gut-wrenching dread that I was going to lose him—and lose myself somehow in the process. The shrinking from his anger, his moods, his neglect, his icy rages, never knowing what emotional blow was coming next. The inner knowledge pushing against me all along, telling me any way it could that this man was BAD FOR ME, which I dismissed and fought. The ache to be loved and wanted, which he never managed to fulfill but always somehow promised to in a way that I believed. The thrill of being noticed and petted, and the emptiness of being dismissed, devalued and manipulated. The cycles I could feel myself spinning in, unable to step out.

It was every kind of wrong way to be in a relationship. To be asked so much, and to say yes to it. I know I was looking for more in him. I was looking for the kind of belonging I’d shared with my ex-husband, which I was still grieving so intensely when this man landed in my life. I was bereft and unable to determine what boundaries were worth enforcing, and so I basically had none. I applied my own good intentions and kindness and integrity to him, because I wanted him to have it. It was entirely projection, and entirely free will. Though he was very good at manipulating me, and very capable at being charming, and very perceptive and adaptable, none of his techniques would have worked had I not chosen to be prime for the plucking. I walked freely into that trap and helped him to shut it behind me.

I have to wonder sometimes if I’m being that misguided about anything else, walking shortsightedly and unconsciously into situations that don’t serve me or align with my values. It’s totally possible, it probably frightens me more than anything else. Probably the stressful and anxious and irritated moments I’ve experienced over the past few years have been due to something very similar, and probably they’ll happen again. Uninformed or inflated expectations, autopilot, ego-driven and lack-founded thinking, fear of abandonment and disappointment. They’re part of my makeup, part of my humanity. I can’t ever turn them off for good, or cease to be aware of the danger they present to my well-being.

I hope that the difference now is that I am much more aware of them. My triggers, my spirals of doubt, shame and fear, my lack, my story. I enter them as easily as I ever did, but I now have more tools and resources to STOP, think, listen and make different choices. I’ve empowered myself to consciously CHOOSE, and choose differently, rather than simply to carry on down the well-beaten paths. Each time I learn something new, gain new perspective and experience on how to live a more aligned and positive life.

The experience of being with my ex was mostly about survival, suffering through a wasteland and struggling to stay strong and whole while being invaded and exploited and torn apart from the inside. It taught me what I never want to feel or be or live again, and was valuable in its extremes of sadness, loneliness and pain. But since the day we broke up, each challenging emotional and mental episode has lifted me further along, given me greater access to my inner wisdom, empowered me to make the choices I want to make, shown me how to trust myself and emphasized the value in it, taught me the true meaning of thrive.

My thesaurus lists the antonym of “survival” as “death.” But I believe that the true opposite of survival is well-being, the experience of more than merely existing, of thriving. If the opposite of being alive is being dead, than the opposite of continuing to exist or staying alive with endurance, persistence and fortitude is living joyfully and consciously with light, love, health and happiness—flourishing, prospering, creating. The antonym to “thrive” should not be “fail.” If you’re not thriving, it may have nothing to do with failing or diminishing, but rather with sinking into numbness, negativity or grim determination. One can be ill physically and thrive in every other way—it’s a spiritual, emotional and mental state of abundance.

I know I didn’t thrive for one second once I’d twisted myself around the trunk of a narcissistic man, by my own free will. I made choices that were good for me, I protected some boundaries, I allowed myself whatever room I could find for healing and peace. But still, it was basic survival. My finances didn’t prosper—they didn’t unduly suffer, but they didn’t grow in wealth or abundance. My health didn’t suffer unduly either, and I did begin to improve my strength in boot camp—but I was sleep-deprived and anxious, constantly on the alert. It couldn’t have been called flourishing. My relationships with others didn’t change for the better or worse; they didn’t fail, but they didn’t become more loving or nourishing.

The moment I woke up the day after our relationship had really and truly ended—as far as I was concerned, since I knew I wasn’t going back—my entire body felt different. My mind was lighter and clearer, my anxiety was almost nonexistent, my soul felt peaceful, all for the first time in more than two years. I only cried once more, and very briefly, because even in my mourning for what I felt I’d lost, I sensed the breaking of a new, powerful, beautiful, revolutionary dawn in my life. I began to thrive that day, continuing into the weekend and following week, and on and on until today. My memories since that time have been filled with golden light—even the dark and embarrassing ones, even the cloudy days shine with subdued brilliance. I know what it means to be whole and aligned. To be free of self-doubt, to fall back into my own arms in loving trust. To be empowered and validating, to take back what was yanked out of me and restore what was lost. To detoxify, release, forgive and heal. To openly address, examine and learn from my patterns and failures of the past. To take risks when my instincts told me to, and to step back when they told me to.

I don’t know what the future holds. But while with my abusive ex I felt held hostage by the present, by the sheer act of getting through each day without losing my shit in a crunch of anxiety and overwhelm, today I feel opened and unafraid. Whatever the future holds for me, I’ll find a way to celebrate it, to grieve losses and to be grateful for everything I receive. I know I won’t ever have to live through self-imposed years of strain, suffering and worry again, whether caused by financial mismanagement, addict spouses, sociopathic boyfriends, codependency, disrespect or following shoulds and guilt trips over my instincts. I won’t choose to serve others over honoring myself. I won’t choose them over me, or doubt over trust, or fear over love, or survival over thriving.

It’s unthinkable now to imagine giving one second of my time or one joule of my energy into a man who treats me without consideration, care or thought. I don’t know how or why I put up with it. Why I chose to—felt I had no other choice than to—give up my needs, wants and feelings in order to sustain a relationship with a man who wasn’t good to me. I can’t imagine living in toxic sludge ever again, feeling unsafe or neglected or invaded in my home, accepting abuse as a matter of course, dealing with someone else’s drama and solving someone else’s problems. I can’t guarantee myself a future of only happiness and no challenges, failures, loss or sorrow, but I can guarantee that I will never, ever choose to compromise myself so pitilessly, or betray myself so brutally, or live in such lack and strain, or accept overwhelm and paranoia as my lot. Whatever I do from now on, I will do it out of self-love and self-respect, trusting my inner guide, honoring my needs, and giving and receiving in balance. It serves no one to give endlessly and receive nothing—even the taker loses in the end.

However and whyever I chose to suffer through the darkest parts of my past, I know better now. I will trust myself. I will never let a tortured, twisted soul into my innermost sanctuary of love and trust. I will never subjugate myself in order to earn someone’s love.

the game of I’m right, you’re wrong

There seems to be a very definite “I’m right, you’re wrong” theme to this month. Deep down I know I’m just as righteous as the next person, so it’s a good opportunity to examine my own behavior as I’m faced with the extreme righteousness of others. It’s been impossible not to trip over someone being RIGHT and TELLING ME SO at every turn, either that or creating negativity and conflict by accusing others of being unhelpful and negative. Which I can’t help but find both hypocritical and ironic.

What’s the lesson in all of these angry accusations and righteous posing? What can I possibly take away from being bullied and blamed because someone believes I let them down, or was a party to letting them down, in some way? Am I truly accountable for others’ perceptions or opinions, or can I release accountability and find a way to balance my need to defend myself against my desire to heal, grow and persist?

Every dark place, painful moment, misunderstanding and conflict holds a valuable lesson. Sometimes the lesson is that the relationship is broken beyond all fixing and needs to be abandoned, or that I can’t be the only one responsible for fixing it and must find a way to make it work within the dysfunction. Or that defensive reactions only provoke stronger attacks, an extremely important reminder. Or that persistence requires courage and calm, especially in the face of anxiety, stress, angry outbursts and fear. Or that accountability for my own feelings, actions and reactions in no way makes me responsible for the feelings, actions and reactions of others—nor their opinions, perceptions or prejudices. I’m accountable for ME, and therefore will own my mistakes, apologize, make amends and learn as best I can. However, I don’t have to take ownership of anyone else’s moods or ideas, nor do I have any obligation to conform to their views or compromise myself to fit their expectations, when these are not reasonable or true to who I am.

There are no “shoulds” when it comes to my instincts and integrity. I have extremely high standards for myself, which I sometimes fail to meet. Those are my own failings, and while I can take responsibility for them, I don’t need to blame, shame or punish myself for having failed. I can admit I was wrong and move forward with self-forgiveness.

I can also forgive others for their failures, though if someone isn’t living up to the same high standards of behavior, respect and integrity that I, and they, expect from me, I don’t owe them my allegiance, trust or the benefit of the doubt. Unless they’ve earned it, I’m not required to give it to them. Nor they to me, if I’ve failed without redeeming myself.

This is an opportunity to step back and change my conduct to reflect greater accountability and vigilance against those who would exploit my failures and use them against me. Avoiding gossip with anyone but those I trust most implicitly, finding positive approaches and solutions—without compromising myself, recognizing and abstaining from righteousness and defensiveness, finding ways to boost my courage and stay calm in moments of turmoil. Taking time before I react, writing things out, breathing, venting to SAFE sources. And, when necessary, apologizing sincerely and taking ownership of my mistakes.

Being with my ex-boyfriend really did teach me a lot about dealing with difficult people, among all the other lessons I learned throughout our relationship. I know that there are situations that simply won’t be made any easier or better by working harder to make them OK. When a situation has reached a certain point of dysfunction, there’s absolutely no way one person can fix it, and often the solution is to simply let it go. I know that there are also some people that will never be satisfied or pleased, no matter how much you give. They’ll simply take more, and punish you for it in the process. They don’t respect others, they don’t respect boundaries, and they’re always going to believe they’re right. These are not people who deserve our time, attention, trust, loyalty or respect. And if you have to deal with them, regardless of this, limiting your exposure to them, avoiding any defensiveness, and withholding any more time or attention than the extreme minimum requires, are the only ways to function successfully.

I know that not everything is my fault, even though there are those who would have me believe that. And that I’m allowed to say no, even if it disappoints people—and infuriates the toxic ones. I know that I’m not always right and never will be, but my instincts ARE, and I can trust them to show me the best way to move forward. I know that feeling beset, bullied, invaded or manipulated is a pretty sure sign that someone is actually doing all of those things to you, regardless of how little you want to believe that. And I certainly know that not everyone deserves the benefit of the doubt or a second chance, but that forgiveness is a gift we give OURSELVES, not the people who hurt, betrayed or disappointed us.

Just as I learned all of these really wonderful life lessons from a toxic, painful relationship, I can find a wealth of juicy wisdom and insights from a toxic, stressful work environment, from every challenge that life throws at me.