birthdays gone by

As I mark growing another year older, I’ve been thinking about the state of my life now versus two or six or twelve years ago, the things I lived through then and the way I live now. I spent some time remembering birthdays gone by and reflecting on how different my current experience is—and how grateful I am that it’s changed so dramatically. I almost can’t believe I made it through some of the worst times, but I did—and learned so much from each of them. That being said, I intend to use the constructive power of those memories to help myself make wise choices going forward. Not to wallow in regret, but to honor my mistakes and failures, and celebrate my liberation from the past.

10 things I choose to never suffer through again:

  1. The overwhelm and shame of very deep debt; the endless, losing battle to pay bills and catch up, scraping by month-to-month year after year, worried and afraid.
  2. The wrenching, gnawing anxiety and unease of being with someone who disrespects, exploits, manipulates and abuses me; the strain of watching and waiting for their moods to dictate my life. Feeling powerless and trapped.
  3. The fathomless chasm of codependency, feeling so attached to another that I can’t feel or sense myself without them, making choices that don’t serve my needs in order to enable theirs.
  4. The distressing and uncomfortable feeling that I don’t belong in my life, feeling lost and frightened and disconnected. Wanting to be at peace, never finding a way to stop the sense of being wrong inside. Knowing only ego, having no connection to soul.
  5. Desperate emotional dependence on a drug, depending on the escapism of pot and the fear that without it reality would be dull, flat and intolerable.
  6. The numbing state of autopilot, living my life in a haze, doing things because I’ve always done them, being pinned down by “shoulds” and blindly following the old rules.
  7. The daily struggle to BE OK, to make everything OK, merely to survive each moment using all my inner strength and resources. Barely keeping my head above water, being thrown off balance effortlessly by another person; feeling no center within myself.
  8. The pain of not living as my authentic self, twisting myself into knots for another and feeling the life sap out of me by my own betrayal of self.
  9. The awkward, uneasy conflict of not trusting myself, not listening to my inner wisdom or following my instincts.
  10. The aching disappointment when someone I love lets me down, breaks an agreement, dismisses another promise, leaves me stranded. The familiar sense of loss and disorientation when it happens again, not knowing how to fulfill my needs and wants.

I can’t control what will happen to me, what challenges I’ll face, problems I’ll create, or losses I’ll experience, but I can control how I choose to live my life. I’ve made it a priority over the past year and a half to set clear intentions for what I want and why I want it, to honor my values, needs, feelings, and desires, to trust my instincts implicitly, and to thrive in every way possible. I’m guided by a new set of rules now, no more “shoulds” or compromising of who I am.

Whatever happens in the future, if it’s at all within my power, I’ll never go back to such dark days again.

writing the new rules

In my ongoing struggle for self-awareness, I found and read a semi-helpful book about codependency. I learned a few things from reading it, namely that I’m a recovering codependent, and I needed to rewrite the rules of my life. While the book was ultimately pretty disappointing and preachy, I found rewriting the rules to be a valuable exercise.

The best thing about my toxic relationship ending last year has been a reclamation of myself. It tore me open to reveal a deeper understanding of my past choices and patterns and fears, new truths to be faced and integrated into my story, insight into what’s really important to me, an opportunity to face and accept things I’ve been afraid to see. The new rules have been a critical part of this process.

The exercise asks you to write down all the old rules you’ve been living by, cross them out, and write new rules, as I did below. I found it surprisingly easy once I got started—I already knew the old rules, and knew exactly how to rewrite them. I stuck my new rules on my fridge where I can see them every day, and find that more than any other self-help practice, they have affected the way I live my life and approach trigger situations.

The OLD rules:

  • I’m not allowed to express my feelings.
  • I’m not worth hearing, so I should keep quiet and not win anyone’s disapproval.
  • People who are mad at me will punish me.
  • If I mess up, people may not love me or will think I’m not enough/wrong.
  • I’m not lovable as I am, I need to work hard to earn people’s love.
  • I can’t say no.
  • I’m not allowed to have boundaries—I need to share everything without limits and always say “yes” to requests.
  • If I screw up I’ll hate myself, so I should be really careful not to say the wrong thing.
  • I need to punish myself (self-flagellation/criticism/SHAME) if I misspeak or make a mistake.
  • I can only create relationships with people who are unhealthy and not good for me.
  • My needs aren’t important.

The NEW rules:

  • The rules can be changed.
  • I get to feel every emotion I have, and express my emotions in appropriate ways.
  • I am lovable, worth loving just as I am, and worth listening to even when I’m wrong.
  • My needs, wants, opinions and feelings are important.
  • I’m allowed to say no.
  • My inner guide is my copilot—not guilt, “shoulds” or the way it’s always been.
  • I set clear boundaries with the people I love, work with and engage with.
  • I create only healthy, authentic partnerships with responsible, caring adults.
  • Those who I trust have earned it, and treat me with respect and integrity.
  • I don’t have to feel shame after I express myself, socialize or speak out. I get to feel good and self-affirming instead.
  • I am enough just as I am. Even if I screw up or make mistakes, I’m enough.

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.