I can still remember being in an AA meeting, sitting in a damp, drafty church basement, and hearing the speaker say: “If I cut you out of my life, it’s probably because you handed me the scissors.” For years, I believed this to be true because it allowed me to remain naively sanctimonious and absent of blame for the demise of any relationship in my life. However, the older I get and the more wreckage of friends and family I leave behind, I can no longer deny that I have been equally culpable for cutting people out of my life.
I have noticed two distinct self-destructive patterns that continually sabotage my relationships, and my mental wellbeing in general. For starters, I push people away when I perceive they are getting too close to me. Moreover, whenever I need help most, I have a tendency to retreat into isolation, and that inevitably exacerbates the problem. I decided to dig a little deeper into to what, if any, patterns are at play in my retreat to isolation.
Without a doubt, my behaviour to push people away is governed by a defence mechanism that we all have, but one that takes a more dominant role in certain people’s lives. This can be demonstrated with an example we are all familiar with. A child is running and trips and scrapes her knee. The mother rushes to her side and picks her up in a reassuring embrace. Often, that child inexplicably lashes out at her innocent mother and hits her. Why? As an adult, when I react in this way, it is from a place of vulnerability, and often those feelings are enmeshed in shame and embarrassment. When I’m emotionally fragile, I react like a wounded animal—I want to crawl into a hole and be left alone. Sadly, that’s the time when I should be reaching out to that helping hand, not burying my head.
Another pattern behind this behaviour is the sense of control, no matter how illusionary it may be, I get from pushing you away. If I take stock of periods of my life that were most chaotic and out of control, these were the times I actively made my social circle smaller. Connected to this behaviour is a “secret test” of which you are an unwitting participant. By pushing you away, it’s as though I were testing your loyalty to me by determining if you’re willing to fight to keep this relationship alive. This is a vicious cycle that has characterized my toxic relationship with my mother for years.
At risk of sounding like a reductionist, I have to admit that if I delve deep enough into any problem in my life be it either self-reflective or interpersonal, I invariably find the ugly face of shame hiding in the shadows. I’ve been writing a lot about intimacy the past few months and the bedrock of trust, patience, and empathy upon which it is built. The parts of me that I hide from you are at times, too painful for even self reflection. These are the feelings that lie deep within, fester, and bubble to the surface as rage, inadequacy, and fear. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve thought, “If you only knew the real me, you’d want nothing to do with me.” These intense feelings can appear overwhelming and insurmountable, and historically I’ve needed professional help to knock down these walls I’ve constructed to keep you out.
If I’m to nurture a more fulfilling life based on authentic connections with a broader circle of family and friends, I believe there are a few challenging questions I need to ask myself before deciding to end a relationship or push someone away. First, am I reacting out of a bruised ego or an affront to my self-esteem? Whenever shame enters the equation, the cards are stacked against fostering any hope of a sustainable relationship. Next, have I incorporated trust and established healthy boundaries in this relationship? Finally, am I allowing trauma I’ve experienced in my life, leave me trapped in a groove or a rut? Just because I’ve reacted in a certain way in the past, there is no reason I need to perpetuate that destructive and isolating behaviour. Most importantly, I must always remember to learn from my past, but not live in my past.
Shhh… The universe is talking to you, but are you listening? I am by no means qualified to get into a debate as to whether or not we are the only sentient creatures in the universe; however, I do believe that my mind is usually so preoccupied with mindless internal chatter that I am ignorant to the signposts that are being subtly laid before me. To prove this to myself I conducted a little experiment over the course of three days in which I made an effort to write down any nugget of wisdom I heard or read. Here's what came my way…
1. “Sometimes the wrong train can get you to the right station.” ~ from the movie “The Lunchbox"
At the age of 16, it felt like my entire uncharted life lay before me. At that time, I didn't set out to become a recovering addict who battled with his addictions, and who continues to struggle, to get through each day. That being said, I wouldn’t change a day in my life because boarding the “wrong train” has delivered me to where I am today--resilient and grateful to be the man I’ve become.
2. “Without someone to tell your secrets to, you have no memory.” ~ also from the movie “The Lunchbox”
Like most people, I spend far too much time living in my head instead of living out my dreams. As a recovering addict and as a survivor of childhood sexual abuse, I am painfully aware that secrets can snuff out the light in your soul. Everybody needs that one special person who sees directly into your soul and coaxes out your passions and allays your insecurities.
3. “It's not about how you feel right now, it's about how you pick yourself up and move on.” ~ from a friend on Twitter
The people who inspire me most are those who have a few dents in their armour—those who clawed their way to a place of inner strength, redemption, and hope. Rarely do we remember fame and celebrity, but when we witness inner fortitude, it resonates and is transformative.
4. “Dream big and your problems become small.” ~ a quote from Vishen Lakhiani
The theme of my blog is to “Live a bigger life”, and having come across this quote from Vishen Lakhiani, I now have one more incentive to aspire to that mantra—the opportunity to dwarf my problems in the presence of the enormity of my dreams.
5. “Everyone has something to teach you.” ~ a quote from the Dalai Lama
Wishing away where I am right now, or what is happening in my life right now, is an exercise in futility. When I step back and acknowledge that I have an exaggerated reaction to what I’m facing, and this is most often manifest in rage, fear, or even euphoria, I am fighting the urge to push it away or to let it consume me. Instead, I am working towards being open to the lesson that lies behind the static of the moment.
6. "Fear doesn't shut you down; it wakes you up.” ~ from the movie “Divergent" based on the novel by Veronica Roth
It’s not unusual for people who have had a health scare to say, “That was a real wake-up call.” It’s a bitter truth that at times, things have to fall apart in order to come back together stronger. Just as a muscle needs to be stretched and stressed in order to grow, so to do we need to push and tug at the boundaries of our comfort zone to feel invigorated.
7. "Self-trust is the first secret of success." ~ a quote from Ralph Waldo Emerson
How often have we fallen victim to the little voices in our head echoing those toxic statements that contain the words “not” and “enough”? You’re not intelligent enough? You’re not handsome enough? You’re not strong enough? …and so on. Just as any structure is only as sound as its foundation, so to does our success stem from the wellspring of our conviction that we indeed “are enough”.
8. If you want to kill something like an acne, all you need to do is surround it by barriers or by walls until the inside dries up and dies. The same can be said for any type of an identity, if you use it to surround yourself, you end up creating isolation from others—ultimately killing your connection to others. ~ Paraphrased from a Ted Talk by novelist Elif Shafak
When I’m afraid or embarrassed, I isolate myself. When my own company become intolerable, I reach out to others with whom I identify, and most typically they share the same characteristic, or experience, that caused me to isolate myself in the first place. This support community, or what I like to call my “comfort group”, envelopes me with a warm buffer of safety that gives me the courage to step out of my isolation. That all seems great at the outset—The problem lies in the fact that by clinging to this comfort zone, I shut myself off from all the other people and avenues that can ultimately enrich my life.
9. “Divorce your story and marry your truth.” ~ From a Ted Talk by Tony Robbins.
I smiled when I heard this because it reminded me of what I wrote on my blog homepage under the category “About Me”. People think they know me… I'm a husband. I'm a father. I'm a teacher. I'm an ultra marathoner. I'm that sarcastic dude that keeps putting his foot in his mouth. But I ask you to look again… I’ve spent most of my life living with labels… "bipolar", "addict", "victim of childhood sexual abuse", but those labels have limited my life and given me an excuse to avoid growth. What I wasn’t able to articulate at the time I wrote that was my burning desire to “divorce [my] story and marry [my] truth.”
The simple fact that I’m uncomfortable sitting down to write this post demonstrates to me how vital it is for me to get this out of my head. There’s no easy way for me to say this other than to get right to the point—I’m looking to build a serious relationship with another man.
This is a rather bold declaration for someone who has been married to the same woman for 27 years. Before you start jumping to conclusions, “no” I’m not coming out of the closet, but I am shining a light on a social plague that relegates millions of men, like me, to a life of superficiality and isolation. I was taking inventory of the meaningful friendships in my life, and it became clear to me that although I have many male friends, all of these relationships are collegial, superficial, or competitive. The friends I feel most comfortable around are all female. Now, as I am a happily married man, you can see why this tendency to gravitate towards forging relationships with other women may not be “ideal”. Here in lies the problem, and I believe it raises two questions. First, why as a society do we equate intimacy and vulnerability with sex? Two, why have we associated strong ties between men as either indicative of homosexuality or propagation of institutionalized patriarchy?
I’m blessed to have a partner with whom I share not only my heart but also my dreams and fears. I almost feel “guilty” saying this, but I want more, and that I believe, comes from the bond of a deep friendship. Unlike companionship which is merely defined by time spent together, the friendship I’m searching for is forged in trust, honesty, reciprocity, and interdependence—It’s a culmination of intimacy that is absent from most male friendships. At the risk of generalizing, I venture to say that men and women form very different friendships. Whereas women tend to want more of a connection and a sounding board, male friendships are defined more by “parallel play” and the chest-puffing notion of “I got your back, brother.”
Male relationships have undergone incredible change throughout history. “Heroic friendships” in ancient times were noble bonds stronger than marriage. Aristotle referred to Platonic friendships between men as the societal “ideal”. In the 19th century, male friendships were more sentimental and were marked with endearing language that by today’s standards, would be construed as “queer”. There was very little interaction between the sexes before marriage, so confiding in your own sex was the only option. There was a marked change towards the turn of the 20th century, as closeness between men became regarded as deviant behaviour. Later, under the Red Scare in the McCarthy era, intimate relationships between men were even labelled subversive and “communist”.
Somewhere along the way, it became more difficult for men to turn to other men for the intimacy we all long for in a meaningful relationship. As we moved away from an agrarian economy, young boys no longer had sustained interaction with their fathers, and were thus deprived of this type of role model. With the possible exception of male friendships formed in the military, the notion of an intimate male friendship, prevalent throughout history, has become yet another victim to market capitalism. Men now view one another as competitors rather than colleagues.
For me, as a survivor of childhood sexual abuse in which the perpetrators were male, the issue is further complicated. I’ve struggled with revealing my thoughts and emotions to other men, and when I do, it’s generally camouflaged by using jokes. Women typically build relationships based on social connectivity while men build them based on shared activity or goal orientation. Because I’m eager to cultivate stronger relationships with other men in my life, I’m attempting to combine both the male and female approach to friendship. While engaged in a shared activity with men, I am consciously working on being a more active listener—I’m suppressing my desire to “up the ante” or to redirect the conversation. Most importantly, I’m incorporating the feedback I got from my wife when she pointed out that I have a tendency to try to “fix problems” rather than simply listen to what someone is saying.
I’d like to end with one of my favourite quotes on friendship, and it comes from none other than the famous Greek historian, Plutarch. “I don’t need a friend who changes when I change and who nods when I nod; my shadow does that much better.”
One of the joys of writing is simply trusting that an article, a movie, or even a snippet of a conversation can be the spark to ignite the creative impulse that lies in wait. I am getting better at staying attuned to its arrival no matter from what unlikely source it may appear. Today, a friend posted a question on Facebook from Elizabeth Gilbert, the author of Eat, Pray, Love. “What are you willing to give up, in order to become who you really need to be?” Elizabeth Gilbert went on to say that she is posing this question because “everything good I've ever gotten in life, I only got because I gave something else up.”
For me, there is so much beauty in this paradox of having to let go in order to receive. I started thinking about how this has transpired in my life, and more importantly, whether I’m still willing to “let go”. I have fond memories of my time as an English Lit undergrad and being exposed to the work of Joseph Campbell, one of the preeminent experts on mythology. Campbell believed in the universal human experience and the role of symbols and archetypes that unify us across cultures and throughout generations. His philosophy can be distilled in the phrase follow your bliss, and he said in order to do that, “You must give up the life you planned in order to have the life that is waiting for you.”
I decided to compile a list of “three things I’ve let go”, “one thing I’m in the process of letting go”, and finally, “one thing I’d like to let go.” I invite you to compile your own list, and if you feel comfortable, maybe you would like to share it so that we can generate a discussion on Elizabeth Gilbert’s thought-provoking question.
Three Things I’ve Let Go
By today’s standards, I got married young, and we had our son when we were the ripe old age of 22. While most of our friends were traveling and playing with disposable income, my wife and I were amassing more and more debt and trying to survive on one salary and a student loan. Deciding to become a parent meant that I had to “let go” of my freedom, financial security, and an unmapped future. What I gained in return was a sense of accountability and an unbreakable bond that will attach me to my wife and son for the rest of my life. I grew up with a very weak and distorted notion of “family”, so it’s not surprising I was eager to build connections as soon as possible.
Almost 17 years ago today, I “let go” of my security blanket that I clung to as a means to weather the chaos of my mind—I finally admitted that I had a serious drug and alcohol addiction and that I needed treatment before I lost everything dear to me. Not a day goes by where I don't think about picking up a drink or a drug, but I know that even my worst day sober is better than my best day drunk. Like every addict, I used my addiction to numb away the discomfort inside of me, but the cruel reality is it is impossible to selectively numb only the bad feelings. As Jonathan Safran Foer says, “You cannot protect yourself from sadness without protecting yourself from happiness.”
The third thing I have “let go” of is my relationship with my mother. As I’ve gotten older, my relationship with my mother hasn’t so much “evolved”, as “dissolved”, and I would even go as far as to say that there is no relationship whatsoever today. It’s almost heresy to admit that my feelings towards my mother have gone from mistrust, detachment, apathy, loathing, to where they are today, benign neglect. I blamed her for walking out on us when I was 9, and I unjustly found her culpable for not protecting me, and subsequently leaving me open to the childhood sexual abuse that entered my life after she had left. Part of my healing journey has meant that I can no longer hold on to anger and resentment because they are both toxic and are insurmountable obstacles to my growth. My relationship with my mother no longer tethers me to my unhappy past because I have made a conscious decision not to continually feed that relationship with my anger. I’m learning to accept that some things in life just can’t be changed, can’t be improved, and can’t be fixed.
One Thing I’m In The Process Of Letting Go
As I mentioned above, I am a survivor of childhood sexual abuse. I only disclosed this fact to family and friends a little less than one year ago. For more than 35 years, I harbored this secret in the pit the pit of stomach, and it tempered everything in my life through a lens of shame, inferiority, and anger. Like Aladdin, now that this secret is out, there is no putting the Genie back in the bottle. I’m slowly, and painfully, trying to rebuild my sense of self worth, but there are many days when I don’t feel I have the fortitude to keep pushing through the discomfort. I feel as though I’m in uncharted waters, and even my closest relationships feel out of alignment. Now that I have “let go” of this secret, it cascades around my every thought and even invades my sleep through reoccurring night terrors. I’m assured by other survivors of childhood sexual abuse that this is all part of the process, and that the journey back to your “voice” is worth the travel—At this point, all I can do is have faith.
One Thing I’d Like To Let Go
Routine and predictability have always been my “sanctuary”—my refuge from the turmoil in my mind that I couldn’t control. The rigid schedule encompassing what I eat, when I sleep, when I train, and even where I go to work, used to be my anchor, but now these feel like manacles trapping me in a life that no longer feels comfortable. I’m not sure if I’m ready to let go of this predictability yet, but I know that it is a huge obstacle in my way to growth. It’s getting harder and harder to silence that urge to purge.
I’d like to end by saying I no longer believe I’m looking for something—I now am certain I have it, but my journey is to chip away at the veneer that has been dulling my inner light’s ability to radiate as brightly as it is meant to be. I can think of no better person to articulate what I’m feeling than the venerable Henry Miller. “Every day we slaughter our finest impulses. That is why we get a heartache when we read those lines written by the hand of a master and recognize them as our own, as the tender shoots which we stifled because we lacked the faith to believe in our own powers, our own criterion of truth and beauty. Every man, when he gets quiet, when he becomes desperately honest with himself, is capable of uttering profound truths. We all derive from the same source. there is no mystery about the origin of things. We are all part of creation, all kings, all poets, all musicians; we have only to open up, only to discover what is already there.”
I should start off by saying how sheepish I feel writing about this topic, and maybe that fact alone attests to why this needs to be out in the open instead of repressed behind conventional social mores. In no way do I mean to diminish the importance of addressing the debasing of women in our public media and the subsequent physical and mental abuse that this entails, nor do I wish to turn attention away from the widespread bullying that so many adolescents endure—sometimes with tragic results. What I see echoing behind many of our societal ills is the corrupted message we deliver to the young boys in our society about what it means to be a man.
Fortunately, living in a culturally diverse and progressive city like Toronto, I have come to take the issue of inclusion for granted, as reflected in the open expression of ethnic, sexual, and religious diversity. Sure, there are still roadblocks along the way, but without a doubt, freedom of expression is embedded into the fabric of our city.
As a middle-aged white male who enjoys the privileges that entails, it’s difficult for me to climb up on my soap box and bemoan my lot in life, yet I ask for your patience as I dig a little deeper into just what it means to be a man. The young boys in our society grow up hearing: “Only sissies cry. Don’t be a wuss. We need to separate the men from the boys.” We are taught to repress our feelings, to bury what we can’t change, to go it alone, and to fight back at all costs.
All this chest puffing, testosterone-infused machismo leads to the moulding of desensitized frightened men who have not only a difficult time expressing their emotions to their partners but also an almost insurmountable obstacle in building meaningful and supportive relationships with other men. John Donne may have said, “No man is an island”, but I beg to differ—All men are islands, and there in lies the problem! Brene Brown has written extensively about how vulnerability lies at the heart of shame and how what we seek most in life is connection with others. I can’t help but question a culture that prioritizes a man’s ability to bury vulnerability as weakness cloaked in a tattered robe of shame.
It seems only logical that teenage boys are drawn to violent video games that subconsciously feed their need for dominance and create a virtual world of camaraderie with other online teens who themselves are subjected to male isolation. If we are to believe what Brene Brown and countless psychologists propose that true connection stems from being vulnerable in front of others, are we honestly willing to relegate half our population to social-psychological isolation?
Even upon a quick introspection of my life, I can clearly see how this be a man philosophy has played out. After the disintegration of my parents' marriage when I was 9, I was raised by my father. I can remember how hard it was for him to express his emotions to us and how I felt embarrassed seeing my dad in the role of primary caregiver. I am also a victim of childhood sexual abuse, and as a boy and later as a man, I carry the added “baggage” of abuse that other male survivors have in tow. It’s one thing being abused as a child, but when you are a young boy abused by a man, your sexual identity is called into question. It’s this added dimension that makes disclosure among men so much less common. Moreover, when I look at my closest relationships, the vast majority of them are with women. I socialize with a lot of men, but I’ve always had a difficult time opening up to other men, being vulnerable in front of other men, and therefore, these relationships tend to be more collegial and superficial.
So, as is often said, “If you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem.” What can I do to affect change? For one, I am making a conscious effort to interact with my own son, now in his early 20s, from a more authentic and emotional center. I make certain to hug him and kiss him, and tell him I love him as often as I can. More importantly, I’m honest about my own insecurities and vulnerabilities. What I’m struggling with most now is how to bring this same level of “openness” to the relationships with other men I’m close to in my life. If you’re a man and you’re reading this, I’d like you to consider the following question, and to answer it truthfully: Are you able to let down your defences long enough for other people to really get to know you? And if you’re a woman and you’re reading this, I’d ask you to consider that “your night in shining armour” may be delayed because he’s too afraid to let you know that he’s too scared to get on his horse.
Without a doubt, life throws us curve balls, conundrums, and sometimes out and out catastrophes. These bumps along the way are inevitable, but our resiliency and inner fortitude can certainly lessen the feeling of overwhelming powerlessness that accompanies them.
Like most people, I’ve battled my share of challenges, most notably, addiction and clinical depression. What I used to hide from public view out of a crippling sense of shame, I now proudly display as battle scars that proclaim my ability to keep going when all I want to do is bury my head under the covers.
I’m definitely what you would call a slow learner in that even though something may have worked wonders for me in the past, I have a tendency to neglect doing the self-care required to withstand the next assault on my self-worth or general feeling of well-being. I thought I would share with you my 5 Strategies for Building Resiliency.
1. Focus on the journey and not on the finish line.
If you’re anything like me, you spend an inordinate amount of time thinking about how good you’ll feel when something is over, or when you have finally acquired something that you’ve been working hard to achieve. In no way am I a big picture kind of guy—and at times, this can be of benefit, as I tend to focus on details. However, this gets me into trouble when I fail to acknowledge that reaching a goal involves the ability of mapping out the stepping stones to a sought-after destination. I know I’m in a funk whenever I start complaining about the drudgery of where I’m at now. It helps when I remind myself that enjoying the journey is as important as reaching the goal, and that sitting in anticipation can be more life-affirming than the reward itself.
2. Our words have power over our thoughts.
When I made my first foray into Alcoholics Anonymous, I was introduced to a phrase that I have come to appreciate more with each day. If you sit in on enough meetings, you’re bound to hear recovering addicts talk about stinking thinking—those inner monologues that haunt you and try to convince you that you're “unworthy” or “terminally unique”, and thus, your chances of recovery are slim to none. I may talk a brave game, but learning to silence that inner critic is something that I battle with every day. I’ve found it helpful to step back and really listen to what I’m telling myself. A simple reframing of the vocabulary I use can have a monumental impact on my sense of direction and outlook. The best example I can use to illustrate the power of this shift is that I no longer refer to myself as a “victim” of childhood abuse, but rather as a “survivor” of childhood abuse. With this reframing of vocabulary, I’ve gone from the powerlessness of having something befall me, to a sense of empowerment and strength of survivorship.
3. Forward movement doesn’t always look “forward”.
I don’t subscribe to the belief that what’s past is past, and therefore has no bearing on the present. I look at my past not as a minefield to be avoided, but as a goldmine that can offer me nuggets of wisdom that if implemented appropriately, can furnish me with the tools to move forward in my life. Whenever I’ve been able to move forward, or even through a challenging period, it has come on the heels of my recognizing, and subsequently, altering a recurring pattern of stuckness. If I’m constantly focussing forward, I can’t see where I’ve come from, and I believe that this impacts my momentum of growth because I’m apt to cling to or repeat counterproductive behaviours.
4. Solutions are in the moment.
Sometimes the hardest thing to do is the easiest thing to do—What I long for most in my life is simplicity, which I often confuse with predictability. I’ve had a backdoor introduction to mindfulness through my yoga practice. For me, it comes down to quieting the mind by emptying the mind of distractions. This is often referred to as nourishing the ability to stay present. When I actively try to sit quietly for 10 minutes, I become acutely aware of how much my mind races. Instead of rationally dealing with an issue immediately before me, I compound this problem with 5 others that my mind has fabricated. I remind myself that solutions appear in the moment when I’m grounded and attuned to what I most need to hear or discover.
5. Truth is stronger than fear.
How many times have you heard people say things like: I have a healthy fear of … or I’m trying to overcome my fear of…? As a society, we are programmed to silence our fears instead of looking at what they have to tell us. Fear appears as I anxiously wait for my doctor to call with the lab results, as I confront a potential job loss, or even as I face the demise of a once-meaningful relationship. There is no doubt that fear can be debilitating and gut wrenching, but finding the truth that lies within that fear can be the most exhilarating freedom imaginable. In the presence of fear, I attempt to bring two things to mind—fear breeds and breathes on my energy, so learning to stand beside it instead of battling into it diminishes its control over me. Also, fear has a shelf life, and with time, even our ugliest fear whispers a gentle truth that we can build on.
I’d like to end this post with the words of the inspirational speaker, Joyce Meyer who reminds us that our baggage and our hardships serve a purpose even though at times, we can’t see their utility. “Your pain can become someone else’s gain. Your mess can become your ministry if you will have a positive attitude and decide to let everything you go through prepare you for what is ahead.”
About three months ago, my wife and I introduced something very simple into our day that has had a profound effect on our relationship and our general sense of wellbeing. Like many couples today, we both hold down a full-time job and have many commitments outside of work that keep us in a constant state of busyness and rush. Dinner was simply one more chore that we had to deal with every day, and we were both so chronically exhausted that we ate most of our dinners silently in front of the television. We realized something needed to change because we were losing the opportunity to make a reconnection with each other during our only meal together of the day. We began making a conscious effort to sit down at the dining room table, but to be honest, we struggled with making that transition from “crazy work mode” to “engaged partner mode”.
Enter now, the small contraption that has changed our life—We bought a Tibetan singing bowl to place on our dining room table. Our singing bowl is a small bowl that can easily rest in your palm. It’s made of an alloy of copper and tin, and when it is struck by a wooden mallet, the bowl makes a mesmerizing harmonic reverberating hum that drifts throughout the room for about half a minute. Now, when we sit down to have our dinner at the table, we chime the bowl and sit quietly as the reverberating sound seems the lift the tension of the day and allow “space” for us to take a deeper breath. When we open our eyes, we are now fully present for each other, and are finally able to make an authentic connection. Since starting this practice, we’ve had some of the more fruitful, engaging, and challenging conversations we have had in our 26 years of marriage.
Witnessing the healthful effects of being able to slow down and step back from the chaotic flow of my life got me thinking about my relationship with time in general. The more I thought about it, the more I realized that the majority of my stress was self-induced because I was in a sense, a victim of time. When I was compelled to take 4 months off work last spring as a result of issues related to PTSD, I was faced with huge chunks of unstructured time, and instead of feeling liberated by not being governed by a strict schedule, I felt anxious with this void I faced every day. Slowly, I began to undergo a subtle mind shift in that I had to get accustomed to focusing on where I was at now, rather than on what I was supposed to do next.
By reflecting instead of projecting, I realized how much of my energy was misspent and misdirected on what wasn’t happening. It also became clear that a lot of the anxiety I was experiencing was a direct result of connections or triggers that I was susceptible to when I was constantly under a time crunch. I was associating what was happening to me now with someone or something that caused me pain in the past. In a sense, I was inviting this vicarious pain to become amplified and gain too much meaning and control in my life.
With time, I recognized that I was like a mouse spinning on a wheel—I was speeding through my day, but not really getting anywhere. I needed to cultivate the awareness to bring my attention back to what was most important. The American Buddhist nun, Pema Chodron expressed this same sentiment when she said: “If someone comes along and shoots an arrow into your heart, it’s fruitless to stand there and yell at the person. It would be much better to turn your attention to the fact that there’s an arrow in your heart.”
I thought I would share with you my strategies for slowing down the the runaway train that often is my life:
1. Get out of my mind and into the moment.
For years, I prided myself for having such a busy mind, and chalked it up to my intellect working overdrive. How wrong I was! In fact, a great degree of my problems with addiction can be directly attributed to my failed attempts to quiet that busy mind and escape from the fear in which it resided. To combat this tendency, any time I feel that I’m daydreaming, projecting, stewing, or obsessing, I actively force myself back into the moment. When I’m stuck in traffic or in a subway delay, I force myself to look around at the buildings or the people beside me, and this appears to prevent my mind from obsessing about being late, and the associated anxiety from feeling powerless.
2. Learn to embrace doing nothing.
I’ve never been one who is very good with vast stretches of unstructured time. If you asked my wife, she'd tell you that I have two speeds: “full-throttle” and “off”. Our weekends used to be mapped out like a military campaign, but lately we have been going with the flow and getting comfortable with doing nothing. We really experienced this in action this past summer when we spent a few days in Manhattan. Typically, we would have every second of our vacation planned, but this time we decided to wake up and let the day unfold naturally. It was surreal walking around the bustling streets of Midtown and not being caught up in the frenetic buzz. We wandered around, sat for coffee and chatted, and slowly ambled across the Brooklyn Bridge, and wound up in a quaint pizzeria for a lovely afternoon. Our new family mantra has become: “Sometimes doing nothing is doing everything.”
3. Highlight the transitions not the events.
As I mentioned before, I have a tendency to obsess about what’s coming next, rather than enjoying what’s happening now. I’m consciously trying to rewire my brain to stay “present”, but it is a constant battle. Focusing on the transitions throughout my day helps me stay more in the moment. I now take my time over breakfast, and then walk casually to the subway for my morning commute. Our Buddhist singing bowl acts as a calming respite from our hectic day and a gentle gateway to our reconnection as a couple.
4. Get comfortable with discomfort.
The most important component of my “slowing down strategies” has been what I call getting comfortable feeling uncomfortable. Those of you who follow my blog know that I am a survivor of childhood sexual abuse. Just being able to articulate that to you has been a monumental change I’ve undergone in the past 10 months. I spent over 35 years trying to hide, or run away from what I believed to be a “shameful secret”. Today, so much of my recovery involves learning to simply be with discomfort instead of getting through it. It’s a subtle change that entails huge dividends in my life because I’m spending less energy projecting out of where I am now, and this allows me to deal with what is actually before me. That runaway train that was my life, now resembles me sitting calmly, and in the moment, while I wait for a less crowded train to arrive.