Who Am I?

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What would you say is your identity? Do you identify as a mother or father, a wife or an object, a jock, a business person, or a masochist?  Perhaps you describe yourself as a survivor of cancer, sexual assault, or bullying? Alternatively, you could be a person with diabetes, HIV, lupus, autism, etc. There are so many ways to label and reduce ourselves to a fixed identity, which in turn can put us into a box. Once you are in a box, how do you get out of it? If it defines you, how do you become something more? What if you experience one or more of those identities, but those do not define you, or they limit you? What does that mean? Do you feel trapped in your box? Do you want out of your box?

The self that we begin to create from birth is in a constant process of forming, dissolving, and reforming, time and time again. Over the course of a lifetime, a person should evolve and change. A healthy evolution is one that incorporates new information, the changes in our lives, bodies and circumstances, and then consolidates this into an expanded sense of self. These changes are caused by big and small events. It can be as simple as meeting one person who changes your view. Moving away from your family of origin, to another state, coast or country, will definitely impact your view of the world and yourself. Getting married or becoming single will create change in our sense of self and how we are internally organized. As we age, we can’t physically do some of the things we could when we were younger. How we see ourselves can change based on how others respond to us. As we age, people see and respond to us differently.

The self is complicated, in that it reflects the continuous, lifelong exploration of finding out who we are. Digging deep into the recesses of your unconscious allows the entirety of yourself to emerge. We do this by working through those discarded, cast-off experiences that had been too painful to process when they first occurred. These suppressed aspects must be faced and healed in some form in order to find yourself in full.

A common reason that people adopt a fixed, unchanging identity is to avoid facing the pain inside themselves. Often, our greatest fear in life is exploring what is inside of us. However, that exploration is the path to truly knowing you, accepting you, and being more fully present in the world for yourself and others.

We spend our life unpacking, and sometimes re-creating, our relationship to our parents. Our parents programmed us. We downloaded their ways of being in the world and unconsciously mimic them. It is how we first form and create a structure to take into the world. Are we exact copies? No, but our personality structure very likely resembles one or both of our parents. That is just how we are formed, for better and worse.

Successes, failures, relationships, disappointment and dreams that are realized or not: all of these impact the fantasies we had growing up. Reality comes into the picture, and we appropriately adjust both our expectations of life and who we are.

Locking into an unchanging "identity" as a stand-in for our true sense of self and all its changes is dangerous and limiting.

The following sections will explore some of the different ways we take on identities and how they can impede the fluid evolution of the self.

Illness as an Identity

There are different ways that we can express our experience of being in the world. To have had cancer and survive it, would change us. To have an incurable disease, no matter how maligned or benign, changes how we see ourselves, how we express ourselves, and how we relate to others. That is undeniable and does become part of the changing self.

However, to fully assume something that is a virus or an illness as part of one's being and identity, especially if it is shame-based, limits the possibilities of growth and evolution of the self over time.

Could this be impacting you? Certainly, but illness is still just one aspect of a life, even though it can feel dominant. Keeping it in perspective is essential, so that you are open to continued growth. Care, love and compassion can be amazingly healing of our souls, if not our bodies. It is helpful to heal all parts of ourselves for the best possible life we can live at any time. 

Religion as Identity

Many people are raised in families where a particular faith or religion is interwoven with daily life. Most of those people might never stray from that religious viewpoint, as it is part of how they were socialized to see the world. There is a wide range of levels of belief and seriousness about religious faith. Some people absorb everything as literal, unquestioned truth and aspire to validating and living it. At the same time, they defer their own judgement on many matters to that of their religious leaders.  That way, they don’t have to make judgement calls themselves, or question what they really believe.

Giving up your identity to a religion is problematic. At the most fundamental, it demands you relinquish an identity in favor of taking on another’s view of the religion. For people who go that route, anything from the outside that attacks or threatens that religion is seen as an attack on them personally. There is no separation. This is different from a spiritual orientation, which pursues an exploration of the unknown, asking questions without expecting or getting absolute answers, which is quite the opposite of having all the answers given to you.

Survivor as an Identity

We have become a society of survivors: rape, sexual abuse, cults, cancer, domestic violence, bullying, etc.

As humans, with human parents and being around other humans, most of us have experienced violence, drama, pain, heartbreak, tragedy, etc. in our lives. No one goes unscathed through life; it was not designed that way.

The concern here is that if you define yourself by what you survived, then you have defined yourself according to an experience from your past. Did it change you? Certainly, but it is now in the past. Who are you now? That is the question that needs to be owned and acknowledged. Looking forward, not to the past, allows the evolution of the self. It is an expansive view of you and the possibilities before you.

To continually identify as a survivor of something can also mean that this negative experience has not been integrated. It is too much in the foreground, when it should just be a part of your history. Acknowledging that you had been victimized in some way, whether from abuse or illness, is fine. But to hold on to it as part of the identity, however, means that victimization is still in the present, instead of the past.

Make it part of your past. Find out who you are now; that is what is important and will improve your life in the now.

Sexuality as Identity

We have all known men or women whose lives revolve around sex: Having sex, pursuing sex, being found attractive or desirable, whether the sex act happens or not.

While there are different reasons for this behavior, basing one's identity on being desirable, wanted or needed is a risky way to try to empower the evolution of the self.

Being always on the prowl for sex and validation that you are attractive can be all-consuming. While we all like to feel attractive to others, the hunt and the release can be an endless cycle of engaging the endorphins, which keeps us from feeling deeper feelings.

In addition, jumping from one person or experience to the next ultimately prevents intimacy. For some, that is actually the intention, though they may not be aware of it. While being rejected sexually is painful, it is less painful than being rejected for who we are. A more profound feeling of rejection is to be avoided at all costs and thus there's the distraction of the hunt to look for new validation.

With a focus on appearances and sexual attraction. this means that the focus is always on the outside. It is about staying focused both on your physical or seductive abilities. While there is a focus on (the next) other and their response to you, that is all a surface awareness.

No matter how attractive the package is on the outside, sufficiently driven behavior is compulsive sexuality. While we often like to call any compulsive behavior an addiction, it is more typically the result of trauma that has not been treated.

While it is okay for women to acknowledge they have been victims of sexual violence, it is a much riskier path for men to take. To admit being a victim, for a male, is close to a public admission of not being a man. 
Yet boys are often the victims of sexual violence, from both males and females, but we celebrate their over-early exposure to sex as "lucky."

This untreated and unacknowledged trauma can create a lifetime of staying on the edge of erotic feelings that were introduced at an age where they were too young to process them. Thus, untreated trauma victims are never able to deepen and mature emotionally into adults. Some parts of the psyche might appear more adult, but in general, they are busy staying on that erotic edge, because to deepen into feelings is moving into territory that they cannot handle.

For the most part, women express sex differently than men. Most of the difference is caused by socialization, however. All studies show that women are sexually abused more often than males. Our society also says it is okay for women to be seen as victims, or potential victims. This has an impact on how they handle sexual abuse. 

Men, by contrast, are not “allowed to be” victims, so they tend to sexualize the feelings from the trauma, where women might attempt to bury them to the point of sexual withdrawal. People who were sexually abused as children are more likely to become sex workers. This is one way the traumatic experience is eroticized.

For the self to grow and shift, it requires paying attention to the signals we receive inside ourselves, and then processing them as best we can. Trauma interrupts this natural growth process of learning to confront, process and integrate difficult feelings.

Sex for most people is intertwined with shame, from a little to a lot. In the United States, Puritan sexual shame culture is alive and well. While it is not talked about a great deal, nevertheless it persists in the background of fantasies, porn and the expression of sexual feelings. Shame is an emotion that everyone has. It is easily eroticized and is often the way that a person survives shameful feelings for which they have no other option or idea how to handle. Initial eroticized shame is not a conscious decision, it is a survival mechanism that comes out of the unconscious or is learned from the abuser.

Shame at its core is the message “I am bad”. If the core of your sexual identity says, “I am bad”, then your actions will reflect that. A person who is raised in a family that insists on “traditional” roles might absorb the message that they are “bad” due to their non-traditional orientation, and might find ways to punish or humiliate themself. There is a difference between enjoying a slice of eroticized shame and taking it on as an identity. Role play is one way this aspect is expressed, or it can be a narrative in one’s head while engaged in sex with someone or in masturbation. The partner may never know the source of the other’s erotic life. But if it moves beyond a fantasy and becomes real, and it becomes how they identify in the world, then the processing of that earlier experience stops.

During the experience of abuse, whether it is physical, sexual or emotional, one strategy of the unconscious is to eroticize the experience, in order to tolerate or even survive it. A child being sexually abused can also download the shame of the abuser. If the physical sensations involved are enjoyable, it is likely that these sensations, when experienced again, will join with the shame, resulting in eroticized shame. If a parent is beating a child and the parent finds that experience erotic, the child can absorb that feeling as well, taking it on as a way to make sense of the experience as well as to tolerate the pain and humiliation.

Eroticized anger is often observed in the actions of others. A parent who bullies others will give a child the unconscious lesson "this is how you express your erotic energy," because bullying comes from our erotic core. One coping method for a person who has been raped or abused is to erotize the revenge aspect of the experience; that in turn becomes an outlet for their erotic expression. Again, this is generally an unconscious process. A child who is suppressed emotionally, or abused physically or sexually, may decide they are never going to let anyone suppress them again. They might then eroticize the feelings they have observed in others' behaviors, with sex becoming about dominating, abusing and using others to get their needs met.

Once you recognize and accept that shame has become part of your sexuality, then you can decide how you want to hold it. Eroticized shame and/or anger is a double-edged sword. The source of eroticized shame and/or anger is abuse. Moreover, it may likely have been necessary to eroticize the experience in order to survive the abuse. Fully taking on the identity of a "masochist," "object," "slut," "dominant," --whatever word that evokes the shame-- can keep you trapped in the cycle of abuse. Knowing that it turns you on, but that it is not who you are, is the healthy way to approach eroticized shame sexually while allowing for the continued evolution of the self. If the original shame dominates the identity, then there is no room for the self to be open to new possibilities.

A problem that can arise when using shame in conscious sex play is the potential damage from emotional violence. Even with the best of intentions and agreement in “play”, if you are humiliating someone or verbally abusing them, it’s still emotional violence.

There is a difference between "I am a slave" and "I am turned on by role playing a slave."  "I am a slave" is the end point, with no real retreat. "I like role playing being a slave" allows you to accept the erotic enjoyment of this fantasy. "I am a slave" is a fixed identity that limits possible growth and change.

Eroticized shame and anger challenge our sensibilities about sex and erotic energy. Once experiences are eroticized, that imprint on our sexual self rarely goes away, but it can soften and become less central to our erotic life. Accepting that eroticized shame or anger can be an erotic turn on, instead of taking it on as the core of your sexuality, is very different.

In working through eroticized shame and or anger by openly confronting its roots, a shift will begin, and the shame or anger will lose its allure and power. However, that path is not for everyone. Some people want to enjoy the erotic aspect and not process the underlying context out of their sex life. They stay attached to it and cannot imagine being sexual without it. Those who take this path will likely keep eroticized shame and or anger in place as the central focus of their sexuality.

Identifying with eroticized shame or eroticized anger could be seen as the end point of healing. Accepting it is the beginning of healing. For most, it is a lifelong unfolding as we go deeper into feelings, seeing and understanding them from the adult perspective, rather than living out the experience of the victimized child self.  When a person is sexually assaulted, they can remain psychosexually at the age when the event happened, until they process the trauma and rescue the assaulted part of themselves. To stay stuck in the victimized part will mean taking on the erotized victim as a sexual identity. That is a trap that can keep that part of the self from healing and evolving.

Sexually Transmitted Diseases (STDs) as an Identity

STDs are just viruses. Our society has decided, however, that if you have an STD, you are somehow tainted. That you are a slut, or worse. This dynamic is closely tied to eroticized shame and for some, eroticized anger. Many people have an STD before they ever become sexual. For example, cold sores are a less stigmatized name for Herpes Simplex Virus, or HSV-1. It can be transmitted with no signs of an outbreak and the initial infection is usually from a relative kissing a child on the lips and unintentionally infecting them. HSV can be spread to any part of the body, via this same method. After a person has had more than a couple of sexual partners, they could have, or been exposed to, one or more STDs, the most common being human papillomavirus (HPV). But there is a stigma associated with knowing you have an STD, and that stigma must be processed. Some people with STDs become lost in the shame, and withdraw sexually and physically. This is a shame response. The eroticized version of this response is to seek punishment for having the STD or by consciously or unconsciously seeking out more STDs. The eroticized anger version of a response would be to intentionally expose or infect others with the STD.

If the shame of having an STD becomes an identity, then someone else's rejection, perhaps because of that virus, or not, becomes a personal attack. This can take matters out of the realm of discussion and understanding. Once things become incorporated in the personal, then rejection is no longer about the STD, it is about the person as a whole. It limits compassion for others, as well as for the self. It is a victim identity; and if held too firmly, it is not possible to heal.

Roles as Identity

Men who have worked their entire lives and been too devoted to their jobs often take their profession on as their sole identity. Almost as often, they can die quickly after retirement because they have no purpose with which to move onward in life. Unable to expand who they are or to make a shift, they just disappear. 

It is easier to see the unfavorable possibilities arising from negative labels which form a trapped identity, such as STDs, illnesses, etc. On the other hand, we get a great deal of social support for taking on roles as a mother, wife, caretaker, father, doctor, firefighter, psychotherapist, husband, provider, but these roles can be as much of a box or a trap as negative labels.

For instance, if your identity is tied up in “being a mom”, what happens when the kids leave home, and there is just you?  If “a mom” is who you are, then when you are no longer a mom, you might look for other people (or animals) to mother, or you intrude on your children’s lives to give yourself a purpose in life, because being who you really are is not enough.  Identifying with a single role limits who you are. By understanding that this is just one part of your life, a role that you chose to fulfill, an aspect of you, you shouldn’t be limited when possibilities arise to allow your sense of self to shift, grow, and advance.

If you are a minister, priest, rabbi, imam, peace officer, Marine, etc., these can be all-encompassing identities, both inwardly and externally. But who are you when you are not on duty? Who will you be when you are no longer in that role?

The same can be said for someone who defines themselves as a raving devotee of some celebrity or sports team, or a person who is defined first and foremost by their politics or religion. Those people are living outside of themselves, with almost no connection to whom they are on the inside. Their devotions are not who they are, they are how they have chosen to be in the world. Holding tightly onto that outside identity restrains possibilities for newness.

Sexual Orientation as Identity

With the emergence of the lesbian, gay, and bisexual movement demanding acceptance and visibility, we talk about sexual orientation more than ever. It is becoming less shameful for some, but not all.

Kinsey wisely created a scale as a means of expressing sexual orientation. The levels went from 1 to 6, with 1 being completely heterosexual and 6 being completely homosexual. Most would like to think that once you figure out your number, the discussion is over.

Studies have shown that women can have a more fluid sexuality over the course of a lifetime than men. And there is a more socialized acceptance of fluidity in female sexuality. While men may have that same fluidity, they were not allowed to openly express it in previous generations. As with most things in life, there are also awakenings, acknowledgements, or evolutions around sexual attraction.

We now have descriptions like ”mostly straight,” “heteroflexible,” “homoflexible,” “pansexual,” etc.  Modern language is trying to catch up with the nuances of what we have been feeling and expressing, even though the feelings are not new.

Are there people that don’t change? Sure. But like every other category of identity that has been explored here, rigidly holding onto a fixed identity can prevent evolution and refinement of one’s place in the world.

We like our labels and they have a role in defining ourselves in the moment. But we still change, we have new awareness, awakenings, and shifts. It is important to understand life is about an exploration of who we are, and through that process, we come to understand more about ourselves and about things that we had no idea are deep inside.

As we age, we change, and hopefully, we grow. We approach deeper awareness of ourselves. That is healthy. Again, by being open to growing and evolving, we can expand and be our best, whatever that is. If on the other hand, we try to force ourselves to stay the same, we shut down and get smaller.

Gender as Identity

This is a complex topic of particular discussion today. While sexual orientation has often been a lightning rod, it is secondary to the impact of questioning and acknowledging a gender orientation that is different from our sex at birth. This goes to the core of our certainty about how the world is ordered. If we cannot trust what our physical body says about us, how can we trust anything else? What are we to hold on to? It recalls the same earlier arguments made about sexual orientation: that "parts only fit one way."

Gender identity, like sexual orientation, exists across a spectrum. All of us have a mix of masculine and feminine energy. The majority of cross-dressing men happen to be heterosexual. They are finding a way to express their feminine energy outside of the constraints of a social system that prefers to think of gender as binary.

Each person has to come to terms with who they are, and part of that discernment is gender. Most people probably never think about it, but for those who are confined by social norms and those for whom the gender identity is incongruent with their birth sex, this is a central part of their journey to uncover and express who they are.

While this journey to discover ourselves has always been a part of us, social conventions made it almost impossible for people to push against and yet, throughout history, there have been brave souls that had no option and were willing and sometimes even able to challenge the norms and declare who they were.

Once we let go of how things are "supposed to be", an opening comes for us to see how things actually are. We all come to consciousness in our own time and own way. Some people know they are in the wrong body from almost the beginning. Others awaken to what is causing the discomfort in the core of their being, when they are ready to face it.

Life offers many distractions, and too often, the path inside to explore who we are takes the lowest priority. People discover themselves in their own time. Fear of being disowned, rejected, assaulted or even killed keeps many from embracing and celebrating who they are. We are trained to consider what others think of us as more important than what we think of ourselves. While others’ input can be useful, ultimately it is our life, our body, and our journey. 

People who are vehemently opposed to the idea of questioning one's gender identity are rigidly holding onto many fixed ideas about how people and the world are supposed to be. They fear a lack of that control, and that if people are free to be who they know they are, then the world order will end, and it will be chaos.

The smaller a person’s world is, the more tightly they hold onto keeping everything the same.

Why a Fixed Identity is a Problem

The greatest problem in solidifying what seems to be a permanent identity is that as we age and change, our world will get smaller if our identity does not evolve and change. Otherwise, we shrink and will attempt to protect that fixed identity, because it feels like that is all that we are Even if it is an artificial identity and it prevents us from owning who we truly are, we might cling to it. Someone with the flexibility to change, grow, and be excited about what is coming next is actually embracing the world and all of its possibilities. This type of person will have a much easier time adjusting to the changes of aging and knows that there is something bigger than this body or this set of identities. They will also not fear death, because they understand it is just the next step on the path.

Summary

As a society, we do a poor job of teaching people how we become ourselves. Understanding the self is treated as some magical process that we do not understand. Psychotherapists know how it happens. It is messy and often complicated, affected by flawed parents, traumatic experiences, and just bad karma, but we know how it works. We can often repair the damage so that the natural drive to grow and evolve can resume its role.

Labels can be useful, as long as they are not held too rigidly. They are aspects of us at this moment in time. “I have HIV,” instead of “I am HIV.” I have whatever it is, instead of saying I am that.

Being a parent never stops, but it does change in meaning. Having an infant is very different than having a 50-year-old adult child. Are you still a parent? Yes, but the children are no longer your full responsibility.

Identities can give us a way to communicate, share information and even preferences. However, each of us is much more complicated than a label, and the limitations, if embraced, can be harmful.

Take the risk, explore who you really are, by stepping back from those fixed identities. This is the most important journey of your life. Enjoy the ride; it’s why we are here.

Real Self-Care

Self-care is a constant topic of conversation, although we may not have enough time for it. There are the usual suggestions of getting a massage, walking in nature, or having a cocktail at the end of the day. We might meditate or pursue some other kind of spiritual practice, all with the idea of getting some self-care in our world that is always about others.

All of these ideas are great, as far as they go. Real self-care is how you take care of yourself while engaged in your life, rather than dealing with the aftermath. Real self-care means not merging with others, yet having genuine empathy and compassion. Self-care is about not taking on anything energetically from others, so that at the end of the day, you have nothing to “get rid of”— because you did not absorb it during the process of being with them.

Merging with another person, often in our socialization, is seen as a good thing. We are taught in our culture that it is the best way to feel empathy and to know what the other is feeling. In reality, it is intrusive. First, we cannot truly know another’s experience. We can relate, we may have walked a similar path, but knowing someone is upset or in pain and trying to share that with you should be enough. Second, as humans, our job is to witness with compassion, not merging with the other person and thinking we know their feelings.

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A Better Way

The first step is to stay inside of our bodies. The task is to recognize what you are experiencing emotionally and physically — so that when you begin to pick up the energetic experiences of others, you are able to distinguish what is you and what is them. This requires being inside of yourself and practicing at identifying the difference between you and others.

The second step is to have a strong sense of your “energetic bubble”. Everything in the universe is energy. That cup you use, the car you drive, and your hand are all examples of energy put together in different forms that we recognize. Each of us has an electromagnetic field outside and around ourselves. This life force is also described as Qi. Becoming hyper-aware of that bubble is the first step to owning your space and being able to understand what is happening around you — by simply being conscious of your bubble.

How would it be possible to keep this constant awareness? It feels like it would take all of our attention if we were thinking about this all the time. We could say the same thing, however, about breathing. We need to breathe constantly. If we don’t breathe, we die. So you must be hyperaware of each breath, or you would stop breathing. Of course, breathing is automatic. Most of the time we don’t have to think about it. When we do, something is wrong, or at the very least deserves our attention.

The same is true with our bubble. It is just part of us. Staying inside of it allows us to hear an alert that signals to us that something is amiss. This happens when we choose to tune in to take the emotional temperature of a person or room. With practice, it can also alert us to danger, before we tune into a specific person or energy. The process is just like breathing. It becomes automatic once we are aware of it and understand how it works.

How Do We Keep Our “Bubble” Solid?

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Unfortunately, childhood, for most people, does not offer great experience for learning boundaries. For many, as children, we experienced whatever limits and boundaries we tried to establish being torn down and trampled. Too often, parents intrude on their children and use them to meet the parent's needs. No one gets through childhood unscathed. Childhood is not designed that way. The task of parenting is to help a child navigate those painful experiences, so that the child has the tools and confidence to explore the world successfully. Not many parents succeed completely at understanding their roles and carrying them out.

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Parents who are the source of the unresolved pain in their child’s lives are what cause personality disorders and neurosis. Our own bodies’ beautifully designed system of electromagnetic energy, one that can protect and inform us, is often riddled with “holes” from the unresolved trauma of childhood and life. Instead of having this solid bubble, we have holes that leak out our energy, and where we have been socialized to allow in the energy of others. And if sufficiently triggered, a child part of our self, from some unresolved pain in our lives, will crawl out of one of those holes in our bubble and suddenly take charge of a situation or our life. There is nothing quite like a four-year-old self suddenly deciding they need to protect us from someone perceived as a threat, a threat that is sourced from pain from long ago. It would be easiest to see when someone overreacts to a situation, where the behavior seems to “come out of nowhere.” We have all been there, and we see it in others every day.

These “holes in our bubble,” in turn, make us vulnerable to taking on others’ energy. We begin to directly experience the other’s emotions and pain, in our own emotions and even in our own bodies. Yet it is their energy; it is not ours, and it should stay outside of you, not inside. This is not about being uncaring or unavailable, it can actually make the opposite happen. You are genuinely available and are a profound witness to another’s experience when you do not intrude on them or their experience. If you keep others “out”, and you “in”, at the end of the day, you are alive, full of energy, and ready to be fully present with your home life and loved ones. This feeling shouldn’t be something you only achieve after hours of decompression, solitude, or the requisite glass(es) of chardonnay. This is real self-care and it is available to anyone that learns this approach to energy management. Staying in your body, learning to read the environment from inside your bubble, is how you know what is happening outside of you.

Our task is to heal our own wounds, so we don’t leak out our own emotions and issues or take in the wounded energy of others. This would be a much better world for all of us if everyone could be aware of this process.

What Can I Do?

Most of us have had the experience of going home to visit our parents and regressing to a child state. Saying no to parents can be very difficult if not impossible. One technique of several, to use in that moment of trouble, is a figure eight visualization. This specific approach is from a book called Cutting the Ties that Bind by Phyllis Krystal

Imagine two hula hoops. Put yourself in one of them and put someone you are having trouble keeping “out of your bubble” in the other. The hula hoops should be adjacent but not overlapping. Turn the two hula hoops into neon and begin moving the energy between the hula hoops in the form of a figure eight. Starting in front of you, start by running the energy clockwise around them and then coming around, and then going counter-clockwise around you until it forms a figure eight. Continue doing this visualization until you begin to notice that you are breathing more naturally and have more mental clarity. I call this exercise a Disconnecting Figure 8.

You can make the energy field bands you are visualizing very tall, or very thick, whatever is necessary for you to feel safely separate from the other.

Another setting for this exercise can be at work. Bosses are often experienced as intrusive, and we frequently turn them into our parents. Using the figure eight will give you space to step back, breathe, and have a better picture of what is happening in the moment.

This technique will help you be better able to see the real person you’re dealing with. instead of a projection. Ghosts from the past, reflected by people in the present, can make us regress and be overwhelmed in the moment. In that moment of stress, healing that past is generally not an option. Having tools in your arsenal to help you deal with the situation is essential to be the best you can be in the here and now.

Figure eights can also be used on bad dreams, obsessive thoughts, and other intrusions where you need to create distance. By using this tool long enough, that “other” will simply dissipate or at least it will give you more distance and perspective to handle the situation in the moment.

Healing is a life-long process as we are constantly uncovering ‘new’ old stuff that needs to be addressed. Understanding and using strong, clear energy boundaries is real self-care.  This allows us to re-orient ourselves, making the healing process easier and faster, and in turn, it makes life more enjoyable.

Try it. See the diagram below, as it may help to make sense of the visualization.

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Merle Yost, LMFT
merleyost.com
unspokenboundaries.com

Merle Yost is the author of six books, the latest, Facing the Truth of Your Life and his current workshop is Unspoken Boundaries: Energy Hygiene for Everyone. He has retired from private practice but does short-term Intensives and adjunct EMDR.

Travis Sinks

My name is Travis Sinks. I am first and foremost, a Christian. I'm also a business growth consultant (EBGSolutions.com). My goal through my blog and life is to encourage and equip the church as a whole in both their knowledge of scripture and in their practical lives of life and ministry.

Couples and Money

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* Why do couples argue so much about finances?

Money represents security, and as with sex, dealing with it as a couple is based on trust. Just as in a new sexual relationship, it takes a lot of conversation and practice to understand a partner’s belief systems around money, their preferences and priorities, and how they behave around money in general. Too many people just jump right in and assume that the other person must be wired the same way they are because everything works so well in other areas. 

And as with sex, people will lie, or hide issues about money. Over time, these little deceptions usually emerge slowly and can erode trust. Couples eventually discover that just because they are attracted to each other, it does not mean that they see life, money or sex the same way. All of these areas have to be negotiated, often over and over again. 

Crushed expectations, lies, and different priorities can all lead to conflict, much of which could have been avoided if they had taken the time to get to know each other financially as well as they might have on other levels.

* Should couples share their bank accounts or keep them separate?

The answer to whether to merge finances is: whatever works for them. The American fantasy is that once you couple and marry you merge everything: family, money, households, and food. But if two people have very different diets, does that mean they cannot or should not eat together? As with food, you find common ground, but it may be just that, something to start with. It may not mean that you both will eat the same things. There may be shared financial goals or expenses, or there may not. How much or if any merger of money and expenses will depend on the situation. A red flag would be feeling pressured into doing what is expected to make the other person comfortable, even if it does not make you comfortable. 

Also, second and third marriages, where each partner may have their own complex asset situations, are different than when two young people are just starting out in life. Each situation is different and having a tax accountant look at the situation from an outside perspective is a good idea as well. The longer a couple is together, the greater the need to have merged finances. But there are exceptions to every rule.

BEFORE merging money, couples should always exchange the last three full tax returns and a complete current credit report. This action builds trust. It also tells you a lot about the person you are marrying. 

Asking to share this information will seem outrageous to some, but why not?  You will be entrusting your financial future to this other person. If they are forthcoming, if you have both been vulnerable about your strengths and weakness, and if you have taken the time to exchange your values about money deeply, this is the beginning of financial trust. Sharing what you learned from your family about money, priorities, attitudes about saving, tells you so much more about who this person is. It is essential that you know this before merging money. Is buying a house a goal for both of you? Who will manage the finances and why? How much input will the other have? What, if anything, are you willing to sacrifice today to have tomorrow?

If there is a considerable discrepancy in financial values and attitudes between partners, then there should either be no marriage or no complete merger of money. If one person is paying for everything, then there is less reason to have separate accounts, because if my money does not become our money, then the non-financially contributing partner will merely be the unpaid hired help. Keeping all but one checking account separate would be appropriate. Assuming both parties are generating income, then one joint account should be used for paying the mutual bills. In this way, each is sure about how much the other is providing.  It still requires an ongoing discussion about money and priorities.

* What do you do if one person thinks the other is spending too much on non-essentials?

If one partner is doing something that challenges the others beliefs about money, it offers an opportunity to have some of these missing conversations about money and finances. Approach it as curiosity about how they are seeing their spending both personally and in the context of the relationship.  Asking open-ended questions rather than making accusations will create the right atmosphere to share their most honest thoughts and feelings. 

Many people regress to earlier places in their life when it comes to money, especially under stress. Did getting a new toy mean you are loved? Does having money in the bank for emergencies make you feel safe? A parent whose pleasure or needs came before the needs of the family might create a trigger point in a spouse as an adult when their partner does something that reminds them of that parent. 

This question goes back to having agreements worked out before getting married. How did they decide to resolve conflicts in general? Money is loaded, as it represents security for most people. Take away security, and you take away trust. Take away trust, and it is likely the end of the relationship. Infidelity in itself does not end a relationship, a violation of trust can. 

Money in some ways is more complicated than sex in a relationship. Most couples have little to no meaningful discussion about finances before jumping in and making themselves totally vulnerable to another person. There are no absolute rules of how to handle money for a couple, but this most dangerous of minefields should be well-explored territory before you say “I do” and merge your money with another person.


Couple and Money Questionnaire

If you are a new couple, contemplating marriage, considering merging bank accounts and assets, or a couple that is fighting over money This questionnaire is for you. It is comprised of both an individual and a relationship questionnaire. If you purchase this, you should print off two copies and each of you should fill out both questionnaires privately and then compare your answers. The questions are designed to give you insight into both how you see money as well as how your partner does. 

Couples have found this a very useful tool to help them navigate the difficult conversation about. Each couple if they are going to stay together and or merge their money and assets needs to have common ground and basic understandings about money in the relationship. 

Get The Questionnaire PDF

Only $4.99

Parent and Child as Best Friends

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A parent and child should never be “best friends”. This can signal boundary crossing, something that is always harmful to a dependent child and is still unhealthy for an adult child as well.

We spend our lives sorting out our relationship with our parents, to come into ourselves, to know ourselves. The child needs a proper perspective on the parent throughout their lives. This helps them navigate all the relationships in their lives.

Once a parent, always a parent. For the sake of the child, those lines should never be crossed. Parent-child relationships are life long, even when the child assumes the parental role for their own parents who may be elderly or in need. Best friends are peers, or if cross-generational, then that friend should be someone outside of the family. Crossing the child-parent line is complicated. People often regress to their childhood emotional state when in the presence of a parent. If you have not worked through the childhood wounds — yes, we all have them! — or you have not individuated from the parents, then the result can be your remaining a child, reacting as a child, in that relationship.

One term that can apply to these blurred boundaries is emotional incest, which refers to any attempt by a parent to use a child to meet their adult psychosexual or emotional needs. That is why “my parent is my BFF” cannot be a healthy relationship. In the best of worlds, the parent helps the child become self-sufficient and launches them into the world, so the child can conquer it and make it their own. This requires the parent to get out of the way. Advise them if asked, but otherwise assume they are now adults. Be their supporter and parent, not their friend.

Parents whose children are their “best friends” can be assumed to not have good boundaries; this can actually impair the health of the child’s relationships with others. Most of the time, the parent dies before the child. The child will need real best friends then, who will support them through that loss.

As a therapist, it was a red flag, a sign that there were potential boundary issues in a family, if a parent told me their child was their best friend, or if a child said the same of their parent. It meant we had a lot of work to do on boundaries and appropriate, healthy relationships. In turn, as a therapist, I also needed to be especially attentive with the client, because they were likely to want me as their best friend, which was not in their best interest.

Steps to Solving Loneliness

Loneliness can shorten your life and certainly make it less enjoyable. All people need contact with others. We are a social species. Some people need more connection than others, and it will even look different from person to person.

But there are some things that most people can do to manage their aloneness, which is time alone that has very positive aspects, versus loneliness, which is when we really need human contact.

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Eating out: A key to combating loneliness is to find two or three places to eat, where you go often. You get to know the staff, you ask their names, they know your name, they know what you like to eat. It is some recognition that you exist and people want to interact with you. While you are not with your best friends, it is a bit like having a family dinner. Eating with others is essential.

Friends: Friends are essential. We need people we can confide in, who know what we are going through, who make regular contact with us. Being alone does not mean being lonely. Facebook and Instagram are not enough. You need to talk to people. Meet them for exercise, catching up, a movie, something with in-person contact with others, where you are warmly greeted and genuinely missed and cared for.

Join Groups: MeetUp is an excellent starting point. After you register with the site, search for local groups and activities. You are looking for people with mutual interest. Book groups, movie groups, spiritual groups, exercise groups there is a bit of everything on there. You can also start one of your own. You like photography or drawing, or long walks in the mountains, and there is no local group? Start one and find others into the things you like to do.

Yoga or Exercise Groups are also a way to connect with others. The key is consistency in whatever you do. Making friends takes time. You get to know them, and they get to know you. A bond might be formed and in time, you’re meeting for coffee to get to know each other and then maybe dinner or a movie, as you find mutual interests. Repetition makes people more comfortable with you, and you with them.

Massage: We all need to be touched. The touch of being hugged when greeting someone or departing is affirming and needed. Massage releases all kinds of hormones and feelings in our bodies. Take the time and make an effort to be touched. Find a practitioner you like, and their touch.  Then set up appointments for at least once a month, or as often as you can afford, it will make a big difference to your well-being.

Sex: A friend with benefits or just a sex friend, this is connected to touch, but goes much deeper. Sex, when done right, is intimate and the more often you have good sex with the same person, it should increase intimacy. Masturbation is easy and useful, but being desired, held and touched reminds us that we are important to another in some way.

Pets: The unconditional love of a pet is powerful. They touch us, greet us, and are happy to see us. They can make life worth living when we feel so isolated. One of the concerns about having a pet is that it restricts what else you can do. You cannot linger after work with a colleague if you have to rush home to take care of the dog. A date cannot last overnight. Animals are wonderful, but they are not a substitute for human companionship. Both are nice, but we need human contact to reduce or even eliminate loneliness.

Volunteer Work: Become a docent at a museum or botanical garden, usher at the local theatre, or become an advocate for a political party or cause. You get to choose what is meaningful for you, and make a commitment. You will be meeting people with similar interests; that is the foundation of friendship and a starting point for getting to know each other.

Religious/Spiritual Groups: Churches and other groups are, for many people, the core of their social lives. This is not for everyone, but for some, it can be a match. Make sure that whatever group you join, that their values match yours, and that you don’t give up yourself or your values just to be a part of something.

 

The major downside of loneliness is depression. We can feel unwanted, alone, and worthless. Seeing couples, families, and friends out socializing can make that even harder to bear and make us feel like the only one who is alone. Why not focus on seeking out other people who are alone? Why not start a conversation with someone? It could change both of your lives.

My Boss, My Parent

Originally posted by Merle at PSYCHED Magazine

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The boss employee/relationship is inherently problematic.  Being an employee makes you dependent in much the same way a child depends on its parents. What most people do not take into account is that their relationship with their parents usually is an overlay of their relationship with their boss.

Childhoods are a laboratory for children to make sense out of the world. From the moment they are born, babies, then children and then young adults strive to make sense out of all the data that is coming at them. All of these unfamiliar experiences are labeled and categorized in that vast database of the mind, to be pulled out later to either validate or revise our beliefs about the world.

Growing up in our families, we come to believe that what we experience at home is how all relationships work, this is how all people treat each other and this is what is normal. So we take all this stored “data” of early life experience into school, the workplace, our romantic lives and relationships and use it as the template to make sense out of what is happening in our daily lives.

It’s sad to say that most families are not role models for mental health or healthy relationships. Most people get little to no training in raising children and usually bring their parent’s style into the equation. Or conversely, people may be consciously trying *not* to copy their parents when raising their own children.

So what does this have to do with the boss/employee relationship? Because we are dependent on our bosses in much the same way our parents were, we overlay the relationship with our parents onto the one with our bosses. And so the fun begins.

For example, if John had a “helicopter mother”, over-involved and interfering with his path to self-reliance and problem solving, then the employee is probably going to be lost without someone telling them what to do, and when and how to do it.

While there are micro-manager bosses out there, more than a few, most managers have too much work of their own to have the time to constantly direct each employee’s activities. So the over-mothered employee becomes lost, and the boss thinks they are incompetent.  In reality, the employee had just not learned the skills to be functional and operate independently.

Another response to over-involved or intrusive parents is to be anti-authoritarian. Suzanne for example reacts to anyone telling her what to do with internal tension, anger and even rage. This can be problematic in the workplace and consciously, may make no sense in the actual situation.  But those pesky feelings keep getting in the way. Suzanne might even understand the boss is just doing their job, but it pisses her off nonetheless.

As I often tell my clients, this is not a thinking problem it is a FEELING problem. Any situation that unconsciously recreates the parent-child relationship is going to cause the same emotional response.

If you could not trust anything your mother told you, or if either parent was not really there for you, this emotional response is very likely to be recreated in the workplace.

No one gets out of childhood unscathed. We all have wounds and deficits. I often say that families are the therapist’s guarantee of full employment. But it is not necessary to be trapped in your prior family dynamic and relive it over and over. Of course, therapy is one option. Another is learning a characterological system like the Enneagram. It is an excellent tool to help understand the child frame of reference you are set with and how to break out of it, so that relationships are truly about the present situation.  With this understanding, you can see how the other, whether in work or life, is probably operating out of their childhood reality.

As romantic relationships will draw us to reenact our family dynamics, we often are drawn to work situations that mirror our families’ dynamics. So until we get a conscious viewpoint of what’s happening and work through the original family issues, it is common to recreate it over and over until we do.

So the next time you are stuck in a difficult workplace situation with a boss or co-worker, look for the parallels to the dynamics of your childhood and ask, how is this the same and how does it differ?

Election Anxiety

July 1, 2017

The article below was written in attempt to help people dealing with all the raw emotions and aggression that were breaking out in the midst of an election campaign that was just getting started, when the result was far from known.

Sadly, there is very little to change about what was advised about “a season” over a year ago, since the situation has actually worsened. The rawness of public discourse and the sense of uncertainty about the future have only grown.

What is necessary is that you take care of yourself and not lose perspective. Another election will come and there will be another chance to have your voice heard.

Politics and life are a marathon, not a sprint. Take care of yourself.


March 07, 2016

The unusual USA presidential election season is having an impact on people around the world. It is increasing anxiety for people both in the USA as well as in other countries. It is a major topic of conversation. People inside and outside the USA, especially where I have been traveling Latin America, wonder if we have lost our collective mind. And the answer is, yes.

Anxiety develops when there is an uncertain outcome. In past elections, where there might have been big political differences, there was still a similarity in how the political system was viewed and used. In this election season, all of the previously accepted norms seem to have been tossed out the window. No one, especially on the Republican side, has any idea what is going to happen. Someone has taken the deck of 52 cards and two Jokers and tossed it into the air; where the cards will land is anyone’s guess.

SO HOW IS THIS PUBLIC BRAWL IMPACTING PEOPLE?

It is similar to a slow motion train wreck. Everyone knows it is going to be ugly but, they can’t take their eyes off of it. Frozen in horror and fascination at the same time.

But it increases anxiety. Watching a 90-minute horror movie will also increase your anxiety, but at least you know it is “only a movie” and it is going to end, so the end does not really matter. Neither of those applies with the election of the President of the United States. We will have to live with the consequences. As a result, people are acting strangely. Even for a political season, there is a great deal of candidate-bashing and extreme positions taken by otherwise seemingly intelligent people in private/public conversations on Facebook. Friends are being un-friended. Families are battling. All over what *might* happen. It has certainly brought into the open the undertow of frustration about the deadlock in our political and government life.

Now that the 'genie’ has been let out of the bottle, is it possible to put it back? Can we or do we want to return to being a civil society? Time will tell.

WHAT I BELIEVE WILL HAPPEN AS A CONSEQUENCE IS:

-An increased number of marriages and divorces: People may either leave unhappy marriages or leave their own isolation to choose marriage. Either decision can reflect an attempt to increase a sense of safety or control, as in “I don’t have to do this or face this alone,” or “I am better off dealing with this alone.”

-An increase in suicides or attempts: People who are suicidal are already in a great deal of internal pain. Our nation is now reflecting its shared pain externally and that can push some people over the edge to suicide, because there will be no relief or sanctuary from the pain inside. If they turn on the TV or internet, it's still there. As relationships are strained by the continued conflict about people’s beliefs and ideals, it can also increase the isolation of people who are already feeling isolated.

-Family/Friendship Fractures: Religion and politics are two of the most divisive things that people can talk about. This election season offers plenty of both, to debate. As a result, families and friends across the spectrum who have maintained  a ‘don’t ask/don’t tell’ relationship about areas of strong disagreement will often find the pressure of the current environment simply too much to keep silent. Just as there is clearly a political realignment in our country going on, this could easily accelerate personal and family realignments as well.

WHAT CAN YOU DO ABOUT IT?

Reduce your time spent on reading about and watching the election. After 9/11, people watched video of the Twin Towers coming down, again and again, and thus became more traumatized than they needed to be. Take your eyes off the train wreck. Whether you watch it or not, it is going to happen. Less is more: more perspective, less trauma from watching all the silliness of the season.

Spent time reading largely neutral websites (not TV) that use fact checking to help keep a sense of reality about what is real and not.:The Washington Post, Politico, the Guardian and BBC, for example.

Do some good: Get away from the TV and volunteer. Make a donation to an animal shelter or the food bank. Do something that contributes to making this a better world.

The upside of all of this is that when truths are told and pain is exposed, even if it is ugly, there is the potential for healing. Until we face our own truths and pain, we cannot begin to examine the bigger truths and heal the pain of our society.

The downside is the loss of relationships that might be inevitable in this conflictual process. Perhaps they were not healthy relationships to begin with, and people were holding on to them for the wrong reason. There is an opportunity to be freer and in healthier relationships with people who are more aligned with who they are.

So the imagined consequences of today's increased anxiety may be real, but hopefully healing and growth will still be a positive result of this unusual season.

Weak Gods

March 22, 2015

When I hear about people being killed or threatened by people enraged that they had insulted their God, I am amazed that these people would worship such a weak God. An entity that created all of this is incapable of taking care of himself? He needs us lowly humans to defend and hold people accountable for their disrespect or disbelief? How can that be true?

Of course, it is not true. Any entity that is capable of creating everything can handle people that don’t like him, her or it. Isn’t that what the final judgement is supposed to be about? Meeting your maker and then getting their judgement?

What I think “blasphemy” or just “the attack on religion” is really about is the believers themselves. True believers, meaning those who force their beliefs onto other aggressively, have a very fragile internal sense of who they are, or even none at all. Meaning that when they close their eyes, there is no one home there inside. They are empty. So they fill that space with drugs, alcohol, food, music, and there are endless distractions from that emptiness. Using religion, or one’s interpretation of religion as a personal support in public space is a very old stand by and is socially acceptable in mixed company, particularly for those who swear they had “overcome” an out-of-control, destructive phase of life

If a person relies only on their religion to organize their internal sense of being, then anything that threatens that organization or those beliefs is also a threat to them. "Your attack on my religion is an attack on me." They have no way of separating the two aspects.

Society tends to let the fanatic get by with this by-pass (avoidance of the lack of self) because we are not really willing to call people out on their nonsense, since it is cloaked in the acceptability of religious fervor. It can be dangerous. There are sick people hiding behind religion because they have no real sense of themselves. That makes them dangerous on many levels. There are people guilty substituting a religion for a lack of self in all religions. This is not just an East or West issue; it permeates all cultures and is a miss use of religion that feels like it is consuming our progress and rational thinking. Not all religious leaders are narcissistic; not all followers are mindless, but there are plenty of them.

The next time you see or hear someone threatening or violent in defense of their GOD, just know, they are in a lot of pain.