My Autumn Journey, Part Three : Unconditional Love

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More views form my visit to New Brunswick in October, 2014.
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Most of my postings are travel-related but my Autumn journey to Quebec and New Brunswick became more an inner journey than an outer one. So thank you for joining me as I continue to explore the teachings of Brene Brown. As I apply them to my own life, I hope you will take the time to reflect and apply them to yours.

If you haven’t already, I highly recommend visiting http://www.BreneBrown.com for these universal lessons.

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My August Journey, Part Three : Unconditional Love
Learning how to live a wholehearted life

Brene Brown studied people who she described as living a “wholehearted life”. Apart from feeling worthy of love and acceptance (belonging), she discovered that these people had traits that she would come to describe as “shame resilience”.

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I have now written several times that Brown describes shame as coming down to “the fear of being unlovable”. Being loved and belonging are the two essential traits of a happy life, in fact they are essential human needs. It should therefore be no surprise that without these things some people become depressed or even suicidal. It would seem that shame is the main block to feeling worthy and therefore the main block to being truly happy.

Brown tells us that to live and grow, shame needs three things. And unfortunately, these things tend to self-perpetuate when living in shame. It needs: 1. Secrecy, 2. Silence, and 3. Judgement. It’s pretty easy not to talk about our greatest secret, but over time can lead to all manner of mental health issues. For me, I have mostly suffered anxiety and depression.

In fact, my shame that caused me to suffer anxiety and depression grew still and I also became ashamed that I was depressed, and ashamed of my anxieties. The self-punishment we humans inflict on ourselves! I went to great lengths to hide my depression and was so successful that it was only discovered after a serious suicide attempt landed me in the hospital for some time. One of my doctors figured it out.

Eventually this led to my acceptance of being gay and the incredible release of shame that I had had around that. I was happy for a few years. How did I release my shame surrounding being gay? Exposure. First I met other gay people through a somewhat secret group organised by the counselling department of my university. In meeting other nice gay people, I realised that they were good people who should not be ashamed of being gay. I could see they were worthy of love and acceptance. Soon I was able to apply this to myself.

Shame hates to be exposed, it nearly requires secrecy and silence. And the judgement was both self-judgement and what I had been taught growing-up with Christian convictions. Most peoples Christian convictions have now adapted to accept people much more than at that time.

I spent the next few years after university mostly living abroad. It seemed I had recovered fully from my depression that had lasted through my younger years, that by releasing my shame of being gay and by living openly I was whole again. But it didn’t quite work out like that. That was a big lift, for sure, but eventually shame crept back again and brought with it depression.

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I went on antidepressants some months after my return to Canada. I just couldn’t seem to break a sadness that had re-occupied my mind. I had perhaps forgotten my past while living overseas, but I had not adequately dealt with it.

There is a difference between forgetting about something, and having closure with something. When we force ourselves to forget it may seem like we are healthfully moving forward rather than reliving the past, but in reality the past comes-out in our choices and our actions whether we want it to or not. We may end-up choosing relationships that repeat unhealthy relationships from our past, because they were not finished. We may unknowingly self-sabotage – feeling unworthy of being happy, or unworthy of being successful. We may make poor choices, clouded by repressed anger or frustration or hurt. My greatest tendency is to isolate. It comes from a fear of being unworthy combined with self-preservation. As in introvert, I need some alone time to recharge. If I don’t get that time, panic can ensue.

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For me, the pain of too much interaction is worse than the pain of too little interaction. I have come to see this as a strength – many people can not have solo travel experiences as happily and successfully as I do.

We humans are wired to connect with others. I prefer to do this meaningfully, I prefer quality over quantity. I am happy to explore all day by myself and if I can then meet people for some real conversation in the evening I have had a perfectly balanced day. I can even achieve this through Facebook or the phone or even email if needed. Many extraverts, for whom it often seems the world was designed, would find my current life painfully lonely. So it can be seen as a weakness, of not being able to always be with others, or as a great strength, of being able to be happily alone.

Antidepressants definitely have their place. I was trying therapy but had very poor luck with the therapist I tried, and I was quick to suppose that I had grown-up feeling depressed, so perhaps that is just the way I became wired. Eventually I also ended-up on ADHD meds, which also had an off-label use for treating anxiety. In my case, they may have contributed to developing anxiety, also a known effect.

I stayed on antidepressants for much of my adult life and I am thankful to have had them until I weaned myself off all medications during my India travels in 2013. I have realised since that even without the specific shame I had attached to being gay, I have a generalised shame, as so many of us do. That I am not good enough.

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In this next bit I don’t mean to mislead. Let me be honest and explain that I don’t actually believe in Jesus but I do believe in the metaphor of Jesus. Lately, I have even chosen to attend a Christian church that promotes love and acceptance for all. I attend because I believe in connection and community and moving forward and the positive values this particular church encourages.

It is interesting to me that even though I am unable to force a belief that Jesus existed, I can still embrace much of what he stood for as an icon. I even take communion now, whereas I hadn’t for some years. Because I believe that we are all one; we are all connected. We are all a part of the same universe. That when we hurt another, we hurt ourselves. When we help another, we help ourselves. We must love ourselves to love others, forgive ourselves to forgive others. We need to feel worthy of love to feel loved. To feel worthy of forgiveness to feel forgiven. The message is that we are worthy. So worthy, in fact, that we are worthy of someone sacrificing himself for us. So that we may live. Not just be alive, but LIVE. Even if I don’t believe it physically happened, I believe the message is true.

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The church has long used our shame issues as a hook, with the message that Jesus loves you (even if no one else will). This is a very healing message and it plays into our fear of being unlovable (shame).

We are told that God can see into the deep recesses of our heart (where shame dwells); that he knows our deepest secrets but he loves us anyway. With this belief we feel exposed to him and accepted by him. This, according to Brown, is exactly what is required to be healed from our shame. Exposure (telling someone) with acceptance (someone loving us anyway). Brown points out that we need to choose carefully who we share our shame stories with, the person needs to earn our trust first as someone who will accept us, as to not become a reinforcement of our shame story. Basically, we need to share with someone who will either not judge us, or who will exercise unconditional love.

The good news is – when we learn to be vulnerable and share our shames with these people we trust, we discover that many fellow humans can still love us too. Not just Jesus.

Because none of us are perfect.

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I hope you’ll join me for Part Four of “My Autumn Journey”. Click on “Follow” and enter your email address to get my postings (and nothing else). You can unfollow at any time with one click on any of the emails.

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My sister’s dog, Andy, also visited New Brunswick (from Toronto) when I was there. My sister came with him. Here he is reflecting on his own shame issues (most of us have some) while looking out to Mom’s patio.

If you’re not sure about your own issues yet, watch Brene Brown’s Ted Talk (that has already been viewed more than four million times) by clicking here: http://www.ted.com/talks/brene_brown_listening_to_shame

Breaking Life Boundaries – Living a Bigger Life

I did not write a travel story to share this week. I did, however, make quite a few notes for when I do stand-up comedy in NYC next month, so it’s been productive. It’s going to be my first time although I do have performing experience from high school and university (where I studied Business but nearly had credits of a minor in Drama.) As far as I can tell it is going to be recorded, so expect to see my performance link on a posting sometime after Dec 9th! (2013)

I’d like to give a shout-out to fellow blogger, Cupitonians, who decided to push herself by writing 30 postings in 30 days and is doing a great job keeping it interesting! Well done! You can visit her here: http://cupitonians.wordpress.com/

An Update of my Life in Transition – Breaking Life Boundaries

If you are reading this you probably know that over a year ago I dumped my life in Winnipeg. The whole thing. Soon after, I decided to pursue my passions of travel and writing which began in NYC in November, 2012. Toronto became my home base between travels because the most important people in my life are here, my brother and sister. I am very fortunate that my brother and his partner have completely welcomed me into their home as part of the family, and my sister considers me the same.

I have spent more time in Toronto this visit than I originally planned. Because my current mission is to travel and write about it, I figured on having perhaps 10 weeks away, followed by a few weeks in TO and then away again. Instead, by the time I leave for NYC I will have been mostly in TO for four months!

It’s a bit harder concocting new travel stories when not travelling, although I have been writing some stories from earlier travels, such as the Turks & Caicos stories which are among my favourites. Re-writes can be endless, and I need some new material to add to the mix to keep it interesting for me. But, the past few months in Toronto have been fantastic – I’ve been moving forward on a personal level in ways I would not have expected.

In my “about” section I write about being an outgoing introvert. I am also highly sensitive, so if you meet me in a hectic street in Bangkok there is a good chance I will be wearing earplugs to quiet the noise and tinted glasses even inside to soften the light. Someone who is overwhelmed by strong stimuli, I am perhaps a surprising candidate to stumble around the back streets of our planet and write about it. But exploring is when I feel most alive.

Most people seem to misunderstand the introvert/extravert difference so here is a very brief summation. With a group of casual friends, at a party, in a pleasant social situation – an extravert is slowly (or quickly) recharging. In the same situation an introvert is slowly (or quickly) using-up their battery. A weekend-in for an extravert might feel punishing, for an introvert it might feel like a welcome reward. There are extreme extraverts and extreme introverts but most people fall somewhere in the continuum between the two.

I used to be shy but shyness became not a part of my self-concept many years ago. I still recharge by being alone (or with certain close people), but I am not shy. Introversion tends to cause one to be shy, but it is not the same trait. And I am convinced that unlike introversion, shyness is not a fixed trait.

My introversion – my need to recharge at home – caused me to become quite a homebody in recent years. An introvert trying to socialise after a busy social day can cause great anxiety. There is a threshold reached at a different place for everyone, but once that threshold is crossed – the party is over. For me, panic ensues. Fight or flight kicks-in. I need to escape. It is a horrible, isolating feeling. You look around seeing others still having fun and feel absolutely beside yourself, hardly able to breathe. It doesn’t come on all at once for me, I can feel myself approaching overload, I generally know when it’s time to make my exit.

During uni I would come to this point at a bar or club and I would need to escape immediately. If I stayed too long, the entire night would be coloured with regret. Even the parts when I had been having fun would become part of the experience that caused me overload, suddenly tainted in my memory. So that’s what I would do, I would disappear. Because my extraverted friends didn’t understand, “Don’t go, it’s early, come on!” Nope, not dealing with that anymore. Now if I go to a loud party or a bar I will tell people at the beginning. If you see me waving goodbye even before you consider the night to be over, do not challenge me on it. Many people will never understand my experience. Many people are unable to comprehend that others experience the world differently than they do. It is a narrowness of mind that I find pitiable.

If I have had a quiet day I may be able to enjoy a party or stay at a nightclub right to the end. I have learned to balance my days so that this is the case, and I have been very fortunate to be able to do this. If I was still a teacher, I would need most every evening to be quiet retreat. Likewise when I’ve had to work in a busy store all day. When I was able to limit my mall-time to three or four hours on only occasional days I was fine but by then I had an established routine of solitude that was hard to break.

We tend to establish boundaries as to how we live our days. Our boundaries hold our life together, contain it to a comfortable proportion with some safety of predictability. Some of us have flexible boundaries and others more fixed. I tend to go to bed around ten and to sleep around twelve or one lately. Sometimes I go to bed at midnight. It is a flexible boundary for me, more a preference as I know I take a long time to unwind reading, listening to audio books – “going to bed” for me more means going for quiet time before bed in my room.

We have boundaries of distance. How far do you tend to go away from home? Every day, on weekends, on holiday. I prefer to take my coffee within walking distance of home, which means I prefer to live within walking distance of a coffee shop. I have a strong urban preference. I generally don’t go across town for a restaurant unless meeting someone or for a special occasion. I prefer to choose something nearer. Going for dinner, the company is more important to me than the food. As for travel, clearly I have almost no boundary limitations. Some people only go to beach resorts, which to me isn’t travel it’s just a kind of rest that I don’t like so much myself. Some people only stay in chain hotels, I prefer a variety of hotels big and small, even apartment lets and homestays. (Although doing homestays is for me, pushing my boundaries. I definitely feel uncomfortable organising them and worry that I’ll be crowded (personally) or uncomfortable (again, personally).

We have boundaries of what kinds of things we do. Routines. These activities for most people are not a random assortment, they fit neatly into a box. The “Things That I Do” box. Make a list and you’ll see what I mean. (ex. Things I do: work, go to movies, have Sunday brunch, go to gym, watch tv, drive children to activities, go out for dinners, shop at farmers market . . . . ) How often do we push-back the boundaries of what we do, going outside our box to try something new? For me, it was very seldom. Except when travelling.

When outside of my usual surrounds I am far more likely to try something new. This is true for most people. If you decided to go for a helicopter ride it was probably when you visited the Grand Canyon, not on a random Saturday when you thought, “Why don’t I take a helicopter ride over my own city.” Would that be exciting and interesting, show you a new perspective of your own town? I think it would. Did you have more money when you were travelling? Not unless your income spikes when you are on holiday, lucky you if that’s the way your life works. No, you had the same money. But when travelling our priorities change – we give more priority to spending money on having new and unique experiences. At home we spend more money on buying “things” and home improvements and clothes and everyday bills.

“I feel so alive when I travel,” I remember saying a few months ago, “is it possible to feel so alive right at home?” Well, home is not going to have the excitement of EVERYTHING being new, but I have discovered that by pushing-wider my boundaries of what I do at home, I can make my experience of life much richer. Right here. In Toronto.

Toronto is a large city with loads of opportunities so it may be easier to push one’s boundaries than in a small town, but no matter where you are there are possibilities to try things that you have not tried before. If you’re bored of your gym routine, maybe there is a fitness class you could sign-up for. Afraid to try? So are most people the first time. Take a deep breath and walk in.

I’ve started to push myself to sign-up and go to activities that honour my self. I would never sign-up to join a basketball league because I hate basketball. But I enjoyed acting when I was younger so I went to an Improv workshop last weekend. I was a bit nervous but I went anyway. It was fantastic. Two weeks ago I went to a comedy workshop. I had little idea what it was so I felt a bit nervous about that too, but I knew I wasn’t going to die and I just showed-up. Loved it. Now I’ve signed-up to do stand-up at an open mic for 6 minutes in NYC. I think I’m going to love it and sign-up for more. Am I nervous about it? Of course I am, I’ve never done it before. Even if I had, it’s probably one of those nerve-stimulating experiences every time, I don’t know yet.

Until very recently I felt anxious to have time commitments. Having plans made me feel “trapped”. I had to push though that anxiety just to plan anything at all. Meeting someone for dinner any time apart from right now made me feel uncomfortable. What if the time comes and I am not up for it, then what? I mostly started breaking this terrible boundary during travels when I either made plans to meet people to do things, or I didn’t meet people. The discomfort of being completely alone pushed me to break my boundary. I find most change comes from discomfort.

If you’re looking to add some new zest to your life I have found fantastic opportunities through the website http://www.meetup.com . There are countless groups and activities you can join, perhaps not in very rural areas but it’s worth a check wherever you are. Like to sing? Want to meet other introverts or extraverts or other single Dads with teens or other survivors of cancer? Want to meet people for coffee, or for brunches, to go bowling or to try salsa dancing? Love the opera but don’t really go because your friends don’t? (Here I say, go anyway. I’ve been three times in the past month, by myself. So glad I did too!) The internet has pushed us away from each other on a face-to-face connection level as we text and Facebook and play games remotely rather than actually sit across from each other. But now websites such as meet-up are bringing us together again.

We evolved to connect with others. It used to take a village to raise a child, now we mostly operate very independently. Many of us don’t even know our neighbours. This is not the way we evolved, through thousands of years we relied on those around us with a much stronger sense of community. Together we survived, alone we perished.

As a sensitive introvert there is a balancing act which I have often failed. I have failed many friendships. I have pulled-back in to my comfort zone of independence. The familiar role of being an outsider (when appearing to be an insider) growing-up is one that I am now trying to break. It’s not easy. But I’m working on it.

Work on making your life whatever you want it to be. Don’t stop yourself from trying new things due to fear or inertia. Somewhere inside you know what is working for you and what isn’t. There are probably things you need to change and putting them off doesn’t make them go away. Delay won’t make it easier, the opposite is usually true. Whatever change you are resisting, consider ripping the band-aid off. Excuses won’t help you either. “It’s easy for you, you don’t have to worry about . . . . ” Maybe I don’t, but that has nothing to do with you. Don’t compare your life to someone else’s and remain stuck because of that, what good does that bring you. “I don’t have time to . . . ” Maybe you don’t, just be wary that most people fear change and most of us come up with myriad excuses why change is not possible. Most of us will not change until we reach our breaking-point. Suddenly the excuses are no longer concrete road blocks when we can’t stand it anymore. I could not take my life in Winnipeg for another moment, I felt like I was dying and I was. I was eating too much, drinking too much, not exercising at all and my will to live was actually waining. I know that I am in a fortunate situation now, I’m not deluded to think that everyone has the options I have. However, I still had to dump my entire life to start-over and I could still be sitting at home not trying new things. I had to push myself. I continually have to push myself but the more I do it the more rewards I find and the less I have to push. Trying new things and meeting new people is getting easier and easier. I’m not saying I will keep-up the pace or that we should lead even more hectic lives than we already do, but we should attempt to pursue passions.

Work on things in your life FOR YOURSELF. We are all human and I think that anyone who has it ALL figured out – is probably mistaken. If they really have, they are incredibly rare. If you’re not moving forward, then you are probably slipping backwards because life tends to go uphill. I slipped backwards for quite a few years and now I’m learning to hike again. I have a lot to fix in my own life; I have a lot to fix in my own head. I just wanted to share that I’m having fun trying new things in this growth phase of my life and I encourage everyone to try something new.

Write down something you want to try right now so you don’t forget. And make it happen.

On this topic I’d also like to recommend a book called “Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway”. I read this book some years ago, but I wasn’t ready to actually act on it at the time. If you want to expand your life I would recommend this book, whether you get advantage from it now or in the future it’s all about moving forward.

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