Mental Health Matters: Learning to be Intimate

When I first met my husband, I didn’t want to hug or kiss in public, or private either…not really. Touching outside of sex was uncomfortable. I didn’t even want to hold hands. I remember when Dwight shared this detail with my aunt and uncle; they both replied with raised eyebrows and strange looks.

“I like to hold hands…in bed,” I clarified.

“In bed?” they both questioned in unison.

Their responses cued me that my behavior was out of the ordinary. I’ve since learned it wasn’t strange. It was just an intimacy issue.

At the root of intimacy is an idea of creating closeness. And according to every psychologist ever, how human beings create closeness is directly related to how they bond with their mother in infancy. Later, intimacy is reinforced by what is learned in the family: either too little or too much bonding can lead to intimacy problems in adulthood. Intimacy problems in adulthood can lead to unhealthy ways of creating intimacy, or in other words, codependency.

Whew.

Poor boundaries, people pleasing, and swooping in to help folks, even though they’d never asked each represented my desire for connection. If I let everyone in, did what others wanted, and superwomaned my way into others’ lives, then we’d be close, right?

Wrong.

I had to learn how to be intimate in appropriate ways.

My level of intimacy increased as I began to re-learn who I was and re-shape my identity according to my own likes and desires. Once I was less shameful about my background and proclivities and learned to love my whole self, I became comfortable with being me. These behaviors led to being intimate with myself, which helped me to naturally develop closeness with others. Hugging, kissing, and cuddling, which are a part of physical intimacy, were easier to offer and receive. However, other types of intimacy had to be strengthened.


Emotional Intimacy: After years of learned suppression, I had to figure out how to feel my way through experiences instead of ignoring them. First, I expressed different emotions with my husband. I stopped covering specific feelings, and instead moved through sadness or anger, by actually saying, “I’m sad because…” and then not remaining stuck in sorrow. Next, I practiced honoring my children’s feelings. For example, when one of my daughters didn’t do well on an exam, I asked her how she felt? I prompted her to attach words to her feelings to provide a safe space for being an emotional being.


Spiritual Intimacy: I’ve written about my non-Christian status on this blog once. It took a lot for me to share this belief. Living in the South (or America, in general) hasn’t made professing a non-Christian identity easy. But once I did, I was able to accept a part of me that I’d kept hidden for so long for fear of judgment. (For me, all roads lead back to identity work, apparently). Expressing my frustration with how the majority marginalizes non-Christians (in a safe space) served as a way for me to honor my own beliefs, which I’d hoped would lead to more relaxed conversations with friends and family. This is what spiritual intimacy is, and it’s an important part of every relationship. How can I connect with someone if we can’t discuss our beliefs in an open, respectful, and non-judgmental way?


Mental Intimacy: Because I like to engage in conversation, mental intimacy is something with which I thrive. Before Dwight and I married, we knew pretty much everything about one another. Questions like what is your deepest fear were commonplace during our first year of dating. Mental intimacy isn’t limited to a romantic relationship, though. In an effort to know others deeply, I ask my friends and family real questions. If they shirk answers or keep me at sarcasm-level responses, then I know our relationship isn’t going far. There is no judgment in this because we can’t always be as close as we want to be with others, plus boundaries are a thing. I’m simply saying that a non-authentic answer to an authentic question blocks connection and can stunt this type of intimacy.


Sooo, where are you in terms of creating close connections? Are you only intimate in romantic relationships? Only with friends and not family? Better at one of these than another? Let me know in the comments.

There are 4 Types of Intimacy does a great job of categorizing intimacy.

The Dance of Intimacy is good for a general understanding of intimacy.


Mental Health Matters: Releasing the Need to Help

Do you think you should wait for someone to ask for your help or do you think you should offer unsolicited help if it looks and sounds as if the person needs it?

Up until August, I thought the latter. If I knew specifics of a friend’s or family member’s situation, why wouldn’t I just help, without their needing to request support?

Two recent incidents have caused me to rethink this approach.


Incident #1: One of my stepmother’s grandsons was murdered. Someone he’d gone out with shot him eleven times, resulting in his death. Most of her family lives 1,100 miles away and, as most retirees, my stepmother is on a budget. She’d need to buy a plane ticket and due to COVID, she needed to stay in a hotel while visiting. As she shared her needs, I felt the urge to help.

Five years ago, I functioned in a similar way with her. When my father died, I paid for her plane ticket back to Chicago so she could have a second memorial for him, something she deemed necessary.

Two years ago, I sprang into action again. She’d called to tell me about her breast cancer diagnosis. They’d botched her surgery but wouldn’t listen to her painful pleas. Her oldest daughter and granddaughter weren’t in a space to help her. She wasn’t eating or sleeping well. Although she didn’t ask, I packed up my car and my youngest daughter and I drove five hours to take her grocery shopping, cook dinner, speak with authority to nurses, and be with her pre- and post-surgery.

She seemed to need my help, so I gave it, unsolicited.

This time, I just listened. And when she finished telling me about her plans, I said one thing, “Let me know if you need anything.”

She agreed, and I didn’t hear from her until weeks after she’d traveled to see her family, attended the funeral, and safely returned home. Guess she was okay without my assistance.


Incident #2: I have a sister friend, who quit her job about two years ago. I don’t know the specifics of how she makes money and it’s not my place to detail them here. Let’s just say she’s lived with the consequences of someone who quit her job without securing other employment. She also has an elementary-school-aged daughter.

Though she didn’t ask, I thought it fitting to “help” by sending school-supply money. I convinced Dwight to also contribute. I say convince because he didn’t understand why I or we would be giving her anything, especially unsolicited. “If someone needs your help,” he said, “they’ll ask.”

Imagine my surprise, when I saw my little sister friend living her best vacation life on social media. Subsequently, I did what I’ve learned to do…ask a question. I asked her if she needed the money we’d sent. Her answer was no.

Then, I reflected on how I ended up inserting myself in the first place.

I’d made judgments and assumptions leading up to sending money. I judged her current circumstance as negative and assumed she required my assistance. It’s never my place to judge another person’s situation, and it’s certainly not necessary for me to step in and “save” them from something I’ve deemed negative, whether they’re in distress or not.

In the codependent conversation, this is called caretaking or compulsive helping. Like other concepts, the difference between just helping and compulsive helping is the helper’s intent and need to be needed.

It feels good to be needed. I’ll admit I’ve liked being seen as the person whom others can depend on, even without asking. In the past, it meant I mattered. But as Dr. Lefever says, it’s arrogant; it presumes you know what’s better for someone more than they do. How can I ever know what’s better for someone more than they do?

How can I ever know what’s better for someone more than they do?

kegarland

This revelation literally happened two months ago, so it’s a new way of being in relationship with people. But I’m pretty sure I’m going to do the following:

  • Listen without the intent to solve someone’s “problem.”
  • Wait for the person to ask for help.
  • Think about why I want to help; is it self-serving?

I’ll provide an update once it’s become a seamless part of how I function.

I know this one may be a little controversial, especially because we’ve been conditioned, encouraged even, to help one another, so let me know your opinion. Do you wait for someone to ask for help or do you offer unsolicited help?


3 Ways to Develop Self-Worth

How to Establish 4 Types of Boundaries

No More People Pleasing!

Mental Health Matters: No More People Pleasing!

My mother used to tell a story of when I was in pre-k. When she picked me up, the children played on the lawn, pretending to cross a bridge. I was the bridge. I lay flat on the grass, while my friends walked on me.

Even at four years old, I demonstrated the lengths I’d go through to be liked. My desire only increased as I aged.

By the time Dwight and I met, it was easy to switch out a short, honey-blonde hairstyle for longer, brown tresses he’d once commented he preferred. I traded my red lipstick for a natural brown color and stopped wearing bright green shorts for plain, denim ones. I faded into the background of life to ensure he’d always like me, ignoring the fact that he liked me when we met.

I’d mastered people pleasing beyond marriage.

In 2016, my director invited me to a party seventy-two miles away in the city where I work. I didn’t want to go for a few reasons:

  1. The party was Saturday and I received an invitation Wednesday.
  2. It was seventy-two miles away.
  3. I only knew the host.

I discussed it with a friend of mine, who insisted I should attend because of work politics, and…well, because I was invited.

To be clear, I had a good time. In fact, I wrote about it here. But why did I go? Although attending had nothing to do with work, I wanted to be seen as a good employee and a well-liked person. I also didn’t want to disappoint the host.

People pleasing ruled again.

That year, I also published The Unhappy Wife. The number of friends, family, and bloggers who read and wrote unsolicited reviews surprised me. Everyone engaged, except…my husband*.

By self-admission, Dwight reads one book a year. Additionally, he’s not fond of creative nonfiction. But I didn’t care. I obsessed over the idea of him reading and reviewing my book. I needed his opinion. I wouldn’t let it go until I knew what he thought.

I’d argue most of us would want our significant other to read our work. However, something more was happening here. I sought external validation in the form of praise, which is another form of people pleasing.

That was four years ago.

Developing self-worth and establishing boundaries have compelled me to stop living to please others. These three ideas work together.

Because I value myself, I no longer seek external validation. Though I’d like for my husband to read my words, I don’t ask anymore. If he reads this blog or latest publication, I’m excited when he mentions it, but I don’t need him to perform an act to make me feel good about myself.

Because I’d created time and personal boundaries, I knew when my director invited me to another party, I didn’t have to go. I didn’t need to spend three hours on the road and another few hours socializing with strangers to prove I was a good co-worker, associate, or friend. Another strategy I’ve mastered is not explaining my decision. As Oprah once emphasized, “No is a complete sentence.”

Because I’d worked on knowing myself and developing a sense of identity, I’ve returned to wearing red lipstick for no other reason than I like it. Bright colors have crept back into my wardrobe because I like them. And I wear my natural hair in a unique short precision cut because I like it. Each decision is a manifestation of my personality, which is now clear to me.

Here are other actions that have been helpful:

  • I take my time to answer when someone asks me to do something. Let me sleep on it is a useful phrase.
  • I prioritize my own needs over others’ feelings. If staying at a hotel is more relaxing than someone’s house, then I do that.
  • I make more decisions based on emotional, professional, or personal effects and fewer on how I will be perceived.

Finally, I now know the most important person who needs to like me is…me. Others’ affection is a bonus. Releasing people-pleasing behaviors is a third practice that’s helped me to be less codependent.

Finally, I now know the most important person who needs to like me is…me.

kegarland

Let me know if you’d add anything else that’s been helpful for you.

*Dwight read The Unhappy Wife about five months after publication and it taught me an invaluable lesson about external validation.

3 Ways to Develop Self-Worth

How to Establish 4 Types of Boundaries

Mental Health Matters: How to Establish 4 Types of Boundaries

A couple weeks ago, I shared how developing self-worth has helped me be less codependent. This week, I’ll discuss how maintaining four types of boundaries has been useful:

Relationship: Relationship boundaries seem to be the most common. This kind of boundary is mostly discussed within romantic relationships, but over the past five years or so, I’ve developed relationship boundaries with existing friendships. The BFF breakup I recently re-blogged, where I realized I didn’t like to be my friend’s therapist, is a great example. To avoid slipping into a psychologist’s role, I rarely give others advice when asked. Instead, my go-to answer is you know what you should do. Not only does this answer embody my firmly held belief that most of us do have the internal guidance required to live, it also keeps me from establishing relationships where folks constantly lean on me to help them solve their problems.

Time: The next type of boundary isn’t discussed as frequently, and I suspect it’s because people in relationship feel entitled to copious amounts of one another’s time. Take phone conversations, for example. They aren’t really my thing, but I recognize them as something many people enjoy as a way to preserve relationships. However, seldom do I want to talk on the phone, and even when I want to, most days, my lifestyle doesn’t allow for lengthy dialogue. So, friends get a time boundary. Sometimes this looks telling the person ahead of the call that I will only have X number of minutes to speak. Other days, it’s someone asking me if I have ten minutes to answer a question or hear a story. Either way, time boundaries are set, and friendships are intact.

Personal: Personal boundaries are my favorite because they’re unique to each of us. An example of this occurred three years ago. My grandmother wanted visit. My answer was no. I didn’t offer her a reason, but for blogging purposes, here’s why: It was August. My semester begins in August. My oldest daughter was moving to another city. My youngest daughter was beginning her second year of high school. Dwight and I were looking for a house every Saturday and Sunday. There was too much going on and I’d just begun understanding that when life is too much, anxiety kicks in. The last thing I needed was my then 90-year-old Grannie wanting to be involved in all of the things and asking 1,999 questions while doing so. Nope. That’s what a personal boundary is: personal based on your needs.

Conversational: Finally, it is important to set boundaries around what you will and will not discuss. Though it may seem as if there is no topic I won’t share via blog, believe it or not, conversational boundaries exist in this space. Ya’ll can’t know everything. Similarly, I have conversational boundaries with my in-real-life friends, depending on the person. I’ve learned not to talk about anything too serious with a friend I’ve known since senior year, because when I do, he jokes about the subject and never follows-up to see if or how it was resolved. We’re friends, but he’s demonstrated he doesn’t want to hear all that. I only have one or two people with whom I’ll talk about my marriage. Everyone else has proven they can’t handle anything perceived as negativity about Dwight, whom they believe to be an unflawed human being. Conversational boundaries ensure I avoid what feels like toxicity and instead include love and support from the appropriate person. This is not to say I avoid hard conversations, but rather, all topics are not for all relationships.

Relationship, time, personal, and conversational boundaries have supported healthier ways for me to be in relationship with others. Relationship boundaries help me to define how I want to be someone’s friend of family member. Time boundaries ensure I’m not giving too much of myself or asking others to unfairly give of themselves. Personal boundaries allow me to know when to prioritize my needs, and conversational ones help me to not share topics with those who do not have the capacity to deal, while also allowing me to know with whom I can engage.

I hope exemplifying these boundaries helps. Let me know if anything resonates with you.

3 Ways to Develop Self-Worth

No More People Pleasing!

Mental Health Matters: 3 Ways to Develop Self-Worth

As promised, I’m shifting the focus of Mental Health Matters to discuss ways I’ve learned to be a less codependent version of myself. This week, I’ll discuss one of the characteristics of being codependent: having low self-esteem.

Self-esteem is defined as the manner in which we evaluate ourselves. For example, I’ve always believed myself to be a pretty and intelligent person, thus creating high self-esteem.

However, self-worth is the belief that you are loveable and valuable regardless of how you evaluate your traits. Your self-worth is directly related to your childhood. For example, because I was abandoned as a baby and then later as an adolescent, I believed I was literally worthless. Underneath my highly rated self-esteem was a very low self-worth. I truly believed I didn’t deserve love.

But over time, I’ve developed a higher sense of self-worth with these three practices:

Remove Personal Value from Abandonment. As a person who was abandoned by her birth and adoptive parents, I constantly wondered why? Why was I left? What was wrong with me? Because I’m analytical, the conclusion that made sense was…I guess they didn’t love me. To establish a higher self-worth, I had to separate my parents’ actions with how much they valued or loved me. Like all adults, each of my parents had their own reasons for how they lived life. And although their actions negatively impacted me in some ways, it had nothing to do with my worthiness but, rather, everything to do with their own issues and rationales. There is no reason for me to take any of my parent’s choices personally and there is definitely no reason to assign my value to their decisions.

Enact Self-Love. The other day, I was listening to Dr. Shefali Tsabary. Loosely paraphrased, she suggested that if four basic needs weren’t met by aged two, then you’re not going to receive them unless you give them to yourself. My experience tells me she’s right. Once I realized I had low self-worth, I knew one thing I had to do was love my own self. So, six years ago, I visualized myself as a five-month-old abandoned baby. Being a mother, I knew a baby needed physical contact, food, and security. In my imagination, I picked up baby kg, hugged myself, and told myself: I love you. You matter. Just last month, I learned that you can also give yourself a hug as a way to show yourself love. This month, I’ve continued my self-love work practice by reading and enacting Louise Hay’s mirror work. Self-love, for someone who hasn’t had it, can be ongoing work. But it’s worth it. I mean, who else is better equipped to remind myself that I’m worthy of love than me?

I AM Statements. A therapist once pointed out that I used the phrase I’m not important a lot. Whenever a family member or friend didn’t do something I’d asked, then I concluded it was because I wasn’t important. The therapist suggested a homework assignment: Write I am important, repeatedly. I’d already been keeping a gratitude journal, so I began writing it there. After I realized I had to love myself, I added I am love to the list. I also write I am adequate as a way to remind myself that I am fine just the way I am…today…in this moment. Whether I have achievements, people, or neither…I am adequate being who I am. I’ve written these statements at least four times a week for almost ten years.

So, what does this have to do with codependence? Although Beattie only mentions self-esteem, I firmly believe that low self-worth can also lead to unhealthy, codependent attachments. For me, each relationship, including my marriage, served to prove that I was lovable and worthy of love, that I mattered.

These three strategies have helped me to know my worth, and consequently, have made me less likely to develop relationships to prove my value. 

If necessary, I hope what I’ve shared works for you, too. And if you have more suggestions to add, please feel free to do so in the comments.

***

Here is more information about the difference between self-esteem, self-worth, self-confidence, and self-knowledge.

How to Establish 4 Types of Boundaries

No More People Pleasing!

Mental Health Matters: Codependence

I discovered the idea of codependence last year around August. I was displeased with my daughter’s choice of boyfriend, as I had been in the past, and was looking for reasons why she seemed to have fallen in love with the same personality – again. Google is one of my best friends, so I used it to search for specific traits that I’d noticed in both her current and former beau.

No matter what phrases I used, codependence popped up. So, I clicked on a link and read the characteristics:

Low self-esteem

People pleasing

Poor boundaries

Reactivity

Caretaking

Control

Dysfunctional communication

Obsessions

Dependency

Denial

Problems with intimacy

Painful emotions

codependencyJeez Louise! You know those movies that show people’s lives flashing before their eyes prior to their deaths? That’s how I felt reading this list of descriptions. It was as if someone had written an outline of my life. I stopped worrying about my daughter and the men she’d chosen and instead began reflecting on myself and the choices I’d made from childhood through adulthood. The proverbial light bulb went off and I realized (as my sister once said) I’d been codependent as f—k!

From the low self-worth of abandonment to the eventual numbing of painful emotions established in adolescence and further perpetuated as a grown woman, I exhibited each codependent trait. I was stunned, but suddenly, my life made sense.

While most wouldn’t describe me as a people-pleaser, there were specific people I rarely told, “no.” My grandmother was one. The example I repeatedly describe is when she’d told me that she wanted me (and the rest of our family) home for Christmas. We could do what we wanted for other holidays, but December 25th was different. So, even though Dwight and I moved our family a thousand miles away, we drove up and down the interstate every other year for seventeen years with our daughters in tow just because I thought I had to and also because I feared telling her no. I’m not sure what I thought would happen if I said, “We’re not coming,” but I avoided the conversation and disappointing her for almost two decades, all while ignoring how the situation affected my family and me.

Another way codependency showed up in my life is through a lack of boundaries. I could write another twelve posts about this, but I’ll just share two specifics. Prior to 2014, I had no personal boundaries “based on awareness of my own unique needs.” It’s easy to do this when you’re unclear about who you are. How could I know what I needed if I didn’t know who I was as an individual or what I liked? As a result, whatever others liked, I liked. Whatever they wanted to do, I did. You’d never hear me say, “No. I’m not doing that!” It was more like, “Sure. I’m down with anything.”

Similarly, I had very few relationship boundaries. I’ve written before about the ease with which I can become friends with others. However, in the past, I’ve also befriended former students, even when they were still under my tutelage. Years ago, each one had access to me through my cellphone, where we’d chat for hours, discussing their personal business, and depending on what was happening in my life, mine too. I wanted to be a “caring teacher,” but blurred lines and unresolved issues, helped me to become a codependent one as well.

As a current teacher educator, of course, I advise against this; it’s unprofessional. However, reflecting on those ten years, it’s clear that poor boundaries permeated both my personal and professional life in another attempt to prove I mattered.

Another clear way codependency manifested is through control. For much of my life, I didn’t feel as if I was in control of myself. As an only child in a family of older relatives, times were far and few between when I knew what was best for me. Also, losing my mother at sixteen and being sent away at seventeen showed me that I was in control of nothing. Anything could happen at any moment. This led to two issues: I trusted everyone’s opinion, except my own, and I eventually tried very hard to control everything around me, including other’s actions, so as not to be caught off-guard by life, ever…again.

This revelation of codependency really changed my outlook as it gave me a new way to take responsibility for myself and my behavior.

From this point on, I’ll continue to share how I developed healthier coping mechanisms, in addition to conversations with those in the field who can support us in actualizing healthier lives.

Until then, tell me…are you familiar with this term? Have you ever been codependent?

Source 1

Source 2

Mental Health Matters: Sex as Escapism

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The day my father asked me to leave home, I awoke to three or four trash bags filled with my belongings. They slouched in the middle of my bedroom floor. The day before, I’d thrown myself a seventeenth birthday party surrounded by family. But I’d also just gotten in trouble at school for forging a tardy pass.

“You’re moving to Covert with your grandmother,” my father announced. “You walked around here frontin’ yesterday, like everything is okay. YOU’RE SUSPENDED!” he yelled.

I was baffled. I thought that was protocol…walking around and pretending everything was okay when it wasn’t. I’d pretended my mother’s death hadn’t bothered me the previous nine months, and no one berated me about that. Why was having a party while suspended an issue?

But it was too late to argue. My father’s mind was made up. I moved as soon as school ended in June.

By September, my grandmother had convinced my father that he needed to relinquish his parental rights so that she could “legally take me to the hospital,” if necessary. So, the three of us drove to a small Michigan court, where a judge bestowed my grandmother with the title, legal guardian.

My father droned on about the court appointment being a “formality.” He’d “always be my dad,” he said. I wished I had an appropriate response. A tear or a lip quiver would’ve added affect. But I was dead to his speech and to mounting situations outside of my control. Life had finally completely numbed me. During his soliloquy, I zoned out and devised a simple plan for my new existence: befriend no one, complete senior year, and leave as soon as I crossed the graduation stage.

That was the plan, until I went to a computer class called, Basic and met a boy.

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He was a year younger. He played football, ran track, blew the saxophone in band, and was his class’s president. He made time for me and he made me laugh. More importantly, he made me forget about my mother’s death and my father’s abandonment. He made me forget that I wouldn’t finish high school with friends I’d known since the first grade.

Initially, we talked on the phone for several hours. He lived five minutes away from my grandparents’ home and his house was on the way to my work-study job, which made stopping by convenient. Soon we traded phone conversations for sitting on his mother’s couch, where we watched their floor-model television and kissed. Our time together quickly turned to sex. I enjoyed it. It was liberating in the most poetic way. When we were together, my pent-up emotions floated free like colorful balloons toward a bright blue sky. I repeatedly chased the euphoria.

I was so in love with the idea that he loved and wanted me that I wrapped myself around him. I mattered. He and I ebbed and flowed through teenage love. There was no way I would let him go. To do so would mean returning to earth to face the reality of my circumstances, which were outside of my control, and I wasn’t ready.

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Instead, I (unconsciously) learned men, sex, and relationships could temporarily fill a void. All three helped me escape to a place where I temporarily felt better about myself. As long as I had one, then I knew I was worth something to someone, even if the moment was fleeting. Either of the three were easy to attain, especially in undergrad, where my deeper issue flowed with a sea of everyone else’s rampant hormones and fluid identities. Throughout my life, there were times when I had all three simultaneously in different faces, constantly seeking a high, never quite reaching bliss, still feeling shitty about myself. It would take years before I’d understand one thing about trying to fill an empty space with men. You can’t. There were never enough to make me feel whole. Ever. It was always an impossible endeavor.

***

Parts of this piece were first published on PULP, a sex/uality and reproductive rights publication celebrating this human coil.

This blogger’s poem aptly describes what I’ve experienced.

Elizabeth Fitzgerald explains how escapism is a part of the fight, flight, or freeze group, which can manifest in codependent ways, including addiction.