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A Trail of Bread Crumbs

We are assaulted on all sides with bad news. An economy that has utterly tanked and whatever sign it has showed of resuscitating hasn’t trickled down to ordinary folks like you and I. Natural disasters causing damage that staggers the imagination. The threat of terrorism and the specter of war that delivers lives on both sides of the world into the meat grinder. A general erosion of values and morality in favor of a me-first mentality that has become prevalent on a global scale. It’s no wonder we feel lost.

When you add in the personal dramas we encounter every day from romantic entanglements to feuds with neighbors and friends, it’s understandable why so many of us feel like staying in bed with the covers pulled over our heads. We all need a safe harbor and that’s certainly difficult to come by in these stressful times.

But not impossible. Some of us find it in a rock-solid relationship that serves as a compass for our daily lives (and those relationships aren’t always romantically based either), while others find it in an activity that takes our minds off of our worries. For most of my own life, I dealt with stress by ignoring it or running away from it. If something happened to shake my world up, I’d go to the movies. Hiding in the dark, munching popcorn, I’d be transported away to someplace else, my own troubles forgotten.

The trouble with that is that all movies come to an end and reality is right there waiting for you after your two hour respite. Problems have a way of sticking to you like glue that way. My solution was to deal with the problems and shove the stress into a hole and not deal with the emotional fallout of whatever it was that was bothering me. It worked for small issues and I began to incorporate that attitude into larger ones as well.

Any mental health professional will tell you that’s not a healthy way to deal with stress and the negative feelings that are a part of stress. Eventually your hole gets filled up, and things start to leak out. It took years but it eventually caught up with me and I had what some would call a mini-breakdown. My stress and negative emotions that had built up over years of romantic and personal failures, the passing of my father, and other issues large and small began to manifest themselves physically. It got to the point that I knew if things continued the way they were, I would no longer be able to function. I sought professional help, and after nearly two years of therapy from a therapist who, thankfully, was resistant to using drugs to treat stress-related emotional issues and depression, I managed to climb out of the black hole I was in and learned to deal with all of my emotions, large and small, good and bad.

Men in general have a difficult time dealing with our emotions. We’re taught from an early age not to allow our emotions control us and often that means not dealing with them. We have to be manly, after all; crying is the purview of women. Men are stronger than that. Men are logical and rational. Emotions don’t enter into the male equation.

I do agree that it is also unhealthy to be controlled by your own emotions. That said, our emotions are at least as important a facet of our selves as our mind is. A friend of mine was fond of saying that the brain is bigger than the heart, therefore God must have meant it to be more important (yes, that friend is a guy – size matters to guys). That’s absolute rubbish. While there’s nothing wrong with placing more importance on logic or emotional intuition, truly balanced individuals learn to accept both as important components of their personalities.

I’ve always been something of a sensitive sort; I could be easily hurt by even a hint of being slighted. The advice I would always get for that ailment was to toughen up and develop a thicker skin. Initially, I tried to follow that advice with varying degrees of success. Eventually, I came to realize through bitter experience and with the help of my therapy that it was bad advice.

A thick skin doesn’t protect you from over-sensitivity because that sensitivity is generated from within the skin. Thickening your skin only traps those emotions in with you. What is more therapeutic and indeed better for your mental health is learning to embrace who you are, understanding that you have a great deal of sensitivity and learning to deal with those emotions instead of trying to insulate yourself against them. I’m still prone to being easily hurt (just ask Da Queen about that – often she’ll say something innocuous that I’ll completely take the wrong way) but I no longer dwell on slights real or imagined. I’ve learned to accept that I’m not perfect and not everybody likes me and it isn’t necessary for everyone to like me. Trust me folks, that was a big step for me.

Instead, I learned to cultivate people that are important to me and people whose opinion I respect. If something was said that was negative, I learned to accept it as constructive criticism. If I found that the intention was to hurt instead of build, I pushed those people to a position lower on my personal ladder or off of it if it was a common enough occurrence. It’s a policy that has served me well since I adopted it; I’ve managed to eliminate people from my life who get off on the pain of others. That is a constructive use of ignoring negative emotions; ignore the source and excise them from your life.

Of course, that’s easier said than done. All of us have at least one person in our families who knows how to push our buttons and does so with great zeal. That’s where other important elements of the equation come in; forgiveness and acceptance. Learning to accept people as they are without the expectation of change, and forgiving them for the transgressions that come as a result of being who they are is at the crux of dealing with our emotional pain. Most of us know the story of the frog and the scorpion, the one where a scorpion asks a frog to transport him across the river. The frog is reluctant but the scorpion assures the frog that he won’t sting him because it would mean both of their deaths if he does. Halfway across the river, the scorpion stings the frog and as the frog sinks into the river to die, he asks the scorpion why he did it. The scorpion responds that he has to act according to his nature. That’s true of people, too.

Forgiving the transgressions of others begins with forgiving ourselves for our own failings. As much as we are beat up over life, in general nobody beats us up better than ourselves. We’re all prone to self-flagellation and hair shirts over the things we’ve done or the things we failed to do. Generally when we fail, all our other failures bubble up to the surface in a litany of “I’m a loser I’m a failure I’m a nobody” that we repeat as a mantra of self-pity to ourselves in the middle of the night.

The truth of the matter is that most of us succeed less often than we fail. We make bad romantic choices, we miss out on career opportunities, and we mess up friendships. We are also only human. We all make mistakes and sometimes we pay dearly for them. We are accountable for those mistakes, to be sure, but there are no unforgivable mistakes. That’s why they’re called mistakes. Our task is to learn from them and grow a little wisdom from them so that we don’t continue making the same ones, even though as human beings we also have been known to make the same mistakes again and again (especially when it comes to our romantic lives).

That doesn’t make us foolish or stupid. Sometimes, we just have to accept that it is part of who we are and do what we can to improve. We also have to learn that it’s okay to ask for help and guidance, to get opinions and perspectives other than our own and learn to trust those people who have no agenda other than our own well-being, be they parents, spouses, friends, therapists or well, me.

Life is particularly difficult lately, and these difficulties fuel those negative emotions that cause us to doubt ourselves, to doubt our capabilities, and to doubt our futures. It is easy to get lost in those negative emotions – they can create quite the jungle – but it is possible to leave a trail of bread crumbs to follow our way out. The point is that no matter how dark the jungle or how deep we are in it, there’s always a way out as long as we learn to trust ourselves, and each other. Not always easy, I know – but the right trail is almost never the easy one.


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