Post Written by Markus
Home. It’s a short little word – but the story behind it is usually anything but short. We each have a home with our family of origin that’s out of our control as children. That first home sets the tone for much of our lives through adulthood in huge ways, even when (especially when) we don’t recognize how it’s even happening.
Home is often a charged word – case in point, realtors refer to selling “homes” and not “houses.” The association of the word is for family, love, happy memories, and warmth - and at the beginning and end of each day, it’s where we belong. These days, the shelf-life of the average childhood home isn’t great and the divorce rate is high. My original home officially dissolved when I was almost 16 which means that I made it a lot further with my original home still technically “intact” than many of my friends did.
Where we are today as a culture, I believe (not a shocker here) that we’re in an epidemic crisis of lack of human connection. As we get more and more “connected” digitally, we slowly phase out in-person human-to-human experience and conversation. We have home-buttons on our browsers, home-screens on our phones, and home-pages on our websites. At the same time that we’re using the word “home” so much in our digital experience, we’re also decreasing actual human interaction. Why meet someone IRL just to talk when a text message can get the same information across – and don’t even talk to me about calling someone without texting them first.
I believe that today we’re in the greatest possible time to be alive so far in history as humans on this planet. So many critical problems that once threatened our very existence have been solved. Advances in medicine, science, and mental health keep expanding what’s possible for us. As the digital arc of our culture keeps increasing and does not yet seem to have a peak in sight, I believe the need for connection and home is greater than ever. For a long time I ran away from connection and from home because the associations for me were too painful. They were the opposite of family, love, happy memories, and warmth. Beginning when my parents’ relationship got rocky, home for me was a place of loneliness, fear, painful memories, and unbearable emptiness. Looking back now, I’m able to connect the dots in reverse and see that it was all part of beautiful healing story although I would have punched you if you’d have told me that during the hard times.
CHILDHOOD + SHAME
My childhood was pretty normal in many ways – from K to about 6th grade, my parents seemed to generally be happy, functional adults and family/home life held a positive association for me. Though it was a modest upbringing, my parents had friends over for dinner all the time and home life was pretty peaceful. If you’d have asked me at the time, I’d have said that my parents were doing most things “right” and I would honestly have given them an A+ grade. It wasn’t until very recently that I was able to consider for the first time the idea that maybe my parents didn’t do as many things right as I’ve always believed.
At first blush, the idea seemed absurd to me because I’d believed the opposite for so long. As I kept turning it over in my mind and my heart, I started to see there was something to it. I began to accept the idea that maybe my parents weren’t 100% A+ parents. I saw that actually, the way they raised me and their own patterns of unresolved trauma had planted deep, painful, untrue core beliefs about myself. These also sent a loud and clear message about lack of belonging and a fear of the world around me that shaped my major life choices in huge, damaging ways – enter Shame.
Shame. I define this as “the deep belief that something about myself is utterly unacceptable and so I must hide it from everyone or face humiliation because of it.” A constant state of self-loathing and disconnection from the parts of myself that are unacceptable – which for a long time was pretty much everything. I could have easily told you anytime what my perceived flaws were. Body issues. My family’s modest means. Feeling different for being from another country. Believing that I was weak, stupid and lazy.
Where did the shame come from? Both of my parents seemed to lean toward shame as a preferred method of raising me. From that standpoint, there was much that was functional about shame – namely that it squashes behavior that the parent is looking to stamp out, like house training a dog the old school way. The problem is that it also stamped out my heart, my sense of belonging, and my identity – and left me with an ambient fear and mistrust of the world around me. The kicker though was how shame decimated my sense of self-confidence and took it another step further, leaving me with the opposite – a constant sense of specifically NOT trusting myself.
Not. Trusting. Myself. On paper it doesn’t make much sense. I’m an average guy who’s been through a fair amount of challenges and though I’ve made my share of mistakes, I have plenty going for me. Enough book-smarts to make school mostly a breeze and to find success in the engineering field after college. Being told on many occasions that I have innate leadership qualities that come across automatically when I first meet someone. Learning most new things quickly enough to feel like I’m a natural at almost anything that I try, to the envy of others.
But yet – even with those qualities and more, I was still actively not trusting myself. I believed deeply, strongly, critically that in each moment, I was the LEAST qualified person to face that moment for myself. It made zero sense to me until I started looking back and recognizing the shame and humiliation that drew the lines so early in my life. I was an active, engaged, bright child and I absorbed eagerly the things that were told to me by my parents.
When I wet my pants on the preschool bus when I was four years old, my mother completely let me have it with her words through shaming. When my parents found out I had a crush on a girl in second grade, they made fun of me in front of family friends until I hid under a table crying from humiliation. It was deeply confusing for me - having to trust these two people as a dependent and at the same time being hurt so deeply by their shaming me for things I couldn’t help. I had to trust them 100% - whatever they told me, I believed was true. The only way I could reconcile this in my mind and my heart was to believe that they were right about me. They were right when they told me that I wasn’t really a four-year-old because four-year-olds don’t wet their pants, they know better. They were right about me looking stupid and weak for having a crush on a girl and so I buried future crushes deep in my heart so no one else would see.
SELF-DESTRUCTION AS AN ADULT
For decades, the shame from my upbringing was a huge part of the lens through which I viewed the world, and more importantly, myself. I never even saw it - although looking back, it was clearly driving the bus. Much of my energy was going toward concealing myself and the parts that I believed were unacceptable and weak. My body did not measure up to what it should be – so I held my breath all the time. My productivity did not measure up to what I should be able to get done in a day – so walked faster than anyone else and I never took breaks, ever. My knowledge of any given topic was not as extensive as it should be, especially at work – so I kept my mouth shut and didn’t ask questions. Most importantly – I withdrew and isolated so that others wouldn’t see these Horrible Truths about myself.
I was constantly trying to prove what I was NOT, although I could never pile up enough evidence to convince myself that I was NOT these things. Not stupid, not lazy, not fat, not worthless, not embarrassing, not bad – but the toughest one was about belonging. I could not pile up enough evidence that I belonged, no matter where I was. The kicker was getting into an intimate relationship and then slowly sabotaging things because of how deeply I believed that I didn’t belong and that I was unlovable. I assumed that I must have lucked into hiding something that she didn’t see and I knew that I had better make damn sure that she never sees it, whatever it is.
I was completely oblivious to these self-defeating patterns for most of my life until a Cosmic Two-by-Four hit me over the head and made it too painful for me NOT to change. I think of Cosmic Two-by-Fours as messages of Love from the Universe that keep getting louder and louder until they’re impossible to ignore. These are messages of Love, yes - but Love presented through hard Truth, meaning that Pain is usually right there with Love and Truth. There’s growth that needs to happen and a lesson that needs to be learned - and for someone who’s been very stubborn and oblivious like me, it seems there is no other effective way than getting hit over the head with it.
My loudest, heaviest, most painful Cosmic Two-by-Four landed squarely on my forehead a few years ago when, after 18 months of hiding it, I told Lilly that we had substantial consumer debt spread across several credit cards. All of it had accumulated over the prior 18 months from living expenses in excess of our monthly cash budget. It started “innocently” one month when we didn’t have enough cash to cover what was on the cards, which at that point was a relatively minor amount. However, the instant that I realized this situation, I saw it as a weakness and a loud and clear message about my self-worth – and so I hid it. I did the same thing the next month and the month after that. This only made things worse for the climbing debt - and even more so for my mental health, my physical health, and my relationship with Lilly.
The progression inside my mind was always the same – from the initial sting of “uh-oh” during that first month, all the way to the house of cards crashing down. This was the same progression that I learned through shame and humiliation as a child, except as an adult I was now an Olympic-level pro at it. Before, someone outside me had to convince me that I was bad and it took a little time and forceful words for me to absorb this message. Now, it was an inside job and the pathways in my brain and my heart were well-worn from years of practice. What used to take at least several minutes now took less than a split second - it went like this:
External evidence of a perceived weakness: in this case, not having control over finances.
Immediately assigning meaning about myself: “I am stupid, incompetent, and don’t have what it takes.”
Immediately assigning meaning about my fate: “I don’t belong, I am shameful, I am bad, I am worthless – and things are not going to be okay because of me and there’s nothing I can do to change that.”
Hiding and isolating: “OK, so I know these awful things about myself, but if I can just hide them from everyone else, maybe I can fool them enough to squeak by unnoticed until everything eventually still falls apart because of me.”
Every single day during those 18 months it went like that – although it kept getting louder and more painful. The trouble with this four-step progression is how good I had gotten at it. It was such an ingrained pathway in my brain that all the steps happened together, instantly. Just thinking about the credit card debt at any point during that 18 months immediately took me to “I am bad” and “Things are not going to be okay because of me and there’s nothing I can do to change that.” But I could never even put it into those words - instead it was a deep-seated feeling in my body that gave physical life to these crushing beliefs. I was constantly in a mode of fear and reaction – not ever making choices on purpose put only living in pain and running like hell from it and what it meant about me. It felt like I was barely holding up a massive dam that was about to break and that if I relaxed for one moment, it would all be destroyed because of me.
I kept up a front that everything was OK although Lilly could sense that it wasn’t. The amount of turmoil and tension inside my mind and body kept growing like a pressure cooker ready to explode. That stress culminated in me coming down with a bad case of shingles (yes, shingles) toward the end of that 18 months which was another Cosmic Two-by-Four asking quietly for my attention – although it still wasn’t quite painful enough to get through to someone as stubborn as I was.
The next few years from the day I told Lilly the news played out in excruciating fashion. I’m not proud of the things I said and I’m not proud of how little I did to make the situation better. This was a time of crushing depression that included the darkest days I’ve ever known. I was a shell of a person at best and I was a terrible example of what it means to be a man. The pain was unbelievable and seemed endless – I still don’t know how I made it through that time although I’m incredibly grateful that I did.
HEALING + A NEU HOME
Healing for me has played out through many different paths – though they’ve all had the same thing at the core: opening my heart. Mine was closed extremely tight, so let me tell you – this was not an easy or fast process, and that’s a huge understatement. The major elements, in terms of the momentum they gave me, are below. They’re so interconnected that it’s tough to even put them in chronological order, and even tougher to list them in order of “importance” or impact – so, they’re in alphabetical order. There’s not one in the list that I could remove, each one is that important on its own. I could write plenty about every single one (stay tuned).
Breathing deeply (instead of only shallow breaths)
Carrying an Amor Fati coin in my pocket each day - and spending plenty of time with it in my open palm, just breathing and accepting
Connecting with my inner child through following my creative instincts
Exercise, specifically old-school heavy weightlifting plus HiiT cardio
Getting involved with an international men’s organization called The Mankind Project
Love and Support from Lilly, to whom I’m eternally grateful
Nutrition – especially acknowledging foods that are inflammatory for me and generally don’t work for my body or brain
Pursuing stillness, listening, and “being” instead of “doing”
Seeing a psychiatrist for the first time (this was a tough one to swallow)
Solo time in nature
Tough conversations (so many)
Without any of these, I would not be here today, not a chance. For so many years, I lived in a very oppressive place with a very cruel jailer and tormentor – my own mind. There was nothing I did that it didn’t see and it criticized me for every single thing I did and destroyed me anew for each one, whether good or bad. The cumulative effect of the Medicines in the list above has been nothing short of life-changing through deep healing for my heart.
For the first time in my life, I’m able to live each day in a place that is not oppressive and where I’m not driven by a constant seeking of belonging, validation, acceptance, and approval. It’s not that I don’t need these things anymore – I do, and deeply. But now I don’t need to seek them outside myself because I know intrinsically that I already have them within me - and that they were there all along.
THAT was the Big Secret that I didn’t know all along. Shame told me that I was embarrassing, bad, stupid, and worthless. Shame told me that I needed someone outside myself to tell me that I was OK and that I was enough. Shame told me that I was “less than” – literally less than every other person. Shame told me that I was a threat to my own being and that the only way to survive was to hide.
As I stand here today, I’ve heard my own Voice. I’ve literally faced every fear I’ve had. I’ve held that little boy’s heart gently in my hands and I’ve cared for it well. I can feel deeply that I’m the best person for the job of caring for that heart - not the worst, like I believed for most of my life. I’ve felt Truth - and mostly it’s been quiet, shapeless, and without words. This was an inside job all along and I was so well-equipped to handle my own life - I just had unhealed trauma that kept me in self-defeating patterns and that hid the Ultimate Truth from me.
That Truth is that I am Love; that you are Love; that we are all Love and all connected. We all belong with each other – in the words of Ram Dass, “We’re all just walking each other home.” I did the best I could with what I had and what I knew at the time. Though it’s easy to look back to find evidence to the contrary so that I can beat myself up like I did for so long, I know deeply that this is true.
Today I can honestly say that I’m comforted by knowing that I will never experience the same level of darkness again as the darkest days I’ve known. That’s because of the healing I’ve experienced so far and the connection I have with myself and my heart. No matter what circumstances happen, I know more than anything that I don’t have it in me to hate myself anymore or to abandon myself anymore.
The pathways of self-loathing are still there just like expressways that get built and that have millions of cars running down that pavement over decades. If you put up a “road closed” sign, some cars may stop driving on the road - but the pavement is still there. It takes time and hard work to build new paths and to get familiar enough to go down that new road - instead of the old familiar ways that I drove down so easily on autopilot. I can still recognize the patterns and the old conditioning - but usually when I recognize them, it’s because I’m noticing how things are playing out differently and how I’m NOT going down those roads anymore.
The darkness and pain I experienced were excruciating. That said, they were well worth it to gain the healing and growth that my heart and inner child had so desperately needed for such a long time. There is no way to overstate this deep, critical need. Every moment of my life was driven by a need for external approval to accumulate any evidence of acceptance and belonging – anything to counter the pervasive ambient self-rejection and self-hate.
For many years, “home” was a four-letter word to me. After my family of origin fell apart when I was in middle school, “home” was the last place I wanted to be. I barely used the word “home” in conversation, I would say “house” instead. Though I still have a sense of loss for my family of origin and the home we once had, that grief now feels healed. Today I’m fortunate enough to be creating a new home with Lilly – our home that belongs to us both, and that’s our daughter’s home and her family of origin. It sounds cliche – but now, our home really is where my heart is. This is an Open Hearted Home where the expectations are to be, to share, to listen and to love. I’m here to be. I’m here to share and to listen. I’m here to Love.