Stop Hustling: Pacing Yourself is Part of the Plan

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Photo by Adi Goldstein on Unsplash

“You’re trying to do it all,” my coach said — gently accusing me of taking on more than I could handle without burning out.

I had just gotten back from a business trip to test a workshop concept and told my coach I’d have it turned into an online course by the end of the month.

And when I told her the rest of the things on my list to accomplish, including book proposals, keeping up on my social media schedule, taking individual coaching clients, and starting an email list, she said, “You’re trying to do it all.”

“No,” I assured her. “I’m not trying to do it all. It all works together. Everything I do supports my brand as an author, and it’s all related. It’s all one thing!”

Okay, she caught me. I was trying to do it all.

I had spent a solid two months developing the workshop into its current state by working on it — and only it — for weeks, while my ideas for other projects got put into a list for later.

My focus got me this far, and I didn’t want to lose momentum.

Since I wanted to start 2020 off organized and with a solid calendar of social media and blog content, it stood to reason that I could not turn my workshop into a six week course at the same time I was writing a book proposal, learning how to make an email list, and regularly posting on my social accounts.

I needed to give the course a little room to breathe while I created the channels I will use to give it life when it’s ready.

Curiously, I wondered what had been making me think I needed to launch myself into the next huge step instead of making a plan that made sense.

Why was I still hustling?

The answer came to me as I was in the middle of a conversation with someone about something my mother did to me as a kid.

After my sixteenth birthday, I decided I wanted to learn to play guitar. A friend’s mom had an old acoustic one sitting around in a garage and she gave it to me.

I named my guitar Lorelai, and she stayed in my room looking very cool. Sometimes I’d take her out of her black case with its shiny silver buckles and I would strum and try to play a chord or two.

But I didn’t know what I was doing. I didn’t have a plan.

One day, I received a phone call from my sister.

“Mom’s having a yard sale and she’s selling your guitar.”

I exploded over the phone in livid, shrieking tones at my mother that she had no right to sell my guitar!

She replied coolly and calmly, “Well, you haven’t learned to play it. If you tell me when you’re going to learn to play it you can keep it.”

I felt trapped. I didn’t have a plan.

I could not give her an answer I knew would be true and wouldn’t get my guitar scrapped upon the deadline if I hadn’t kept up my end of the bargain.

She offered an alternative: I could keep it, but she wanted to nail it to her living room wall as decor.

I let her sell my guitar.

The false promise of hustle and perfection

That need to figure out a new hobby right away, to be the best at something immediately, to only bring something into my life if I have a plan for it is directly related to the way my mother treated my hobbies.

I had to earn the right to have an idea by hustling to put it into motion.

But now that I know where this belief comes from, I can take away the power it holds over me.

My approach to undoing mental obstacles is similar to trauma therapy. Find the root of the negative thought (in this case, mom sold my guitar because I didn’t learn it right away = I must constantly be working toward a goal as fast as I can), and then process it.

What would the ideal situation have been with my guitar?

  • I would have been allowed to keep it as long as I needed until I either decided to make a plan to learn or I decided to let it go. That decision should never have been forced.
  • If I had decided to stop learning guitar, that decision should have been accepted and not attached to shame for not trying hard enough, or assumed that I never wanted it in the first place. People can change their minds.
  • I would have had opportunities to learn from people who could teach me in a way that made sense. I was limiting myself to self-teaching, when I could have asked for lessons or help. I didn’t have to learn something new in a vacuum.
  • My mom would have supported that I was interested in a new creative hobby and encouraged me to learn at my own pace. I should not have had to justify my desire or my timeline.

Chasing immediate perfection is never the answer, because we all deserve the time it takes to evaluate if a new idea fits into our life and our plan for growth.

I can’t imagine telling anyone, especially a child, “You have to learn this immediately or I’m getting rid of it.”

The pressure of that edict was enormous, unfair, and harmful.

It has kept me in a pattern of thinking I needed to always be jumping to the next thing in my life in order to achieve goals at breakneck speed and learn new skills as quickly as possible. I need to execute things perfectly, and quickly, in order to not lose the thing I’m working on.

I have to succeed before it’s taken away and I lose the chance forever.

Replacing the negative pattern

It’s not enough to simply find and understand the root cause of a negative belief.
You have to pull an Indiana Jones and swap that thought for a positive one that you can believe is just as real.
Here are some thoughts I can try out to see if they feel just as real and believable as the thought that I need to go fast or I’ll lose my chance.
  • I have plenty of time to get this new skill right.
  • It’s okay to take my time on this project.
  • This project is part of my plan and I don’t need to rush it.
  • I am in charge of how long it takes to learn something new, and I can take as long as I need.

Those beliefs feel so much more loving and supportive.

It might take a little time and practice, and I will need to repeat these new beliefs a lot while I swap them out for the old one.

But that’s okay.

I can take as long as I need to learn something new.

PS. I’m teaching people how to stand up for their boundaries after traumatic pasts in my six week course that starts Monday. Email me to reserve a spot at 50% off list price.

How to Improve Your Boundaries After Trauma [VIDEO]

After a lifetime of not knowing how to enforce my boundaries (or even what they were in the first place), one of the toughest things I had to learn after leaving an abusive marriage was how I expected to be treated and how I communicated that to other people. 

Boundaries can feel scary when you’ve never had them before. In the past, maybe standing up for yourself felt dangerous. 

A New Approach to Boundaries

When I was starting a D&D campaign a few months ago, I realized I loved making the character more than I actually liked playing.

I could make my character strong in ways I aspired to be. Which is how I made this course – we treat your brain like a character, and you fill that character up with strengths and defenses and skills that help you rethink how you approach traumatic moments. 

So I turned this idea into a workshop that I taught at Midwinter Gaming Convention in Milwaukee this January, and spent the next couple months adapting it into a six week online coaching course to teach the framework to other people.

The video below introduces the Level Up framework we’ll use to build stronger boundaries, honor your strengths and inherent skills, and make a plan to continue improving for the future.

If you just want the basics on the course, the first half covers everything you need to know! The second half of the video has grounding techniques we use during the course in case the conversation gets heavy.

 

Six Weeks to Better Boundaries

Here’s the basics of the course and what you can expect from participating. 

  • Level Up provides a new way to look at trauma that interrupts the negative feedback loop in your brain
  • By the end of the course, you will have a concrete list of your resources for a “leveled up” approach to your own trauma, triggers, and boundaries
  • Level Up is a six week course, and you should expect to devote about 2-3 hours a week to lessons, assignments/journaling, and video calls
  • Video calls will be followed by a debrief to make sure any negative feelings are worked through and safely grounded
  • This is not a clinical therapy and you may want to work through what you learn here with your regular therapist

Want to get started? I still have a few reserved spots for the session starting April 13 at 50% off list price. Email me to reserve a spot!

Practicing Boundaries After Trauma

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Photo by Kai Pilger on Unsplash

Boundaries take practice, especially when you have a history of trauma. Being a survivor of abuse can make the inner alarm bells malfunction — they either don’t go off at all because mistreatment has been normalized, or they go off at the slightest whiff of something that reminds you of a past traumatic experience.

This can make it extremely difficult to establish and maintain healthy boundaries.

Examples of healthy boundaries include:

  • Saying no to something without explaining your reasons why
  • Asking someone to stop doing something that bothers you
  • Canceling plans when you are too tired or overwhelmed to socialize
  • Taking a step back from intimacy in a relationship

These seem like they’re easy, but a history of abuse can make them seem insurmountably difficult. Complex PTSD, anxiety, and other mental illnesses can turn simple boundary setting into an exercise in self-loathing and self-sabotage.

You feel like you’re being difficult for no reason and that by saying no, you’re going to make everyone hate you and it will be all your fault.

It sucks. It is hard. It is painful.

And you have to keep practicing. 

I got a message over the weekend asking me out for lunch. It was a perfectly polite message, very complimentary, and I felt warmly about being asked out. But I wasn’t feeling a dating vibe with this particular person and I confess that I panicked for a moment. How do I say no? There’s no real “reason” to say no!

Not feeling enthusiastic about something is enough of a reason to say no.

The idea of a date wasn’t sparking joy for me, and it took me a moment to breathe and realize that this was just a conversation with an acquaintance and not a life and death situation. I wrote back to her and said thank you but I am not interested in a date. And she said that was totally fine and then we talked about a party she was throwing. It was a complete non-issue.

You’re allowed to say no when you’re just not feeling something. It doesn’t make you a bad person, and you don’t owe people a yes when you’d rather say no.

The fear: Saying no will make them hate you.

The reality: If it does, that’s pretty messed up and definitely not your problem.

I also canceled a date over the weekend because I just wanted to lay in bed and be lazy. That was totally okay too. (Side note: dating is exhausting, and my energy to do it waxes and wanes faster than the moon).

You are in charge of who is around you and how you spend your time.

What about when you do want to spend time with someone and your anxiety tells you THEY don’t want to hang out with YOU? 

Recently, the little voice in my brain decided that I needed to put some boundaries in place with a friend because he didn’t actually care about me and it was all a game. I was being toyed with. I was a punchline. Ha ha, who wants to be friends with sad traumatized Caitlin?

When someone is important to you, anxious traumatic patterns will convince you that they’re not safe (just like before!), so you protect yourself from future heartbreak by ending things ASAP. Constant self-sabotage is the name of the game when you’ve been raised with love and abuse as two sides of the same coin.

I wrote a very polite message to my friend, explaining that I needed to take a step back from our relationship because I felt like my mental health was at risk.

He responded by telling me that my mental health came first and he would respect what I needed to do. He asked if I would like to talk about it and we talked out what the little chattering weasels in my brain were saying. He gave me the safe space to get out all of my anxieties and fears. He responded with reassurance and kindness.

Oh. I guess it wasn’t as bad as I thought it was. Thanks a lot, brain weasels. 

The huge, glaring, neon sign of difference between my relationship with this friend and my relationship with my abuser: My abuser told me that I was responding to an imaginary villain version of him in my head and that he’d never do something to make me feel that way — completely invalidating my fears and telling me they were made up. It’s not safe to express discomfort to a person who tells you your discomfort isn’t real.

My friend took my concerns seriously, let me talk openly about my fears, validated my feelings, and worked through the anxious spiral with me. We came out the other side of the experience feeling closer to each other, and I felt safe and seen and valued.

The fear: Talking about my trauma will make people think I’m too much work and I should just stay quiet and never be open about it.

The truth: The only way for me to keep learning that it’s safe to talk about my fears with people is to talk about my fears with people.

Moral of the story: Boundaries (and healing) take work. But it’s worth it. 

Read more from me!

If you enjoyed this post, you might also like my book, The Gaslighting of the Millennial Generation. I’d love for you to let me know what you think of the book, so please give it a read and leave a five star review on Amazon. If you’re morally opposed to Amazon, I have some other links here.

I’ve also set up a Patreon page which will get sneak peeks of upcoming topics, an opportunity for you to suggest topics, and additional Patron-only bonus content. Check it out, Patron levels start at just $1 per month to help support my writing.

 

 

There’s no timeline on healing or love

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When I turned 25, I made a five year plan. Become debt free and a mother by 30, in April 2018.

I am now 31 and neither of those things happened.

In fact, as 30 approached, I was facing a lot of other huge life circumstances. In August 2016 I got married and immediately started trying to conceive a much wanted baby. In January 2017 I stopped speaking to my mother, until February 2018 when I unwittingly made contact with her through my stepdad’s phone. She tersely let me know he had cancer, and through speaking with my siblings I came to understand that she had deliberately kept the news from me to punish me for cutting her out of my life. (I wrote about this experience here).

Within a ten day span in March 2018, I left an abusive marriage, packed everything I owned and moved into a new apartment, endured transatlantic cyber bullying at the hands of my husband, and watched my stepfather die of lung cancer. Oh, and accepted a book deal.

Life did not give one iota of a shit about my five year plan. I still have student loans and I never did get pregnant (thank goodness).

The timeline of healing

After I left my abuser, I committed to only casual relationships on a non-monogamous basis for at least a year. And then I fell in love. And I fought it. I didn’t want to be in love, I wanted time to be single and to heal.

My sister gave me some sage advice: There’s no timeline on healing or love. You’re allowed to fall in love whenever you fall in love.

I decided I could work on healing from my abusive upbringing and marriage at the same time I was enjoying a relationship. I continued going to therapy and reading books that helped me process my trauma, and I had fewer panic attacks and C-PTSD episodes as time went on. I was healing.

And then our relationship imploded, as did another year-long relationship of mine, and I found myself newly single again.

But I noticed something important. While it had taken me years to realize my marriage was harmful, it took me only months with my boyfriend and mere weeks with my girlfriend. Of course, looking back, I can see that there were signs of the unhealthy patterns long before I realized them, but it was proof of my healing. I was doing the work. I wasn’t putting up with unhealthy behavior once I realized it was happening.

The timeline of love

Letting myself feel my feelings and fall in love was important. Fresh out of an abusive marriage, I really needed to feel loved again. I am a big fan of taking time to be single and focus on self-love, but I’m also not upset that I spent my first year away from my ex feeling loved and supported by two partners.

When those relationships ended, I was much more able to take time to be single. Seeing that I had fallen into similar behaviors (serving as one partner’s sole emotional support to my own detriment, allowing the other to continually violate my boundaries and forgiving them because each time seemed individually like an honest mistake) as I had in my marriage, because on some level I was still scared of being seen as too hard to love, was something I needed to realize. And now that I’ve had those experiences, I have realized them.

This has given me new targets for therapy.

Your responsibilities in a relationship

Some fundamental truths I’ve stumbled upon in therapy include the following:

  • I am not responsible for making my thoughts and emotions comfortable for other people. How many of us do this? We feel hurt or upset but keep our pain internalized until we’ve either ignored it or whittled it into something tiny and non-offensive that we can bring up to our partners apologetically and hope to stand up for ourselves about it. The trouble is, when we’ve been taught over and over again that our hurt feelings aren’t valid, we just start invalidating them ourselves. “I won’t talk about this with him, I’m probably just overreacting.” No, we’re not doing that anymore. If you feel hurt, tell your partner. The discomfort of this conversation is important: if the discomfort gives way to healing and repair, then that’s a sign of a healthy relationship. If it gives way to invalidating blame, then that’s a sign you aren’t with someone who values you and wants to treat you well.
  • Managing my partners’ behavior is not a normal part of a healthy relationship. I’ve always been the PR spinner in my relationships. With my abusive ex, I would post cute stories about our conversations on Facebook and my friends fawned over how sweet we were. “Get a man who makes coffee in the morning and does the dishes!” I’d say, to a chorus of “He should teach a class on being a husband!” and “Can I borrow him so he can teach mine??” But the man only had three regular chores and didn’t do any of them completely. If I wanted to continue getting coffee in the morning and have him washing dishes at 50% competency, I had to put on the happy face and brag about him in a public way so he rewarded me instead of punishing me. I also had a habit of staying mentally two steps ahead of partners’ behavior to make sure they didn’t do something problematic. I also did this with my parents: I’d have to watch to make sure dad didn’t harass a waitress with a sexist comment or keep an eye on mom’s mood to warn my sister to behave. I have always had to stay aware of everyone around me to reduce the risk of danger/abuse. Turns out this is not a normal part of a relationship.
  • I give my love away freely so people never feel like they have to earn it. Realizing this was hard. I have always felt like I had to behave properly in order to receive love – I had to earn it. If I was a bad kid, I didn’t get love. If I was a bad wife, I didn’t get love. Subsequently, I wanted to make sure no one ever felt like that’s what I was doing to them. I didn’t want to paywall my affections and make someone earn them… so I had no boundaries because I always wanted people to have access to my love. This is unsustainable. Love is unconditional, but access is not, and sometimes I have to say no to something or someone in order to take care of myself and avoid burning out. Boundaries are a form of love too.
  • I am not responsible for making other people love me and treat me with value; that is their job. Seriously. If you are in a relationship with me, I shouldn’t have to convince you I’m worth loving, appreciating, or being with. Having to perform at this level with so many partners has been exhausting, and I don’t do it anymore. If you don’t want to be with me, stop being with me. I should not have to earn your time and attention.

Single part two

As I mentioned, after these two breakups I’ve been spending time being single and casually dating, but I’m not in any serious relationships. I still consider myself single. But I’m also feeling like I may be ready to start dating a little more seriously soon. My plan is to stay single until the new year, but we all know that life laughs at my plans. And if I end up feeling ready before then, that’s okay too. Because I decide when I’m ready, and it doesn’t mean I can’t dial things back if I find I still need single time later.

The same is true for you. You can’t heal on a timeline and you can’t control when something happens off your plan. But you can choose to lean into your vulnerability and your love and let something wonderful happen. (And you can also choose to pull back and say no, I’m actually not ready yet. It is up to you!)

Read more from me

If you dig my brand of encouragement, you might like my Patreon page, where supporters receive a weekly pep talk post! You can sign up at varying levels for different content access, starting at just $1 per month.

You can also support my work by purchasing my book, The Gaslighting of the Millennial Generation. I’d love for you to let me know what you think of the book, so please give it a read and leave a review on Amazon. If you’re morally opposed to Amazon, I have some other links here.

 

 

How to ask for the love you need

 

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I recently did something that I thought would be silly, or selfish, or outlandish.

I wrote a manual on how to love me.

It gives the basics about me and my background, includes a list of my favorite things, discusses how to best communicate with me, describes how I interact within each of the five love languages, and has links to blog posts and book recommendations to help understand my trauma and triggers. It even has tips on how to help me through a panic attack.

I posted about it on my personal Facebook page and I expected some laughs and comments about how I was being super type-A.

But the response was nothing short of love and encouragement.

It’s okay to ask for love

It’s okay to ask for love in the ways you need it. It’s okay to say, “Hey could you love me this way instead?”

For me, one of the worst things is to ignore me or make me do all the work of initiating conversation or contact. Feeling like I have to chase affection is deeply painful. I am still learning that love is abundant and available, that I don’t have to earn it, and that I certainly don’t have to beg for it.

An unexpected message from a loved one can light up my whole day, reassure me that they are thinking of me, and show me that they care.

When I shared my manual about how to love me, people thanked me.

The next day, I posted a status to “love me louder,” and I got some people sending gifs and hugs… but I also noticed several friends leaving comments about how great a friend I am, how they’ve been inspired by me, how proud they are of my writing and my work. And that small shift in the way I asked for love felt really good.

It can be scary to ask for love

When I was in sixth grade, I was living with my dad after my parents divorced. I told him “I love you” multiple times a day. It was an easy way to check in, to receive that “I love you too” back. I was trying to ask for love. And one day his response was not, “I love you too.”

It was “You say that a lot. Seems like you might be trying to convince yourself.”

It has never really felt safe to ask since then.

It’s been twenty years since I felt safe asking for love.

When I check in with someone to ask for something they aren’t giving me automatically, my heart pounds. Tears prick my eyes. My whole body feels hot. I want to be anywhere but vulnerably in front of them showing the truth of what I need. Risking myself like that is physically painful.

I learned as a child that love can be faked.

Every time I ask someone to change the way they love me, it feels like I’m being ungrateful and selfish. Like I should change the way I need to feel loved rather than ask them to speak my native tongue.

It feels like I am flinging myself off a cliff and hoping they might catch me.

Sometimes it feels easier to sit around wondering why someone doesn’t love me than to say what I need to feel loved. Vulnerability is scary, but it’s where we get our needs met. It’s where we find resolve in our worth and value.

It’s where we remember who the fuck we are.

Vulnerability at work can look like asking for a raise or promotion. You’re risking a no. If your boss says no, you might feel unimportant or not valued. If your boss reassures you that you’re doing great and puts together a six month plan for you to be in a place where they can offer that raise when they have the next budget meeting — that’s a reward for your vulnerability, even though it initially feels like rejection.

Vulnerability with a partner can look like saying, “I feel like I’m chasing you down for affection and I want to hear from you more during the day.” This feels scary, because they could say no. They could say that’s not how they operate their love languages and they aren’t willing to learn yours. They could say this feels like a lot of work.

Or they could say, “I’m sorry that I’ve been loving you in a way you weren’t receiving, and I will remember that you need loved this way. It is safe to remind me, and please do until I make it a habit.”

Being told I’m hard work is one of my top triggers. It’s something that has been said by a parent and by a partner, and its message is clear: My love for you is conditional on how easy you make my life.

Relationships take work, but people are not hard work

It’s rare for two people to connect in a way that is 100% flawless all of the time. But if you are important to each other and there is mutual trust, respect, and caring, asking for what you need is a blessing. It’s a road map and a manual. It’s cheat codes to making sure you feel loved.

Interpersonal communication takes practice, and this can feel like a tough job.

But if people didn’t want to do the work of learning how to best love me, they wouldn’t be out here loving me.

Tell your partner your love languages and be specific

Your partner can reference your top love languages for a reminder that you really get a boost from a love note in the middle of the day or them offering to pick up dinner on the way home so you don’t have to. Maybe they buy you an awesome gift because you feel loved when you receive a thoughtful present.

Whatever your love language, it is okay to communicate it to your friends, family, and partners. In fact, it should be a regular part of interpersonal relationships.

Not sure what your love language is? Take the quiz here to find out and learn about all five languages, which are:

  • Words of Affirmation
  • Acts of Service
  • Physical Touch
  • Quality Time
  • Receiving Gifts

The hidden benefit of telling people how to love you

When you tell people how to love you, and especially when you tell people what makes you feel downright unloved or unappreciated, you have a measuring stick for people’s respect for you.

Once you’ve told someone several times what you need to feel loved and they repeatedly ignore it, it can help you see who doesn’t belong so close to you. You deserve an inner circle of people willing and eager to speak your language.

It doesn’t make people inherently toxic or bad for you if they don’t speak your language, but it is okay to place distance between yourself and them.

Normalize love

Normalize talking about love languages.

Normalize telling friends you love them.

Normalize asking for what you need, without apology.

Read more from me!

If you dig my brand of encouragement, you might like my Patreon page, where supporters receive a weekly pep talk post! You can sign up at varying levels for different content access, starting at just $1 per month.

You can also support my work by purchasing my book, The Gaslighting of the Millennial Generation. I’d love for you to let me know what you think of the book, so please give it a read and leave a five star review on Amazon. If you’re morally opposed to Amazon, I have some other links here.

 

 

 

 

The healing power of non-monogamy

polyamory meme

I couldn’t find a good image so I created this one.

In March 2018 I left an abusive marriage and entered into a new phase of life: the casually slutty phase. My dating app profile included the line, “I am dedicating 2018 to non-monogamous exploration.” I had my first one time hookups, met my first friend with benefits, and soon met my first long-term partner after the split. 

Me and this guy couldn’t get enough of each other, and I stopped putting energy into other dates because I was excited to see him again and again. (Real talk: Dating is hard work and takes a lot of energy). We dated a few weeks before he asked if I wanted to be monogamous. “No,” I said, “Staying non-monogamous is really important to me after leaving my marriage.” He said, “Okay, it just seems like a lot to balance, I thought maybe monogamy would feel safer.”

In retrospect, this was a yikes, but at the time I did not realize that. We continued dating and I met another long-term partner; both relationships lasted a little over a year each. 

A little background 

This was not my first non-monogamous rodeo. In 2010, my first husband and I opened our marriage at my request. It was definitely uncharted territory, as he was my first partner ever and he had only had one or two serious partners before me. Neither of us even knew non-monogamy was an option, but I had been researching online to try and figure out why I felt so unfulfilled in our marriage and thought that perhaps adding other partners was a great idea and would help me feel more worthy of love. My entire first 28 or so years of life were plagued with terrible self esteem and emotional abuse that led me to seek fulfillment and validation from others to feel good about myself.

I reached out while writing this blog to ask him what his thoughts were when I asked to open our marriage. He said he felt defeated overall that our marriage was so unhappy and he was willing to try anything to make it work. (PS. this is a bad reason to open a marriage, and I definitely made a mistake opening my marriage this way). 

We made some of your typical new-to-polyamory mistakes. First of all, we opened from a place of fear and desperation to make things work, rather than getting our relationship on solid ground first. We had lots of rules, lots of possessiveness, lots of “well you got to do it so now I get to do it too” tit for tat behavior. 

I made mistakes. I treated my partners like they were beholden to my expectations without treating them with the same respect. I treated other people like they were pawns I could move around my relationship chess-board, trying to find the configuration that would fulfill what I felt like I was missing. Maybe dating another couple would work better, maybe this, maybe that. 

By 2018 when I sought out to be my authentically non-monogamous self, I had learned much more by following polyamory-positive accounts on social media (like Poly.Land), learning about relationship constructs like relationship anarchy, seeing my own friends in my social circles practice healthy polyamorous relationships, reading books like More than Two, etc. 

When I left my abuser, non-monogamy the right way was my goal. Because monogamy had trapped me in a cycle of making my partner the most important thing in my life. More important even than myself. 

Weaponizing monogamy

When people say “toxic monogamy,” it might offend you as a monogamous person. You might think I’m saying that your way of living life in your romantic relationships is toxic or bad. That’s not what I’m saying. 

Similar to toxic masculinity, which is “masculinity that is toxic,” toxic monogamy is “monogamy that is toxic.” Examples of toxic monogamy include creepy wedding decorations with a ball and chain or handcuffs, not allowing your spouse to have friends outside of your marriage, expecting your partner to be your “one and only” person in life, being possessive of your partner, going through your partner’s phone to see if they are talking to other people or following accounts on social media you don’t approve of, threatening to harm other people who you perceive to come between you and your partner, etc. 

My mom and stepdad had a couple they were friends with whose origin story went like this: He beat up her boyfriend, so she went out with him instead because he proved how much he wanted her with physical violence. And they’re still together decades later. Aww, sweet. (No, not sweet). 

Toxic masculinity and toxic monogamy go hand in hand, but that’s a blog post for another day. 

My abuser had weaponized monogamy in our relationship. We met when I was in my first marriage, as was he. I had a girlfriend at the time, whom he was also seeing. He met with her for a dinner date, she talked about me on their date, and he then connected with me and feigned surprise when I asked if he was in fact the gentleman who was seeing my girlfriend. (Read: He lied about not knowing who I was when he made contact). He dated us both until he decided which of us was easier, and it became apparent when she started calling out his possessive behavior that he needed to get her out of the picture. 

He convinced me she was too jealous and unstable for us to attempt a polyamorous triad, which had been our initial hope as three people who were dating each other. I broke things off with her and he did soon after. Once I filed for divorce, my abuser suggested that we be monogamous with each other, because non-monogamy was clearly too hurtful and too complicated. I readily agreed, because I had just had such a bad experience with that “crazy girlfriend!” I didn’t want to have to guard myself against that again. It really was better to just be monogamous so I couldn’t get hurt again. I was enthusiastically in agreement. 

I was happily monogamous, so long as I accepted whatever treatment he gave me. He was in charge of the love, affection, and sex I received, and I had no leg to stand on to ask for more. 

Bisexual erasure in a straight-presenting relationship

I am bisexual: attracted to people of similar and different genders than myself. As a bisexual person in a relationship with a straight cisgender man, I was subject to some of your typical bi erasure tropes. His erasure took one of three forms depending on my behavior, confidence, doubts, etc. and the result he needed to achieve to maintain control in our abuse cycle. 

  1. You’re not really bi, you’re just narcissistic. Any time I looked upon myself favorably in the mirror, he’d say I was preening like a bird and joke that I wasn’t actually bisexual, I was just really into myself. Looking back, I now see that this was meant to poke holes in my confidence by judging how “into myself” I was. 
  2. If you need to explore your bisexuality, that’s fine… in a threesome. My husband routinely told me that he wanted to be monogamous, but if I felt the desire to explore my sexuality with a woman, he was open to that. All I had to do was ask! So once, I did ask. I asked if I could have sex with a close female friend of mine. My husband was livid. I called him a liar, because he said that I could explore if I wanted to, and I was communicating that desire with him. He then explained that what he meant was I could be with a woman if it was a threesome with him. 
  3. Your bisexuality means you’re twice as likely to leave me. If I had managed to get through the first two layers of bi erasure from my esteemed life partner, this was always an option for him to bring out. When we talked about my sexuality, he’d say “I take your bisexuality very seriously. It means twice the people you could leave me for.” I honestly can’t even begin to unpack this nonsense. I guess he was implying that any attraction I felt for not-him meant a risk of me leaving him, but it didn’t occur to him to maybe not be a shitty partner.

In his mind, bisexuality was a threat to him and therefore he did everything he could to reduce its importance in my identity. If I wanted him to feel reassured that I wouldn’t leave him, I talked less about my sexuality. If the only acceptable way for him to accept my bisexuality was in a threesome I was unwilling to have, then I just didn’t bring it up. What seems obvious in retrospect as psychological abuse was, at the time, just what I needed to do to keep my husband happy and reassured of my commitment to him. 

His undermining of my sexuality tied back into his skewed expectation of monogamy: that he and he alone should have been all I needed. 

Relationship orientation

Again, I am not saying that monogamy is unhealthy or toxic. It can be extremely healthy and fulfilling. Just like polyamory or other forms of non-monogamy can be healthy or unhealthy. I’ve had healthy and unhealthy friendships, I’ve cut toxic and abusive family members from my life, and I’ve quit jobs with toxic bosses — any relationship has the potential to be healthy or unhealthy. 

I’ve found that there’s a spectrum of identifying as polyamorous, non-monogamous, etc. similar to sexual orientation. This doesn’t mean straight polyamorous people should have a unique space at Pride or that they remotely face the same struggles as queer people. Polyamory is not a sexual orientation, but it is a relationship orientation. 

You can feel called to a polyamorous relationship orientation as a very important part of your identity. You definitely need access to multiple relationships to feel romantically fulfilled, and it’s a non-negotiable aspect of your dating life. 

Or maybe you enjoy non-monogamy and don’t feel that monogamy is an inherent default, but if you connected with a partner who preferred to be monogamous you could enjoy monogamy as well. 

Whether you are non-monogamous by necessity and identity or you simply don’t default to monogamy, your relationship structure outside the norm of monogamy is valid. 

The healing power of non-monogamy

For me personally, being non-monogamous has been a critical piece of my recovery from abuse and trauma. Being ethically polyamorous is part of who I am now, and I won’t be changing that. Dating multiple people helps me level set the bar for behavior and treatment I accept, helps me stay true to my boundaries, and just feels really good because I’m allowed to make connections with whomever I want. 

I clearly communicate my expectations, desires, and limits with partners, and because I know love and affection is plentiful and available to me, I don’t settle for poor treatment or someone repeatedly ignoring my boundaries. To me, polyamory means that there are infinite opportunities to make loving connections. I no longer feel like I have to “lock somebody down” to make sure they stay interested in me,  or that I have to be everything my partner wants or needs, or that I have to limit myself to avoid making people lose interest in me. More love is around the corner, and if somebody doesn’t love me the way I like to be loved, I don’t have to change the way I need to be loved, I need to change who is doing the loving. 

Read more from me

If you enjoyed this post, you’ll be thrilled to know there’s a whole chapter on relationship structures including polyamory and relationship anarchy in my book, The Gaslighting of the Millennial Generation. Millennials didn’t invent these relationship types but we are fairly noisy about normalizing them. I’d love for you to let me know what you think of the book, so please give it a read and leave a review on Amazon. If you’re morally opposed to Amazon, I have some other links here.

You can also follow me on Medium and clap for this story to support me for the low low cost of your Medium membership.

I’ve also just set up a Patreon page which will get sneak peeks of upcoming topics, an opportunity for you to suggest topics, and additional Patron-only bonus content. Check it out, Patron levels start at just $1 per month to help support my writing.

 

A Surprising Number of Things Elton John and I Have in Common 

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0 of them are playing the piano.

When I saw the trailer for Rocketman, I instantly knew I’d see the movie when it hit theaters. In the mid nineties, my mother and I would trek from our small village of Seville, Ohio into the “big city” of Medina to do grocery shopping. Our soundtrack, more often than not, was Elton John’s Greatest Hits, a 1992 CD with Elton’s top songs from 1970 to 1974. This early start meant that I have loved Elton John from the time I was very small and have continued being a fan throughout my life. So I was extremely excited to see his story on the big screen, especially considering that I hadn’t put much time into getting to know the man behind the music. 

Here is the list of things I knew about Elton John before I saw Rocketman: 

  1. Elton John is gay 
  2. Elton John plays the piano 
  3. Elton John wears costumes and big glasses and rhinestones 
  4. Elton John is the MVP of Disney soundtracks, save for Phil Collins because Tarzan was 100% a gift 

Spoilers Ahead! 

The opening scene of Rocketman follows Elton walking down a long hallway in full costume dressed as a sequin-adorned devil. He bursts through the door… into a group meeting at a rehab center. After some questions about his childhood, which he insists was very happy, we see flashbacks to Young Elton who was emotionally abused by both of his parents.

The first interaction between Elton and his mother was her chastising him, saying “You’re late and I’ve had to throw your dinner in the bin” (I’m paraphrasing). This smacks of the time my mother told my sister that if she wasn’t home by 5 she couldn’t come on a car ride to drop me off at dad’s for the weekend — we passed her walking home at 5:01 and she was running for the car and crying. Mom didn’t stop. Or the time my sister and I ate popsicles while putting away groceries only to have our mother deny us a promised trip to the movies because we hadn’t finished our chores before eating them. 

Denied affection and love altogether by his father, and only conditionally loved by his mother, Elton John wanted nothing but to be loved as a child. Through the grace of one blood relative who cared, his grandmother, he was encouraged to take piano lessons and cultivate his love of music. Even as an adult, Elton was still searching for his father’s approval and his mother’s love. 

Now’s where it starts getting a little freaky. Well, it’s not so freaky. But I, too, was emotionally abused as a child and adult by my parents. Conditional love and constant striving for attention and validation was the name of my childhood and young adult game. I only cut my parents out of my life at age 30. So right away, Rocketman had me hooked because of this parallel between my own story and that of an artist I had adored my whole life. 

Saturday Night

Elton ages on screen through a choreographed sequence of “Saturday Night’s Alright For Fighting,” and this was the sequence in the film that first made me actually cry instead of just tear up. This song was my favorite to sing along with my mom in the car, and the juxtaposition of the upbeat song, the happy memories, and the truth of my emotionally abusive upbringing was overwhelming. Those memories of my mother are happy, and warm, and comforting. I loved listening to Elton John in the car with my mom. But my mother didn’t love me. And the grief of that was tangible while I watched this sequence in Rocketman. 

Elton’s mother was watching him perform. But did she care? Was she proud? My mother came to my choir concerts. But did she care? Was she proud? 

A Name Change 

Born Reginald Dwight, Elton desired a bit of a name change for his musical career. He borrowed both names, Elton and John, from bandmates. While in Rocketman, he appears to take inspiration from a photo of John Lennon, a fact check indicates that was more of a cinematic liberty than true historical fact. Which is a bummer, because if Elton John had selected his surname based on a favorite celebrity, that would be one more thing we have in common. 

As I left an abusive marriage (a nearly seven year relationship) and came to terms with my own abusive upbringing in childhood, I opted to select a completely new name rather than keep my married name or revert to my birth name. I chose Fisher, because without Carrie Fisher’s advocacy for mental health and medication, I likely would not have gone on the antidepressants that helped me see the abuse for what it was. Lexapro got me out of an abusive marriage. And Carrie got me on Lexapro. 

Serendipitous Encounters 

I was so happy to fact check and find out that Elton and lyricist Bernie Taupin actually did meet through complete serendipity. Elton said he couldn’t write lyrics, so a studio exec handed him a sealed envelope from a stack of songwriting applications. Inside were Bernie’s words. The duo hit it off and have been working together ever since. 

Here’s where this completely rocks my world: I have imposter syndrome. I feel like my writing career is a fluke. That my published book is a fluke. That an agent reaching out to me and a publishing company picking me up as an author are flukes. I’ve made jokes time and time again that Twitter got me a book deal and it was all a complete accident. 

But I’d never say that Elton John was an accident. And this guy happened to get a random pile of lyrics from someone whose words were perfect. 

You could say that it was by chance that Elton and Bernie met up and made music together. But the fact that Bernie writes good lyrics and Elton plays mad piano and can sing with such talent and conviction… that is not by chance. 

Just like my writing is not by chance. I may have had some good luck, some good things happen, some serendipity in the modern age. But I’m not an accident. 

Abusive Relationships 

Speaking of careers and the people who help them along, let’s talk about Elton’s manager and first boyfriend, John Reid. Doing a bit of research about the couple, it didn’t happen exactly as portrayed in Rocketman. In the biopic, Reid seems much more cunning and out for power from the get-go, when in reality, the two were lovers who lived together before becoming professionally entwined. Additionally, Reid has even said that he wasn’t particularly enthused about being Elton John’s manager at first. 

Over time, the couple broke up but Reid continued to manage Elton’s career and accounts until a falling out and a court case over financial issues. Reid also reportedly had a terrible temper and had a string of assaults, punching and slapping people when he was angry. 

Across several moments in the movie, Reid’s obsessive control of Elton’s career was extremely triggering for me. My abuser took credit for my writing career, because he introduced me to my first freelance client. But just as it’s no accident or fluke that I ended up published, it was no fluke that my writing was good enough to pay for. If I was a shit writer, that connection would have done no good. My abuser spent years undermining my confidence in my own work because he so often took credit for turning me into the writer I was. 

Queer As Hell 

Elton John came out as bisexual in 1976 and married his wife Renate Blauel in 1984. The couple divorced in 1988 as Elton came to terms with his identity as a gay man, and he is happily married to David Furnish since becoming a couple in 2005.

In the movie, when Elton comes out to his mother, she responds, “You’ll never be loved properly.” I do not doubt that his mother said these words to him at some point, if not when he came out. The words of my parents in our final conversations are as clear in my mind as they were on the days they happened. And they hurt. “You’re a sweet girl. Fucked up in the head, but sweet,” were some of the words my dad said to me in our second to last meeting. “You’ll have to explain what you mean by abuse, because that’s a strong word and can tarnish a man’s reputation” were some of his words the last time I saw him in person. 

The end credits roll in Rocketman with a photo of Elton and David and a caption that Elton is finally being loved properly. I will admit that I got a little teary-eyed.

I honestly don’t even know if my parents know I’m queer or not. I do know that they’ve both taught me about conditional love. My mom raised me telling me I’d never get a boyfriend if I ate like a pig, and she shamed my body at every opportunity. She had me on a diet by age 12 and is a huge factor in my decades-long battle with disordered eating. And I no longer care what she thinks of me, just like I hope Elton has long given up caring what his mother thought of him. 

Healing the Inner Child 

In an emotional and, yes, pretty cheesy finale, Elton hugs his inner child as a symbol of his healing now that he is in rehab. Earlier in the film, Young Elton asks his father, “When are you going to hug me?” but his father does not hug, touch, or hold Elton. In fact, Elton visits his father later in his life and sees his father holding and being physically affectionate with his new and improved sons in his new and improved family, which is such a moment of pure emotional pain from the film that it still affects me when I think about it. So at the movie’s close, the inner child appears in Elton’s mind and asks, “When are you going to hug me?” Cue me, crying like a baby, because Elton drops to his knees and grabs the child version of himself in an embrace that is nothing but unconditional love. (Pause, I need a moment). 

Healing my inner child, as hokey as it sounds, has been a huge part of my trauma healing. In EMDR therapy (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing), I target specific traumatic thoughts, such as “I am not allowed to rest,” and the therapy process allows me to associate memories with the thought. Memories attached to this target thought include my mother saying we were worthless for not cleaning, being punished with excessive chores, and generally not being allowed to sleep in or take a sick day from school when we didn’t feel well. If you had time to lean, you had time to clean. Removing the belief that I can only rest when everything productive has been finished has been a game changer for my mental and physical health. 

Long Story Short 

I bought some rhinestone-studded eyeglasses because we all deserve to be fabulous. Do something awesome today, and do something amazing for the child version of yourself.