Reciprocity has been on my mind this week. It's the "Golden Rule" promise that you probably learned in grammar school: treat others as you would like to be treated. Or, if you were Ms. Durnan, my lovely 3rd grade teacher, "Do unto others as you would have others do unto you." She had that banner up on the wall in her classroom, wedged between the broken analog clock and the blackboard that was more green than it was black.
And it stuck with me; I've done my best to follow that rule my entire life. I go out of my way to be polite to people even if I don't get along with them. I put myself in other people's shoes and ask myself how I would like to be treated were I in their situation. I assess my tone and my internal, instinctual reactions to situations and wonder if it's appropriate to the scenario before I act on them. I've gotten really good at stifling my immediate thoughts and feelings toward people in order to give myself time to decide if that is the path I want to walk.
This all has some very obvious downsides; it's somewhat dishonest at times, it can lead to subtle manipulation, and it can result in putting others needs before your own. Like all things, Ms. Durnan's Golden Rule can become toxic and unhealthy if left unchecked.
This got me wondering: what does healthy reciprocity look like? It seems obvious, but reciprocity only works if all parties involved agree on what to reciprocate on, otherwise you end up in a one-sided relationship. If only one of you listens while the other talks (instead of taking turns), if only one of you pays attention to the other's needs, if only one of you makes decisions that takes the other into consideration, then there is no reciprocity. Any relationship without reciprocity will either dissolve quickly or it will end in an explosion of epic proportions with both parties walking away hurt and confused.
Lack of reciprocity can lead to feelings of worthlessness, insecurity, and confusion. When someone you value fails to show that they care through their actions, you start to wonder if you're unloveable or if you're the problem in the relationship. Are they not reciprocating because I've upset them? Did I do or say something wrong? It's the laziest form of gaslighting to not reciprocate someone's efforts and attention. It can also lead to exhaustion; doing all that heavy-lifting in a relationship will leave you with little physical, mental, and emotional energy. It can also lead to depression and memory-loss.
Reciprocity in a labor of love. It means watching a movie you're not all that interested in because you know how excited the other person is to see it (and how many times have they patiently sat through the many episodes of your favorite show just cause you asked them to binge it with you?). It means making a conscious effort to remember that they don't like mayo on potato bread but love it on rye. It means taking the time to read something they wrote because it's important to them. Reciprocity is showing up and making an effort because they show up and make an effort, and it's communicating the gratitude you feel for all the ways they show you how much you mean to them.
I love my family, but I hate familial obligations. Especially when I feel forced into them. When I do things for my relatives, they should natural and easy because there's a genuine desire there, and not like I want to rip my hair out in frustration every time I am expected to do something I don't want to do or be somewhere I don't want to be.
But putting down boundaries with family is tricky. You're seen as selfish for saying "no," despite all the times you've said "yes" or "okay, fine, whatever." Even when you have a legitimate reason to decline an invitation (My finals are coming up and I have to study!) or to say no to a favor or request (I'm not feeling well, and I don't have the energy to do this today.), and even when you are sincerely sorry you can't be more helpful, there's no way to say no without a healthy serving of guilt on the side, with resentment as your only dessert option.
I get excluded a lot from family functions, and I often wonder if that's my fault. Have I said "no" so many times that I'm simply forgotten when events are planned? If that were true, then why invite me to some events but not to others? Am I just not wanted around? Or do people jump to conclusions and assume I'll say no if I am invited and don't bother going through the trouble of communicating with me? It's probably a combination of all of it.
More importantly, do I even care that I wasn't invited, or do I just think I should be offended from all the times I've offended others by declining invites? If I'm being honest, I don't really care if I'm not invited to things. Sometimes, invitations don't feel optional; you're expected to be there if you're invited. Not getting invited takes the stress out of having to say no. I'm not trying to be a jerk here; I'm pretty introverted and interacting with people in social settings is not my idea of fun.
So when I don't get invited to events, my guard goes up because I just know I'm going to have to hear about why wasn't there later. "How can you get berated for not attending an event you weren't invited to?" you might be asking yourself. It's a question I've been trying to answer for years. That senseless berating is what really irks me. And anyway, why would I want to be somewhere I'm not wanted?
A few years ago, a cousin of mine got married and I wasn't invited to the wedding. I don't particularly love weddings and the timing of it didn't really work for me, so I was hardly devastated that I wasn't able to attend. My sister wasn't invited either, but she contacted the cousin and convinced her to let her attend. She told me I should do the same, but I refused. I know what goes into planning weddings, and they—quite literally— didn't have a place for me at the table. The only thing that hurt about that was that I actually liked this cousin; I thought she was fun, confident, and ballsy. I respected her, and I always felt like we got along. So, yeah, I was a tad surprised that I wasn't considered as a possible guest. Maybe her possible guest list was too long and I was just an unlucky soul who ended up on the cutting room floor? I gave her the benefit of the doubt, and decided it just came down to having to make choices like that. Weddings are expensive, after all.
(Side bar: I attended three weddings in the years prior, and none of them were relatives of mine. The lesson I learned is that people will make room for you if they value you enough to include you.)
It's become pretty clear to me over the years that my family isn't always the best support system. I don't blame them, however. I'm sure they have their reasons. After all, we all have childhood traumas that affect our behavior as adults and I know for a fact that everyone in my family is in dire need of therapy. I'm a lot more patient and nonchalant these days.
Beyond that, they have their own lives, and they are as selfish as they accuse me of being. Ironic, isn't it?
I don't really know what it's like to be angry. I'm slow to anger, to begin with, and I never learned how to express it without it being followed by guilt. I always regret the things I say and do in anger. Like so many, anger makes me cruel, petty, and vindictive. I don't like who I am when I'm angry, and I've convinced myself that anger, like hate, is a useless feeling. A remnant of our days of daily life-and-death survival situations. That surge of adrenaline from anger could save your life if you're backed into a corner and the only thing between you and a massive grizzly is a wooden spear.
I'm sure I'm butchering the timeline of human evolution, but you get my meaning.
So, I've become an expert at swallowing my anger, but that's not the healthiest option either. I suffer in silence and don't express how upset something is making me. When I try to communicate what I'm feeling without lashing out, it's as if I'm not taken seriously when I do. As if the lack of anger makes my feelings less valid. As if not being angry is a sign that I'm not actually as upset as I say I am.
My therapist talked to me about assertive communication; expressing your frustrations and needs in a firm but respectful fashion. I'm not very good at it. I gaslight myself into believing that I'm overreacting, or that I'm in the wrong. When I do try to defend myself, if the other person has their guard up their position starts to make sense and then I feel foolish for having gotten upset in the first place. It's like going into court certain that you did nothing wrong only to be proven otherwise by the opposing side, and now you're assuming the guilty verdict of a crime you know you didn't commit. Who would shoot themselves in the foot like that?
I have second-guessed myself and my feelings so many times. Do I want something because I want it or because someone has convinced me that I'm supposed to want it? Am I actually angry, or am I just taking things too personally? Are my triggers really that serious, or am I just too sensitive? Was my logic as sound as I first believed, or am I just not as smart as I think I am? Do I really consider that person a friend, or am I just too polite to say otherwise?
One can go mad with these thoughts constantly swirling in their mind. The truth is I'm terribly afraid of messing up. Of saying or doing the wrong thing. Of hurting someone's feelings. So I stay silent. And truthfully, I stay angry. I can only express my anger to someone who's not currently the cause of my anger, which is hardly fair to the innocent party.
And many times, those bottled-up feelings will rise to the surface and come out as tears. I make myself miserable trying to do right by everyone else. I am forever crying at how something someone said or did made me angry yet I feel powerless to do anything about it. Have you ever angry cried? It's a bizarre phenomenon, to say the least.
That's how you end up being a welcome mat, a dumping ground for everyone else's dirty shoes with no room for your own. And you're supposed to be okay with that because you're not an angry person.
(Sidebar: My father said that to me once. "Your mother and I didn't raise you to be an angry person." That's true. Anger is not a feeling I saw often in my parents growing up. I'm sure they felt it, but like me, they must have hid it well. I guess I get it from them? I had asked him if that meant I wasn't allowed to feel anger. He didn't have an answer for me.)
Then you get destructive and realize that the person you're the angriest at... is yourself. You're mad at yourself for being a pushover, for being too nice, for caring too much, for letting others take advantage of you and using your compassion to make themselves feel better about their own shortcomings and faults.
Is this how people destroy the good in others? By convincing everyone else that the only way to survive and persevere is to be as shitty and miserable as they are, and then creating a toxic Enviornment that ensures that you have no other choice?
If so, maybe anger isn't itself the problem.
Maybe we just need to redirect it to the right place. Maybe anger wouldn't be so useless if it was channeled safely away from people and into more constructive actions, like a red-hot lightning rod protecting your home in the middle of violent storm.
Have you ever been to a nude beach?
I have never been, but it's certainly an experience I'd be curious to have some day. Maybe on the French Riviera beside a loved one with a glass of wine... There's one major problem, however.
I don't love my body the way I should most days. I'm old enough now to appreciate the one body I'll ever have in this life and all the things she allows me to do. But it's difficult to shake the insecurities I harbored as a teenager thanks to he societal pressure to be either thing or curvy. It didn't help that I wasn't very girly as a teenager, and that was considered "unusual" for some reason. Looking back, I think I was just tryin not to grow up too fast. It was fruitless, of course; the world made sure I grew up before I needed to (a story for another day).
There was even peer pressure to present yourself a certain way, and we got it indirectly from one another and from the media we consumed. We inevitably—almost unconsciously— developed a metric to measure each other's level of attractiveness, and what followed was an unhealthy habit of comparing ourselves to each other using that metric.
Everyone wants to be thought of as attractive. And only by receiving that external validation will we ever feel truly beautiful and worthy of love.
That's the lie we all accepted at some point in our formative years, and it's an idea that is reinforced everywhere we go: billboards, commercials, social media, film and television. It's a deeply buried seed whose roots are near immovable and whose branches are far-reaching. And for many, it's a tree no lumberjack can ever cut down.
I haven't cut down my tree yet, but I have started trimming its branches. The insecurities are there, but I refuse to let them outgrow me, because insecurities can spread and infect all areas of our lives. We may start to feel insecure about our bodies as well as who we are as people. That affects our relationship with ourselves and with others, and it can lead to self-destructive behaviors and habits. Or worse: it can lead to stagnation.
I haven't found the cure for insecurus demitritus, but I do know this: they never fully go away except in moments when we don't require external validation to love ourselves.
And that is a giant oak of an obstacle for so many of us.
But even a giant oak was once a fragile sapling.
My cousin just had her baby shower, and it's made me realize my very deep-seated fears about parenthood. This cousin is really more like my younger sister. We're very different, and we didn't always get along. She came to America when she was 12 years old; I was 4 when I arrived. She remembers enough of life on the island to not fully love life in America, whereas I was raised here and don't really know anything else. That's how we ended up clashing heads in the beginning. I learned from observing the may immigrants in my family that it's really easy to get caught up in the cycle of dead end job after dead end job because what they get here is more that would ever have in Cuba. So, there's a tendency to settle, especially if you're older and haven't learned enough English yet to believe education a possible route. So when she got to us, I was trying to lead her down a different path; she was young enough that I thought she could learn enough English to finish high school and get some kind of an education. She did learn to speak English, but college was not a path she was that interested in. This is just one of the many ways we're very different from one another.
My sister is confident in her own skin, incredibly social and something of a party animal, and fearless when it comes to saying what's on her mind and expressing exactly how she feels. I struggle with my self-image most days, my idea of a party is a potluck with 10 of my closet friends, and I have a terrible fear of confrontation. I think we grew to admire each other's differences and strengths rather than be jealous and competitive. So, despite these differences and despite a rough start, she and I grew close. We bonded over how disrespected we felt because we wanted different things that what our family wanted for us. We bonded over how much we both simply wanted to be our own person. After some time had passed and some maturing on both our parts, we became closer than sisters and learned to rely on each other and we learned to support each other no matter what.
When she became pregnant, I faced my greatest challenge as her sister. I knew exactly how I would have handled that situation because I was in her shoes once. But remember: we're very different people. She wanted to be a mom so badly; it had come up often during our many conversations. I wanted to shake her and tell her she was being ridiculous, that she was too young to be a mom, that I wasn't sure the father was someone she would want to be with for the rest of her life. I thought of all the reasons that stopped me from becoming a mom myself when I was even younger than my sister is today.
But I didn't. I simply told her to consider all her options carefully, but that at the end of the day it's her life, her choice, and I would support her no matter what. It wasn't, after all, my call to make, and my sister never needed anyone to tell her what she wants.
I have spent the better part of the past decade feeling conflicted about ever having children of my own. It's not that I don't like children; I'm a teacher and interact with them constantly. They're the best part of my job; sometimes, they're the best part of my week! And I find babies absolutely precious. No, my reasons range from practical to feminist rhetoric.
For a long time, my number two reason for not wanting children (number one being the cost of raising a child on top of the cost of living compared to our stagnating salaries) was the light it shed on how society at large—and more specifically, my family—views motherhood. It's the single greatest thing a woman could do with her life. It seemed to me that it didn't matter what I accomplished for myself; my family would never show me any proper respect until I had a baby.
And I know this because I distinctly remember visiting another cousin of mine while my mother was in town. We were all in my cousin's living room; my mom, my aunt, my grandmother, my cousin, and me. I can't remember what my mother was talking about, but she had them all very interested in what she had to say. They were quiet, rapt with attention, rarely stopped to ask questions. And I just remember thinking, "Damn, what do I have to do to get them to listen to me like that?"
And it hit me; they're all bonded by their shared experiences as mothers. They listen to my mom because they respect her, because she's a mom like they are. It's a reality they can all empathize with, something I lack. I am very much a black sheep: I'm more American than I am Cuban, I speak near perfect English, I like things like video games and horror movies (style considered a very "male" interest), I'm twice college-educated, and at almost 30 years old, I am neither married nor a mother. These are not experiences that most of the women in my immediate family can relate to.
Ever since, I have actively rejected motherhood. The entire process of pregnancy and labor terrifies me (and I've heard some horror stories, both from people I know and on the news), but the societal pressure to be a mother is something I also reject. However, I realized that I also carry so much anxiety when it comes to raising a child.
What if I'm not ready?
What if there's something medically or neurologically wrong with my child; will I be able to rise to the occasion and be the mother that child deserve?
What if I have a daughter and she inherits my PCOS?
What if I'm a bad mom? What if I fuck it up and my kid hates me?
Worse still: what if I fall in love with my child only to lose them tragically? This is the one that stops me cold every time. I think that would break me, and my heart goes out to any parent who has ever had to deal with the unimaginable loss of their child.
I know it's silly and somewhat macabre to be afraid of something that hasn't happened yet, but that is the very definition of anxiety. I am forever thinking of worst-case scenarios, as a defense mechanism so I can prepare for them.
But how does one prepare to raise a neuro-divergent child? How does one prepare to continuously mold themselves to be whatever that child needs from moment to moment? How does one prepare to carry the weight of the sacrifices they will make for their child for the rest of their lives?
There is no preparing for that, and I am terrified of completely failing as a mother. Failure has always been my greatest fear, but at least my failures today only affect me (for the most part). As a mother, every failure puts my child at risk, and that's a risk I am so unprepared to take.
Not yet, anyway.
Grief is a word we use to describe the terrible anguish that comes with a loss. And of course, there's no grief quiet as heart-wrenching as that of the loss of a loved one. That feeling can make even the strongest people crumble to their knees in despair. But there is no grief without love; grief is an unfortunate byproduct of the love we feel for others when we can no longer express our love through words or through touch.
But there are many losses we can grieve, losses we don't talk about in the context of grief because nothing could possibly compare to the absence of someone we hold dear in our hearts. That's the folly: the need to compare one type of grief with another. The fear of feeling like one person's grief somehow makes a mockery of another's. We need to learn to shed that need to compare because all grieving is valid.
You're allowed to grieve the loss of a job, or an opportunity, a friendship, or the loss of someone's love and companionship that comes at the end of a relationship. All of those losses are gut punches that leave us feeling like we're less than or unworthy. The only cure for grief is time.
The most difficult part of grieving are all the little reminders. Everywhere you look, there's something to remind you of what you lost. Their favorite color. A movie you never got to see together. The brand of detergent you always washed your clothes with. A shirt you think they would have loved. A word they often used. A song.
And then there all the changes that come with that loss. A new routine. One less person to speak with. There's no one else who would have appreciated that joke. Those are reminders, too. All those reminders can be overwhelming, and all of a sudden you're standing in the laundry aisle of an unfamiliar store crying over a bottle of Tide.
We must look crazy to the rest of the world.
It sounds bleak, but with time we become accustomed to the absence of what we lost. With time, we learn to accept what happened and to accept that there's no turning back the clock. Hopefully, we learn from the loss and grow. We learn to express our love more openly and more freely because that love may not always be there. We learn to accept our own contribution to that loss (that's a tough one for many). And, if we're doing the work, we learn to adapt and thrive rather than just survive in our new realities.
There's no escaping grief. We all experience it at some point and to some capacity. Someone of us carry our grief with us whenever we go. Others still try run from it, thinking themselves unaffected. Stop running, love. It's gonna catch up with you sooner or later. And that's okay.
There's no preparing for it, either, much to our chagrin. But there's no avoiding it.
To live without grief is to live without love, passion, and warmth.
So cry over that bottle of Tide if that's what you need. The moment will pass, and you'll be okay.
Until the next moment comes. And the next. And the next.
They come like waves, ebbing and flowing. But eventually, the time between moments.of grieving will grow further and further apart, and the grief will lesson.
And then—eventually—you'll stop crying over Tide bottles in unfamiliar stores.
There's a finality to sunsets that has always stirred strong emotions in me. Sometimes it's the relief that a difficult day has come to an end. Other times, it's gratitude that I was able to see the end of another day. I know it's cliche, but every sunset could be your last, right? Occasionally, I'll smile at the sunset, and use the quiet to commit the day's events to memory; sad because it's over, but appreciative that it happened.
This was the final sunset of May, 2021, and it did something that few sunsets have done for me. It signaled a beginning rather than an end.
Over the past several years, I have come to understand and accept that I am not the well-adjusted adult I convinced myself I was in my early 20s. Like so many of us, I have issues. It's a familiar story to many, I'm sure: childhood trauma manifesting itself into questionable adult behavior. These behaviors have the pesky habit of affecting our relationships with those in our lives, and try as we might, we social animals crave the company, love, attention, and approval of others. We may distance, ghost, fight, and detest select humans, but at the end of the day we need each other. That's normal, but if left unchecked it can turn toxic and harmful.
This is my journey into understanding my own mental process and the emotions that come with that. This is my journey into finding the healthiest ways to cope and overcome that which does my serve the evolution of my higher self. This is my journey into mental health.
I'm starting this blog because my story and my experiences might help others. But I'm also doing it to help me; journaling has always helped me. It allows me to purge my thoughts when they become too negative or intrusive. It allows me to purge my feelings when they overwhelm me to the point that I can't function. Finally, it allows me to record the moments when I struggled so that I can look back and be grateful for the struggle, because struggling means I'm doing the work. So many people live with their trauma, letting it fester like a wound and slowly kill them without them ever knowing or accepting that something was wrong with them all along.
I'm not a licensed psychologist or therapist (though I will be linking articles and posts when appropriate). I'm just a writer, and I have a journey to share. I hope you find something useful or insightful as I document this journey, and I hope you share yours, too.