I’ve been re-reading The Velvet Rage recently. It’s a very powerful read. In it Alan Downs talks of how as a child we learnt to hide a part of ourselves that society or family told us was unacceptable. More than just hide this part we came to believe that it was deeply flawed, dirty or wrong. What we learnt to hide was our sexuality and anything associated with it, such as behaviour seen to be effeminate or not suitable for a boy.
From the belief this part of myself is wrong we then reach a point where we feel “I am wrong”. And this can lead to a life time of mental health issues and struggles with intimacy – how do two men who feel that in their core they are wrong find a way to show themselves to one another and fully open to the love the other offers?
I remember one man talking about his experience of being at school. He used to love playing with the dolls, and would rather have brushed their hair and dress them than play football, but the ridicule he got from the other boys meant he had to hide this and go out to play football instead. In the Velvet Rage Alan Downs describes this behaviour as ‘splitting’. When we ‘split’ who we really are and what we want for ourselves is different to what we present to the world and the actions we take.
Downs says that in the first stage of growing up gay this tendency to split is highly active. We may date women, we may even marry a woman in the desperate urge to hide who we really are. We may even hide who we are to ourselves. As a teenager I could never acknowledge that I found men attractive and when I had a sex fantasy I had to imagine a man and woman together and secretly, inside even the privacy of my own head, peep at the man without truly acknowledging that I desired him.
Hiding Our True Self
As a result of this splitting and hiding our true self, any praise we get for our achievements rings hollow and does not give any satisfaction. As Downs says “validation can only work for an authentic self”. The result of this self denial and burying of our authentic self is anger. Anger at ourselves. Anger at the part we feel is wrong and bad. We are caught in shame, the belief a part of myself is wrong, the belief my sexual identity is evil, bad or dangerous. As a result of this shame we can easily overreact to anything that is felt to be invalidating. A man we date does something we feel does not show us respect and we grow furious with him. A boss criticises our work and we quit the job, a junior team member does something not in line with our instructions and we are brutal in our criticism of them.
Downs outlines in the last part of the book how to return to our authentic self. The first part of returning to our authentic self is moving from stage 1 which is denial, into stage 2 where we come out and start to let the world see us as we are. But we can still be caught in shame in stage 2 and it is only when we move into stage 3 that we start to come to a greater sense of peace. In stage 2 we may still overreact to any sense of invalidation, we may seek to avoid the shame and overwhelming feelings by addictive behaviour both through sex, drugs, shopping or work. We have not yet met the core of shame that caused us initially to hide our true self and so deep inside us we feel the rage that we cover with the velvet glove.
I’ve just started reading the chapters on stage 3 and how to cultivate authenticity, so will share more about that in the next email
As I was reading these chapters I saw a news report about a professional Australian football player who has just come out. Watching his coming out video and an interview I was so struck by how Josh’s experience is so in line with what is discussed in the Velvet Rage.
Josh felt he had to make a choice between being openly gay or being a football player. He saw no-one like him in the professional football world and felt he was alone. For 6 years he tried to hide his gay identity from everyone around him as he got into professional playing and he talks of the impact this had on his mental health, how he felt he was in a constant state of tension to hold up this false self he was presenting to his friends and team mates. Instead of being able to focus on the game he was worrying about what to say in the locker room after the match to keep the pretence in place.
His story also illustrates the impact of minority stress. The feeling of being alone in the world with no-one like me. And his coming out is such a powerful antidote to this – allowing young gay boys and teens to see that there are men like them who can be open and honest about who they are. In another interview there are clips of his team mates giving him a hug after he has come out to them. It is one of the most moving things I’ve seen as I so resonated with his fear that he would be ostracised and rejected by his team mates if he were to ever be open about his sexuality.
Here is Josh Cavallo in his own words, letting the world know who he is.
In the video below Josh talks of how he felt hollow when he received an award. He felt that the award was not for him. This is exactly what happens when we live with a false self. Downs talks of our need for validation, but how when this validation or praise is for a self we know is false then it can never make us feel good because we know that the person being praised is not us.
I’m so happy to see the sense of relief and openness on Josh’s face as he talks and I really hope he can inspire others who may have felt they have to hide themselves. I also hope he will get all the support he needs and he has the love and care that may be required for the times any one offers a more hurtful response to his coming out.