I was teaching on a workshop yesterday for trans/queer/non binary people, reflecting on some experiences from my childhood that first gave me the message there was something wrong with me. We are not born with shame, we learn to feel bad about ourselves. And it takes a conscious effort to learn to love ourselves. In my talk I introduced the concept of minority stress. This is the experience of being a minority in a majority group and receiving the message that there is something wrong, inferior or not welcome about us. So many of the gay men I have worked with show the impact of this experience in terms of increased instances of mental health issues, addiction or low self-worth. If this is a new concept to you I recommend the article ‘The Epidemic of Gay Loneliness’ in Huffington Post which explores it in detail.
If what unites us as queer people is the feeling of having been a minority in our society, or even in our own home as we grew up, then what also unites us is the shared sense of shame and anger this can bring up. We try to prove ourselves, to be the best version of ourselves that we can. As a friend said a few days ago: “I tried to be the best I could be to make up to my mum and dad for disappointing them for being gay” but when they died, his life fell apart as he no longer knew who he was and had no reason from within to try to be his best self and instead spiralled into a self-destructive vortex of addictive behaviour.
His story is the story of so many of us. It may not be drugs or chem sex that we loose ourselves in, it may come out as being a perfectionist at work, trying to have the ideal ‘gay family’ to prove our worth, or feeling our body is never good enough and striving for just that little bit more definition, or rejecting the science as we feel another layer of minority stress for being judged to be not young enough, muscular enough, attractive enough, or fun enough to be valued. The result can be feelings or loneliness, inadequacy and feeling we never really know who we are and what we want just for ourself.
The Buddha said that to practice Loving Kindness we need to have a hand full of gold coins – a sense of love for ourself- and then we have plenty to give away. If our hand is empty then we have only the skin on our hands to give away.
Over this month I’ll be reflecting on self-care and self love. It’s not something I have the definitive answer to as I struggle with this as well. The sense of not being good enough, of messing up in friendships/relationships, of feeling a failure. But I do know I have this practice to come back to and that without my practice I would not have reached the age of 50 as some of the past struggles in my life felt so overwhelming I really did not want to live. But I found a way through. And as a result felt stronger each time.
The first thing to do to connect with this “hand full of gold coins” is to start practicing self-care meditations. Rather than blaming myself for my mishaps, turning towards myself as a good friend and achnowlerding that: “this hurts, this emotion feels hard to bear, and I’m here, I’m with you, and I love you”, at the same time resting my hands on my body and holding myself with kindness. This will release oxytocin and give a feeling of comfort at times of stress, helping the body shift from the fight/flight activation state of the sympathetic nervous system to the rest/digest recovery state of the parasympathetic nervous system.
It takes three minutes for the sympathetic nervous system to be deactivated, so a self care practice needs to be around 5 minutes minimum to help bring about this shift.