The inner tyrant of low-self worth can feel so true, but it is only an opinion in our mind. We can reflect: “thoughts are not facts”, or say to ourselves “it’s just a story” as we then hold our experience in an open and non-judgmental and kind awareness. Feeling into our body to notice where we feel the sensations associated with the thoughts. Breathing into this place and creating a space around it so that it can be held.
As gay men we may have been impacted by growing up in a culture that did not assert our worth. Becoming aware of how this has impacted on us and how we can bring healing to these wounds is part of our process of deepening our self-awareness.
To help with this deepening self-awareness and in the spirit of the advice from the Delphic Oracle to “know thyself”, I recommend three sources for information and reflection:
The propaganda of your inner voices is not who you are
Last week I had a message from a friend saying he was feeling down. He’s someone who I have always respected and think of as funny, compassionate, kind and intelligent. Looking at him he is attractive and my own inner critic tells me he will have no problems attracting a man unlike me. But he was writing from a place of struggle. His inner demon of self-doubt had convinced him he was a failure, no good and was sure to fail or be rejected in love.
He emailed me to say he was down and explained why he had had to cancel a meeting we had a few days perviously to have lunch and a catch up. In response I replied by saying what I value about him, and that I know how hard it is to hear that and believe it, the inner voice of self-doubt telling us we are no good whatever others say to us, feeling we know the real us and just how much of a failure we are. Part of my reply is below:
“But just know the inner tyrant in your head does not say the truth. That the propaganda of your inner voices is not who you are. But from my experience I also know that feeling shit about myself feels so true and is so much easier to believe than all my friends telling me my strengths. I really don’t feel it. I just feel like it’s an act I can put on for everyone and then in the loneliness of my room I feel the real me, the despair, the fear of ever being able to connect and be wanted by another.”
“I know how it feels! And the feeling it is just too much to go out, to meet, the wish to retreat into my room, my bed, preferring casual hook ups rather than the risk of a real connected relationship…..the way we sabotage ourselves to prove the inner tyrant right.”
And it can feel like that. As if others don’t really see us, that we are the failure our mind tells us we are. Some are more fortunate, their early conditioning and family messages gave them a feeling of self-worth and belief in their abilities. Others received less positive messages, like the little boy I read of recently who ran home to his mother so excited to get good grades. On showing her she told this 7 years old: “don’t think you’re so important and special!” and that planted a gremlin in his head that he only was able to expel years later in therapy when he remembered that this was when he made a decision to play small and never appear proud. What he didn’t know as a boy was his mother had mental health issues that made her unable to offer the full emotional support he needed, but instead he took the blame on himself.
The propaganda machine of the mind
It is as if there is a propaganda machine in our mind, spewing out false statements that after being repeated enough times we begin to believe: I’m ugly, I’m stupid, I will never find happiness, life is too hard…….and we learn to live within the narrow confines of a prison of our own mind, what Blake calls the “mind foraged manacles” that keeps us shackled to our limiting self-beliefs.
How then do we release ourselves from this prison made by the mind?
Ever since I heard this phrase associated with the Oracle at Delphi I have had a sense that one aspect of healing is to be able to recognise what is the underlaying dysfunction that is currently out of awareness but can be brought into awareness through reflection, learning and attending to the experiences of our life.
As my reply to my friend indicates, I am familiar with this inner tyrant, and can easily fall back into a place of retreat where it feels too much to face life. I remember this first coming on as a teenager, and my mother has told me that she was concerned as I went from being a lively and cheerful boy to an introspective, quiet and anxious teen. Of course, our teens are always times of transition and challenge and hyper sensitivity to what others think of us! But I definitely link my loss of ease with the onset of puberty, and the sudden realisation that I was not feeling what the other boys felt. As a pree teen I used to play with the girls, joining them in their skipping games and left the boys to play foot ball. It seemed fine. But with puberty and the growing awareness of sexual attraction suddenly I was aware I was not feeling what they felt. As they became interested in the girls they had previously ignored, my interest turned toward them!
Alan Downs has explored this so well inThe Velvet Rage, the shame and fear we feel as we realise we are different. Then there was the fantastic article by Micheal Hobbes, ‘The Epidemic of Gay Lonliness’ where he introduced me to the term ‘minority stress’. Concepts have power as they allow us to make sense of what was previously unnamed. The concept of minority stress is based on the observation of people who are a minority within a social group. Being marginalised creates a feeling of isolation and stress, and for gay teens it can be even more intense, especially for those of us who grew up in a pre-internet age where we felt ourselves to be a minority of one. The result was an experience of our teens as a time of intense fear: who am I, is what I am acceptable, how do I fit in, who can I trust, how can I be safe, why am I so different, why do I not feel at ease, where is my tribe?
To quote from the article:
“For gay people, the effect is magnified by the fact that our minority status is hidden. Not only do we have to do all this extra work and answer all these internal questions when we’re 12, but we also have to do it without being able to talk to our friends or parents about it. John Pachankis, a stress researcher at Yale, says the real damage gets done in the five or so years between realizing your sexuality and starting to tell other people. Even relatively small stressors in this period have an outsized effect—not because they’re directly traumatic, but because we start to expect them. “No one has to call you queer for you to adjust your behavior to avoid being called that,” Salway says.”
Our fear can be that we will be caught out. I remember that as a teen it felt that I had to start living behind a mask. I became an actor. I acted the part of a straight teen, but had no idea how I should do it. All it meant was desperately trying not to show my interest in the other boys. The torture of the sports locker room – surrounded by the boys I found so desirable in the shower yet fearing that any sign from me of interest in them would bring down their scorn. Desperately trying to kill the hard on that was only a second away from exposing my secret.
The article addresses this when the author says:
“This is how I spent my adolescence, too: being careful, slipping up, stressing out, overcompensating. Once, at a water park, one of my middle-school friends caught me staring at him as we waited for a slide. “Dude, did you just check me out?” he said. I managed to deflect—something like “Sorry, you’re not my type”—then I spent weeks afterward worried about what he was thinking about me. But he never brought it up. All the bullying took place in my head.”
“The trauma for gay men is the prolonged nature of it,” says William Elder, a sexual trauma researcher and psychologist. “If you experience one traumatic event, you have the kind of PTSD that can be resolved in four to six months of therapy. But if you experience years and years of small stressors—little things where you think, ‘was that because of my sexuality?’—that can be even worse.”
PTSD and the impact of constant stress as a teen
The article suggests that many of us who have grown up gay have experience the equivalent stress to growing up in a war zone and have PTSD. And then we come out…and close the door on this painful past and try to burry it. But as Jung says: “what we resist persist, what we fight we get more of”. Pushing away our fear of not being accepted, we come out and try to find a new identity that will be loved: fabulous, funny, successful. We hide any sign of inadequacy. Yet we fear we are not good enough. The gay scene can become a cause of stress, as we worry about fitting in, being accepted or finding love. We bring the symptoms of PTSD into our adult life:
1. Avoidance and emotional numbing– the tendency to try and escape anything that reminds you of the trauma. Leaving our teenage self behind as we embark on being out and proud, but secretly still fearing we are not good enough. Some people attempt to deal with their feelings by trying not to feel anything at all. This is known as emotional numbing and can lead to the person becoming isolated and withdrawn.
In gay men this can manifest as being unable to feel deeply or respond to another’s expressions of love, preferring anonymous meetings for sex or feeling overwhelmed when another man shows real affection. An example given in the article is of one man saying to his partner “I love you” and the other responding “And I love ice-cream”, witty, sassy and sharp – but also a way of avoiding real intimacy and feeling.
2. Hyperarousal(feeling ‘on edge’) Someone with PTSD may be very anxious and find it hard to relax. They may be constantly aware of threats and easily startled.
- angry outbursts
- sleeping problems (insomnia)
- difficulty concentrating
- other mental health problems – such as depression, anxiety or phobias
- self-harming or destructive behaviour – such as drug misuse or alcohol misuse
- other physical symptoms – such as headaches, dizziness, chest painsand stomach aches
PTSD sometimes leads to work-related problems and the breakdown of relationships.
If you recognise any of these it may not mean you have PTSD, but if there are a lot of these that resonate then it may indicate PTSD is having an impact. As a community we are more likely than straight men to have high instances of drug or alcohol dependencyand a larger percentage of gay men smokethan straight men – all of which are ways of self-medicating for the symptoms of hyper arousal. There are more instances of mental health problems among gay men. This is explored in detail in Mathew Todd’s book ‘Straight Jacket’ which looks at the issue of gay shame and how to live a happy and healthy life. None of this is to say there is anything in itself wrong with being gay, but that the impact of growing up in a culture where we were told we were wrong makes it more likely we use these coping strategies to deal with the impact on us as adults.
Healing through awareness
This brings me back to my friend and my own struggles. I remember as a teen looking in the mirror and wishing I were not so ugly. I really felt an intense sense that I was too ugly for anyone to ever like. When I look back at photos of myself as a teen I see a cute, attractive young man – shy, and very insecure, but not at all ugly. If my inner judge was so wrong then, why should I believe he is any more right now when he tells me I am a failure, will never succeed and all the other criticisms he throws at me.
Mindfulness practice will not in itself resolve this. It is like a torch, that allows me to shine a light into the dark, and instead of having the monsters screaming in my ear I can take a step back, reflect, challenge and question the opinions that my self-critical mind is so keen to throw at me. Mindfulness allows me to know that I am not my thoughts and allows for the reflection: “thoughts are not facts”. Mindfulness gives me room to breathe, to step back from the turmoil of the ego mind and rest in to a more open and compassionate space of kind awareness. When I am no longer at war with myself I can instead hold the pain, the fear and the insecurity and bring love to it. Rather than see this as proof of my failure and desperately try to reject it or run from it, I can instead turn towards it and face it.
To return to the boy I mentioned earlier who’s mother told him not to be so proud when he got good results. In his therapy session he realised that since that day a part of his mind had criticised him if he felt good about an achievement, and that it was doing it to keep him safe, to ensure his mum would never again be angry with him or risk loosing her love. As an adult he could thank this child’s coping strategy for trying to keep him safe, but also clearly tell it “it’s ok, you don’t need to protect me now” and recognise instead that it was ok to allow himself to feel good about his achievements.
The first step to freeing oneself from these old stories is to find a way to name them through opening to what our particular wound may be. Reading books like The Velvet Rage, Straight Jacketor articles about gay well-being like The Epidemic of Gay Lonlinessmay open you to a deeper awareness of yourself. Then having seen into ourselves more deeply have this heard by a good friend, therapist or spiritual teacher – someone who will see you as the beautiful being you are and not judge you in any way. Someone who will hear you and then affirm that you are still loved for being you. What I find is that as I trust to reveal myself to others, I find I am not alone, as they so often share similar experiences. Obviously you need to find someone who can hold this and won’t bring their own wounding to the conversation and invalidate what you say. For some this means needing to trust a therapist, others may find they have friends they can open to.
Bringing a kind Compassionate Attention to our struggle
As you recognise that these self-critical thoughts are an opinion of the mind, not truth, one useful reflection from the 8 week mindfulness model I teach is to meet these thoughts with the reflection: “thoughts are not facts”, or to say to oneself “it’s just a story” as we hear the old soap opera of self-loathing in our head. Then take a step back from the thoughts and let them pass, each time they take hold again repeating the same phrase as a way of separating from the sense of the thought being us. Instead it is mental energy that arises and can be allowed to pass. As part of this also feel deeply into your body and locate where you feel it when these thoughts occur, and turn your full attention to the sensations in your body in this place, breathing into this area, breathing out, and creating space around them to hold the sensations as they are – not trying to get rid of them, but simply to feel them, allow them space and allow them to shift and change in whatever way they need to.
Ajahn Chah once said we need to cry deeply in our practice before we find release. The things we never wanted to feel, which are frozen in our body, as they come to the surface we will experience them again with all the original fear – the difference now is we are not a teen or child who fears they will destroy us, we are adults who can hold the difficulty or even see that it is not our difficulty at all – as the man could see that it was his mothers mental health issues that made her unable to respond to his eagerness to show his good results to her with praise. He was never wrong for having shown this excitement, but he had lived his life believing he was wrong if he felt good about himself. Finally he could let go of this bit of false propaganda through feeling and seeing it clearly.
Over the coming weeks I’ll continue with this theme of how we can love ourselves more deeply. Some of this may resonate and give you something to reflect on, and if you do not recognise your self here, you can invite some gratitude for your good parenting that has given you a strong sense of self worth – whilst recognising that for others around you this is their daily experience.