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Dealing with Shame

08/27/2012

There’s shame and then there’s shame. Sometimes it’s okay and a good thing, sometimes not.

We have to deal with it, one way or the other.

Every one of us with a conscience has had the experience of feeling shame over bad behavior. We’ve done something totally inappropriate, or hurt someone else, or failed to do something we should have done, and we feel ashamed of ourselves. This can be quite healthy if – and this is a big if – it leads us to make amends and behave better.

If we simply wallow in the shame and continue to screw up, it can be drastically unhealthy.

And that leads me to another kind of shame – the unmerited, unhealthy kind of shame foisted on us by others or by circumstance. It can eat a person alive, and actually lead to bad behavior.

I just read a fascinating book, The Velvet Rage, by Alan Downs, Ph.D. In it he posits that all gay men are shamed – not only by the society we grow up in, but first and foremost by the simple fact of being different, no matter how accepting our parents and peers may be.

He contends that this fundamental sense of shame compounded by the shame of rejection, or perceived rejection, from the world around us is what leads to many of the unhealthy behaviors stereotypical of gay men – emotional extremes, inability or unwillingness to form long-lasting relationships, obsessive focus on physical appearance – you know the drill. This kind of shame can trigger bad behavior which can lead to more shame, and therefore to more bad behavior. It’s a cycle that can take over a life.

I don’t know that I agree 100% with Downs’ thesis and I can only speak for myself here, but I do know the shame of being different. It’s characteristic of every gay person I’ve ever talked to about his or her childhood. We all knew there was something different about us from our earliest awareness of self. We react to this in different ways, but in many of us it leads to shame – shame we can’t understand, or even recognize as such.

This was certainly true of me. And it was crippling, not only in matters of love and sex, but in all sorts of other human relationships – work, friendship, you name it. The sense of shame that pervaded my life colored and harmed everything I did or attempted to do. I felt unworthy of anything good happening to me, and at a very deep level, I was angry about it.

This kind of embedded shame isn’t the sort of thing you can just wish away. For me, and I think this would be true for most people, it required time and hard work in therapy to finally get free and accept myself. But recognizing it is a very important first step.

If  you haven’t been through therapy, I recommend reading The Velvet Rage. It may help you see yourself more clearly, and begin the process of freeing yourself from the straightjacket of shame. In the final chapter, Downs gives ten practical suggestions for overcoming shame-base behaviors. Practicing these alone will help you.

And if you have been through therapy, a little review never hurts. Despite all the progress I’ve made over the last six-plus years, reading this book was almost like holding a mirror up to myself, and shining light into corners I hadn’t looked into very deeply before. A good thing.

Regardless of who you are and where you are along the path, shame is something to look for and deal with before it does any more damage than it already has. I still wrestle with it, and likely will until my dying day.

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Exercise helps

07/06/2012

Exercise makes a body stronger. And more flexible, too. If that’s true in the physical sense, it’s certainly true of spirit and character as well.

I’ve written recently in this blog about late bloomers feeling like kids compared to men who have been out longer. About how we have to “grow up” again into a mature sense of who we are. Well exercise – in the form of getting out there are “being gay” – helps.

Like physical exercise, it makes you stronger – surer of yourself and able to withstand some of the negative blow-back that will likely come your way. Like physical exercise, it will make you more flexible – able to adapt to reality and deal with life as is comes at you.

And like physical exercise, it can make you hurt. But the more you do it, the sooner the pain goes away.

The exercise itself – the “being gay” part of it – goes a lot better if you have a clear sense of who you are and where you want to go with your new life. This is what I help guys with in my Re-branding for Late Bloomers program. It’s sort of like having a personal trainer. But, as with physical exercise – even when you have a trainer – in the end it’s up to you to just do it. Get the exercise you need, build those gay muscles and grow into your new life.

Not only, does gay exercise make you stronger, and help you get over being sore, the cool thing is, the more you do it the more fun it becomes.

There’s always some work involved, and there are going to be days you just don’t feel like doing it. Some days I literally have to drag myself to the Y in the morning. But I’m always glad I’ve done it, and the benefits are compelling.

It works the same way with gay exercise. Just writing this makes me want to go lift my gay weights. See you at the “gym.”

Lifestyle choice? Not!

06/23/2012

If you’ve been paying any attention at all during this political season, you have heard right-wing politicians and (so called) Christians carrying on about the evils of gay people and gayness. The volume reached a high point during the Republican presidential primary. Some of the justification for this bigotry centers on the idea that this is all about choice. Somehow we choose to be gay. Or, in their parlance, we choose “the gay lifestyle.”

And anyone who is gay, plus most people who are intelligent and fair-minded, know this is nonsense. We are born the way we are, and being gay is not a lifestyle.

And yet, for late bloomers, choice can be a bit of a slippery concept. The truth is, we have made a choice. We have chosen, finally, to live as gay men. Does this mean we are choosing “the gay lifestyle,” whatever that is?

Of course not.

Yes, we choose to come out and live out as gay men. That’s not the same thing as choosing a sexual orientation. It’s choosing to be honest – with ourselves and with the rest of the world.

But it’s not quite as simple as that. In order to be considered a late bloomer, one has to have made another choice first – the choice to hide. For whatever reasons – and the reasons are as varied as humanity – we chose to hide first, before we chose to be honest. So it’s really about two choices – one to hide and another to reverse that choice, and come out.

And furthermore, there’s this: even if it were a choice, there’s no such thing as “the” gay lifestyle. I assume that in the fevered dreams of the loudest homophobes (they sound almost envious) the “gay lifestyle” is one of endless parties, sex, and short-term – instantaneous, even – relationships. Total hedonism.

Well, that is certainly true of some. True of a certain slice of the straight population, too. But then there’s the rest of us. Our lifestyles are as diverse as we are. And our lifestyles are as normal – and sometimes as boring – as we are. Gay lifestyles are exactly like everyone else’s life styles, except the participants happen to be gay.

As late bloomers we need to stand up and be proud of ourselves and the choice we made. We have chosen honesty over lies, truth in spite of consequences. We choose to be out, not to be gay. One choice is admirable. The other impossible.

Gay Age vs. Calendar Age

06/12/2012

Late bloomers often have a problem with age. And it’s not simply the normal concern/chagrin over getting older, though that can certainly play a part here. It’s more a feeling of being out of synch. Not being where one is supposed to be at the age one is.

It can feel this way because coming out is (with apologies to my evangelical friends) like being born again. The old man has gone away and the new gay man has emerged. But, the new man is totally inexperienced.

Sometimes, that can make a guy feel like a five-year-old in a 45-year-old body. As one friend of mine puts it, “I just feel so incredibly juvenile in all this. Everyone else is in the fast lane, and I’m not even on the access ramp.” It’s enough to make a newly-out late bloomer shrink from the social activities and opportunities coming out affords him. The very things that will help him grow into gay adulthood.

So, a few thoughts on this …

One: These feelings are completely normal and natural. I certainly had them. Nothing to beat yourself up about. Roll with it.

Two: Don’t get paralyzed. You simply have to get busy and into your new life if coming out is going to be worth the effort and pain it costs. Stay in the house, and you might as well have stayed in the closet.

I know this can be scary. But it’s like learning to ride a bicycle, or skydive. The only way to do it is to just do it. Eventually you get the hang of it. Or, in the case of being a late bloomer who feels like a baby, eventually, you grow up.

Three: Don’t get carried away either. I’ve known a couple of late bloomers who went absolutely berserk with sex and partying. They had a tendency to make themselves look a little foolish and a lot juvenile. And after a while they got pretty burned out. Too much of a good thing is … too much.

So how do you walk the line between paralysis and hyperactivity? How do you “grow up” as quickly, but safely and sanely as you can?

Self-knowledge is key – knowing who you are, who you want to be and where you want to go. Know and accept the facts: You are gay even though you didn’t acknowledge it publicly (or even to yourself) for a long time; you are a youngster in your new life; and, there’s nothing unusual or wrong about this state of affairs. Work from that platform. Decide where you want to go with your new life and go there.

And right up there with self-knowledge is self-regard – absolutely essential to growing into your new life successfully. Love yourself enough to forgive yourself for past mistakes. Believe that you are worthy of a great new life. Believe it enough to go out and get it despite feeling like you’re in over your head.

Coming to self-knowledge and self-regard can be easier said than done. A good therapist and/or peer group helps. A solid spiritual connection helps. A community of gay friends helps, too. As does the simple fact of the passage of time.

There are other tools as well. I consult with late bloomers on redefining their personal brand so their new gay identity is clearly defined and poised for success.

All these things help.

But eventually the answers are up to you. It takes a little courage and a fair amount of practice. But you’ll get there.

Trust yourself

05/28/2012

It’s hard to trust someone who tells lies – even when that someone is yourself. If that sounds rather obvious at first glance, the idea isn’t always quite so clear when you’re hiding in the closet. And late bloomers have all spent some time doing that.

Hiding in the closet doesn’t necessarily mean just hiding from the rest of the world. In my case, and I think this is true for many of us late bloomers, I was hiding from myself.

For years, I made a concerted effort to understand myself and be honest. While I knew I was attracted to males, I knew – at least I convinced myself – that I was basically straight and should be living that way.

And yet …

Even when I was at my best, when business and marriage were going well, and all seemed right with the world, there was a nagging doubt, a shadow awareness that I was telling a lie. I had lived this way from the dawn of my self-awareness, and it created a life-long pattern of self-doubt.

Of course this was all operating totally in the background, but it was there nonetheless. And it had negative consequences that played out in every area of my life. If I was lying about something as fundamental as my sexual orientation, what else about me could possibly be true? Talk about a set-up for failure!

What’s the lesson for late bloomers, then?

First, when you acknowledge the lie and come out – both to yourself and everyone else – you have taken a tremendous step. And the pain and pressure relief can be utterly amazing. But it’s only the first step. Sometimes the task of living out is harder than the task of coming out.

Regardless of external circumstances – the degree of resistance or acceptance you receive from family, friends and colleagues, whether coming out fits with your faith tradition – self-doubt will hold you back. If it’s as deeply ingrained as my self-doubt, it can cause you to question all your choices.

So, what to do?

Learning to trust yourself after doing otherwise for a big chunk of your life, can be tough, but it’s possible and it always pays dividends. I still have to work at it, but when I get shaky, I go back to my big leap of faith for inspiration. I came out. I trusted myself enough to do that one thing, and because of it, life is better.

Even if your coming out was under difficult circumstances – you were outed, or you’re mired down in a rancorous divorce – you no longer have to lie about who you are. You no longer have to watch over your shoulder, afraid someone will figure you out. You are the true you.

Take that fundamental nugget of truth, celebrate it and own it, and you’ll be amazed what it does for your sense of self worth. When you are true to yourself – and to others – about who you are, you can trust yourself and build a whole new you. A you without the doubt.

A new life, a new brand

05/10/2012

After four years living out, and a couple of years blogging about it, it occurred to me that I might have something more concrete than my random ruminations, to share with men coming along after me on the path outward.

My topics on this blog have been pretty varied – spirituality, history, gay culture, not turning into a cat lady – but more than a few have dealt with what you  might call the “nuts and bolts” of  being gay  – how to live a successful gay life after coming out.

Some of these posts have approached, but skirted around, the idea of a personal brand.

Many of us who come out in mid life feel totally lost. I’m not who I thought I was, or who I said I was. Who am I now? It can be a pretty scary situation.

So, as a semi-retired marketer, I’m repurposing my marketing chops by offering counsel to guys who come out later in life on how to construct, or reconstruct, a personal brand, and live better and more confidently as an out gay man.

My approach is to apply basic branding and marketing principles to personal life.

In business, if you don’t define yourself – tell your own story, and tell it first – others will define you. As a community, gay people have historically allowed others to define us – usually in negative terms. Only in recent years have we begun to push back.

It works the same way on a personal level. Many of us allowed the fear and shame instilled in us by the rest of the world to define us and keep us in the closet. Coming out doesn’t mean all that fear and shame simply vanishes. It can linger and morph into all sorts of unhealthy feelings.

But if you embrace your true self, clarify your story, and tell it first, no one else can tell it for you and define you in negative terms. You can re-set your personal brand to one of clarity and confidence.

I’m offering to help late bloomers – guys like me – do just that through a new service I’m calling – appropriately enough, I hope – Re-branding for Late Bloomers.

Have a look at www.davidhpaine.com. And tell your friends.

Thanks!

Embrace fluidity

04/16/2012

 Or, beware of fixed ideas about who’s gay and who’s not.

Labels can be comforting, especially when you are unsure of yourself, a fairly typical state for late bloomers. Labels make the world more certain, more predictable. But they can also be confining.

Lately several friends – interesting friends who enjoy discussing life and how it works – have asked, in light of the fact that I was married twice, if I am certain I am gay. They wonder if maybe I’m really bi, as opposed to gay. That’s not a totally off-the-wall question. Nor does it hurt my feelings.

And it has caused me to do some thinking. What does the label “gay” really mean?

Now that I’ve been out to myself for five years, I’ve had a chance to unwind and relax into it. It’s been interesting to look back and reevaluate my path and where I’ve come to.

And, I’ve had the chance to talk to a lot of gay people – male and female – about how they view themselves and their gayness.

None of these individuals has taken precisely the same path, of course, and a surprising – to me, at least ­– number of them have played on both sides of the fence. And not just in an “experimental” adolescent or early adulthood phase, either. For some, this “bi” behavior has continued well into adulthood, despite their identifying themselves as gay.

On the other hand there are plenty of folks who have sex with others of the same gender and identify themselves as straight. Married folks who get a little same-gender sex on the side. Porn stars who do “gay for pay”. Straight men who do same-sex porn frequently cite money as a motivator. Men earn much more in gay porn than in straight porn, so if they can perform with a guy, why not? Does this make them gay? Or bi? Well, according to some of them, no. And who am I to say?

I can only speak for myself. And this much I know: I’m gay.

For me, this means I’m a man who loves men at the most fundamental level, a level that is much deeper than mere sexual desire. And I have always been this way.

As I’ve said before in this blog, gayness isn’t a matter of who you sleep with, but who you are. The fact that I slept with women exclusively when I was young, and that I got married twice doesn’t define my sexual orientation. It only means I was hiding it. True, I hid it from myself for a very long time, but it was there all along.

So, here’s the question: If I believed myself to be bi, and I identified myself that way, would it make any difference? Would I be a different person? Of course not. I’ve been “me” all along. Finally, later than most people do, I developed a clear understanding of who I am, and I put the clearest label on myself that I could: gay.

Again, I’m speaking for myself here. I have no right to speak for or about anyone else. As long as you’re honest with yourself and with everyone else, label yourself any way you want to. Call yourself gay. Call yourself straight. Or bi. Call yourself Shirley. I don’t care. And neither should anyone else.

Define yourself honestly. Yes, these are only words, labels, but words spoken in truth can be powerful. So, unfortunately, can lies.

And while you are being honest with and about yourself, embrace everyone else’s right to do the same. Don’t put too much stock in labels. Embrace the gray areas and fuzzy edges. Embrace the fluid nature of humanness.

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