Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Thought for the Day, #56

Here is one of my favorite quotes from Alan Downs's The Velvet Rage: Overcoming the Pain of Growing Up Gay in a Straight Man's World (which I highly recommend, by the way):

I am a man.  I need to be loved.  I need to love myself.  I need to feel strong and to cry.  I need to feel alive and to grieve my losses. I need to know that there is someone in this world who truly loves me.  I need to love someone.  I need a safe, stable and committed home.  Truth is, I need all these things much more than I need great sex [p.p.: 22, 23].

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Reprise: Step #5, How to Love Yourself When You're Gay–Believe in Yourself (Conclusion)

The Story So Far:  In Part One of this series, we covered how recognizing the problem of having low self-esteem is critical to improving it.  Frankly, if you don't see your self-esteem is low and needs to be raised, you'll probably never do anything about it.

In Part Two, we talked about living consciously, particularly as it relates to working on learning to love yourself.  If, as you work on raising your self-esteem, you continuously fall back into the same pattern of self-loathing--because you don't know you're doing it--any chance for improvement will be compromised.

In Part Three, we discussed the need to move from having the best intentions to taking action. It's not enough to want to improve your self-esteem, to want to learn to love yourself; you have to be motivated to follow through on the steps you'll need to take in order to achieve that goal.

In Part Four, we reviewed how difficult, but important, change is, particularly when working to improve self-esteem, and a number of suggestions, or baby steps, were offered to help you start to change the perception you have of your self-worth, which is at the root of self-esteem.

Step #5:  Believe in Yourself

If there's one thing I learned for sure in the process of improving my self-esteem, it's how much work was involved, and how long it takes.  My intentions were good from the beginning, because I knew I needed to do this work on myself.  But that didn't make the job any easier.  

Plenty of times, I was frustrated because I thought I had it…and then I didn't.  Just when I let my guard down, I said something negative about myself again.  Even today, I catch myself saying, "You stupid idiot," when I've done something that disappoints me. Hopefully, that's when the concept of living consciously kicks in again--when I prevent myself from going any further, and when, if I have the presence of mind, I try to say a positive affirmation to replace the negative one I just uttered.       

Especially at first, the work involved in raising self-esteem can seem daunting, and the temptation to slide back into old behavior patterns greater than ever. Think about it.  For many years, you've accepted negative comments tossed at you, either directly or indirectly (many from yourself), because you thought you had no choice or, worse, because you believed deep down you deserved them.  Even when people weren't talking about you, I bet you thought they were.  It's become second nature to feel badly about yourself, to deride and insult yourself, and to accept all of it as the truth.  

So how long do you think you'll need to stop the negative talk, to repeat positive affirmations, to stop inappropriate comparisons to other people, to do nice things for yourself, and to take the focus off you and do something nice for someone else–how long do you think you'll need to keep doing all those things before you turn the tide of negativity you've directed at you all these years?  And to start your way back up the mountain again, where you firmly belong?  A few days?  A few weeks?  A few months? Honestly.  You'll be at this a long, long time.  

But it won't be at its most challenging forever, only at the beginning, as you work to turn a long-term, dysfunctional routine into a positive, reaffirming one.  Every day you remain on the track to building your self-esteem is another successful day of tearing down the past and building a solid foundation for the future.  It's also one day closer to achieving your goal.      

You'll get stronger as you go along.  The new reel that will play in your head may not always repeat positive affirmations over and over, but at least it won't be filled with the tripe you tell yourself now.  You will break yourself of the habit of comparing everything in your life to someone else, you'll learn to do nice things for yourself naturally, for no particular reason, just because, and you'll recognize the value you have to those who are most important in your life.      

You'll get to the point where you don't need to wait for someone to say something nice about you to feel good about who you are.  You'll be able to say something nice about yourself--and believe it.  And that will reinforce all the good things you've come to know are true about yourself.        

And so, not only am I asking you to take this journey and to believe in the process of improving your self-esteem, but also I'm asking you to believe in yourself, and in your ability to make this significant change in your life.  You can do this; I know you can.  If I can do it, so can you. Anyone can.  And, as we covered before, only you can do this.  No one can give you self-esteem.  It's up to you.  

In Step #4, Taking Baby Steps Forward, we talked about you being the most important person in your life (you knew I'd get that in there again, didn't you?).  And it's true.  That will never change, no matter how old you become.  But remember, at the end of the day, this is not about being selfish or arrogant or full of yourself. Rather, this is about being self-full--about knowing who you are, about loving who you are, about being satisfied and content and fulfilled in that knowledge, and about being the best you you can be, first, in your life, and then in the lives of all the people you hold most dear.  

There is no substitute for self-esteem.  In our world of material possessions and instant gratification, you cannot buy something at the store to replace the self-esteem you don't have. Retail therapy may make you feel better at first, but that thrill will wear off soon enough, as it always does.  Nothing of this earth will make you feel worthy.  Not a new house, or a new car, or a piece of furniture, or clothing. Nothing.  Not a damn thing you use money to pay for.  

Self-esteem comes from one place and one place only--inside you--and it's not conditional on anything outside of you.  If you don't have it now, there's no better time than this very second to decide you need to do the work on yourself to get it. Hands down, this will be the best investment you've ever made, one you cannot afford to pass up.  It will also be the most important journey you'll ever take.  I guarantee it.

Good luck!  And let me know how you're doing.  I would really like to know.   

Monday, January 21, 2013

Reprise: Step #4, How to Love Yourself When You're Gay–Take Baby Steps Forward

The Story So Far:  In Part One of this series, we covered how recognizing the problem of having low self-esteem is critical to improving it.  Frankly, if you don't see your self-esteem is low and needs to be raised, you'll probably never do anything about it.

In Part Two, we talked about living consciously, particularly as it relates to working on learning to love yourself.  If, as you work on raising your self-esteem, you continuously fall back into the same pattern of self-loathing--because you don't know you're doing it--any chance for improvement will be compromised.

In Part Three, we discussed the need to move from having the best intentions to taking action. It's not enough to want to improve your self-esteem, to want to learn to love yourself; you have to be motivated to follow through on the steps you'll need to take in order to achieve that goal.      

Step #4:  Take Baby Steps Forward

So you recognize you have a problem loving yourself as a gay man, and you want to change; you realize, in order to change, you need to break your unconscious routines and live more in the moment; and you are as gung-ho as you could possibly be about turning your intentions into action.  Now what?

If I've learned anything about change over the years--particularly as a manager, routinely selling big changes and leading forty-plus people through them--it's the importance, among other things, of taking change slowly and helping people adjust to it.    

It's human nature to resist change.  Change can seem threatening, especially if you haven't fully bought into it, or you don't know what's in it for you, or you're not sure what the outcome will be.  Change is upsetting.  Change is frightening.  After all, change is counter to what we're used to.  What we're used to is comfortable.  When change happens, we're not sure how we'll be affected, what life will be like after the change.      

Well, let me put to rest any fears you might have about changing, or improving, your self-esteem, or the capacity you have to love yourself.  If ever there was a change that is good for you--that's universally good for every human being--it's raising self-esteem. Going in, you must believe that wholeheartedly.   

As I've written in a number of posts here already, loving yourself is the root to every good thing that will happen in your life--from building fulfilling relationships with family and friends; to realizing greater success at work; to finding that relationship you've always wanted--but, most of all, to feeling peaceful, fulfilled, and whole.  There is nothing you can't do when you love yourself, and almost everything is dependent on it.  

So, let's move confidently forward with this change.  (By the way, this is the "good stuff" I wrote about in the previous Steps to this process–the meat and potatoes, if you like. Keep reading and see if you don't agree.)

Just like any change, when improving self-esteem, it's baby steps all the way. What do I mean by that?  Baby steps are tiny, careful, calculated, precise, but definite, movements in a direction different from the one you're used to.  They allow you to embark on a journey different from the one you've been on for a long time, one that will bring you closer to where you want to be.  (And, even if they don't, they are good for you because 1). they move you out of the status quo, which you've decided is unsatisfactory anyway; 2). they lead you to make further shifts in the directions you take toward the achievement of your goal; and 3). they are all within your control–that is, you don't have to count on anyone else to make them happen, and you are totally in control of the outcome.)  

The baby steps I'm about to share with you are the exact ones I took myself years ago as I worked on improving my own self-esteem.  They worked for me, they've worked for countless other people, and I know they will work for you.  

Don't be deceived.  Don't think for a moment the steps I recommend are too small, or too simple, or too insignificant to make a big difference.  Each one, if done diligently, if done with commitment and consistency, if unhurried, will set you on a course you cannot fully imagine at this very minute.  

But that course will become apparent over time.  The deeper you get involved in this process, the brighter the light will be at the other end, eventually becoming a compelling beacon.  Every day you'll see improvement–incrementally, but improvement nonetheless. You've no doubt heard about the tortoise and the hare?  Well, believe me when I tell you, slow but deliberate baby steps will win the race.  They will take you to exactly where you want to go.    

So, take that first baby step now.  Choose one or more from the list below, because they go hand-in-hand and can be done in tandem.  Alternatively, because you may not yet have confidence in this process, choose just one from the list and focus on doing it to the best of your ability.  Don't overdo it at the outset; taking on too much at one time can be overwhelming, confusing, and frustrating.  If you focus on just one baby step, and do it to the best of your ability over time, you will see change happen in your life, before your very eyes.  That's all I'm trying to help you do at this point--introduce a small change, with a big impact, over a period of time.         

Baby Steps to Raise Self-Esteem

a).  Negative Talk:  This is the endless reel of crap you keep saying to yourself, about yourself, in your head.  You know, lines like: "You're a failure.  You're useless.  You're no good. What made you think you could do that?  You're lazy.  You're stupid. You're an idiot.  You're hopeless.  You're ugly.  You've just proven to yourself again that you're all those things.  Why try?  You'll never do it.  You'll never amount to anything." You get the idea.      

A bit harsh, isn't it?  The problem is, I did this all the time, day-in and day-out.  It was as much a part of my daily routine as getting up in the morning, having breakfast, and going to work.  In fact, it was so much a part of my routine, it defined me, and, worse, I didn't realize I was doing it.  It was a habit I'd gotten used to, and, if someone had asked me whether or not I did it, I probably would have answered no.  That's just how unconscious I was.  

I bet you do the same thing.  People with low self-esteem constantly put themselves down.  It's what we do.  And the reasons for putting ourselves down are endless; nothing is off limits.  The more insulting, the better, because--here's the kicker--we think we deserve it.  Would we accept someone else saying these things to us?  Well, we might, so low is our self-esteem.  But hopefully, we wouldn't, because we'd recognize we shouldn't be treated so badly.  Yet we do it to ourselves.  How do we get away with that?

So I stopped the negative talk.  I decided if I couldn't say something positive about myself, I couldn't say anything negative, either.  At the very least, I'd create a neutral space in my head, which would be a vast improvement from before.  And, in so doing, I cut off the endless supply of negative energy to my psyche, the constant battering to my very being, effectively ending the energy that feeds on itself and perpetuates the negativity.    

So, no more negative talk.  Stop it.  Right now.  You hear?        

b).  Positive affirmations:  For those of you unfamiliar with this term, they are statements or assertions that are positive in nature, which, in the case of raising self-esteem, are directed at yourself from yourself.  And they are intended to be repeated time and time again until they become not just words but truth.   

Now, I know what you're thinking.  Sounds a little airy-fairy, a little new-agey, a little out there, especially in comparison to more tangible or concrete steps taken to affect other changes.  After all, you may think, how can repeating positive statements to myself make a difference?  In fact, if you're anything like me, repeating positive words or ideas to yourself feels fake or phoney.  So if I don't buy into what I'm doing, how will it help?         

I understand how you feel.  At the best of times, I have difficulty being positive, let alone repeating positive affirmations to myself.  I've always been a cup-half-empty kind of guy, seeing the negative in everything, always finding something to complain about.  So being positive, let alone repeating positive affirmations to myself, is just about one of the most difficult things for me to do.  

But let me give you some examples of what positive affirmations might look like, and I'm sure you'll begin to understand how helpful they are.  Using some of the negative talk above, "You're a failure" becomes "You're a success."  "You're lazy" becomes "You're hardworking."  "You're an idiot" becomes "You're intelligent." And so on.

Of course, the positive affirmation you tell yourself should be something that's true, or something you're able to accept.  For instance, if you really are lazy--and you don't just say that to insult yourself--then you shouldn't repeat "I'm hardworking" over and over, because you won't believe it.  You have to be sincere in what you repeat or you'll end up undermining your efforts.  Instead, select positive affirmations that really apply, and keep repeating them to yourself.

What if you feel so little about yourself, you can't find even one positive thing to say? Well, first of all, I find that hard to believe.  As low as your self-esteem may be, surely there's something about you that you like or admire.  In my own case, for example, I knew I was good to and respectful of other people (sometimes to a fault and at my own detriment).  So, among the positive affirmations I told myself were, "I'm good to other people, and I readily show my respect for them."  That was something positive.  At the very least, it wasn't something negative.  

At first, as you repeat positive affirmations to yourself, you might not totally believe what you're saying.  Even if you don't, keep doing it.  In effect, what you're doing is ending a bad habit, and exchanging the negative information you've put in your head for so long with something positive.  It will take time.  It may take lots and lots of time, considering the damage you may have already done to yourself.  

But here's the beauty of positive affirmations.  They convert the negative energy you've directed at yourself into positive energy.  Little by little.  Bit by bit.  And that can't be bad, can it?  Just keep telling yourself, over and over:  "I am smart."  "I am handsome."  "I'm a good person."  It will get easier and easier, and, even though you may be only going through the motions at first, you will start to believe it.

Positive affirmations are like planting seeds in your brain.  After you plant the first one, and keep nurturing it through constant repetition, it begins to sprout.  Then, as it grows and flourishes, it takes over, crowding out the garbage that was there before.  If you plant enough seeds and keep nurturing them over time, you'll be surprised what will happen in terms of changing your whole attitude toward yourself.

Give it a chance.  It really works.

c).  Inappropriate Comparisons:  Okay.  You know what these are.  They're when you keep comparing yourself to everyone else, and, honestly, we all do this.  

You see that guy over there.  He's better looking than you, right?  And that one over there.  He looks like he earns more money than you (or he doesn't mind racking up his credit card debt so he appears to earn more money than you do). And him over in the corner?  He just looks like he's smart, a lot smarter than you, right?

I did this all the time.  Some fellow I saw was always better looking, always more masculine than me, with a great set of sideburns, a full beard, a hairier chest.  The comparisons to other men, who, in so many ways, seemed to be everything I wasn't but desperately wanted to be (especially straight), always had me in a tailspin of despair. How could I ever compete?  No one would ever look at me as long as men like him existed.  I had no business being on the same street as him, in the same city, on the same planet.  I was nothing but a poor excuse for a human being.  

Inappropriate comparisons to other people is one endless rut, because, yes, when you get right down to it, someone will always appear to be better off in some way than you are (appear is the operative word here).  That's just the way it is. That's life.

But, looked at another way, someone else will always be worse off than you, too (not that you should try to make yourself feel better, or try to improve your self-esteem, by comparing who you are with someone less fortunate; that doesn't work either).  What's important is to see how much you have going for you and you alone, not in relation to someone else, and to be grateful for everything you have.

Gratitude is the key here.  It changes your line of thinking from one of lack to one of abundance. When you begin to realize just how much you have, and how much you have going for you, you will be well on your way to assessing your worthiness as a human being more realistically and loving yourself a whole lot more.                  

So...stop, stop, STOP comparing yourself to other people.  It doesn't do you any good. What you must focus on is being the very best you, because, in the end, no one can do you better than you can.  Your gifts are no less valid or important than anyone else's, and you'll do your greatest work toward raising your self-esteem, and learning how to love yourself, by realizing just how fortunate you truly are to have the gifts you've been given, and to figure out how best to use them in the service of others.  But that's another conversation altogether.       

d).  Do Something Nice:  Actually, that's do something nice for yourself, even something small. It's often the small things that make a big difference.

Here, I'll turn to a comment one of my readers left on another post.  Doug from Vancouver wrote:  'For me, the cure [for low self-esteem]...was to be my own best friend. I imagined myself living with my best bud who needed cheering up. I dragged him out for a walk, I bought him a vitamin-packed smoothie, and treated him to an uplifting film. It wasn't easy being my own best friend..., but I made it my "job." Day by day my heart did thaw, and other people became more drawn to me.'

As I wrote to Doug, I couldn't have said it better.  At the same time as you're turning negative talk into positive affirmations, and learning how not to inappropriately compare yourself to other people, you can start treating yourself like the most important person in your life.  Because you know what?  You ARE the most important person in your life.  Full stop.  Let's repeat that, because you really need to get this message.  In fact, let's make sure this one goes out over the mountains and the seas.


If ever there was a positive affirmation you need to repeat to yourself, it would be: "I am the most important person in my life."  Because, yes, you are.  And no one will ever treat you better than you should.  If you don't, and no one else does, then who will?  Who will be there for you when you really need someone?  Who will be your greatest supporter? Who will cheer you on? Who will lift you up?  Who will be there for you when no one else is?  Who can you rely on more than anyone else?

So start treating yourself like you are the most important person in your life.  As Doug suggests, do little things for yourself only.  Don't wait to do them with someone else, because you may never get around to it.  In fact, these things are not meant to share with someone else.  They are for you and you alone.  Because you're worth it.  Because nobody deserves them more than you do.  Over time, the effort required to do nice things for yourself, just for the sake of doing them, will become easier and easier, until they seem perfectly normal and natural.    

Take yourself out on a date.  Go to a fancy restaurant and have a meal for one. How about treating yourself to something special, like a day at the spa.  The point is, it's not what you do, or how much money you spend doing it.  Because you can find all kinds of things to do for yourself by spending little or no money at all. Like Doug suggests, go out for a long, reflective walk, and take in everything you see in a way you may not have before.  Go for a bike ride. Take a great book out of the library, cuddle up with yourself in a big, over-stuffed chair, and spend the afternoon reading.  You deserve it.  

Remember, you are the most important person in your life.  Start treating yourself like you are.

e).  Extend Yourself:  Okay, to this point, we've mostly focused on ourselves.  It's time now to focus ourselves…on others.  Yes, that's right, if you want to feel better about yourself, do something for someone else.  Here's how it works.

At the same time I felt pretty miserable about myself–in all the ways I've described above–I was moving up in the company I worked for.  Before I knew it, I was a Customer Service Manager, supervising a branch full of people (about twelve to fifteen).

In one instance, I inherited a bit of a mess, where the previous CSM hadn't wanted to be in that role and had made sure the people she supervised knew it.  This manifested itself in the deplorable way she treated them, showing them a decided lack of respect.  In fact, her effect on the branch was so bad that morale was abysmal when I walked in the door. I had a lot of work to do at that branch when I first got there, and I knew, first and foremost, I needed to improve morale, because the improvements couldn't come from just me.  All of us had to work together to create the working environment we all wanted.

So I went to work touching people (not literally but figuratively) in all the ways I would want to be touched if I felt like them.  That is, I treated the people how I would want to be treated–with kindness and patience and empathy and understanding and dignity and respect.  I did everything I could to show the people I genuinely cared about them, their performance, and their job satisfaction (which I did).  I wanted them to enjoy coming to work everyday.  I wanted them to want to treat each other well.  And I wanted them to want to provide the best possible service to our many customers.

And you know what?  It took a long time.  It took a very long time.  For months after I got there, I kept hearing the people I supervised talk about how poorly the previous CSM had treated them.  How, in specific situations that came up, she had conducted herself, and how she had made her staff feel, as a result.  I can't tell you how many times I had to repeat, I'm not her.  I won't treat you that way.  This is a new day.  It isn't like that here anymore.  Together, we can make this workplace exactly what we want it to be.  But we need to let the past be the past and move confidently forward into the future.

Needless to say, we got there, and we transformed the branch into a place where people wanted to be and where they wanted to contribute.  The level of customer service improved, and customers liked coming in to conduct their business with us.  Our performance went up, our results went up, and the branch became one of the best in the district.

And how do you think that affected me on a personal level?  Well, I loved knowing I'd played an instrumental role in making it all happen.  While I was still struggling mightily over being gay and coming to terms with that–not to mention, seeing my self-worth–I saw what a positive influence I'd had on other people, helping to make their work experience a more fulfilling and rewarding one.  I watched each one of them as they began to flourish in their roles, and I couldn't have felt more full inside over their success.  Their success was my success–not just in my role as the CSM, but also as a human being.

How could someone who felt so worthless have such a positive effect on other people, on the performance of an entire branch?  I couldn't reconcile that.  Maybe, I had to admit, I wasn't as worthless as I thought, after all.  Maybe I had a lot more going for me than I realized.  Look at what I'd been able to do for all those people I supervised.  Maybe, just maybe, I had to change that script that had been running in my head all those years–from one of thinking I was the lowest of life forms to one of thinking I was good and deserving and worthy.

Find some way, however small, to focus on doing something for someone else.  I promise, when you see your generosity, kindness, and compassion reflected back at you through another person's eyes, you'll know just how valuable and worthwhile you really are, and what a difference you're making by being here.

Graduating from Baby Steps

Finally, when taking baby steps forward has begun to feel good and built its own momentum, as it will over time, you might want to consider taking some giant leaps forward, which is what I did.

Here are brief descriptions of the two I took:

1).  After blaming my parents for years for not having my teeth straightened when I was twelve, in my early thirties, I arranged to have it done, paying for it myself, including jaw surgery to correct a severe overbite which resulted from not getting braces when I was younger.  And,

2).  After putting on a few more lbs. than I liked, I changed Chris's and my eating habits, watching our fat intake, and I started to work out, including cardio and weight training. That was nearly twenty years ago.  I still eat healthier and engage in some form of exercise today.    

Honestly, had I not done the work required to improve my self-esteem, I would not have taken these on.  The key to making important changes in your life is recognizing you're worth it.  Like I said before, everything is connected to self-worth, in one way or another.

Stay tuned for Step #5:  Believe in Yourself

Friday, January 18, 2013

Reprise: Step #3, How to Love Yourself When You're Gay–Turn Intention into Action

The Story So Far:  In Part One of this series, we covered how recognizing the problem of having low self-esteem is critical to improving it.  Frankly, if you don't see your self-esteem is low and needs to be raised, you'll probably never do anything about it.

In Part Two, we talked about living consciously, particularly as it relates to working on learning to love yourself.  If, as you work on raising your self-esteem, you continuously fall back into the same pattern of self-loathing--because you don't know you're doing it--any chance for improvement will be compromised.    

Step #3:  Turn Intention into Action

So you recognize you have a problem loving yourself as a gay man, and you want to change it. Also, you realize, in order to change it, you need to break your unconscious routines and live more in the moment.  Now what?

Now, you need to commit to turn your good intentions into action.

Sure, it's great to want to lose weight at the beginning of a new year.  How many of us don't? We eat our way through the Christmas holiday season, we anticipate the approach of summer beach weather, and we know January 1st, a new year and a fresh beginning, is the perfect time to get down to business.  Our plan is a simple one:  to eat healthier and to join a local recreation centre or gym to work-out on a regular basis.

This is our year, right?  We've been talking about losing weight and getting healthy for so long. This time will be different.  We'll make it happen, we tell ourselves.  Our intentions are great, and we're all pumped up, especially as January 1st approaches.  But, by the end of the first week of the new year, if not sooner, we've all but lost sight of our goal. What happened?   

I don't need to tell you what happened.  There are as many explanations, or excuses, for why people don't stick to a plan to eat healthier and to work out as there are people planning to.  The point is, we can say we want to do something all we like, but if we don't actually get off our butts and do it, it won't happen.  Simple as that.  

So, when it comes to raising your self-esteem, I'm asking you to commit to make it happen, not at the beginning of a new year--because, as of the writing of this, January 1, 2014 is almost a year away--but immediately.  That's right.  This very minute.  Because think about how much you'll accomplish between now and then.  You'll be way ahead of the game, and you'll enter 2014 feeling so much better about who you are.  

Really, when it comes to learning to love yourself, any day of the year can be January 1st.  Any day of the year can be that fresh start you need.  Any day of the year can be the one on which you take those first tentative steps toward not only improving your self-esteem, but also toward feeling better about you and your life.

So, commit to make this happen right now.  Turn your intention into action.  I promise it will be the best thing you've ever done.  You will never regret the effort you put into improving your self-esteem.

Stay tuned for Step #4:  Take Baby Steps Forward

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Reprise: Step #2, How to Love Yourself When You're Gay–Live Consciously

The Story So Far:  We've covered that you know you have a, opportunity, which is what we used to call a problem when I worked for one of Canada's largest financial institutions. That is, an opportunity to improve your self-esteem, to learn how to love yourself.  That's half the battle--if you don't recognize you have an opportunity to improve, you'll never change.  But what now?

Step #2:  Live Consciously

Imagine yourself driving to work one morning.  You arrive and suddenly realize you remember nothing about the trip.  You have little to no recollection of the time between leaving your apartment or house and walking in the door of your workplace.  But there you are, saying good morning to everyone.  You must have known what you were doing because you got there safely, after all, but that doesn't stop a shiver from running down your spine. What if you'd been in an accident and had injured or even killed yourself or someone else?    

This is the opposite of living consciously, and it happens to all of us.  So used to our daily routines are we, whether driving to work or preparing a meal in the kitchen or whatever the case may be, that we could do them in our sleep, which is literally what we do. Somehow, our bodies are trained to move through our myriad of routines, while our minds are somewhere else altogether.  It's a miracle more of us aren't the victims of serious accidents, on the road, at home, wherever.  

If you're going to do anything constructive around improving your self-esteem, or learning to love yourself, you'll have to get engaged in your life again, or, at the very least, with the parts related to the negative feelings you have about yourself, and the steps you take to improve that. Because, the second your mind wonders and you're not one hundred percent in the moment, routine thoughts of self-loathing will move in, taking up their familiar place in your psyche, shifting your spirit in the wrong direction, and compromising the actions you take.

What I'm saying is, as you work through the five steps I've identified in raising self-esteem (based on my own experience), more than anything else, you need to be conscious of what's going on in your mind, because your mind controls everything.  You need to assume the position of your own champion, you need to be focused on the long-term goal (while not losing sight of the short-term ones), and, frankly, to use the driving-to-work metaphor again, you need to keep your eyes on the road.  

This is especially true in the beginning, while you try to deconstruct the old routine while building the new one, comprised of turning negative notions about yourself into positive ones, and of manoeuvring your actions in the direction of your new and improved thoughts.  It's all about breaking bad habits, and you can't do that if you live unconsciously, allowing everything to happen to you rather than taking a firm grip on the wheel of your life and going the places where you really want to be.

So commit to yourself here and now that, during the process of improving your self-esteem and learning to love yourself, you'll be present in the moment one hundred percent.  You'll be in tune with your thoughts, which can be your greatest enemy or your greatest ally, depending on how conscious you are, and you'll be in control of your actions.  This commitment to yourself is the only way you'll achieve your goal.  When the negativity starts all over again, as it will, you'll need to recognize it's happening, and you'll need to actively divert yourself back on the right track to respecting and loving yourself.

Stay tuned for Step #3:  Turn Intention into Action

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Reprise: Step #1, How to Love Yourself When You're Gay–Recognize the Problem and the Need to Change


Anyone can learn to love himself, no matter how filled with self-loathing he may be.  I can't believe any gay person could hate himself more than I did when I was in my late teens and twenties (even though I suppose it's possible).  So if I can turn that around, I sincerely believe anyone can, including you.  I know firsthand how easy getting stuck in specific behavior patterns is, as well as how difficult figuring out what to do and where to start are.  This series of posts, reprised from January 2011, will provide specific suggestions on actions you can take, starting today.

As human beings, we are meant to change; it's something we do continuously throughout our lives.  A lot of change happens to us automatically, as a matter of course, through the aging and maturing process, usually as a result of something that takes place in our physical environment.  But sometimes, we need to be proactive about change, rather than wait for it to take place naturally.  And, believe me, if ever there was a time to be proactive and change, it's now–to improve your self-esteem and the love you have for yourself.  

Before I go further, I have a responsibility to mention therapy or counselling could be extremely helpful, if for no reason than to give you a safe place to talk to a qualified professional, which, from my own experience, provides tremendous relief from holding in too much stuff for too long, and allows for cleansing and a fresh start.  If you can afford therapy or counselling, or if a limited number of sessions are paid for through personnel benefits at your workplace (even just five, which is all I've had), I encourage you to make arrangements right away. You won't regret it.

But therapy and counselling are only as helpful as the effort, honesty, and commitment you put into them.  If you are not yet ready to open up, to reveal your deepest, darkest secrets, to get to the root cause of why you do some of the things you do, and to work hard on implementing alternative behaviors, then therapy and counselling will have limited value.  Just like everything, it's all up to you.   

Finally, I hasten to add, I attended no therapy or counselling sessions to learn how to improve my self-esteem, to begin the journey to love myself.  Not one. What I did over the years was on my own, and, for that reason, I know the steps I took worked (and they can work for you, too). When the time was right for me--that is, when I had been miserable long enough, and when I knew I'd come to the end of showing up in my life filled with the self-loathing that had defined me for so long--I began to read a lot of self-help books, to watch TV programs I hoped would help, and to do some serious reflecting and soul-searching.      

What I offer here and in this series (because it's too long for a single post) is a list of the simple and specific steps I took to improve my self-esteem as a gay man (by the way, they will work for anyone trying to improve his self-esteem, not just gay men).  I promise you, if you really want to change, you can.  Ultimately, only you can do this; no one can make you love yourself.  

Your first priority should always be you, ensuring you're the best you can be for yourself and for everyone in your life who's important to you.  The only way you can do that is to recognize the intrinsic value you have as a human being, and to learn to love yourself as every one of us rightfully should, no matter our sexual orientation.

Step 1:  Recognize the Problem and the Need to Change

First and foremost, you must recognize you have a problem with your self-esteem, and that you need to change, or improve, it.  Why did I take so long to do anything about my own low self-esteem? Initially, because I didn't think I had a problem.  I'd been filled with self-loathing for so long, I didn't know anything else.  Hating myself had become a habit, a natural way of being, and I just thought that's how it would always be.

And the more reading I did, the more TV shows I watched where self-esteem was the subject, and the more I talked to people I knew, the more low self-esteem I saw. Everyone seemed to be in the same situation, for one reason or another, which seemed to make how I felt about myself all right.  I mean, if I felt the same way about myself as everyone seemed to feel about themselves, didn't that mean nothing was wrong with me, after all?  That having low self-esteem was simply the way it was for everyone?  Did I have the right to think better about myself than other people felt about themselves?

You bet I did.  That's what started me thinking.  Either feeling badly about ourselves was simply a part of the human experience on earth, and nothing could be done about it, or we had a monumental problem on our hands.  I used to look at the people around me, who I thought were attractive and funny and compassionate--who appeared to have everything going for them--yet, surprisingly, they always seemed to find one reason or another to feel insecure, resulting in low self-esteem.  What was going on?  How could this be?  If they didn't love themselves, what chance did I have to love myself?

Regardless of how many unhappy people are in the world, I knew I couldn't keep travelling on the same path because I couldn't stand myself or my life.  I couldn't stand feeling like I was stuck, like a huge weight was keeping me in the same place, like I'd never get myself out from under it and really start to live, the way I was meant to.  I chose to believe low self-esteem is an epidemic in North America (maybe even the world), we could do something about it if we really wanted to, and I wasn't meant to hate myself, no matter the reason.

In other words, I recognized my problem and the need to change it.  I was in my early thirties (twenty years ago), and, for the first time in my life, I knew something was wrong, and only I could do something about it.

But what?  And where should I start?  I had no idea.

Stay tuned for Step #2:  Live Consciously

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Relaunch of the "How Do I Love Myself When I'm Gay" Series

I missed the boat.

At the end of last month, I responded to a comment I received on a post from a gay, young man in Cape Town, South Africa, who recognized how his self-loathing manifested itself in his life (depression, promiscuity, and alcohol abuse), and who asked the simple question, "How do you love yourself?"  (Please click here to see his comment and my response.)

While my answer was consistent with the spirit of my writing here over the past two years, I gave him nothing specific to work with.  That is, I kept talking around what he should do–and what it looked like–but I failed to give him advice on the steps he could take to achieve his goal.    

I haven't been able to stop thinking about that since, because I take very seriously any comment or email I receive from a gay person who sees him- or herself in what I write, who recognizes the need to change, and who is sincere in finding a new way of being in the world.

The irony in all of this for me is, two years ago, I wrote a series of posts on exactly that subject.  Titled "How to Love Yourself When You're Gay," I took readers step-by-step through the process I followed to help me on my own journey from self-loathing to self-acceptance and self-love.  But I'd completely forgotten about this series (aging being what it is) and, as a result, wasn't able to refer to it in my response.  

I've decided to blow the dust off these six posts and feature them again on my blog.  

At the time I originally published them, my blog had a dedicated, but small, core group of readers, who showed their ongoing support of me and my work by sharing comments on a regular basis.  But readership has grown considerably over the past two years, and I suspect many new readers, who never saw this series, might find it helpful.

It's for them, and especially for my Cape Town reader, that I plan to reprise the "How to Love Yourself When You're Gay" series over the next several days, after I review it in detail and freshen it up as necessary.  I hope you'll check back for these six posts and offer other suggestions you have on how we can all understand, accept, and love ourselves more.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

You Cannot Lose What You Never Had

My father died last Friday.

If you feel badly for me, please don't.  It's okay.  I don't remember a time when the relationship I had with him wasn't complex and difficult.

It could not have been easy for my father to raise a gay son throughout the 1960s and most of the '70s.  On a personal level, I'm sure he found homosexuality repugnant.  He was a tough guy, a man's man, a bully.  

I can't imagine I was anything but an embarrassment to him.  How could he not have wanted a normal boy, just like all the other normal boys the neighbors were raising around us–one who didn't attract attention to himself for the wrong reasons.  

Long after all the other boys my age had had the training wheels removed from their bikes, I still had mine on, no doubt causing my father to shake his head in shame, as I rode around the local streets and back alleys in full view of everyone.  I recall my childhood was all about trying to protect myself from being physically hurt.  How could I have known the emotional hurt from all those years would be so much worse?      

My maternal grandmother bought me a Ken doll, Barbie's handsome, blond-haired, blue-eyed boyfriend, after I literally made a scene in Kresge's.  I was proud of Ken–so proud I took him for walks so the other neighborhood children would see him.  Believe me, no other little boy paraded his dolls outside.  To this day, I can't believe my father didn't grab that doll and beat me with it.  It probably took everything he had to stop himself.    

When the other fathers and sons played baseball in the summer, at the local diamonds, or hockey in the winter, on manmade, outdoor ice rinks, I didn't.  I didn't know the first thing about the games, nor did I care to know (remember, there was the very real possibility I'd get hurt by an errant ball or puck).  Instead, during the summer, I played safely in our backyard sandbox, often with the local girls, who I related to much more than the boys, and, in the winter, I stayed indoors, playing with my Legos, Mechanos, and Hot Wheels.

I was the little boy who spent hours in the kitchen with my mother, watching her cook, connecting with her, while my father sat in the living room by himself, watching the news, reading the newspaper, and smoking a pipe.

I was the little boy who couldn't wait for the arrival of the seasonal Eaton's and Sears catalogues, so I could seek out pictures of the handsome men in them.  I especially liked the summer catalogues, when the men wore swimsuits and showed off their toned bodies and hairy chests.  

I was the little boy who spent hours pouring over my mother's monthly "Cosmopolitan" magazine, then under the editorship of the late Helen Gurley Brown, usually filled with pictures of near-naked men, in sexy, alluring poses.  I was drawn to them, in part, because I hoped to grow up and look like them someday, and in part, because they excited me in ways I didn't yet understand.      

I was the little boy who joined Cubs or Scouts–I don't remember which–in the process probably giving my father the first hope he had that his son was actually normal (as I think about it, I'm sure I was talked into joining).  Only to face the overflow of teasing and taunting from the boys I went to school with.  A few short weeks later, when it became apparent I fit in there no more than at Canalta Elementary, I never went back.

I was the little boy who played hopscotch, jumped rope, and Chinese skipped with the girls at school during recess.  And I took the grief for it, too.  

I was the little boy who hid in the house and read, when I imagine my father would have preferred I be outside, trying to play with the other boys, doing what other boys did for a change.  

No, I can't imagine it was easy having me for a son.    It's clear now that, as far as my father was concerned, I was a complete failure.  And he let me know it.

At first, I saw my father's anger and hostility.  When he wasn't spending long hours at the Legion, avoiding coming home and no doubt drinking away frustrations and disappointments with his family in general, and his effeminate son in particular, he was at home, either keeping his distance from me or, worse, finding some reason to take out how he felt on me.  

Years later, when I'd become too old to hit, my father was indifferent toward me.  The two of us crossed paths in the house or the yard from time to time, and we spoke to each other, but we were utter strangers.  I did my thing, and he did his.  The less I saw him, the better.  Then he wouldn't have something to pick on me for.          

I couldn't wait to get out of his house.  My sister, who was younger than me, left before I did.  It wasn't long before she announced she was leaving Canada to work in Saudi Arabia for two years.  None of us understood why she was doing something so drastic.  I thought she'd lost her mind.  But I get it now.  She may have been the only sane one amongst us.      

In January 2010, I wrote my father a letter, after having no contact with him for over fourteen years.  I was hopeful that maybe he'd softened over time.  He was in his mid-seventies, he had no relationship with his only two biological children, and I thought he must have regrets about what had happened in the past.  I was hopeful he was ready to get real with me.

More than anything, I needed him to answer why.  Why had he treated me the way he did all those years?  Why had he denied me his love?  Why had he robbed me of the only father/son relationship I would ever know?

Between then and his death on January 4th, I got almost nothing out of him.  I tried, but it didn't happen.  

Over three years, I wrote a number of emails, reaching out to him, encouraging him to open up, as if saying, "This is your chance.  This is our chance.  Please take it.  I want to know more about you.  I want to know more about you as a human being and as a father. I want to understand what happened between us, why we're at this place today, what we can do to close the gap between us."  No surprise, there were always long waits for his responses.  And when they came, they added to my frustration rather than resolved issues.

He admitted he was harder on me than he needed to be, I'll give him that.  But he never explained why.   And he never apologized.

He wrote that he'd always loved me, but I told him the words rang hollow.  I couldn't process them, accept them.  I doubt I'll ever be able to accept them.  For me, love doesn't look like what he did to me, how he treated me when I was growing up.  When all I wanted was to be held in his arms and feel like I mattered to him.

Yesterday, I came home to a message on the phone from my aunt, my mother's sister. Obviously, my mother had told her that my father had died.  My aunt said she was concerned about me, and, if I needed to talk to, she was available.    

I appreciated her offer, but, as I told her when I called back and left a voicemail, I'm fine. Life goes on.

I was a little shaken when my father's second wife emailed me last Friday to say he was gone, but his passing wasn't unexpected.  He had been hospitalized nearly a year earlier and diagnosed with pulmonary fibrosis and congestive heart failure.  Twice he'd been resuscitated when his heart had stopped, and he was eventually able to go home.

But all of us knew his condition wouldn't improve.  In fact, it would get progressively worse.  The question was, what would his quality of life look like for the short time he had left.  And I couldn't help but wonder, would this be what he needed to be more open with me than he ever had been before?  (It wasn't.)      

My aunt's call came from a place of concern for the loss of my father.  I understand that. But I can't look at it that way.  In every respect that mattered to me, I never had a father. As insensitive as it sounds, the only thing I lost in his passing were the answers to the questions I've had all these years.    

You cannot lose what you never had.