Monday, March 3, 2014

Choose Joy

Here's another email I received from a reader followed by my response:

Dear Rick,

First off, thanks for your excellent blog.  The values you present in your writing jibe with my own.

In many ways life is sweet: great partner, great job, few debts, nice home, healthy, out to family and friends.


BUT…


Throughout my adult life – from the age of seventeen or eighteen (I’m 46 now) – I’ve struggled to understand who I am.  I feel there’s a void at the centre of me, an unknown place I can’t quite connect to. The void has diminished over the years. Coming out reduced it considerably. Being honest with myself and with my personal history has helped, too.  But somehow a remnant of my closet remains within me, festering and nagging at me.


I’m sure this remnant, this void, is the home of my shame.  The shame I felt because I was a ‘different’ boy, a gay teen, a closeted young man. And however proud I tell myself to be, and however proud my partner makes me feel, it won’t go away.


And it never will.  It’s there, part of me.  I can’t change history.


I know all this.  And I know I have to live with its nagging malignancy.


But I don’t yet know how.


That’s my next challenge.


And I was wondering whether you had any tips.



*
Dear Reader,

Thank you for your email, your interest in my blog, and your kind words.  I really appreciate it.

All right.  Let’s get down to business.   

What you’ll find below are my thoughts as I read through your email several times. They follow the order of what you wrote.

It sounds like you’re in an enviable position–your life is going well, and you have every reason to feel happy and fulfilled.  You’re very lucky.  Not everyone is where you are.

I think the first step in the solution to your challenge, as you describe it, is gratitude, as is often the case in many challenges we face.  Practicing gratitude gives us a whole other perspective on our lives. It focuses us on the positive rather than the negative.  And, sometimes, that’s all the change that need take place.        

But back to your challenge.  You’re stuck.  Despite most of you moving on from the past, a little bit is still back there.  You need that extra push to get you up on top of the mountain, which is where you and I both know you should be.    

Let’s talk about your age for a minute.  Surely, you know you’re no longer that shameful seventeen or eighteen year old, only just beginning to come to terms with a sexual orientation you were led to believe was wrong, unacceptable, and evil. Acknowledge that.  In your mind, visualize how far you’ve come over the years, and pat yourself on the back for doing such a good job.  You deserve to be happy now. Let me repeat that.  You deserve to be happy now.  Totally happy.  Take that in and let it sit for a bit.

If it helps at all, I think a remnant of each of our individual closets remains inside every one of us for much of our lives.  I’m not sure any gay person can ever say he’s totally left his closet behind. Things happen to put us back there, at least to a degree, and some of the same feelings we experienced when we were completely inside it return.  So I think the most any of us can hope for is the ability to manage when that happens–that is, manage how far back we allow ourselves to be put into it, how we respond to it, and how we allow ourselves to feel about it.

All of this comes back to living consciously.  If, in the moment, we know what’s happening, we’re in a better position, as I wrote before, to manage it.  That is, we’re better able to stop ourselves from going all the way back in the closet, and from feeling as badly about ourselves as we did when we were there years earlier.  Make sense?

I think the only reason your shame still has a home inside you is because you give it one.  Can you think of a reason why you’d do that?  Is it possible there’s some sort of payoff?  Do you benefit in some way by giving your shame a home after all these years?  Think about that.  Usually, when one keeps repeating the same dysfunctional behavior over and over, there’s a reason.  What are you gaining?  How are you benefiting?  How does it serve you?  What do you get out of it?  This is the key to understanding why, some thirty years after you began to come to terms with being gay, you continue to hang on to your shame and give it a home.  

On the subject of being proud, I have a problem with that word as it relates to gay and lesbian people, especially in connection to Gay Pride, an event I don’t participate in because, for the most part, I don’t feel what goes on represents me, or how I want gay people, in general, to be represented.  But look at this definition of proud I found in the dictionary:  “having or showing a consciousness of one’s own dignity.”  Now that I can get behind.

But the source of my dignity is not being gay, it’s being a human being.  I’d much rather feel a sense of pride over what makes me a good person, over how I contribute, make someone else’s life a little easier, than over anything associated with my sexual orientation.  For me, being gay is just a part of me, nothing more.  So let’s put it into perspective.  Be proud of yourself for who you are, not what you are? Can you do that?

Check out your terminology.  Related to your challenge, you use hard words like festering, nagging, void, and malignancy.  Is it fair to say that, as long as you use these words, you’ll continue to give your challenge power over you?  Perhaps toning down the severity of how you refer to it will help tone down how you feel about it too, and the power you continue to give it.

Do you believe in creating your own reality?  I think you’re doing that by saying the shame you feel will never go away, will always be a part of you, forcing you to live with its nagging malignancy.  If you truly believe that, if you truly believe you will never be able to rid yourself of the final bit of shame that’s been holding you back all these years, then you’ve written your future.  And, I’m afraid, no one will be able to help you overcome it.  It will be there forever, until you change your mind about it, until you make the choice to let it go.

So how do you do that?

Part of it is, as I’ve been suggesting, nothing more than simply changing your mind about how you look at it.  There are plenty of negative things I could focus on that would totally change the way I look at my life, or how I feel, or how I experience what happens to me.  In fact, I have to remind myself of this all the time.  It’s so easy for me to become obsessive about something I don’t like, or that disturbs me, or that makes me nervous or scared.  But I’ve done that before, and it turns me into someone who’s miserable.  I know it doesn’t serve me at all, so I have to become conscious, aware in the moment, and push those thoughts and feelings aside. There’s no other way.

Part of it, perhaps, is better understanding the nature of your shame.  What does it look like?  And why is it there?

You might benefit from talking to a professional about this.  Perhaps he or she could help you sort out what’s going on, make some sense of it, determine if there are other factors coming into play.  I’ve had brief periods of counseling in the past and always found them helpful.

On the other hand, if you want to take a stab at it yourself, try the “5 Whys” technique.  I’ve supplied a link here to the Wikipedia definition of the “5 Whys” technique so you know what it is, and how it works (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/5_Whys).  What you want to do is go beyond the usual easy, impulsive, surface answers and get at the root cause of why you feel the way you do.  I’ve used the “5 Whys” technique, and it works–but only when you dig deep (which can be painful, depending on the problem).  

How about keeping a journal?  I highly recommend it.  I’ve written a journal for over twenty years, one 8.5” x 11” page per day, and I can’t tell you how much it’s helped me with the stuff I’ve gone through.  It’s one thing to allow what you feel to keep swirling around in your head, but it’s something else to pin it down and take a good, hard look at it.  After all these years, I’m guessing that, if you took that hard look at it, you’d find there’s really nothing there.  That, in fact, you have no reason to feel shameful at all.  

And here’s my final bit of advice, which works in almost any circumstance, and which I know, from personal experience, makes a big difference–if you let it.  

CHOOSE JOY.

Any time you feel that residual shame come to the surface, don’t give in to it.  Be strong.  Recognize how you no longer need to feel shame, that feeling shame serves no purpose.  Shame was a part of your past, but this is your present.  It’s time to unstick yourself.  Make that switch in your head. Change your self-talk.  Write a different story for yourself.    

How you feel, to a large degree, is a matter of choice.  You can choose shame, or you can choose joy. I can’t imagine why you would consciously choose shame over joy. I deserve to feel joy, and you do too.  You know it, and I know it.  You’ve been through enough.  You’ve already lived forty-six years of being gay.  If that doesn’t entitle you to a whole lot of joy, I don’t know what does.  

So get out of your own way and make it happen.  You’ve already wasted too much time feeling shameful.  You deserve better.

CHOOSE JOY.

Sometimes, it really is that simple.

I know this has been very long, and I sincerely apologize for that.  But I’m hoping there’s something here that you’ll find helpful.  I really do.

You sound like a great guy.  Choose joy.  Let the rest go.  It’s time.

All the very best.

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