Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Self-ish-ness: Learning to Love the Man in the Mirror

“Sometime last year, I remember the first time that I looked at myself in the mirror and was able to say to myself: 'You're a good man, you deserve to be happy and you'll be alright.’" This comment by Miguel to yesterday’s post struck a chord with me, both because I could personally relate to it and because I thought it also serves as a useful comment to frame the discussion on selfishness that evolved out of yesterday’s post.

There have been few times when I realized the depth and extent of my own self-loathing more than an afternoon this past August.  I don’t even remember now what triggered the incident, but I remember sitting on the bed, crying my eyes out and telling my wife that I hated myself.  For as long as I can remember, I had felt this way:  though I was able to function in life, I was basically, fundamentally flawed and I hated myself because of it, because I seemingly couldn’t do anything to change it, and because I knew that I could never overcome the effects of it.  I didn’t then even understand the exact cause of this self-hatred.  It was just a knowledge that, it seemed, I had always had; it was just the way of things.

I could not even bring myself to look at my reflection in the mirror.  If I looked too long, a strange feeling of revulsion and fear and existential panic would come over me, as if I was about to be sucked into a black hole of identity from which I would never escape.  I can recall having this feeling even as a young child of 7 or 8.  I remember asking my dad once if he was ever afraid to look at himself in the mirror.  We were in the car on our way to a nursery to pick out shrubbery for our house.  As best as I can recall, he looked over at me then back at the road and promptly changed the subject.

In recent months (prior to coming out), I had decided to try to conquer this fear and force myself to look at my reflection for longer periods of time; to look myself in the eye.  I may not have particularly liked what I saw, but at least I could try to conquer my bizarre fear. 

It was not until I came out (or rather, started to come out) that I began to dimly understand the root cause of my self-loathing, self-hatred and my inability to like, let alone love, myself.  It’s all so obvious now, now that I have eyes to see.   You guessed it: it was because I am a homosexual.  I like men.  I’m queer, gay, a homo, a faggot – all those nasty words that I’d heard my entire life and tried to dodge lest one of them strike and kill me.  I hated myself because I was gay, and beyond that, I think my subconscious self probably hated me, too, for betraying my Self and for abandoning him to all that self-loathing – as if there was this gay self inside of me that wanted to get out, but I kept burying him in piles of excrement, hoping to smother him.

BUT! – Upon hearing Boyd K. Packer’s talk at Conference and deciding right then and there that I was no longer going to hate myself and beat myself to death because of my homosexuality, I started to change.  For the first time in my life, as I reached out to other gay men and they reached out to me (and as I received support from my sister), I was told it was ok to be gay.  I was told that I am a person of worth.  I was told that I could not only like myself; I could love myself.  Really and truly.  That not only was it possible; it was desirable.  I could get to the point of not only being able to look at myself in the mirror and not turn away in disgust; I could do so and love the person looking back at me.  (I’m not quite there yet, but I’m working on it.)

This was an entirely new concept for me.  Perhaps because it may prove useful to illustrate what I will later have to say about self-ish-ness, I think it is instructive to compare my attitude in this regard to that of my wife.  I think she had a difficult time believing or understanding me when I expressed paroxysms of self-hatred like I had that day in August.  She has never had a problem liking or even loving herself.  For as long as I’ve known her, she has always had this quality of being comfortable with who and what she is.  And for as long as I’ve known her, this quality has driven me crazy; not because I felt she was egotistical or self-centered (to the contrary, I think she was “healthy” and “normal” in this regard), but because no matter how hard I tried (and my inner voices told me not to bother even trying because it was hopeless), I could not bring myself to like the me who I am, let alone love that person.

Why the difference between us?  Well, setting aside individual circumstances and ancillary issues, I think the general answer to this question is that she grew up not doubting who she was, not feeling like she had to hide who she “really” was, not feeling shame at the very fact of her existence, not feeling fundamentally flawed.  She was free to like herself just the way she was because she was not gay.  I, on the other hand, was, and I grew up with all these things that she did not.

Which brings me to the subject of self-ish-ness.  It is precisely because of the way many of us grew up and evolved that we have to be “selfish” in order to allow ourselves to get to that point of “normalcy” that people like my wife take for granted.  But, as was pointed out by some of the commenters yesterday, “selfishness” often becomes a term that is used as a weapon by those who do not understand or do not want us to change.  As Mark pointed out, “calling this journey merely, ‘selfish’ is a cheap shot, reductionistic and simply puts a negative spin on what this journey is about … [Beyond this] I would say this is really an inaccurate description of what is actually transpiring. It's not selfish to exercise one's body, to enlarge one's soul by giving service, to read and educate yourself so you can have a better life …

Trey expressed similar thoughts when he wrote, “I propose that the concept of “selfish” is misunderstood and misused by those using it to indict gay men when coming to terms with their identities. As Mark pointed out, self-actualization is at the core of our daily humanity. If we were to extend the concept as used by our spouses (I am one of the accused), one could argue that it is selfish to: get advanced degrees, compete in sports or pursue any other recognition, exercise, get the scout Eagle rank or the Duty to God award, get your nails done or a face lift. At the core of Mormon doctrine is the idea of truth, honesty, progress, and expansion, all part of the quest for self-actualization. God is in it! … There is a force in life (nature, the cosmos, the gods) that compels us toward self-actualization. I submit that it is harder and takes more emotional and mental effort to hide ourselves than it does to be our true selves. And the price is much, much higher.

Lastly, I very much liked what Apronkid wrote about “selfishness”:  … there IS a certain amount of selfishness that comes with self-discovery. And personally, if that's what it takes to know myself a little better, I'm okay with being selfish! I think when others criticize "us" for taking time out to focus on the self, it's because they don't understand the long-term benefits of what is happening inside "us" … [T]his selfishness of self-discovery is a time where we fill our "vessels" with experience … When we live our lives unwilling to accept who we really are, we are empty, and have next to nothing of ourselves to contribute to the world. We ache with the desire to contribute, and become confused as we are filled with experience of others and have no substance of our own. This selfishness is a time to fill up! It is a time to realize and define and create our own experience. After accepting the self, one has more to give.  Perhaps, after all the introspection and self-discovery, such a seemingly selfish period in our lives isn't really selfish at all [emphasis added].”


  1. This is a good thing! The angst of our life situation is the force that ultimately leads to self-acceptance. This inner turmoil is nature’s way of telling us something is out of harmony, that to resolve the conflict within, we must become and accept our true self.

    Eleanor Roosevelt once described it: “Somehow we learn who we really are and then live with that decision.”

    Referring to the man in the mirror, Wendy Strgar provides this insight. “Doubt and fear about our own self worth is the most common of all human diseases of the heart. Even the most successful people in the world are often dogged and coerced by the parts of themselves they most want to avoid. The tragic thing about our broken pieces is that the longer we push them away and underground, the more broken they become. They grow in our avoidance and even as we avert our eyes or try any number of ways to deny them, they take up more room inside of us.”
    In 1934, Peter Dale Winbrow, Jr. wrote the poem about the man in the mirror. (Officially entitled: Guy in the Glass.) I think these lines from his simple verse particularly applicable.

    For it isn't your mother, your father or wife
    whose judgment upon you must pass,
    but the man, whose verdict counts most in your life
    is the one staring back from the glass.
    He's the fellow to please,
    never mind all the rest.
    For he's with you right to the end,
    and you've passed your most difficult test
    if the man in the glass is your friend

    Best regards,

  2. i want to believe it... with all my heart i really want to believe that it is not selfishness to be who we are on the inside. to love. to be loved in return.

    we talk so much of the sacrifice of self in the lds faith, but do we really understand it in terms of acceptance and loving thyself? Matthew quotes Christ as saying we must love our neighbours as we love ourselves.

    i have been told since i have been a kid that i am expected to be a certain way. i am expected to be a leader. i am expected to serve, love and sacrifice to help others. in Freudian terms my ego and superego are well exercised by family and church.

    my favourite movie is "Enchanted April" where a couple of English ladies are trying to decide to take a holiday in Italy for they have both seen the advertisement of "Wisteria and Sunshine". Lottie says to Rose "i am sure it must be wrong to go on being good for so long you become miserable. I can see you've been good for years and years and you aren't happy. And i've been doing good things for other people since i was a little girl and i don't believe I am loved any better." A few scenes later as they are about to meet the owner of the Italian castle and Rose starts to worry over the expense of leasing the castle especially when "we can buy a great many boats for the poor with that money...well,there is something immoral about all this" referencing the possibility of leasing the castle or in other words having a bit of happiness.

    i have also since a child "known" who i am. both spiritually and also my sexual preference (granted i certainly didn't know what it really meant) I am both. I am a Son of God and I am Gay.
    Still, i have not found complete comfort knowing that i am a Son of God. though the Church and members insist that "Happiness in family life is most likely to be achieved when founded upon the teachings of the Lord Jesus Christ."

    i have lived and continue to live those principles however, i have not found happiness. and i dont understand it. I also accept that i am gay. three and a half years ago i finally accepted that part of my life in the hopes to find balance and happiness. but for three years it hasn't happened.

    in the meantime, my children are growing up and yes, i have them in my life daily, but i am far from being the dad i want to be or even to be the man i want to be. i am empty and hollow.

  3. I echo the thoughts that there is nothing wrong with loving who you are, and the clip you chose does exhibit this idea and carry it to a point of pushing it over the edge. But you know what, this is an exercise that my girlfriends and I would do frequently: how do we look like to others? what does it look like being up close and personal with our selves? it was sometimes frightening and exhilarating to see those images of my self, but it was part of my self discovery.

    Anyway, I think often that a sense of TRUE self is often what is first destroyed by any sort of unhealthy situation: one of domination, control, slavery, tyranny etc. Slaves would not have mirrors to be able to see themselves, they were taught that they couldn't create anything, they were mixed with people who didn't speak their dialect so that their culture would die, their language, their names (identity) were changed ...

    In a way, you have been a slave to a negative image of who you were deep down inside. It seems that you were forced to disguise your self with a mask who, at times, was unrecognizable. How could you look at yourself, let alone at others, if you didn't feel that you were the one being projected. A mirror is a projection: an image of yourself. I think that you have thrown off the mask, and are aligning your deeper self (back to my discussion about Sartre in November) with the one you see in the mirror: the image that is being projected now is aligning itself with your inner self: the 'you", you refuse to hate.

    Sean, IP and all IP's bloggers, setting expectations to one's own measuring stick is what is best, and may that measuring stick be nice to yourself (remember the one you want to take out to lunch?) I once read this quote by VIrigina Woolf at my high school graduation many moons ago from her beautiful book, "A Room of One's Own", and I'd like to share it with you now:

    "Praise and blame alike mean nothing. No, delightful as the pastime of measuring may be, it is the most futile of all occupations, and to submit to the decrees of the measurers the most servile of attitudes. So long as you write what you wish to write, that is all that matters; and whether it matters for ages or only for hours, nobody can say. But to sacrifice a hair of the head of your vision, a shade of its colour, in deference to some Headmaster with a silver pot in his hand or to some professor with a measuring-rod up his sleeve, is the most abject treachery, and the sacrifice of wealth and chastity which used to be said to be the greatest of human disasters, a mere flea-bite in comparison. [...]

    Therefore I would ask you to write all kinds of books, hesitating at no subject however trivial or however vast. By hook or by crook, I hope that you will possess yourselves of money enough to travel and to idle, to contemplate the future or the past of the world, to dream over books and loiter at street corners and let the line of thought dip deep into the stream."

  4. When I first came out to myself, I had a gay mentor of sorts who exhorted me to stand before the mirror each morning naked after the shower and say out loud: "I'm gay and I'm okay!".

    It was silly at first, but as silly as it sounds, it helped me to accept that this new revelation was okay and I was okay, and to stop beating up on myself.

    It took me more than a few times, and a few years, to stop completely beating up myself. If that is selfish, then so be it.

  5. I believe part of the reason we feel badly about ourselves is that we are predisposed to look back and grieve for our failures and losses of yesterday or fear the ambiguity and and uncertainty of tomorrow. This seems to be particularly true for us gay men as we exhaust ourselves in the back of the closet.

    By focusing on the now and enjoying the uniqueness and beauty of it, we can forget about the past and build faith and confidence in our future.

    In this moment, life is good and I, a gay man, am good in it.