“Whatever it was – at the time we still may not have known what it was – we decided must be hidden completely from view. Although we are older now, we are still driven by those insatiable, infantile drives for love and acceptance. In order to survive, we learned to become something that we thought would be more acceptable to our parents, teachers and playmates.”
Today’s Invictus Pilgrim Book Club post continues a discussion of The Velvet Rage: Overcoming the Pain of Growing up Gay in a Straight Man’s World, by Alan Downs, Ph.D. I covered the Introduction in the last post on this book; today, I discuss material from the first three chapters, which explore the phenomena of shame and the desire for validation in the life of a typical gay man.
I could personally relate to much of what Downs wrote in these first three chapters. After describing what many gay boys experience at the hands of their peers, he makes the comment that this treatment (bullying, called a “sissy”, etc.), together with a fear of rejection by parents, engrains in young men a strident lesson: That there is something about them that is “disgusting, aberrant and essentially unlovable.”
“We needed love and we feared that there was something about us that made us unlovable. It was an experience that became an integral part of our psychology that has stayed with us most of our lives. We became utterly convinced that there was something about us that is essentially unlovable.”
I have lately been exploring feelings of shame and have come to better realize just how deeply engrained in me is this conviction that I was/am essentially unlovable. In my own case, I believe that the seed of this conviction was planted when I was just an infant and toddler, then was nourished as I grew into a boy and experienced abuse in the home. This shame grew exponentially when, as an adolescent, I realized that I am gay.
What are the effects and consequences of this shame? Downs summarizes some of them:
“We became dependent on adopting the skin our environment imposed upon us to earn the love and affection we craved. How would we love ourselves when everything around us told us that we were unlovable? Instead, we chased the affection, approval and attention doled out by others … We survived by learning to conform to the expectations of others at a time in our development when we should have been learning to follow our own internal promptings. We became puppets of a sort – allowing those around us to pull the strings that made us act in acceptable ways, all the while knowing that we couldn’t trust ourselves.”
This passage couldn’t have described me better. I have often commented during the past year that, for most of my life, I have felt like an actor on a stage, performing a role/roles and seeking the approval or validation of others, but feeling utterly empty inside. Shame essentially denies the self as unlivable and unlovable and pushes it away, deep down inside ourselves. Writes Downs:
“Not surprisingly, the long-term effect was an inability to validate ourselves. The ability to derive internal satisfaction and contentment didn’t emerge from our adolescence as it should have. Instead, we sputtered along looking to others for the confidence and well-being that we needed to protect ourselves from being overcome with shame. What normally becomes an internal, self-sustaining process of self-validation in the healthy, young adult remained infantile within us, and we instead became sophisticated in the ways of coercing acceptance from the world around us.”
What many don’t realize is that, like the effects of child abuse that are woven into the very fabric of one’s being, the effects of shame induced by growing up gay also have long-term effects that can – if unaddressed – affect us for decades:
“An emotional wound caused by toxic shame is a very serious and persistent disability that has the potential to literally destroy your life. It is much more than just a poor self-image. It is the internalized and deeply held belief that you are somehow unacceptable, unlovable, shameful, and in short, flawed … Because we are very vulnerable to shame and because it is triggered so easily within us, our lives become solely focused on avoiding shame and seeking validation … The consequence of this is that [the] true self remains undeveloped and hidden deep within … Who [one] is, what [one] really likes, [one’s] true passion, and more are all colored and buried beneath the façade [one] has developed to avoid shame.”
For me, joining the Church as a young man seemed like the perfect vehicle to salve my deep sense of shame, to achieve validation and to adopt an identity that I could put on like an off-the-rack suit.
Like survival mechanisms adopted as a child which work for a while but later prove detrimental and unhealthy, joining the Church provided me with much-needed validation, love and personal meaning – for a time. But, ultimately, it reinforced my deeply-held belief that I was unacceptable, unlovable, shameful and flawed.
Now, I am engaged in a process of seeking my true self, of trying to figure out what has happened to me throughout my life, and of learning to love myself. Reading Velvet Rage has helped me in this process.