Rick Miller LICSW


Progress and Vulnerability: Difficult Companions

Although gay acceptance continues to grow, feeling safe still eludes us.

Posted Nov 16, 2016

We have come along way in our community.  Just a generation ago, gay men weren’t comfortable coming out to their families or their employers or others. Now “out” is just who we are, and it shows up in everything, everyday, everywhere, from simple things like walking hand-in-hand in public to milestones such as being able to legally marry. 

Yes, this progress is exciting, whether you are gay or simply support those of us who are. Still, there is a dichotomy for many of us in our daily lives, a split reality: even with obvious progress being made continuously the feeling of inner uneasiness doesn’t go away. This feeling may be the residue of the pronounced and pervasive negativity that gay people were met with such a short time ago, and it is undoubtedly connected with very present negativity that is just beneath the surface of our newly minted diversity-positive society. 

Gay men still face physical and emotional danger in parts of the country, and ethnic or religious background add to the threat. And the recent election of Mr. Trump? It has opened the old wound, which was just beginning to be healed: the question of whether or not we are safe, of whether or not we are a valued part of society.

Those of us who live in more liberal communities have felt protected. But truthfully, we have never been safe from the fear and loathing of others; overt threat has lessened, yes, but it has never disappeared. And in the last campaign we were told that Americans were sick of “political correctness,” which we, of course, know is a euphemism. The chord that Mr. Trump hit was this: many Americans are tired of having to demonstrate mutual acceptance, weary of having to feign mutual respect. 

Thus, for most of us, it isn’t so much physical threat that causes anxiety, it is the historical feelings being triggered: experiences of being bullied, belittled, and the host of micro-aggressions (intentional or not) that reflect the sense of superiority that heterosexuals possess. 

Past traumas quickly rise to the surface, as the old feelings of inadequacy, separateness, isolation, and vulnerability seem to come out of nowhere. Our bodies recognize it first, whether it is shortness of breath or heart palpitations, fatigue or depression. We may notice that minor incidents have greater effect than usual, as the past intrudes on the present, or we may feel a little paranoid, just waiting for straight neighbors or acquaintances to begin withdrawing from us or worse.

Hearing from a few of my clients:

Dave, a junior in college, just came out to his parents. His parents live in a liberal town in Boston, and they are part of a generation who accept and befriend gay men. Dave’s father, however, still struggles hearing his son’s news.  It is painful for him to realize that Dave isn’t going to be the man he thought he’d be. For Dave, his father’s disappointment is crushing.  This is a common experience of the dichotomy that so many experience wherein being gay is okay — in the abstract, for other people’s children. 

Stan and Ed, who have been legally married for 11 years, recently discovered that the building coop in which they live gave preferential treatment to a heterosexual married couple. The Board’s perspective was simple: Stan and Ed aren’t “really married.”  The couple feels angry and defeated. Just when they thought they had achieved equality, had found a home beyond a place to live, they feel the powerful sting of separateness.

Mike’s brother, who is close and welcoming to Mike, frequently reminds him about how much their parents struggled initially with his being gay. Mike feels uneasy after these conversations, but cannot really put his finger on the problem. Why does his brother insist on bringing it up all the time? Is he expressing some underlying feeling of his own? Why is it difficult for Mike to confront his brother?

These types of conflicted encounters and responses are not uncommon, but with the recent election, such emotional mixed messages seem to be nested in broad social regression. Many of my clients are reporting that they feel unsafe, and are having nightmares and experiencing panic attacks. They compare their grief and uneasiness to what they have experienced around other profound events such as the deaths of family members or close friends. 

Confronting Out There In Here

I also feel what my clients feel in this regard, but there are things we can do, that we must do to take care of ourselves internally no matter what is occurring externally.

When is anger appropriate? When is it better to turn away? We have to remember that old wounds may spark reactions that are out of sync with what is actually happening now. We need to be able to create enough space in ourselves to quickly ascertain when an incident warrants our energy or when self-regulation might be a better option. 

Before doing anything, we want to connect with ourselves, find our ground, make contact with our center, our core. When I guide my clients’ struggle into mindful spaces, they soften into choice and possibility.  

We can take a moment, pay attention to breath, orient to an internal equilibrium. From this place, which we have to make a practice of accessing, we are better able to respond with strength and clarity, making decisions that are wise and attuned to the circumstance.  

Creating centering moments can enable us to call forth our inner wisdom and to choose stances that will be effective overall. Being able to find our ground decreases the sense of vulnerability to external forces and heightens a sense of integrity. Making a practice of centering will help ensure that we are prepared when there is some sort of threat to our safety, emotional or physical. It is a simple practice that prepares us for all aspects — good and bad — of a complex life. 

Some questions to consider as you begin to form ideas to anchor a personal centering practice:

  • How can I remember, even on the most down days, that there are ways for me to feel better and stronger? 
  • Where do I find joy and contentment in my life already? 
  • With whom do I feel most at peace because I am fully myself?
  • How can I express solidarity with others in healthy ways?
  • How do fear and anger hold me back, and what are the best ways to expand my emotional vocabulary?
  • What activities nourish me, and how can I be sure to make time for them?
  • How can I maintain optimism even as I confront negativity? 

Again, the election has tapped into painful memories for many of us and it has been so important to gather our resources. Numerous clients have shared their strategies with me, including Chris, who made sure to call his aunt, with whom he has common values, rather than his parents, who have other values, to express his shock and upset. It took just a few moments of mutual agreement for him to feel a little better.  Then, in response to being depressed and overwhelmed, another client, Don, opted to do some writing to educate others about his political perspective. Writing gave him a direct means to self-empowerment.  And, there is Bill, who feeling equal parts angry and scared, made the decision to up his donations to the causes that he supports and to do volunteer work on a regular basis. Rather than sacrifice his energy to negativity, he is putting it to good use, and this taking back of some control has brought relief. 

Finally, essential to expanding our ground is becoming mindful not only of what we choose to give our attention to but making the clear decision about what we withdraw from. A little discipline goes a long way in interrupting anxiety-inducing habits such as watching a lot of television, obsessively reading the news, being glued to Facebook posts or its news feed, or listening to AM radio. 

We need to protect ourselves from our own compulsions if we are going to be able to protect ourselves from outside threats. We need to de-clutter our psyches and spirits. Being in control beats being bombarded. So, shut down the computer, put your cell on mute, and seek connections with those who truly support you. They will be glad you reached out to them. In the business of life, most people forget to align with those who are closest, starting with themselves

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