Gay Stereotypes and Self esteem
In my work as a psychotherapist it can be difficult to describe what exactly it is that a psychotherapist does. At times I find the words hiding themselves so well that I can’t put a simple sentence together that answers the question. In such times as these we all fall back on generalisations. Ideas that are so broad they could apply to almost anything and yet still have some useful meaning.
Complaints are often made about the stereotypes of psychotherapists in the media being very unhelpful. I find the same is true when I am asked about myself as a gay man. The difficulty that I find in defining myself has led in the past to taking on board some very unhelpful stereotypes. The skill has been to choose those that are useful and recognising those that are not.
Many lesbian, gay, bi-sexual and transgender clients come to me because they do not see themselves in the images and messages that surround them. This leads them to confusion and unhappiness as they try to live up to those unhelpful and often wrong stereotypes. They come to me with what they, or their doctors, describe as depression and/ or low self esteem. For most people depression is a state they don’t understand and its one that hasn’t been explained to them. Depression is a reaction to events and it usually starts with anger – anger that gets buried. It gets buried because there is no recognition of its cause and no way to resolve it. This sets up a cycle that leads to the conclusion that “I am wrong”. The stereotypes that are all around us; happy families, heterosexual ‘normality’, impossible body shapes, devalued lesbians and gay men feed this destructive cycle.
The feelings of depression have a way of creeping up on us without us realising it. We are so surrounded by messages from all around us that often we don’t even realise the effect they are having. Its an unconscious process. As humans we have an innate ability to copy people. As young children we learn how to live in the world from our parents and brothers and sisters. These days it's all put down to 'mirror neurones'. In my form of therapy, NLPt, this is called “modelling” Rather than just copying like a Xerox machine we take on board behaviours, beliefs, messages and ideas and make them our own. We build on this modelling ability and develop it throughout our lives. What is left out of our teaching and education system is how to choose what to model and what to ignore.
So it makes sense to take stock every so often and check for feelings of anger, hurt and confusion to identify what the cause of these might be. What have we picked up that has resulted in these feelings and/or thoughts? The way to do this is take a few minutes either on you own or with a close friend and explore how you feel about your life. You might like to make a list of your beliefs about the world or as it were your rules for life. Then identify where these came from; a parent, friend, an advert on TV. Spend a few minutes simply saying how you feel and where you feel it, locate your feelings within your own body then give those feelings a voice. This is the beginning of a new internal chat and the end of depression. More than this – it’s a way of re-learning how you want to be in the world.
If those feelings have been around for some time and if all that they can tell you is that you have no worth, that you don’t’ measure up and there is no way out then depression is a possibility. The next step is to ask yourself “What am I angry about ?” It's been seen that buried deep at the bottom of depression is anger. Ask the part of you that is likely to be angry “What do you want for me?” When you have this in as much detail as possible you are on your way to gaining back control of your life. Take a few minutes to focus on the answer to this question and continue until you have a constructive response, something that’s good for you. Believe me, its there. The next step is to ask “What do I need to do next ?”
Self esteem is defined as you knowing that you are “competent, worthy and lovable” and that you have “confidence in your own merit as an individual”. This is built by your experiences and beliefs about you and the world around you – or not as the case may be. If you have low self esteem that may lead to depression you cannot move on until you love the depressed you. By this I mean that you need to love the depressed you for the things that you and he / she wants – love, happiness, confidence et c.
It’s the goal that really matters and the creating of the depressed feelings is just a means to achieving that. “Focus on the bad and you’ll get the good” is the logic but it’s a logic that runs out very fast. Loving yourself – focus on the good - provides the energy and direction to get what you want. It can help to hand back the unhelpful stereotypes to those people who gave them to you in the first place and leave the feelings of depression in your past, where they belong.
There is an argument about what comes first. Do you need good self esteem to resolve the depression or do you need to resolve the depression so that you can develop good self esteem. This kind of discussion can go around in circles and get us nowhere. The real question is “Where are you ?” Do you recognise your qualities or are you trying to achieve some stereotype of who you should be ? The way to find out is to start talking about it.
If you have no-one to talk with then the first question is “How have I come to have no one around me ?” and then ask “What do I need to do next ?”. Simply asking this question is your first step to defining who you are and being confident about that. You might like to develop the list you started earlier by adding the useful stereotypes, ones that reflect the true you and help you to develop. My suggestion is talk to some of the gay / lesbian help organisations and people listed in this directory.
In the meantime I am going to try and develop some more useful stereotypes of psychotherapists. Ones that are true to who I am and what it is that I help people to achieve. Mmmmmmmmmm………………..