Survive the social work career marathon with these 4 secret qualities

Essy Knopf social work superstar
Reading time: 5 minutes

The Master of Social Work (MSW) is a terminal degree. Terminal, as in “final”, not fatal (although some students caught up in the struggle to complete an MSW program may argue otherwise!)

For most social work practitioners, no further education is required. As a generalist degree, the goal of the MSW program is to equip students with the knowledge and skills required to undertake a variety of roles.

At the same time, this generalist focus may run counter to the goals of those students who aspire to specialization.

Whether your aim is to become a clinician trained in DBT, to run support groups for homeless youth, or to advocate for renter rights, you may emerge from graduate school feeling ill-prepared for the rigors of your profession.

Being a jack-of-all-trades may even leave us with the gnawing insecurity that we are also masters of none…what’s also known as “social work student imposter syndrome”.

Regardless of your chosen path, know that your success does not depend so much upon access to specialist knowledge and training as it does certain qualities.

Here are four I believe are key to becoming a social work superstar.

1. A social work superstar has an attitude of service

It’s fair to assume that most of us were drawn to the social work profession by the desire to serve others.

But a desire to serve and an attitude of service are not the same. A desire implies an intention, whereas an attitude implies a mindset.

A social worker with an attitude of service does not reserve “unconditional positive regard” for clients only. Rather, they see it as their mission to find, accentuate, and celebrate the best in everyone.

A social worker with an attitude of service contributes to the flourishing of all. They are gracious, empathetic, and collaborative.

They abide, in short, not by the ego, but by humility. Practicing an attitude of service means being guided as much by a professional code of conduct as by a higher ideal

2. They practice authenticity

Social workers are real people with their own thoughts and feelings, and authenticity asks a social work superstar to be congruent in their expression of those feelings and thoughts.

One way we can be authentic is through self-disclosure. Hartley et al. (2001) offer these two simple templates for self-disclosing about our own learning experiences:

  • “When I (past life experience), I felt (past feelings elicited). I wonder how that fits for you.”
  • “When I did (past behavior), I experienced (effect of past behavior). I wonder how that fits for you.”

It is essential of course that such statements not be self-serving. The goal is to share comparable or relatable experiences as a means of building rapport.

Being authentic refers not only to staying open, honest, and genuine. It’s also a powerful philosophy that can also enrich our daily life.

Brené Brown defines authenticity as choosing to cultivate “the courage to be imperfect—and vulnerable. We have to believe that we are fundamentally worthy of love and acceptance, just as we are.”

Rather than concealing our authentic selves behind a sterile mask of professionalism, we can choose to emerge as our imperfect, genuine selves in the knowledge that this creates conditions for others to do so as well.

Essy Knopf social work superstar

3. They adopt a growth mindset

Do you believe all your qualities are set in stone? Do you measure your success and self-worth based on the outcome of every situation you face in life?

Are you constantly striving to prove yourself over and over? Do you fear losing positive labels, or believe you may deserve negative ones? Do you have, in short, a “fixed mindset”? 

Or do you hold fast to the belief that everyone can change for the better? Are you dedicated, strategic, and willing to accept others’ support? 

Do you adopt flexible perspectives? Are you willing to accept some of your imperfections? Do you embrace a “growth mindset”?

Carol S. Dweck in her book Mindset outlines how those with a growth-oriented outlook are more likely to engage in optimistic self-talk and therefore to push on in the face of opposition. Those with a fixed mindset on the other hand have the opposite experience.

The good news is that mindsets are not permanent, but rather paradigms we can adopt or remove, like pairs of tinted sunglasses.

Transitioning from a fixed to growth mindset involves retraining our brain to recognize hope, potential, and success where it might otherwise perceive threat and failure. 

It also means not seeing intelligence and talent as preset qualities, but rather ones that can be developed. And it involves the regular use of optimistic self-talk.

Challenging your perceptions is not a task that needs to be undertaken on your own. You may benefit for example from the support and insights offered by a therapist.

But if blooming where you are planted is something you struggle with, consider building a self-compassion practice. In the words of Self-Compassion author Kristin Neff,

Self-compassion provides an island of calm, a refuge from the stormy seas of endless positive and negative self-judgment, so that we can finally stop asking, “Am I as good as they are? Am I good enough?”

Only by nourishing a state of internal safety can those of use with fixed mindsets develop greater mental flexibility.

A growth mindset notably is a key ingredient of resilience, an important trait for all social work superstars.

4. A social work superstar is gritty

To have grit means to be passionate and willing to continue pursuing our passions—no matter the circumstances.

According to Grit author Angela Duckworth, being “gritty” means seeking an

ultimate goal in an abiding, loyal, steady way. You are not capricious. Each day, you wake up thinking of the questions you fell asleep thinking about. You are, in a sense, pointing in the same direction, ever eager to take even the smallest step forward than to take a step to the side, toward some other destination.

When obstacles appear, gritty people do not abandon their goals. Instead, they chase them with even greater tenacity.

Grit is all about being quietly determined. Like the growth mindset, it isn’t some inherent, unchangeable quality, but rather a question of self-discipline.

We can come by grit through deliberate practice. Duckworth explains there are four components to this:

  • Setting a clearly defined stretch goal
  • Applying our full concentration and effort in pursuit of that goal
  • Seeking out immediate and informative feedback
  • Reflecting and refining our approach as we repeatedly apply ourselves to the task at hand

Being gritty in summary means caring deeply about, and committing to, the process and the outcome. 

Wrap up

Many of us will go through social work school with nary a mention of the four qualities I outlined above. I believe however that they are indispensable to our quest for professional excellence.

Regardless of where you stand, one fact is certain: we will be tested throughout our careers. Oftentimes, we may find ourselves lacking much-needed skills and know-how.

Yet with grit and a growth mindset, we can bounce back, applying ourselves with fresh enthusiasm to overcoming obstacles.

Likewise, a social worker with an attitude of service knows their role is not to empower some, but all.

Wise social workers know that understanding and personal growth can only occur only when we choose to embrace our vulnerability. 

We as professionals can choose to pave the way for clients, colleagues, and other stakeholders by showing up as our authentic selves. 

You can read more social work-related posts here.


Hartley et al. (2001). A strengths-based communication model: Interpersonal skills for the helping relationship. University of Iowa School of Social Work.

6 key skills that can make or break your social work career

Essy Knopf social work career skills
Reading time: 5 minutes

Throughout your social work career, all of us will be asked to do the seemingly impossible.

Whether working with clients in therapy to repair psychic injuries, or campaigning for social equality, such feats depend upon a set of specific—but surprisingly mundane—skills. 

While some of these skills could certainly apply to other professions, others are specific to the nature of social work, and the demands it makes of us not just as professionals, but as human beings also. 

One obvious example of this is the “use of self” in a clinical setting. From time to time, social work clinicians are called upon to appropriately self-disclose. 

The openness and authenticity with which we present our humanity can go a long way to facilitating our client’s personal growth and achievements.

Serving others in such a fashion, however, requires we first have some ability to self-regulate—one of the hallmarks of emotional intelligence. 

Here are some top skills I believe can help you on your journey towards becoming a better social worker.

1. Goal setting for your social work career

The only way we can ever get to where we are going is by first clearly defining our destination. This is where S.M.A.R.T. goals come in.

S.M.A.R.T. stands for five categories: specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-bound. 

This goal tracking system helps break often vague objectives into concrete plans with easy-to-follow steps while accounting for any contingencies and obstacles.

Sure—the level of detail demanded by S.M.A.R.T. goals can often feel mentally taxing—but don’t let this stop you from using them. S.M.A.R.T. goals exist to help you ultimately work smarter, not harder.

Simplify the process by starting with a free S.M.A.R.T. goal planning spreadsheet. Set a maximum of three goals. 

Once you’ve decided upon the tasks that are necessary to fulfill them, it’s time to deploy skill number two…

2. Time management

For those of us already time-poor, the very idea we should try to wrangle order out of our already packed day is enough to evoke dread. The following two-step process will go a long way to dispel that feeling.

Using the list you generated from skill number one, begin by organizing each task in order of priority:

1. Prioritize your to-dos 

Create a rank-ordered to-do list by sorting each task into the following order:

  1. Urgent and important (do first)
  2. Not urgent but still important (schedule)
  3. Urgent but not important (delegate)
  4. Not urgent and not important (don’t do)

Action each step accordingly. Any item with a #4 ranking can simply be deleted from the list.

If you’re in any way confused by this method, consider using an Eisenhower Matrix (here’s an array of free templates).

2. Schedule 

Anything that needs to be scheduled should be recorded in your calendar. If you use a service that syncs across all your devices (such as Google Calendar or Apple iCloud Calendar), all the better. 

Next, set reminders so you won’t miss your commitments. I personally prefer to set at least two reminders, one via email and one via instant notification.

Most of us are usually within arms’ reach of our computer or phone, so this can be a great way of ensuring we stay on track.

3. Communication

Communication can play a vital role in connecting, building bridges, and facilitating positive change. This is no less the case during our social work careers.

Whether it’s verbal, written, or visual, good communication is always a question of clarity. 

Be direct and succinct, then elaborate, if required. Avoid drowning the receiver with information. Do away with round-about explanations. Make your requests explicit.

Also, it helps to follow these basic rules of thumb, borrowed from a classic book on personal effectiveness, How To Win Friends & Influence People:

  • Be friendly
  • Respect other’s opinions
  • Do more listening than talking
  • Try to take others’ perspectives
  • Sympathize with their ideas and desires
  • Be quick to admit your errors
  • Avoid arguments, criticisms, condemnations, and complaints

Always try to put yourself in the shoes of your communication partner. Consider the reaction your words may trigger before speaking. 

Finally, collaborate by communicating your projected timelines to relevant stakeholders.

If you think you’re going to miss a deadline, let them know and negotiate a revised due date.

Writing that extra email may feel burdensome, but know that others will always be thankful you kept them in the loop.

Essy Knopf fundamental skills social work career

4. Empathy

Empathy is the ability to understand and share others’ feelings. It is the glue that holds individuals—and society—together.

Expressing empathy may come naturally to some, whereas for others, it may need to be developed. 

Listening attentively is one way we can practice empathy. We can start with body language. By making regular eye contact, we convey we are interested in what the other person has to say. 

Uttering “mmhmm” or nodding and shaking our heads are some popular verbal and nonverbal cues commonly used to show one understands and cares.

These responses are also examples of furthering responses, which are the equivalent of asking the speaker to tell you more. 

Reflection responses go one step further by addressing both the content of messages and the emotions with which they are expressed. 

Our goal when offering reflection responses is to mirror what we, the listener, think we are hearing. “So what I think I’m hearing from you is…”

When we use reflecting responses, we are checking that we have correctly understood whatever has just been communicated to us. 

We can also try to summarize or paraphrase our communication partner’s words in a thoughtful and respectful way. 

There will be times when our partner responds with, “Actually…” and goes on to tell us how off-base our interpretation was. 

Know that misunderstandings are par for the course. What matters most is our willingness to keep working with our conversation partner to get on the same page.

5. Self-awareness

Emotional Intelligence author Daniel Goleman defines self-awareness as ongoing attention towards, observation, and investigation of one’s internal states. 

To be self-aware therefore means to be “aware of both our mood and our thoughts about that mood.”

We typically cope with and respond to our emotions in one of three ways:

  • Becoming engulfed: Being completely taken over by our feelings. 
  • Practicing acceptance: Doing nothing to change our moods, even when they cause distress.
  • Staying self-aware: Mindfully managing emotions and refusing to ruminate on negative feelings.

Whatever your chosen social work career, acceptance, or engulfment can open us to the possibility of countertransference.

Clinicians who fail to reflect on their feelings in such situations may act out patterns of behavior that damage the therapeutic alliance.

We all have our blindspots. But self-awareness can be actively improved, for instance, by cultivating a mindfulness practice.

6. Boundary setting

Bodies, words, physical space, emotional distance, time, and consequences. These are some categories of personal boundaries, write Boundaries authors Henry Cloud and John Townsend.

A common boundary violation in social work is long hours and high caseloads

Most of us would agree that our ability to flourish depends upon our ability to keep stress to moderate levels. We also require plenty of time to rest and recharge.

When these two things are denied us, however, it is our responsibility to clarify and assert our boundaries. This may mean saying “no” to taking on more work than we can manage. Or it may mean leaving an exploitative situation.

Should we choose not to, we may otherwise succumb to compassion fatigue and burnout.

Another way we can set boundaries is by choosing to not bring work home. This includes refusing to respond to non-essential communication with colleagues and clients outside of work hours. 

Doing this also has the added benefit of safeguarding us against forming dual relationships with clients.

Wrap up

Newly minted social workers are like first-time tennis players, struggling to defend themselves against a volley of balls from a merciless pitching machine.

Faced with such challenges, we may pause to peer into the depths of us our generalist’s toolkit, struggling to find the best—and fastest—solution. 

The result may be decision paralysis. Failing to deliver a return may leave us with the figurative black eye of imposter syndrome.

But competency in social work is rarely the product of quick thinking or specialized education alone. It’s also about building and maintaining core skills.

By mastering goal setting, time management, communication, empathy, self-awareness, and boundary setting, we position ourselves not just for social work career success, but for career sustainability also.

You can read more social work-related posts here.

How gay dating apps have sparked a vulnerability crisis

Essy Knopf gay dating apps
Reading time: 5 minutes

My first real contact with the gay community was not through gay dating apps, but one of their predecessors: the website Gaydar. 

Aged 17, I had just left the family home and moved to a new city where I knew no one. Being not yet of legal age, I was unable to attend gay nightclubs, so Gaydar swiftly became my exclusive means of contact with other gay men. 

Similar to the Scruff of today, Gaydar allowed users to set up a profile along with a private gallery. 

Occasionally I’d get a notification that another had unlocked theirs for me. I’d brace myself, dreading what the invitation must inevitably hold.

And sure enough, the moment I clicked through, I’d receive a barrage of “anatomical exam” photos. For many people I’ve talked to, nude photo swaps are more mundane than titillating. 

Gay dating apps demand that we market ourselves as a commodity, as an ingredient in a fantasy that can then be mentally reconfigured at will.

When we are presented as just another face or torso in a sea of countless others, we have to take any chance we can to stand out. 

If you subscribe to that logic, “showing the goods” is a necessary requirement for a “sale”. I have always questioned however whether this is a tactic that results in face-to-face encounters. 

In-person interactions it seems have become an increasingly pallid substitute for the heightened reality of app-based instant gratification.

Exchanging sexual messages and photos with multiple dating app suitors is undeniably fun, especially given it carries none of the effort or consequences of real-life – and double the reward. 

These apps by design promote self-objectification and the validation that inevitably follows. They encourage us to respond to others not merely in order to maintain a conversation, but for the inherent reward of receiving a reply

That reply by implication is an acknowledgment of our romantic or sexual appeal. The positive neural feedback we receive when someone messages or sends us photos reinforces the desire to be objectified, which in turn keeps us coming back for more. 

But if we are not mindful, we can develop a single-minded focus on “winning”, leading in some cases to a gay dating app process addiction. 

In such cases, the process of dating becomes entirely divorced from its proclaimed purpose: to facilitate real-life relationships.

Gay dating apps demand we sacrifice vulnerability

Gay dating apps discourage exclusivity and encourage the fielding of multiple suitors. It’s a juggling act that necessitates efficiency. With so many options on hand, selecting a romantic or sexual partner must inevitably become a game of elimination. 

We screen people, dishing out and receiving rejection over and over again. In order to protect our egos, we give up making genuine approaches.

Instead of being present with the person, we’re speaking with, we slip into safe automaticity: talk round and round in talk circles, replace sentences with monosyllables, prompt people for information we have demanded from countless others before them. 

We list requirements and apply filters as if our tastes will maximize our gains and shield us not against failed connection, but an apparently far greater loss: suboptimal pleasure.

In effect, we trade connection for selection, and authenticity for subterfuge. In order to shield our feelings against the possibility of being hurt, we often disengage them entirely. 

essy knopf gay dating apps nude photos

Why you should say no to nudes

We play it cool, we play it sexy, but we don’t play our complicated, nuanced selves. Why? Because of the inherent limitations of instant messaging, the high levels of scrutiny to which it subjects us, and the wide latitude for misunderstanding.

Our conversations consequently become the rapid informational relay of stockbrokers. Stuck in the emotional deep freeze of gay dating apps, we fall to assessing, objectifying, categorizing and rejecting, arranging and manipulating people as if they were chess pieces, rather than living and breathing beings. 

We devalue both our humanness and that of others, and vulnerability dies a quiet death.

The irony is that to be naked is, in a very real, physical sense, to be vulnerable. Exchanging nude photos asks us to put ourselves on display for summary judgment by strangers

It forces us to be mercenary in our attitudes towards our chat partners, and cavalier about exposing ourselves in a way we normally reserve for intimate occasions. 

Arguably one of our primary needs as human beings is to connect with others. To connect, we need to be vulnerable. By sending nude photos, we are denying ourselves that right. 

In most cases, my app-based interactions have died in the water the moment I refused to exchange nude photos. To me, others’ demands were reductive and objectifying. 

It seemed to be that complying meant becoming yet another item on the app buffet menu. It also rewarded what I saw as unconscious, addictive “lever-pulling” behavior, the kind of thing you would expect of a rat trapped in a Skinner box

I am sad to report that after such refusals, my chat partners almost always chose not to meet me “sight unseen”. Instead, they continued to linger online, hedging their bets and scoping out all the available options. 

Many I suspect never intended to “choose” in the first place, preferring instead to forestall meeting anyone, often for the reasons I’ve already mentioned. Consider the example of the much-maligned “pic collector”, who lurks on the app for the sole gratification of collecting sexual photos.

gay dating apps

Be valued – on your terms

Gay dating apps only add to the pressure we face as gay men to conform to a certain ideal image of masculinity, which is often used as the basis for how we are assessed and treated by our romantic or sexual partners. 

But this oft-celebrated ideal – perfect cheekbones, chiseled jaws, and an athletic, muscular build – is problematic on several fronts.

First of all, this image is for, at least for a majority of gay men, simply unattainable. 

Even those of us blessed with good genes would still be required to invest a significant effort and time into crafting a picture-perfect physique. This is effort and time that most of us are unwilling, or unable, to spare.

Secondly, I believe this image is part and parcel of a toxic cultural perception of masculinity. Namely one in which men are unemotional, self-reliant ubermensch, impervious to any harm.

Beyond popular representations by TV and movie stars, such men do not, and never have, existed.

Thirdly, subscribing to this ideal asks that we divorce ourselves from our inner emotional selves – the same selves for which we crave acceptance.

It follows that the more we try to displace this need in favor of objectifying ourselves on gay dating apps, the more unhappy we are likely to feel. 

With such pressures, it’s no surprise that we are living in the midst of a slow-churning mental health epidemic. Gay men are more than twice as likely as their heterosexual counterparts to suffer from a mental health condition. They are also at a higher risk than the general population for suicide. 

For this reason, it’s crucial we avoid activities that are likely to put our sense of well-being in harm’s way. Choosing not to expose our naked selves to total strangers before meeting them is not an act of defiance. It’s an act of self-preservation.

Nudity should be an earned privilege that should occur in an atmosphere of mutual respect, not summary judgment. 

By refusing to send nude photos, we are reclaiming the right to be valued – on our own terms.


  • Gay dating apps keep us trapped in a never-ending cycle of trying to maximize gains.
  • The positive reinforcement they offer may lead to a cycle of automatic behavior.
  • This cycle may cause us to lose touch with vulnerability and our desire to connect.
  • Nude photo exchanges allows strangers to hold our bodies up against some unattainable ideal.
  • By not swapping nude photos, we are safeguarding our mental health.

Why ‘eulogy values’ are crucial to our happiness as gay men

Essy Knopf gay men
Reading time: 6 minutes

For most gay men, the journey from chronic insecurity to enduring wellbeing is fraught. It can be likened to fording a swift river under the cover of darkness, without the benefit of a boat or boatman.

Not only must we fight the currents of the past, but we must also somehow manage to keep our heads above the water in the present.

Without light to guide us, we risk losing sight of the far shore. Without a strong inner resolve, we may surrender and be swept downstream. 

Our suffering is often like mud on the river’s banks, so deep and compounded that we risk becoming mired in it before we’ve even reached the water.

In such times, we may be overwhelmed by the temptation to give in to our sense of powerlessness. Accepting that we may have no agency, that change is impossible, leads us to abandon our goals. 

We as gay men often settle for a life of contrary desires and actions, pursuing cheap thrill encounters in favor of purposeful deeds and meaningful connections. But such internal contradictions promise no peace. 

Rather, they are likely to only deepen our suffering.

Gay men and impulsive living

When I was in my early 20s and making my first forays into the gay “scene”, I met a man called Jeran.

Jeran was a gentle soul torn by insecurity. Having been abandoned by his father at an early age and bullied at school, he’d moved from the suburbs, seeking shelter in an inner-city gay village.

Despite always being surrounded by other gay men and having a mother who overcompensated to the point of celebrating her son’s birthday with him at a gay club of his choice, Jeran continued to suffer from self-loathing and impulsivity.

I knew Jeran desperately wanted a partner. But rather than attending venues and events geared towards dating, he spent his evenings compulsively cruising hookup sites and nightclubs.

Jeran was more of an acquaintance than a friend, so I was surprised when I received a call from him early one morning some months after our initial meeting.

Thinking it must be an emergency, I answered. Jeran apologized for waking me up then breathlessly launched into an account of his latest hookup. 

It quickly became clear to me that Jeran had confused a sexual encounter for a romantic one. When he explained the man he had met had recently split with his wife of some years, leaving his two children in her care, I hesitated.

But for Jeran, the fact the man had admitted this much could only ever be proof of his sincere intentions.

The following day, Jeran called again, seeking my enthusiastic endorsement, while disclosing intimate details that I had no interest in hearing.

By the third call, I finally told him that I needed him to reign it in. To my astonishment, Jeran replied by suggesting I might be jealous and dangled the consolation prize of a threeway

Given I had never expressed sexual interest in Jeran, this left me feeling deeply uncomfortable. I made an excuse and got off the call. 

About a week later, my phone buzzed. When I picked up, it was not Jeran this time, but his mother, pleading with me to go and check on him.

Jeran’s suitor, she explained, had stopped returning his calls, and her son was now in hysterics and threatening suicide. Concerned, I went over to Jeran’s studio to talk him through the situation. 

A stolid, red-eyed Jeran greeted me at the door. I tried to broach the subject of the breakup, but he deflected.

After a friend arrived to offer support, Jeran—without so much as a word of explanation—opened his laptop and proceeded to watch hardcore porn.

It was as if someone had set the faucet to full blast then switched it off just as suddenly.

Jeran’s denial of the relationship trauma he had just experienced was so complete he refused to take the necessary downtime to process his painful loss and, within a day or so, was back to cruising sex sites.

Over the next few years, I continued to see Jeran online, promoting drug use and branding himself as “semi-masc”—an apparent disavowal of his proud identification as camp.

Part of me wanted to reach out to him. Yet I knew that his entrenched sense of shame would prevent us from ever having the kind of authentic, nurturing conversation I knew he longed for.

Finding your anchor

Jeran’s suffering epitomizes that of many gay men who spend their lives yoyoing between highs and lows, refusing to acknowledge emotions and forever scrambling to find the next fix.

But in becoming preoccupied with the pursuit, we grow ever detached from our core values—values that should serve as a comforting source of stability, whatever the circumstance. 

Journalist David Brooks laments this universal challenge in his book The Road to Character:

Years pass and the deepest parts of yourself go unexplored and unstructured. You are busy, but you have a vague anxiety that your life has not achieved its ultimate meaning and significance. You live with an unconscious boredom, not really loving, not really attached to the moral purposes that give life its worth. You lack the internal criteria to make unshakable commitments. You never develop inner constancy, the integrity that can withstand popular disapproval or a serious blow. 

Without the grounding influence of a firm value system, those of us suffering the anguish of unsuccessful relationships or the pain of alienation from our authentic identity as gay men may turn to the validation promised by grandiosity, or the quick-fix relief of addictive substances or behaviors.

The problems we face in such circumstances are undoubtedly profound. There are no easy solutions, but if we are to ever find them, we must first be willing to put a moratorium on external distraction.

Only then can we achieve a much-needed internal reckoning.

gay men eulogy values

1. Write a mission statement

Instead of trying to find solace in our ever-changing physical reality, we can turn to the inner world of principles.

By actively engaging with our value system, we generate positive change. To quote Ralph Waldo Emerson: “Sow a thought, reap an action; sow an action, reap a habit; sow a habit, reap a character; sow a character, reap a destiny”.

How do we identify our principles? We can start by asking questions like:

  • What’s most important to me? 
  • What values do I believe in practicing daily? 
  • What am I most willing to fight for? 
  • What is my definition of a healthy, content, balanced life? 
  • What nourishes my body, mind, and spirit?

Look at your answers, making sure to distinguish between what Brooks calls “resumé values” and “eulogy values”.

Resumé values are values concerned exclusively with material success, the kind that sounds great on your resumé.

Eulogy values, on the other hand, are tied to your character. These are the traits loved ones might celebrate at your funeral.

Once you have identified your eulogy values, frame them as statements about how you intend to live your life, and why.

List these principles on a one-page document. Close your statement with a pledge of commitment and sign the bottom.

Congratulations! You now have a mission statement. 

Now print out copies of this statement and tape them in places where you’ll be reminded on a daily basis of the code by which you have chosen to live your new life.

2. Set some S.M.A.R.T. goals

S.M.A.R.T. stands for five categories: specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-bound. This goal tracking system helps break objectives into easily understood and trackable metrics.

Begin by brainstorming some goals in service of your newly articulated principles. Then download a S.M.A.R.T. goal planning spreadsheet and organize them into the five categories listed above.

For example, if healthy eating is a value you’ve identified, you can consider meal planning each week and preparing some home-cooked meals.

If you’ve listed community service as a goal, you can set aside time to volunteer for some nonprofits in your local community whose services you feel are valuable.

If you’ve decided you want to live a more mindful existence, consider implementing a 15-minute daily meditation practice.

In order to help you stick with your new resolutions, you may want to set reminders on your phone or program a habit-tracking app. Make sure to regularly check back on your progress at the times you’ve designated under the “T” section of your goal planner. 

The act of setting these goals alone will affirm your self-worth. And when you follow through with them, you are taking intentional steps towards creating a lifestyle defined not by the desire to escape but to embrace.

3. Be kind to yourself

Our society is addicted to the notion of instant “Cinderella-style” transformations. Transformation, however, runs on its own clock.

For this reason, you must be both patient and kind to yourself. Many gay men have a tendency towards achievement and perfectionism.

If this sounds like you, ensure your goal-setting and fulfillment does not become yet another behavior characterized by compulsivity.

Instead, practice listening to your feelings and needs. Cut yourself slack when needed. Treat this as an opportunity as much for growth as for self-compassion. 

Remember that you are tending a garden that will, in time, bear fruit. Conscientiousness and persistence are key.

The alternative is neglect, and we know very well the costs of this: the overgrown patches where snakes lurk, the flowers choked by weeds, the gnarled trees with their spoiled fruit. 

Craft a bold vision—one guaranteed to bring wellbeing and security, then carefully cultivate it.

“He who has a why to live,” says German philosopher Nietzsche, “can bear almost any how”.


  • Write a mission statement identifying the values that are most important to you.
  • Set goals in service of these values.
  • Break your new goals down into action steps using the S.M.A.R.T. system.
  • Pace yourself, and remember to practice self-compassion.

Five reasons gay dating apps are bad for you

Essy Knopf gay dating apps
Reading time: 4 minutes

Being time-poor is no longer the exception – it’s the rule. Using gay dating apps seems, on the face of it, easier and less time-consuming than more traditional forms of dating.

On the apps, the pool of potential partners is infinitely bigger. The ease of use trumps the complications of in-person interactions.

You can do your vetting anywhere, be it the comfort of your bed or a bathroom stall.

Text-based communication allows you to reply at your own convenience. To bask in the attention of multiple apparent suitors.

Present your ultra-refined, whip-smart, sexy, side-cracking funny ideal self. Never face the pain of real rejection. 

But all of this comes at a considerable cost. Countless a think piece has lamented the effect dating apps have had on interpersonal connection.

Namely, they create an environment that fosters judgment rather than true vulnerability. This diminishes our chances of being truly known and embraced by another human being.

Then there’s the fact that the efficiency we so value is an illusion. Rather than saving time, we may ultimately be squandering it.

gay dating apps

1. Gay dating apps ask us to forgo being authentic

Out of necessity, we change to suit our audience. We become whoever we need to be, curating images and text in order to secure whatever it is we want at that moment of time, be it company for dinner or a bedfellow for the hour.

In doing so, we avoid the risks involved with being vulnerable. But we also lose touch with our fundamental desire to be seen, recognized, and accepted for our authentic selves.

gay dating apps

2. They force us to trade our deeper needs for transitory wants

Gay dating apps ask us to select romantic or sexual partners on the basis of specific traits.

While this is supposed to help us narrow our vast options, it forces us to take a very limited view. We prematurely choose or reject candidates on the basis of our current, often superficial ideas of what we think we want.

But what we “want” is not necessarily consistent, but contextual and ever-changing. For example, we all have our dealbreakers, but we also have “negotiables”.

Depending on our mood or appetite, we might be open to one trait today, and another tomorrow.

My point is this: by treating online dating as a game of elimination, fixating on a preset “shopping list”, we lose sight of what we are all truly need and are seeking: meaningful connection.

gay dating apps

3. Gay dating apps leave us stuck in a state of perpetual ‘looking’

Keeping interactions going on the apps can often feel like a war of attrition, with our conversational partners appearing and disappearing suddenly and often without reason.

So we are forced to participate in relational multitasking, maintaining multiple interactions at the same time. This guarantees us a stream of almost constant attention, and therefore validation.

In order to sustain the game of juggling candidates, we have to cast our nets wide and keep our options open.

We become as much motivated by desire as by fear: fear of missing out (FOMO), and fear of better options (FOBO)

By focusing on the process of searching at the expense of actual discovery, we may lose all internal bearings.

Rather than self-reflecting, we become caught up in the chemical thrill of pursuing or being pursued.

If we are not careful, we may find ourselves relationshopping, going from cultivating our options to selecting, engaging, sampling and disposing.

Having revised our ever-shifting tastes, we then rinse and repeat, in a neverending cycle.

gay dating apps

4. They trivialize ourselves, and others

Admit it: the apps have at one point made you feel this way. Some of us even actively engage in such trivializing, advising other users to “relax, it’s just Grindr” while professing to “not take this app too seriously”.

It’s true that for many, gay dating apps are just – and will only ever be – a means of fun distraction. Got a few minutes to burn?

Hop on, ping a few cute strangers, trade some banter, swap a few photos, before inevitably turning your attention back to real life.

Gay dating apps in this sense are part of a smartphone and social media-inspired design shift towards casual gaming.

They employ mechanisms to keep you entertained and to reward engagement, be it through audible notifications, features like “woofs”, “taps”, or other apparent acknowledgments of your worth or attractiveness.

These mechanisms trivialize interactions, resulting in the following shift in our priorities:

Seeking connection → Seeking entertainment
“I want to forge a genuine connection with another human being.” “I’ll treat interactions as just fun and games, and other people as a means for personal validation.”
Being focused → Seeking distraction
“I would like to pursue a single, valued person on the basis of a connection and compatibility.” “I’ll put my eggs in a few baskets, with minimum investment, and no specific, consistent goal in mind.”
Being purpose-driven Being opportunistic 
“I am seeking the companionship of another person to help satisfy my need for connection.” “I’ll seek whatever I want, according to my current desires and the options on hand.”

Seeking entertainment and distraction opportunistically guarantees you some amount of “fun”…but not a whole lot else.

gay dating apps

5. They foster dependency

Gay dating apps put us in a state of imbalance. In order to keep conversations going, we must lend them our attention across the day and night.

Continued use means continued validation. Our self-value may become contingent upon positive reinforcement from others.

Over time, the stress of having to constantly seek this reinforcement compounds, corroding our sense of wellbeing and feeding anxiety and depression.

If your gay dating app experience is proving toxic for your mental health, here are some steps you can take to kick the habit.

gay dating apps


  • When using gay dating apps, we “curate”, concealing our authentic selves.
  • These apps encourage us to “look” outwards, rather than practice introspection about what we most need.
  • The nature of our interactions on gay dating apps is trivializing and often demeaning.
  • We may learn to depend on app-based validation – and suffer when we don’t receive it.

Throw off the shackles of depression and loneliness. Embrace your authentic gay identity.

Essy Knopf gay identity
Reading time: 7 minutes

Well before I came into my gay identity, a man approached six-year-old me at the park and called me by a word I’d never heard before.

“You dirty little wog,” he said, apropos of nothing.

My dad overheard this and stormed over, executing some kind of judo move. Next thing the stranger was lying flat on his back—instant comeuppance I might have reveled in, had I recognized the racist insult for what it was.

This was my first real experience of prejudice, but it was by no means my last.

Growing up in small Australian towns, I was aware of the constant undercurrent of homophobia, xenophobia, and ableism. You’d catch it in the way people would weaponize words like “r*****d”, “s*****c”, “gay” and “special”.

Then there were the charming portmanteaus people would make of my name and those of infamous political figures, Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein. 

As a gay Middle Eastern kid with autism, I was subjected to more than my share of the nastiness.

In high school, some bullies caught me reading a play on the bus and branded me a “f****t”. I had a plastic water bottle thrown at my head.

In order to survive, I hid. By spending my lunch hours in the library reading and not talking to my classmates, I made myself a smaller target.

All the while, I secretly plotted my revenge. One day, I told myself, I would grow up to be someone very BIG and IMPORTANT and SUCCESSFUL—and then I’d show them.

The grandiosity I dreamed of would be the panacea to my feelings of being inferior.

Holding fast to my belief that I was someone important, I vowed to defy my bullies; to prove that I was inherently better. It was a thin veneer for my battered self-esteem and the shame of being different.

When grandiosity overtakes authenticity

For the remainder of my school years, I adopted a fierce work ethic. When I graduated, I was a straight-A student, at the top of several classes.

I was pleased—but I was not vindicated. And so, I labored on, well into my adulthood, abandoning my authentic gay identity.

I lost any concept of downtime. Weekends and holidays were sacrificed in pursuit of lofty goals and ambitious projects.

I accrued degrees, traveled the world, relocated several times, wrote multiple unpublished books, and released a feature documentary. Still, it was not enough.

My way of surviving had become my way of living. The world, as a result, had grown hopelessly grey, while I had become a prisoner at the mercy of an inner critic, whose voice was that of ancient bullies.

In an attempt to manage my depression, I would work around the clock for months on end, before the anxiety driving me gave out and I crashed.

The all-consuming preoccupations of grandiosity would flip into depression, then back again to grandiosity.

While trying to dig myself out of a serious bout of suicidal ideation, I was finally forced to accept that I was trapped in a cycle, one that was only getting progressively worse.

This survival mechanism had paradoxically created conditions ripe for self-destruction.

In the words of Self-Compassion author Kristin Neff, “Feelings of shame and insignificance can lead to a devaluing of oneself to the extent that it even overpowers our most basic and fundamental instinct—the will to stay alive”.

This, unfortunately, is a reality for many gay men. Pressured by society to reject our authentic gay identity, our lives are overshadowed by an enduring sense of worthlessness.

Gay men and depression

In I Don’t Want to Talk About It, a book detailing the silent epidemic of male depression, author Terry Real explains that as boys, we are socialized to split-off so-called “feminine” traits of emotional expressiveness and vulnerability.

We are told to turn away from the nurturing care of mothers, from our own emotions, and from the help of others. Instead, we are coerced into embracing a limited and perfectionist form of masculinity.

But this masculinity is not a state of being, so much as a kind of membership that is at constant risk of being revoked.

Given the widespread prejudicial association of being gay with femininity, we as gay boys in this sense are at particular risk of judgment, ostracism, abuse, and harm.

In most cases, we have no choice but to repress our shamed non-heteronormative identities.

Cut off from our emotional selves and the nurturance that is so critical to our flourishing, all boys suffer a form of passive trauma, which—if left unaddressed—can lead to covert depression.

Our inability to seek the help we need, to soothe ourselves in times of distress, combined with the pressures of conforming to an impossible ideal and the shame of not measuring up, inevitably forces us to seek relief.

So we turn to addictions such as drugs and drinking, or behavioral or “process” addictions like sex, gambling, food, video games or exercise, or the “performance-based esteem” offered by grandiosity.

What is grandiosity?

Grandiosity is a way of coping with the loneliness and grief of self-alienation. It can wear many faces, including those of achievement, perfectionism, and workaholism.

essy knopf gay identity grandiosity achievement perfectionism workaholism

Grandiosity is, in essence, the flip side of depression, and many of us spend our lives alternating between the two, with devastating effects.

The link between grandiosity and depression was first highlighted by Alice Miller in her book The Drama of the Gifted Child, and later, by Alan Downs in The Velvet Rage.

In The Velvet Rage, Downs outlines the struggles gay men face in the course of ignoring or silencing their emotions.

When we fail to investigate and integrate them into our gay identity, we are essentially “foreclosing” on our conferred identity as victims (to borrow a term by James E. Marcia).

We become trapped in a narrative that is not of our own making.

While grandiosity may anesthetize us against pain in the short run, whatever relief we might find comes at a cost.

Afraid that the ground might fall out from under us, we become dangerously addicted to chasing even more grandiosity.

The pursuit of meritocracy is further fueled by the belief that we live in a world where all hard work is rewarded, and effort makes all dreams possible.

This belief, however, can be dangerously deceptive, as philosopher Alain de Botton points out in his excellent TED Talk.

Adding weight to the desire to distinguish ourselves is “somebodyness”, a term coined by spiritual teacher Ram Dass.

“Somebodyness” refers to the popular Western belief that we are destined to one day be “somebody”. It fosters the idea of individual exceptionalism.

While these ideas can be motivational, for the grandiose gay man, they may lead him to view success and recognition as the only true measure of his self-worth.

When he fails to constantly achieve, he is thus likely to blame himself, to the exclusion of all other factors, thus denying himself the right to self-compassion.

In seeking external validation rather than internal validation, we grow increasingly distant from our authentic selves, which further reinforces the pursuit of grandiosity.

It is crucial therefore to recognize the role grandiosity is playing in stopping us as gay men from breaking harmful patterns and achieving true healing.

Authenticity = healing

Brené Brown in her book The Gifts of Imperfection describes authenticity as “the daily practice of letting go of who we think we’re supposed to be and embracing who we are”.

For Brown, authenticity involves:

  • “cultivating the courage to be imperfect, to set boundaries, and to allow ourselves to be vulnerable;
  • exercising the compassion that comes from knowing that we are all made of strength and struggle; and 
  • nurturing the connection and sense of belonging that can only happen when we believe we are strong enough.”

Thus, before we can achieve the true healing and self-acceptance offered by authenticity, we must first reclaim our split-off emotional selves.

Here are a couple of suggestions I have found helpful on my own journey:

1. Stop running from your gay identity

Our recovery depends upon our willingness to be self-aware. Self-awareness for me is a process of connecting the dots: we come to devise a clear story about how our past experiences have influenced our present circumstances.

Daily journaling and meditation help foster conditions for self-reflection. Two books I have found helpful for facilitating journaling are Jen Grisanti’s Story Line, which is designed for screenwriters but is nevertheless helpful, and Katherine Woodward Thomas’ Calling in “The One”.

essy knopf gay identity authenticity

It is through the process of excavating buried experiences that we will start to identify with our painful emotions and understand why and how we have repressed them.

These “Aha!” moments help bring into better focus the sources of our grandiosity. They enable us to reconnect with our authentic gay identity.

2. Do a cost-benefit analysis

Once you’ve identified why you might be driven towards grandiosity, draw up a simple cost-benefit analysis.

At the top of a page, write the habits or behaviors you are grappling with. Then create two columns below, one labeled “Advantages”, and the other “Disadvantages”.

Now grade both columns out of a shared pool of 100 points. Is it a 50-50 split? 60-40? 30-70? Your honest assessment should give you a good idea of whether it might be time to revise your grandiose habits.

You can find a sample version of a CBA by Feeling Good author David Burns here.

3. Face your depression

In order to reclaim our emotional authenticity, we have to surrender our addictive defenses, such as grandiosity, re-identify with the injured parts of ourselves and reject our entrenched sense of shame.

We do this by allowing our covert depression to surface as overt depression; by embracing the emotions we have long suppressed. It is by doing this that we reclaim emotional authenticity.

In the words of author Terry Real: “Depression freezes, but sadness flows. It has an end”.

This transformation can be achieved with the kind of corrective experiences offered by a therapist.

Through their support, we learn to “reparent” ourselves: to reconnect with our split-off emotions, and to employ self-soothing in times of distress.

4. Reprioritize self-care

Alongside self-soothing, we must also learn to employ regular self-care. A common belief with grandiosity is that your health, well-being, and happiness should never come first.

You can combat this perception by practicing self-care as a matter of priority. Consider:

  • Scheduling at least an hour of downtime every day.
  • Ensuring at least one day of the week is designated work-free.
  • Set time limits on activities you know lead you towards grandiosity.
  • Start self-nourishing hobbies like reading, gardening, or hiking.
  • Treat yourself to a bath, a massage, or a fancy meal out with a close friend.

Embrace your authentic gay identity

Ultimately, your journey towards wholeness can only happen if you are willing to accept that the promises of grandiosity are ultimately flawed.

You won’t prosper by them—not at least in the metrics that truly count. Nor will you feel better about yourself in any enduring or substantial way.

And the independence you achieve through grandiosity is a fallacy because it by its very nature demands your dependence.

essy knopf gay identity self-care tips

We are social creatures. Relationships with others are crucial to our sense of wholeness. And to love and be loved requires that we first be vulnerable. It necessitates interdependence.

So rather than clinging to some much-vaunted masculine ideal, we would be better served by embracing our authentic, vulnerable gay selves, rather than allowing ourselves to be defined exclusively by our achievements. 

Dismantling long-held ways of living is not an overnight process. But next time you catch yourself grappling with the inner critic, treat it as an opportunity to call grandiosity out on its crap—and to start being that little bit kinder to yourself.


  • Reconnect with your authentic gay identity through journaling.
  • Conduct a CBA of your current “survival tactics”.
  • Employ the help of a qualified professional to address your covert depression.
  • Make self-care a daily habit – starting from this very moment.