Magic words that can free autistic folk from low self-esteem victimhood

essy knopf low self esteem
Reading time: 6 minutes

Disrespectful people, pushy people, abusive people—chances are all of us have at one point in our lives encountered such individuals.

Sometimes we skate by, unharmed. Other times, the encounter is unpleasant enough to leave us with a sour taste in our mouth, bruised feelings, and an acute sense of injustice.

Autistic individuals I believe are especially vulnerable when it comes to being bullied and manipulated.

It begins with the fact that many of us have low self-esteem, resulting from living in ableist societies in which neurodiverse folks are treated as inferior.

Autistics additionally have been found to have a more deliberative (and effortful) thinking style. This can impair our ability to rapidly and automatically intuit others’ intentions.1

Our willingness to trust others and give them the benefit of the doubt—to do unto others as we would like them to do unto us—puts us at even further risk.

Turns out it’s no accident that toxic individuals are drawn to us like metal filings to a magnet. Rather, it’s the result of our fundamental struggles with knowing when and how to say “no”.

Low self-esteem: a recipe for exploitation

Low self-esteem can render many autistic individuals unwilling—or unable—to set boundaries and to push back when the situation calls for it.

This largely has to do with the kinds of negative reactions we might expect, reactions we have often endured due to our “weird” autistic traits and behaviors.

Others’ reactions in turn lead us to adopt negative narratives about our own supposed unworthiness and unloveable nature as autistics.

This erodes our self-confidence and undercuts our ability to be self-reliant, while also signaling our vulnerability to potential bullies and manipulators.

Another component of this is our tendency to second guess our own feelings and thoughts when confronted with difficult situations.

Many of us are often told that we’re in the wrong. We act with good intentions, only for neurotypicals to tell us that our intentions don’t matter.

All of us have at one point either been told we are too honest, too blunt, too insensitive, too difficult to follow, or too weird. It’s dismissals and criticisms like this that leave us prone to self-doubt.

Thus when challenged, many of us may spiral into helplessness and fail to stand up for ourselves.

Why confronting difficult and toxic people is so hard

It takes courage to speak our feelings of pain, helplessness, and anger. Having low self-esteem, therefore, means we are forced to fight battles on not just one but two fronts.

Firstly, we must validate our perceptions of a situation. This requires an acknowledgment of our worthiness, which can conjure guilt, shame, discomfort, and anxiety.

Secondly, we are standing up and demanding respect. There is always a fear that we might not be heard—a fear that is often borne out in day-to-day life as a marginalized minority—thus reinforcing our negative core belief of unworthiness.

Then there is the concern that the person we are confronting may retaliate—a concern, however wellfounded, that enables abusive people to remain in positions of power.

Low self-esteem can make us a target

When we speak out, the person aggressing may listen and adjust their behavior.

Those who harbor ill intentions alternatively may also decide that we aren’t worth the effort after all, and move on.

But should we fail to speak out—or if our “no” is not forceful enough to effect a change—toxic individuals can linger on.

If you’re dealing with someone with a taste for manipulation, they won’t surrender control so easily. 

There’s always the possibility they may redouble their efforts, draining your emotional well and tainting the waters with negativity.

The seven ‘buttons’ used by manipulators

So, why you? What is it about your person that clues these people into your weaknesses?

In Who’s Pulling Your Strings, Harriet B. Braiker describes seven behavioral “buttons” that manipulators routinely use to pressure and coerce their victims.

It is only by becoming aware of those buttons, Braiker argues, that we stand a chance of resisting manipulators’ control tactics.

1. The disease-to-please: People with this challenge have made their self-worth conditional upon their willingness to do what others want or expect of them. 

Resisting the disease-to-please is likely to trigger guilt, a fact manipulative folk use to their advantage.

2. Approval and acceptance addiction: Are you overly nice? Chances are your efforts are motivated by a fear of rejection and abandonment. 

Manipulators lever this fear, withdrawing approval and acceptance to force you into complying with their demands.

3. Fear of negative emotions: Anger and sadness are a fundamental part of the human condition. 

Trying to avoid negative emotions is next to impossible. Moreover, expressing them can be key to maintaining healthy boundaries. 

Those with this button try to bury and avoid negative emotions thus leaving them wide open to attack by manipulators.

4. Lack of assertiveness: People-pleasers struggle to say “no”. As such, they may struggle to stand up for themselves when the situation calls for it.

5. The vanishing self: Manipulators have no qualms about twisting those with an unclear sense of identity and core values into fulfilling their own needs and desires. 

6. Low self-reliance: Distrusting one’s perceptions drives us to seek the input and advice of others, leaving us vulnerable to external influence.

7. External locus of control: Those with an external locus of control believe that forces outside of themselves are ultimately responsible for shaping their lives.

This ultimately results in learned helplessness and an inability to assert one’s self in the face of manipulation.

Essy Knopf low self-esteem victimhood

From low self-esteem to high self-esteem

Manipulators as indicated capitalize on low self-esteem, which has the effect of only reinforcing their victims’ negative self-perceptions.

One could observe that the degree to which we can suffer low self-esteem is relational. Others can damage, but also repair it.

While a trusting, supportive relationship with a therapist or loved one is one way we can heal our sense of self-worth, the task of pushing back against manipulators ultimately falls to us.

Confrontation, however frightening, is sometimes necessary. This may be as simple as making explicit requests and seeking commitment. 

“I” statements are helpful here. For example, “I feel disrespected when you name-call. I’m asking that this behavior stop.”

Remember, you have a right to make reasonable requests and for them to be acknowledged. You are under no terms required to explain or defend yourself.

What you want in confronting a manipulator is some sort of change. That said, your demand needs to be framed as a win-win proposition. 

If, however, the other person won’t refuse to accept anything short of win-lose, lose-win, or lose-lose, be prepared to pivot.

Try these magic phrases

Some aggressors respond to feeling threatened by double-downing or escalating. This may take the form of deflecting, projecting, shaming, verbal abuse, and overly dramatic reactions.

Know these individuals may try to confuse the issue, gaslight you by playing the victim, and/or evading any responsibility.

Many individuals feed off conflict, and anything you say or do that plays into this will count as a win in their books.

Be sure to name any attacks on your person the instant they happen. Send a clear message to the aggressor that you won’t stand for poor treatment. 

Hold fast to your conviction that no harm has been done by your speaking up. Your goal here is to protect yourself, not the manipulator’s feelings—which probably weren’t in jeopardy to begin with.

Do not be drawn into a point-for-point debate. Instead, assert yourself by saying: “That doesn’t work for me.” “That’s not fair.” 

Resist any attempts by the manipulator to wrangle for control by delaying your response: “I need to think about it.”

If they try to force an argument, disengage: “This conversation is not productive. I’m leaving now.” 

If you’re feeling thrown off balance by the manipulators’ tactics, it’s okay to break off the exchange by telling them: “Actually now is not a good time.” 

A straight “no” will even suffice, followed by your departure.

And it’s perfectly acceptable to shut down the lines of communication until the other person agrees to follow rules of common courtesy.

If you’d like to try out some of these lines but are worried you might fumble the delivery, practice them in advance until you feel 100% comfortable saying them on cue.

Reappraising low self-esteem

These kinds of situations and encounters can inflame existing feelings of low self-worth among autistic folk, especially when bullies respond with escalation and accusation. You can address this head-on by taking stock of your actions immediately afterward. 

Check in with yourself. How are you feeling about what just went down? 

Were you fair in your conduct? Did you really behave unjustly, as the manipulator would have you believe? 

Imagine for a moment it was your friend making the same request of you. Imagine they told you that your behavior had hurt them. 

Would you have listened to them? Would you have been open to change?

If your answer is “yes”, then it’s reasonable to assume that it was a fair request.

The bully may accuse you of being equally at fault, but what they probably are trying to do is avoid culpability by muddying the water. 

Refuse to take on any of their accusations and combat self-doubt. Conduct an inventory of your alleged character flaws and use humor to inflate them.

Have you, for example, failed to be perfect enough? Are you insufficiently conscientious? Are you an extremely poor people-pleaser? 

Now try to name some appropriate punishments for these crimes. If the ridiculousness of it all doesn’t stop you in your tracks, then take it as proof that it is you—above all—who deserves the break. 

If these encounters leave you feeling stressed, consider practicing some of these self-care techniques, specifically devised for autistic folks.

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.

11 ways not to crash and burn in social work school

Essy Knopf social work school
Reading time: 7 minutes

If there’s one experience that unites social work school students, it’s a feeling of chronic overwhelm.

The Master of Social Work (MSW) program is a generalist degree, meaning it covers a lot of ground, spanning clinical practice, research, and macro advocacy.

Jampacked curriculums are how social work schools prepare students for the reality they will most likely have to wear many hats throughout their careers. 

To fulfill our (well-earned) reputation as masters of resourcefulness, our teachers pile reading after reading upon us, leaving students buried under an ever-growing pile of work.

To make matters more difficult, within weeks of starting their degree, students are thrown into the field placement deep end. 

The rationale here is that the best way to learn is by doing. Without practice, there’s a good chance that much of the coursework—often covered at a breakneck pace—won’t stick.

Struggling to keep up, we let our self-care activities fall by the wayside. Anxiety, study burnout, and imposter syndrome often result.

But this doesn’t have to be the case. Here are 11 tips I believe will go a long way to helping you not only survive, but flourish in social work school.

1. Prioritize with the 1-2-3-4 method

Your workload as a social work student is formidable. The only way you can ever hope to get (and stay) on top of it is by prioritizing.

To do this, organize all your tasks into the following categories:

  1. Do first 
  2. Schedule 
  3. Delegate 
  4. Don’t do

Next, complete each task in order of priority. When another task is added to your list, make sure to continue assigning it a number and an action (if applicable). 

More information on the 1-2-3-4 method can be found here.

2. Learn the value of strategic “nos”

If you’re a perfectionist, completionist, and/or a workaholic, you may struggle with assigning items to the final category, “Don’t do.” 

But refusing to say “no” in this profession can come at a considerable cost to your wellbeing.

In social work school alone, you may be bombarded with invitations to extracurricular events. But between attending class and field placement and writing essays, you’ll probably lack the mental bandwidth to fully participate.

My suggestion would be to say “yes” only a handful of events you are certain will advance your learning or professional goals. As for everything else, feel free to ignore it.

Remember, even if you can’t attend the desired event, you can always ask the organizer in advance for access to a recording or slides. 

If neither is available, ask if a peer may be willing to take notes on your behalf.

3. Calendarize

With so many responsibilities to juggle, the only way you can stay on top of it all is by making liberal use of your smartphone’s inbuilt calendar. 

When scheduling items in this calendar, only add those from categories 1 and 2. Consider using a free service like Google Calendar or Apple iCloud Calendar to help you keep all calendar items synced across all your devices.

Next, make sure to set reminders. My suggestions are to use both instant notifications and email reminders to ensure you never miss an assignment deadline or another commitment. Find a system that works best for you.

When calendarizing assessment due dates, you may find it helpful to break the task into baby steps and set mini-deadlines for each. 

Before you can write a paper, for example, you’ll need to complete some often lengthy “pre-work” tasks. For example, conducting literature searches, reviewing readings, and completing an outline.

Allocating time and due dates to each of these activities can help keep you on task. It can also convey a sense of progress and positively affirm your efforts. 

This brings us to point four…

4. Reward yourself

All human endeavors are ultimately driven by the promise of reward. It makes sense therefore that when setting out to accomplish a task, we need to have first identified the payoff.

Rewards can be intrinsic: completing the task may be in itself an affirming experience. They can also be extrinsic, such as buying yourself a small gift upon completing a school semester. 

This may sound like self-bribery, but everyone can benefit from a much-needed boost to our motivation levels from time to time. 

Rewards don’t have to be anything huge. They can be something as simple as treating yourself to a coffee. 

Just finished a grueling paper on social work policy? Go out for a walk. Spent the morning poring over a stack of readings? Take the rest of the afternoon off to relax in the park. You’ve earned it.

5. Maintain boundaries

Boundary setting is crucial to remaining sane in the social work field. This applies as much to interpersonal relationships as it does to managing your time, especially where schoolwork or your field placement is concerned.

As you plan out each day, don’t forget to set limits on the amount of time you dedicate each day to work. Make sure to pencil in time for unwinding.

Set a window each day to reply to all non-urgent emails, calls, or text messages that relate to school and your placement. Once that window closes, don’t reopen it.

Treat “you” time as sacrosanct. The only thing you should be prioritizing during downtime is rest and rejuvenation. 

Maintaining boundaries in this fashion can help protect you against burnout, both as a student and as a fledgling social work professional.

6. Self-advocate

Our lecturers drill into us the importance of self-advocating. Social work school and your field placement present numerous opportunities in which you can hone this invaluable skill. 

If there’s something you need to know or want to learn, ask a teacher or field supervisor.

Given you are paying for access to their expertise (through either school fees or your own labor), you have a right to advocate for as many learning opportunities as you feel you need.

If you require an extension on an assessment due date, ask for it. Your lecturer will likely be more than willing to accommodate your request.

Should your requests go ignored, persist, but be sensitive to the reality that what you’ve asked for may not always be possible.

Exercise the fine art of picking your battles, and be prepared to switch gears should the situation call for it.

Essy Knopf social work school

7. Manage up 

Fieldwork supervisors are usually torn between many competing responsibilities. What can this mean for you? Inconsistent supervision.

Meetings may be rescheduled at the last minute, or supervision sessions may be interrupted and even canceled. For social work students, these situations can be frustrating and demoralizing.

In such instances, I recommend managing up. Keep reaching out, asking questions, and making requests. Send emails to your supervisor daily, outlining your priorities and any tasks or activities you plan to undertake. 

Solicit your supervisor’s input, but should you not get it, be prepared to take initiative.

Keep your appointed field liaison apprised of the situation. Be accountable by keeping a log of all your activities, interactions, and communications as proof you held up your end of the field placement bargain.

8. Live and breathe win-win

Like any situation in life, we should approach the social work profession as an opportunity to champion both our interests as well as that of others. 

Invite the input of all with whom you work. Collaborate to find solutions. Embrace differing viewpoints, and always disagree without being disagreeable. 

Never leave anyone feeling like they’re “one-down”. This is a sure way to breed resentment and burn bridges.

We have all at some point encountered difficult people. We have all seen firsthand how their behavior hinders their success. We can learn from this by striving to model our personal best. 

See it as your job to leave a positive impression with all whom you cross during your educational journey. 

You never know if you will rub shoulders with these folk again later on—or if you might find yourself in the position of asking for their help. 

9. Elevate your classmates

All social work students are united by a common struggle…to survive school!

Try to grow your social work community by performing acts of service for classmates. 

Lend a hand when needed. Celebrate others’ wins, praise their achievements, and give without expecting to receive.

Again, there may come a time when you have to call in a favor. Now’s the time to start collecting brownie points.

10. Raise your voice

Whether it’s conducting a one-on-one therapy session, facilitating a group, or advocating for social justice, confidence is key to our success as social workers.

If you think confidence is something we are all born with, think again. Confidence is a trait that can be cultivated through practice. You can get the ball rolling while still in social work school by speaking up.

Sharing our thoughts and experiences in front of our peers is an act of courage. It requires that we be emotionally vulnerable and open ourselves to the possibility of being ignored, judged, or criticized.

Given many of our classmates are little more than acquaintances, we may have little cause to trust that what we say will be heard and respected. 

Still, there’s no better forum in which to make mistakes than in school. Mistakes are, after all, how we best learn.

Consider the fact that you have a unique perspective that others may from hearing. Silencing yourself thus deprives others of the chance to grow and learn. 

Speak your passion, and chances are you’ll energize others to do the same.

11. Be a proactive learner

We are all ultimately responsible for our own professional development. So any time you identify a gap in your knowledge or skill set, think of ways you can close that gap.

If you don’t understand course content, approach your lecturer after class and request clarification.

If you need to brush up on your clinical skills, ask your field supervisor for more in-depth training. Reach out to faculty members to see if they have additional resources that they can share. 

Should your budget allow, purchase additional trainings from a reputable nonprofit organization like PESI and split the cost with your classmates.

Failing that, a quick Google search can yield an array of free manuals, demonstrations, and tutorials.

If you think you’d benefit from constructive feedback, don’t be afraid to request it from someone you trust and know has your best interests at heart. 

Finally, consider finding a mentor to help guide you on your journey. You can start by identifying someone you admire within your social work school. 

Cultivate a relationship with this staff member, then seek out their insights and support.

Wrap up

Social work school is a challenging experience, but engaging fully with that experience is sure to pay dividends.

The degree to which you exercise curiosity, organization, dedication, and resourcefulness now can help determine your ability to overcome many of the obstacles you’ll encounter later in the field.

Treat your MSW as a trial run; a chance to internalize and embody principles so often preached by this profession. You can do this by advocating for yourself as you also strive to empower others.

By setting good habits and establishing best practices now, you’ll both ease your way and lay the groundwork for a happy—and healthy—career.

You can read more social work-related posts here.

10 must-read books for gay men seeking growth, healing, and an escape from the struggle mindset

growth and healing Essy Knopf
Reading time: 8 minutes

The coronavirus lockdowns gave us time aplenty to stew and fret. Some of us however took it that time to play “life catch up” or even to undertake personal growth and healing.

As a gay man, I know that it’s precisely when life begins to slow down that I find both the time and the mental bandwidth to seek out the personal insights necessary to said growth.

At the time, I proposed the following reading list to help jumpstart the journey for anyone walking a similar path.

While the worst of the pandemic is largely behind us, the lifelong quest for self-knowledge continues. The following 10 self-help books I consider mandatory reading for this quest. Here’s why.

Essy Knopf growth and healing The Velvet Rage

Understanding the gay struggle – the first step towards growth and healing

“Something about growing up gay forced us to learn how to hide ugly realities behind a finely crafted façade. Why is this so? We hid because we learned that hiding is a means to survival.”
– Alan Downs, The Velvet Rage

Even as an out and proud gay man, I felt like I was still living a life of subterfuge. Only now it wasn’t my sexuality that I was hiding but my vulnerability

My dating experiences revealed I wasn’t the only one struggling with an entrenched sense of self-loathing and shame. More than a few of us had been left emotionally crippled by our experiences.

Not only were we incapable of building robust relationships—we were also prone to seeking relief through substance and process (behavior) addictions.

The Velvet Rage argues however that there is cause for hope. Author Alan Downs charts the journey gay men must take from self-loathing to self-acceptance before concluding with a raft of invaluable suggestions for how we can live happier and healthier lives.

growth and healing Daring Greatly Essy Knopf

Transforming your life through vulnerability

“Vulnerability is not weakness, and the uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure we face every day are not optional. Our only choice is a question of engagement. Our willingness to own and engage with our vulnerability determines the depth of our courage and the clarity of our purpose.”
Brené Brown, Daring Greatly

When I came out as gay, I was searching for connection and a sense of belonging. I was, in a way, looking for a replacement family for the one from which I had become alienated.

Initially, I looked for it at gay venues, like bars and clubs. I quickly learned that it was sex, not vulnerability, that many of the men I met were looking for.

These individuals might claim to have achieved self-acceptance, and yet their aversion to vulnerability was so total, the denial of shame so complete, that our relationships remained mired in superficiality.

Any invitation to be emotionally authentic was met with bewilderment, resistance, and even scorn. To those I encountered, being vulnerable was at best weak, at worst dangerous.

Daring Greatly author Brené Brown argues that this need not be our fate. “Shame,” she writes, “derives its power from being unspeakable. Shame keeps us small, resentful, and afraid”.

Her solution? Recognize it for what it is, understand its triggers, strive for critical awareness, and be willing to reach out to others and speak out about our shared experience of shame.

You can watch Brown’s TED talk on vulnerability here.

growth and healing The Body Keeps the Score Essy Knopf

Recognizing the influence of trauma

“Traumatized people are terrified to feel deeply. They are afraid to experience their emotions, because emotions lead to loss of control… Being traumatized is not just an issue of being stuck in the past; it is just as much a problem of not being fully alive in the present.”
– Bessel van der Kolk, The Body Keeps the Score

I was 12 when my family began to fall apart. My older brother’s daily battles with my parents, his drug use, and random acts of violence, lying, and thievery reduced our household to a warzone.

My parents eventually buckled under the strain of it all, withdrawing emotionally and giving my brother free rein to bully me. 

The experience left me stricken with an unrelenting sense of loneliness and worthlessness.

Trauma was a word I exclusively associated with veterans or victims of extreme abuse. But as I came to later learn, trauma can be entirely passive, like emotional neglect.

Trauma for gay children is an all too common experience. We face it when we are rejected, assaulted and even cast out for our sexuality.

Bessel van der Kolk’s comprehensive The Body Keeps the Score is a deep dive into the manifestations and mechanics of trauma.

Readers will come away from it with new insights not only into their own experiences with trauma but possible treatments as well.

growth and healing Learned optimism Essy Knopf

Adopting optimistic thinking

“An optimistic explanatory style stops helplessness, whereas a pessimistic explanatory style spreads helplessness. Your way of explaining events to yourself determines how helpless you can become, or how energized, when you encounter the everyday setbacks as well as momentous defeats.”
– Martin Seligman, Learned Optimism

While my family was disintegrating, I was also being bullied at school due to a then-undiagnosed disability, Asperger syndrome.

My resulting depression and anxiety led to what Learned Optimism author Martin Seligman calls a “pessimistic explanatory style”. 

In moments of difficulty, I would resort to self-blame, telling myself I was unlovable and entirely deserving of my misfortune. These explanations came at a great cost to my mental wellbeing.

Learned Optimism argues that we can correct this chain of thinking by identifying the adversity we’ve experienced, the existing beliefs they trigger, and their consequences. By disputing these beliefs, we can alter the impact they have on us.

You can discover your own explanatory style with the help of this quiz devised by Seligman.

growth and healing Self-Compassion Essy Knopf

Being kinder to yourself

“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?’”
– Kristin Neff, Self-Compassion

Previously I’ve discussed the burden of “grandiosity”, a defense used by gay men against feelings of inferiority or covert depression.

The one thing I’ve found key to my recovery as a workaholic perfectionist is the very thing I’ve denied myself: self-compassion.

When our attachment as children to our primary caregivers is disrupted (more on this below), we fail to develop critical self-soothing skills.

This may cause us to neglect our own needs during times of stress or suffering. We may even seek distraction in grandiose or self-destructive behaviors, like addiction.

Self-Compassion author Kristin Neff offers a third alternative: practicing self-soothing through mindfulness, being aware of our emotional states, and responding appropriately to them with words and acts of compassion.

growth and healing Mindset Essy Knopf

Adopting a ‘growth’ mindset

“Believing that your qualities are carved in stone—the fixed mindset—creates an urgency to prove yourself over and over… Every situation is evaluated: Will I succeed or fail? Will I look smart or dumb? Will I be accepted or rejected? Will I feel like a winner or a loser?”
– Carol S. Dweck, Mindset

Those fixed in their thinking, like grandiose gay men, are stricken by a fear of failure and imperfection. 

As such, they seek success in the place of growth, superiority rather than self-acceptance.

But, as in the words of Mindset author Carol S. Dweck: “If you’re somebody when you’re successful, what are you when you’re unsuccessful?” The fall from such heights can be devastating. 

The opposite of a fixed mindset is the growth mindset, which calls for us to suspend constant judgment of ourselves and others. A growth mindset makes us more likely to seek out personal change and development.

The good news is we don’t have to be born with a growth mindset to enjoy the benefits. We learn to adopt one through practice.

growth and healing Boundaries Essy Knopf

Setting clear boundaries

“Setting boundaries inevitably involves taking responsibility for your choices. You are the one who makes them. You are the one who must live with their consequences.”
– Henry Cloud and John Townsend, Boundaries

Boundaries are crucial for all gay men because our right to choose how we live is one that often comes under the scrutiny and judgment of others, especially our own families.

As a gay man who enjoys a close relationship with my mother, I can safely say that it was one arrived at through continual negotiation, and a willingness to defend my personal boundaries. 

My transition to independent adulthood was predictably rough. My mother, for reasons that were perfectly logical to her at the time, would insist on trying to control or judge aspects of my life even after I left home. 

My decision to get a mini-mohawk, for example, would result in the silent treatment. Piercing my ears resulted in her nagging for me to “take them out”.

In moments of weakness, I would kowtow to her will, at the cost of mutual respect.

Renegotiating boundaries with our parents can be a particularly thorny process, yet it is critical to the longevity of your relationship as well as those that follow.

While the non-religious may struggle with Boundaries’ numerous Biblical references, Henry Cloud and John Townsend’s classic remains a vital guide to establishing better relations with our loved ones.

growth and healing Attached Essy Knopf

Understanding your relationship needs better 

“People have very different capacities for intimacy. And when one person’s need for closeness is met with another person’s need for independence and distance, a lot of unhappiness ensues.”  
– Amir Levine and Rachel Heller, Attached

Dating for me has historically been an uneven game of push-pull; a mismatch of varying needs and expectations.

It was only when a friend introduced to me the concept of attachment styles that the cause was at last brought into focus.

Our relationships with our primary caregivers from our childhood onward serve as a template for how secure we feel in the world. It also forms the basis for how we “attach” to others. 

Attachment falls into three categories: secure, anxious, or avoidant. Anxious people seek closeness and affirmation, avoidants seek distance and independence. 

Secures typically have no difficulty bonding with either type and thus serve as an ideal partner for anxious and avoidants.

While this all sounds rather formulaic, being able to recognize your own needs as well as that of your romantic partner is a guaranteed way to save both of you a lot of difficulty—and heartache—down the road.

Those interested in identifying their’s or other’s attachment styles can try this brief quiz by authors Amir Levine and Rachel Heller.

growth and healing Full Catastrophe Living Essy Knopf

Learning to meditate

“Mindfulness is moment-to-moment non-judgmental awareness. It is cultivated by purposefully paying attention to things we ordinarily never give a moment’s thought to. It is a systematic approach to developing new kinds of agency, control, and wisdom in our lives, based on our inner capacity for paying attention and on the awareness, insight, and compassion that naturally arise from paying attention in specific ways.” – Jon Kabat-Zinn, Full Catastrophe Living

In Full Catastrophe Living, author Jon Kabat-Zinn explains that while stress may be an unavoidable feature of life, how to deal with it or not deal with it is ultimately our choice.

For example, the trauma I experienced growing up was hardcoded into the behavioral circuitry of my brain. I found that later conflicts would invariably trigger them.

The resulting fight-or-flight response was often destructive to my relationships.

It was possible however to reprogram my brain to judge and react to every stimulus. This is the essence of self-awareness.

By practicing exercises like diaphragmatic breathing and meditation, we can learn to be present with our experience. Through mindfulness, we can learn to be aware of our feelings, rather than controlled by them.

Improving emotional intelligence

“People with well-developed emotional skills are also more likely to be content and effective in their lives, mastering the habits of mind that foster their own productivity; people who cannot marshal some control over their emotional life fight inner battles that sabotage their ability for focused work and clear thought.”
– Daniel Goleman, Emotional Intelligence

The skills described above – self-awareness (knowing one’s own emotions) and self-compassion (managing those emotions), as well as self-motivation, empathy, and relationship management – are all critical to what Daniel Goleman calls “emotional intelligence”.

Emotional intelligence is a meta-ability that governs how successful we are in all aspects of our lives, from relationships to our wellbeing, to personal effectiveness and productivity.

My discovery of Daniel Goleman’s seminal work served in this sense as a catalyst for confronting my own trauma and seeking a fresh perspective on my struggles.

I accomplished this with the help of therapy, reading self-help and psychology books, opening up dialogues with others, and yes, undertaking meditation.

While some sections and theoretical discussions may not be relevant to all readers, Emotional Intelligence is an essential read for all gay men on the path of self-improvement.