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.

Don’t shoot yourself in the foot. Here’s how to be a better social justice warrior online

Essy Knopf social justice warriors
Reading time: 9 minutes

The term “social justice warriors” should mean advocates for progressive causes. Internet trolls however have tried to paint SJWs as social media “slacktivists” and political correctness police.

There may be an element of truth to this. We may not all be keyboard warriors ready to hold every wrongdoer to account, but many of us still use these platforms for activism, consciousness-raising, and community organization.

Social media in particular has empowered many marginalized individuals to challenge dominant narratives perpetuated by mass media and the oppressive systems they serve.1234

But when we threaten the status quo, we also threaten the privileged few it has long served. Given trolls themselves are typically members of these empowered groups—White males with a “certain degree of economic privilege”5—it’s no wonder they can be such tough critics.

Whether we are calling out ableism on Twitter or criticizing microaggressions on YouTube (here’s a handy guide to SJW terminology), it’s important that we always hold ourselves to a higher standard. 

By this, I mean that we remember our goal is as much interrupting oppression as it is inspiring individual change.

As social justice warriors, we can help others navigate the process of revising their beliefs and behaviors—but only if we act in a way that does not first alienate or create a toxic “us” vs. “them” mentality.

Social justice warriors are kind

When confronted with injustice and oppression, SJWs naturally feel compelled to speak out. The problem starts when we believe that our capacity for critical thinking gives us a license to simply be critical

If we lean into this belief, we adopt a holier-than-thou attitude. We task ourselves with fighting our many “enemies”, rather than seeing them as potential allies and stakeholders in the change we desire.678

Furthermore, being publicly called out over one’s conduct, whether online or offline usually entails some loss of face

For me, being corrected over something I have said on the grounds of it being incorrect and/or offensive has—at the very minimum—evoked embarrassment and defensiveness.

There have also been instances where I have found myself on the receiving end of a global attack on my privileges, my conduct, or my character.

These kinds of attacks have the potential to activate what Brené Brown terms “shame tapes”: “the messages of self-doubt and self-criticism that we [all] carry around in our heads”.9

Brown describes shame as the belief that our actions or inactions make us unworthy of love, belonging, or connection. So corrosive is this belief that it can erase our capacity to change.

When it doesn’t lead people to flee, it can cause them to double down, or to go into attack mode.

Where it comes to online advocacy and activism, controversy with civility certainly is possible, and necessary. 

Yet no matter how abominable the other person’s point of view or egregious their conduct, we as social justice warriors must remember that another’s capacity to grow can only be tapped so long as they feel respected and safe enough to concede there is room for improvement.

If we are courteous and kind, we create a low-threat environment in which these self-protective mechanisms are not necessary, and transformation is possible.

If we want to achieve any mutual understanding and/or consensus, it behooves us to build bridges, not walls—to borrow the words of Pope Francis.10

Anger over others’ wrongful behavior can be justified, but rarely is anger alone a motivator to change. For us to move forward as a society, we must be willing to forgive.

By forgiveness, I am not suggesting we overlook individual responsibility or accountability. Nor am I proposing we permit or enable oppression.

Rather, I am reminding readers that—to quote Desmund Tutu—”every one of us is both inherently good and inherently flawed. Within every hopeless situation and every seemingly hopeless person lies the possibility of transformation”.11

SJWs are humble 

Wise social justice warriors know that when we appoint ourselves the arbitrator of right and wrong, we fail to admit to our fallibility. We forget that we too at some point have been wrong.

For example, derogatory terms regarding people with disabilities are so ingrained in Australian slang that to call something “r******d” or “s*****c” often does not warrant a second thought.

It was only once I was diagnosed with a disability that I came to truly understand how hurtful and oppressive such terms could be.

In the years since I have encountered people for whom the use of these terms was also a product of habit rather than outright maliciousness. Offensive as they have since become for me, I have had to remind myself that I once was no different. 

Social justice warriors know that language can be oppressive. A humble SJW however understands that penalizing others over perceived technicalities or semantics does not facilitate dialogue.

Practicing humility also means being willing to front up to our own mistakes, before we expect others to admit to their own. It also means acknowledging we can choose how we react to those of others.

In the words of Holocaust survivor Viktor E. Frankl: “Between stimulus and response, there is a space. In that space lies our freedom and our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our happiness”.12

When we lash out at those who trigger our emotions, we are also missing a valuable opportunity for personal growth.

If taking personal responsibility for our feelings feels impossible, then perhaps it is best we take a step back, reflect, practice self-compassion, and seek the professional support and healing we need.

Remember: feeling aggrieved or believing ourselves to be on the right side of history does not grant us a hall pass to punish, humiliate, antagonize, or bully.

SJWs are curious

Effective social justice warriors know that consciousness-raising does not follow a hypodermic needle model. We don’t simply “inject” information into our audience and expect our lessons to somehow stick.

Rather than brutalizing others with our beliefs, we should aim instead to sensitize them, through rapport- and relationship-building. 

Online, this may be difficult. Exchanges tend to be fleeting and sometimes ill-considered. Who here hasn’t once shot from the hip, firing off a furious email or direct message into the ether?

Digital environments remove many of the inhibitions that stop us from otherwise engaging in antisocial behaviors, resulting in a phenomenon known as the Online Disinhibition Effect.

We can see this effect at play when we try to set “wrongdoers” right online, imposing viewpoints and forcing confrontations. As noted already, these behaviors do not nurture empathy. Rather, they feed conflict.

Shifting worldviews requires that we and our dialogue partners unpack the thinking behind them. 

Broadminded SJWs recognize that worldviews are a product of valid life experiences and values—values which are not always self-selected but are imposed by “cultural norms, policies, laws, and public opinion”.13

With time and patience, and by getting curious and asking questions, we may be able to help others uncover discrepancies between our dialogue partners’ thoughts and values, generate cognitive dissonance, and, hopefully, action.

essy knopf social justice warriors

SJWs are empathetic

By modeling openness, we create an environment in which empathy can flourish. And to reiterate: unless a baseline of empathy has been first established, a stranger may not be willing to hear all you have to say.

Combining the qualities mentioned above—kindness, mindfulness, humility, and curiosity—can thus increase our chances drastically.

“We should look upon others with respect,” wrote Baháʼí leader ‘Abdu’l-Bahá.

“When attempting to explain and demonstrate, we should speak as if we are investigating the truth. [We] should speak with the utmost kindliness, lowliness, and humility, for such speech exerteth influence and educateth the souls.”14

‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s words are echoed by Buddhist spiritual leader Thich Nhat Hanh, who counsels us to employ “loving speech”.

By speaking in a way that inspires hope, forgiveness, and compassion, and by treating all who cross our paths with understanding and generosity of spirit—whatever their beliefs—we can move towards reconciliation and resolution.15

Nhat Hanh suggests that before trying to change others, we should instead practice “deep listening”: 

“Even if [the other person] says things that are full of wrong perceptions, full of bitterness, you are still capable of continuing to listen with compassion. Because you know that listening like that, you give that person a chance to suffer less. If you want to help him to correct his perception, you wait for another time. For now, you don’t interrupt. You don’t argue. If you do, he loses his chance. You just listen with compassion and help him to suffer less. One hour like that can bring transformation and healing.”16

SJWs pick their battles

A wise SJW seeks to clarify intent and meaning, rather than condemning others outright. Automatically presuming bad intent on behalf of our dialogue partner is a one-way ticket to nowhere.

That said, attention-seekers who have no time for respectful dialogue and are only interested in winning debates are best avoided. 

Likewise, when confronted by hate speech, the most judicious course of action usually involves blocking and reporting the perpetrators.

As per the aphorism “don’t feed the trolls”, we should avoid such toxic and ultimately futile exchanges, and consider instead engaging in self-care.

To that point, social justice warriors should recognize that some settings are not naturally conducive to meaningful or purposeful dialogue. 

For example, when we are interacting with strangers on Twitter, we have no reason to believe our point of view will be acknowledged, respected, and given careful consideration. 

Anonymity and the absence of the usual social checks and balances mean that exchanges of opinion on social media can quickly devolve into mud-slinging matches.

And given social media platforms abound with bots and trolls, we may have no way of knowing whether the views put forth in response even belong to a real person. 

Which begs the question: what is your goal in initiating or continuing an interaction online? What do you hope to achieve by challenging and contending? 

And more importantly, is there a basis for which you can cultivate awareness and change, or would your energies best be spent elsewhere?

For many of us, our first glimpse of social justice activism was a social media post. Yet so long as we choose to engage at the level of a Twitter argument—which, let’s face it, are rarely productive—we won’t be any closer to creating the better world we dream of.

This is not to say that calling out perceived oppressions in some situations can’t be a valuable practice. But doing so can potentially lead us to categorize and even demonize someone on the basis of some privileged facet of their identity.

Intersectionality teaches us that each individual comprises multiple “potentially conflicting, overlapping identities, loyalties, and allegiances”,17 all of which interact in different ways with power structures and cultural interpretations.18

Given our various identities operate in tandem, it is impossible to focus on one, to the exclusion of all others.19

Judging someone on the basis of a perceived privileged identity thus is reductive and presumptuous, especially when we know often know next to nothing about an online dialogue partner.

Social justice warriors practice self-reflection

Social media platforms, as we all know by now, rely upon algorithms to filter content, biasing what users see in their social media feeds according to what they have previously engaged with.20

This has resulted in an “echo chamber” effect, in which social media users are presented with information that confirms existing biases while ensuring the only contact they have is with others they perceive to be fundamentally similar.

This echo chamber effect has been credited with ushering in an era of post-truth politics, fueling tribalism, fanning the fires of culture wars, and contributing to the extremely polarized state of modern politics in the U.S.

The lack of transparency around how these algorithms operate unfortunately means that our ability to reach many people—especially those of opposing political views—is often limited.

Even more problematic is the fact that these algorithms may lead us into believing our chamber reflects an “essential” conception of reality, rather than one shaped by our values and opinions.

Not being exposed to anything that deviates from this perceived reality can have the effect of reinforcing existing worldviews. We may become less and less aware of our own biases and prejudices and prone to invalidating “the cognitions and realities of those who are different”.21

As aspiring changemakers, we can’t afford to be dogmatic. Rather, we must be willing to step out of our ideological echo chambers, reflect on our own biases, and be open to taking other perspectives.

Only when we do this can we truly “dialogue across difference”2223 and forge the relationships that are so crucial to change.

In the words of pioneering American social worker Jane Addams: “Social advance depends as much upon the process through which it is secured as upon the result itself”.24

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.