7 creative and incredibly simple autism self-care techniques

Essy Knopf self-care techniques
Reading time: 6 minutes

Do you struggle with autism self-care? You may not be the only one.

Surviving in ableist societies can be taxing for many autistic folks at the best of times.

We may spend all our energy just trying to fit in—energy we may otherwise need for rest and recharging.

Added to this, many self-care techniques can feel like a chore, especially when we are pressed for time.

Trying to squeeze in one more thing into an already overburdened schedule when we’re already feeling overloaded can be particularly anxiety-provoking.

I remember once upon a time, the very idea of pausing to do meditation or a yoga class was enough to send me into a tailspin.

“That’s 20-30 minutes I’ll be losing from my schedule,” I would think. “20-30 minutes I don’t have!”

Given much of my workload was self-generated as a result of workaholism, my sense of urgency around time in retrospect didn’t make a whole lot of sense.

No one after all was demanding I submit a script in time for three different competitions. The deadline I had set for finishing my feature documentary was of my own devising.

The pressure of being a multi-passionate autistic

The issue in my case had to do with my fixating on the gap between where I was and where I wanted to be. I was a multi-passionate autistic with an array of interests I knew I could excel at…if only I knocked on the right doors and made the wrong connections.

This unsurprisingly is where I struggled most. Autistics face very real obstacles with social communication and interpersonal relationships. And yet I told myself that I could ignore these obstacles. Sooner or later, my labors would yield fruit.

And so I continued to work in isolation, in the service of various passions that I hope to turn into viable careers.

After years of this, I began to feel rather hopeless about it. What, after all, did I have to show for all my effort, save a few life experiences and college degrees?

My dissatisfaction drove me only further in my pursuit of achievement, which in turn made my self-worth dependent upon that pursuit.

The time pressure I thus experienced was not the result of external circumstances but toxic self-perceptions. I didn’t believe myself to be “good enough” or deserving of self-care until I had first “made it”. Yet failing to care for my own needs only increased my anxiety and this sense of time pressure.

For other autistics, external circumstances may indeed pose a very real obstacle to self-care. When we are strung out between the pressures of operating in a neurotypical world, alongside commitments such as work, school, family, and social lives, self-care activities certainly start to seem onerous, if not out of the question.

Yet no matter how strong the impulse might be to put downtime on the backburner, without adequate rest and rejuvenation, our ability to fulfill these commitments, and to pursue our passions, will suffer.

Should self-care techniques such as getting a massage or drinking water fail to appeal to you, consider exploring the following seven simple and unorthodox methods.

Essy Knopf autism self-care

1. Shower mindfully – an unexpected autism self-care activity

Don’t have time to recline in a bath? Not a fan of bubbles and scented soap? That’s okay.

If being pummeled by hot water is more your jam, follow this quick 5-minute guide to increasing your shower pressure.

Next, shake up your mindfulness routine by trying this exercise while standing under your showerhead. 

2. Shop guilt-free

Retail therapy can indeed have therapeutic benefits, but in excess, it can create debt that negatively impacts our mental health. Know however that self-indulgence doesn’t have to hurt your pocketbook. 

Visit a discount store with low-priced items. Hunt down little items you might not otherwise have budgeted for, but which you know will add some value or comfort to your life.

For example, a shower caddy, plastic storage tubs, or a new drink bottle. 

Whatever you end up buying, know that it is the act of spending money that generates the “feel good” feelings typically associated with retail therapy.

This way you’ll get all the benefits with none of the financial strain—or buyer’s remorse.

3. Have a lie-in

Pick a morning where there are no pressing matters to attend to and simply stay in bed.

Alternatively, use your morning to complete errands and spend the remainder of your day under the covers.

Make whatever adjustments are necessary to maximize comfort. Turn on your air conditioner, close the blinds, put your phone into airplane mode, make a cup of tea, light a scented candle, or switch on an essential oil diffuser.

If relaxing still proves difficult, and you find yourself battling anxiety, don a weighted blanket or a compression vest. 

These use deep pressure to help ease anxiety and are available to purchase online.

4. Ritualize a mini-hobby

Many hobbies require time and energy we aren’t always able to spare. If this is your experience, consider expanding your definition of the word “hobby”.

For instance, I was never much one for comedy, save for watching the odd opening monologue from a late-night talk show, schedule allowing.

When I discovered that these shows made a perfect accompaniment to my breakfast routine, I understood that maybe time wasn’t an issue after all.

Sure, enjoying Jimmy Kimmel, Samantha Bee, John Oliver, Seth Meyer, and Stephen Colbert isn’t strictly a hobby. Yet it can impart many of the usual benefits, such as supporting mental health and relaxation—in this case, through laughter.

By incorporating a mini-hobby like this into your day, we will stand a better chance of making it a habit, ensuring it survives peak periods of busyness.

In order to create a habit, we not only have to do it regularly—we also have to follow the four laws of behavioral change, as described by Atomic Habits author James Clear:

#1 Make it obvious.
#2 Make it attractive.
#3 Make it easy.
#4 Make it satisfying.

In my case, the enjoyment provided by watching these videos fulfilled law #4 (“make it satisfying”).

In order to “make it obvious”, I subscribed to each comedian’s dedicated YouTube channels so that their most recent videos appeared on my homepage.

By keeping my YouTube homepage always open in a browser tab, I enhanced the attractiveness of these videos (“make it attractive”). 

And by waking up early, I was able to eat and perform my new ritual at my own pace (“make it easy”).

5. Take a power nap

Napping isn’t just the favored activity of layabouts—it’s also a supereffective way to give your flagging energy levels a boost!

If your workplace doesn’t look favorably about employees taking catnaps, a quick lie down after a taxing day can help restore you.

Naps of between 10-20 minutes are considered ideal, as anything longer than 30 minutes can leave us feeling groggy upon waking.

Napping not only decreases sleepiness but can improve learning and memory while supporting the regulation of our emotions

6. Get some green therapy

The emerging discipline of green therapy—also known as ecopsychology—is concerned with using nature to help us recharge our internal batteries.

Multiple studies have demonstrated that the presence of nature can have a plethora of health benefits.

Venturing into the wilds may not always be possible, but you can reap the same benefits from visiting your local park. Twenty minutes as it turns out can be enough to relieve stress.

You reap similar effects using simulated green spaces. For instance, by placing fake plants around your home or workspace.

Another method involves slipping on a pair of headphones and listening to natural sounds, such as wind through trees or running water.

7. Try audio bibliotherapy

The act of sitting down to read a book in today’s helter-skelter world is becoming increasingly uncommon. But if you lack the patience to read the conventional way, you can always try listening to an audiobook instead.

Having your books read aloud to you can be an effective way to consume content without having to add to your already overburdened schedule.

Furthermore, if you’re suffering work-related stress or battling anxiety and depression linked to your busy lifestyle, reading books about these challenges can go some way to lighten your load and help you apply self-care techniques.

Healing through reading is known as “bibliotherapy”, and it can serve as a wonderful resource for those among us struggling to access support networks or the sympathetic ear of a therapist.

Books that teach self-care techniques

There is no one-size-fits-all solution to the challenges mentioned above. But if you aren’t able to invest the time to seek out personally appropriate guidance, consider exploring the following recommendations:

8. Start a self-compassion practice to round off your autism self-care

Build a deliberate self-compassion practice with the support of the many free, downloadable resources on the Self-Compassion website.

Author Kristin Neff has prepared brief guided practices, a list of exercises, and tips for those new to the concept.

Finally, if you have a habit of going too hard on yourself and zeroing in on your supposed deficits as an autistic person, try adopting a strengths-based perspective.

Instead of looking at yourself as somehow flawed, acknowledge the many strengths that come with being autistic, which I list in an earlier blog post.

When self-care feels impossible as a social worker, try these five easy tricks

Essy Knopf social work secret self-care tips
Reading time: 4 minutes

Working in a demanding profession like social work, I’m often reminded that self-care is a commitment many of us struggle to make. 

Certainly, there may be factors that interfere with our ability to perform this vital activity. We may for example experience a time crunch at work and miss a lunch break in order to help a client in crisis.

When such a situation becomes routine, we should be worried. Many however refuse to take action, claiming they simply don’t have control over the circumstances.

Addressing self-care, however, is less about external circumstances than it is about certain problematic beliefs we hold to be true.

Common mental barriers to self-care

Chronic overwork usually happens because we permit it to.

For example, boundary issues may convince us we are obligated—if not morally bound—to take on more than our own share. 

This can stem from low self-esteem or distorted self-perception, which are in turn fed by negative self-talk. 

If given too much latitude, our internal critics will demand we constantly prove our self-worth, leading to workaholism, perfectionism, and other forms of grandiosity

This is not a sustainable way of life. We can’t ignore our feelings of overwhelm and exhaustion forever. But in the absence of self-compassion, we will likely dismiss self-care as “unnecessary”, “wasteful”, and “selfish”.

Another contributor to overwork is time anxiety, a phenomenon by which we come to believe there is simply never enough time in which to complete all of our assigned tasks.

Like other forms of anxiety, time anxiety follows a simple premise: 

if you do or fail to do X, Y catastrophe will happen 

If you’re struggling to overcome one or more of these obstacles, or if the suggestions in my previous guide to self-care as a social worker didn’t quite hit the spot, I would suggest the following approaches.

1. Snack on self-care

Incorporate brief, “snack-sized” activities into your daily routine. For example:

  • Watch a humorous segment from a late-night talk show host on YouTube while eating breakfast
  • Check your favorite news website during work breaks
  • Watch a fun TV show while cooking dinner
  • Listen to an enriching podcast while cleaning or exercising
  • Do school readings while enjoying a hot bath
  • Practice a grounding exercise during moments of peak stress. For example: box breathing, belly breathing, or body scans

While multitasking has been linked to higher levels of stress and fatigue, self-care snacking in this fashion is a start…and thus progress.

2. Try gratitude & affirmations

Studies have found that practicing gratitude can significantly boost our mental health

One common example is gratitude journaling. This involves writing down five things you’re grateful for each day. 

Alternatively, you can share this list with a designated “accountability partner” either daily or weekly, in-person, or over the phone.

Another fun way to practice gratitude is with a freewriting gratitude exercise. Set a timer for five minutes, suspend your critical thinking, and start writing down anything and everything you could be grateful for.

When the timer ends, set down your pen and review your work. Does what you write check out? Are you surprised by the number of things you were able to list?

Another proven way to nip stress in the bud is by practicing affirmations. Consider opening or closing your day with an affirmation that emphasizes a positive aspect of your life or celebrates your strengths or achievements. 

Here are some examples of affirmations you can use as part of a daily practice. 

Thankfully, practicing gratitude nor affirmations are not time-intensive activities and can be performed during natural lulls that occur throughout the day.

Essy Knopf self-care ticks social work

3. Lean into self-compassion

Self-compassion refers to the willingness and ability to comfort oneself in moments of distress. This is a vital skill we typically learn by internalizing the soothing offered to us as children by our primary caregivers. 

When our attachment to these caregivers is disrupted, however, through misattunement, invalidation, neglect, abuse, loss, and trauma, we may develop insecure attachment styles.

This impedes future relationships and deprives us of the chance to learn self-compassion, which can bolster personal resiliency.

Thankfully, self-compassion can always be developed through practice. To get started, check out some of the brief guided meditations, videos, and exercises available on Self-Compassion author Kristin Neff’s website. 

Again, these activities can be done almost anywhere and don’t require a lot of time.

4. Get your body moving

Exercise may maintain our general health—but it can also help protect us against anxiety and depression.

As someone who has suffered chronic anxiety, I have found daily exercise goes a long way to helping me manage this condition.

While I don’t always achieve the 30 minutes of moderate activity daily recommended by scientists, I do make sure to take 20-minute walks around the neighborhood at the very least.

Slower exercise should ideally be supplemented by higher-intensity workouts. For instance, I try to cycle for an hour one day, hike for a few hours on another, and do an hour of weights and jogging on a third.

If your mind tells you that taking time out to exercise will eat into your productivity, consider listening to a podcast or audiobook at the same time.

Should venturing outdoors or going to the gym demand too much from your schedule, try exercising from home with free-to-view YouTube aerobics classes.

5. Sleep hygienically

How is sleep a self-care activity? Usually, when we are consumed by work, we may not get our seven-hour minimum.

If our sleep is too short or the quality of it is poor, we may quickly find ourselves running on empty.

Practicing sleep hygiene is how we create the ideal conditions for sleeping. Some examples of good sleep hygiene are:

  • Going to bed and getting up at a regular time 
  • Ensuring our bedrooms are quiet, dark, relaxing, and comfortable
  • Using our bedroom exclusively for sleeping 
  • Removing electronic devices from our sleeping spaces
  • Employing blue light-free bulbs and the wellness feature on our Apple or Android devices (sometimes referred to as “night light”)
  • Avoiding large meals, caffeine, and alcohol before rest 

Wrap up

Whatever your career choice, overwork is a possibility that can always sneak up unexpectedly. 

Boundary issues, fierce internal critics, and time anxiety are just a few forms of mental resistance that can leave us especially vulnerable in this regard.

Danger arises when this resistance persuades us that the rightful place of self-care is on the chopping block. 

Over time, such beliefs can become hard to shake. But by making some of the adjustments proposed above, you can take small steps towards becoming a personal wellbeing champion.

You can read more social work-related posts here.

Enough with the toxic culture of COVID-19 shaming

Essy Knopf coronavirus toxic covid-19 shaming
Reading time: 6 minutes

After 10 months of trying to evade COVID-19, the virus finally caught me. 

No—I had not been flagrantly breaking coronavirus restrictions. While others attended social gatherings, held parties, and failed to honor COVID-19 safety guidelines, I scrupulously stayed in my bedroom. 

When I did emerge, it was only to exercise, shop for food, and spend time with my partner. But wearing my face mask the minute I walked out the front door and keeping my distance was not, as it turns out, enough.

COVID-19 numbers in Los Angeles hit new highs in December 2020, and as an extra precaution, I took to avoiding my roommates and wearing a face mask whenever I stepped foot in communal areas.

My immediate social circle shrank from two to one. Seeing just my partner seemed like a fair compromise to make, even if it flew in the face of rules not to mix with members of other households.

Two weeks later, my partner came down with COVID-19. By the time we received the positive diagnosis, it was too late: I too had been infected.

Until this point, I had steadily nursed anger towards those whose reckless actions were fueling case spike after case spike—the same people, undoubtedly, I saw walking the streets without a mask.

But catching COVID-19, I found myself suddenly wondering if I was no different to those I had so harshly judged. 

Even as I succumbed to the tidal pull of illness, I was sliding down a spiral of another kind entirely: shame.

the thoughtful gay coronavirus toxic covid-19 shaming
Down-and-out with flu-like symptoms.

How ‘COVID fatigue’ is fueling a COVID boom

During the subsequent days spent in bed recovering, with only self-doubt for a companion, I began conducting a moral inventory of the (deeply questionable!) actions that had led me to this point (spending time with my partner).

But could I really be to blame for seeing a loved one, even when that decision was taken against the advice of health authorities?

As a Los Angeles resident, I had been living under a dark cloud of COVID-19 isolation, anxiety, and uncertainty for the better part of a year. 

Infection transmission and financial security remained a constant concern and watching the cyclical surges in case numbers was enough to leave most people stricken with helplessness.

For these surges were the product as much of a select few choosing to gather on holidays, as they were lax enforcement of rules.

If the public and the authorities weren’t willing to take the necessary measures to stem the tide of infection, then what hope did we ever have of getting the pandemic under control?

In my imagination, I saw these individuals poking holes in a liferaft the rest of us were frantically trying to bail out. 

Certainly, in refusing to get tested, communicate their status, social distance, and take all the other necessary precautions, these people were acting as saboteurs.

But after so long spent in lockdown amid a national and global climate of chronic risk and uncertainty, was it really fair to fault people for wanting to spend their holidays with family? 

Seeking soothing in a time of disaster stress

“COVID fatigue” (not to be confused with the actual COVID symptom) refers to a feeling of exhaustion with “being cooped up…being careful…being scared”. According to a UC Davis Health psychologist, it’s just another name for long-term disaster stress. 

As a passionate advocate for, and student of, the mental health field, I know that engaging with one’s social supports is a healthy means of coping and maintaining psychological wellbeing in times of crisis.

Polyvagal Theory argues that human beings’ autonomic nervous systems—the same system responsible for our fight-or-flight responses—are geared towards acting in service of their own survival through “co-regulation”.

Psychologist Deb Dana describes co-regulation as the “reciprocal regulation of our autonomic states” through social relationships.

It makes sense therefore that people burdened by disaster stress and long periods of isolation might want to seek the company of loved ones.

Video calls thus far have been the closest approximation for in-person companionship. Poor a substitute they may be, they are also a necessary evil when it comes to safeguarding loved ones against COVID-19 transmission. 

Even so, why are people still taking risks?

essy knopf gay toxic covid-19 shaming coronavirus

How ‘optimism’ grants immunity to COVID-19 shaming

For the better part of a year, Los Angeles residents have been in a holding pattern, care of the ever-shifting restrictions and lockdown conditions. 

Staying home and alone for such a long period is enough to exhaust anyone’s limited store of willpower. Given the high reward involved—reclaiming a former freedom—it’s no wonder some people might choose to stop adhering to COVID restrictions.

These people may be further motivated by optimism bias—that is, the belief that we individually are less likely than others to experience an adverse life event, like say, catching coronavirus.

There are also conflicting feelings around being told not to fulfill a personal right which, under any other circumstance, would be socially sanctioned. That is, spending time with family and friends.

As health authorities advised families against gathering on key holidays like Thanksgiving and Christmas, some may have chosen to deal with the resulting cognitive dissonance by seeking to justify or explain away their actions. 

The stress of dealing with two conflicting pieces of information doubtless led many to suspend critical thinking about the potential repercussion of their actions.

The rise of COVID-19 shaming

In May last year, a viral video emerged of shoppers at a Staten Island grocery store hurling abuse at a woman who refused to wear a face mask.

New York City was deep in the throes of the COVID pandemic, so residents were understandably angered by the selfish and potentially dangerous actions of this individual.

Shoppers at the time appeared to be trying to socially shame the woman into donning a face mask, but however justified they may have felt, their actions carried the whiff of mob behavior

Social shaming can be a powerful means of enforcing shared rules, especially those relating to the pandemic. In the words of shame researcher Dr. Daniel Sznycer, “The function of shame is to prevent us from damaging our social relationships, or to motivate us to repair them.”

The idea being that shaming—a response to other’s disregard for COVID-19 safety precautions—should compel offenders to abandon their antisocial ways in service of the collective good.

Yet so often social shaming turns into outright abuse. As the popularization of terms such as “covidiot” indicates, the discourse tends less towards leveraging guilt (“You did something bad”) to inflicting toxic shame (“You are bad”).

Author Brené Brown counsels against weaponizing shame, noting that “shame corrodes the part of us that believes we can change and do better”.

When COVID-19 shaming turns toxic, it creates defensiveness, disconnection, and sends the accused into fight-or-flight.

Looking at COVID-19 shaming through the lens of gay trauma

The gay community has also seen its share of toxic shaming in the wake of coronavirus.

The popular Instagram account, Gaysovercovid, for example, has worked to name-and-shame those responsible for flouting coronavirus regulations.

COVID-19 shaming accounts like this work to reinforce social norms, using the fear of being “outed” on social media to dissuade would-be attendees of international circuit parties.

What they fail to acknowledge though is the purpose such behaviors may be serving for those who engage in them. Namely, nervous system regulation.

Gay men have a unique legacy of trauma, and therefore a greater need for regulation. Some chose to meet this need through the party lifestyle—a lifestyle the current global situation has rendered difficult, if not impossible.

Those who self-medicate with substances, compulsive sex, and other forms of self-gratification, are being abruptly forced off their hedonic treadmill, and this can be enough to trigger a state of collapse.

Survival in this sense is tied to the endless pursuit of distraction. For without distraction, there is introspection, and realization of buried trauma and identity shame

When confronted by the condemnation of others from within our own community, we’ll feel only more compelled to seek distraction; to maintain our place atop the treadmill.

COVID-19 shaming in such instances is limited as a mechanism for change, and may in fact have the opposite effect.

the thoughtful gay coronavirus toxic covid-19 shaming

Seeking peace through compassion 

If this situation tells us anything, it’s that our anger over this kind of behavior is an attempt to regain some sense of control and fairness in a world that currently seems void of both.

Authorities have shown themselves to be incapable of adequately responding to the coronavirus pandemic and curbing its widespread impact.

The result has been an entrenched sense of uncertainty, helplessness, and pessimism. 

When we perceive our personal safety and financial security to be potentially threatened by others’ shortsightedness, we naturally turn to anger.

But that anger promises no peace of mind. Instead, we would be better served by engaging in self-reflection

If you find yourself hooked by the desire to shame, ask yourself: how are the actions of others triggering me? What emotions are they evoking, and why? What steps can I take to start feeling better?

Instead of giving in to COVID-19 shaming, consider building a self-compassion practice. Self-Compassion author Kristin Neff has provided the following exercises and guided meditations

Once self-compassion has been achieved, compassion towards others becomes truly possible.  The Buddhist meditation practice of tonglen (“taking and sending”) may prove a valuable aid here.

You can also consider following some of the steps I outlined in my previous article, “How to keep mentally well during the coronavirus pandemic“.

Our goal in striving for such mindfulness is not to accept others’ reckless actions, but rather to break the stranglehold of negative feelings.

What this global catastrophe calls for is not assigning blame, but a recognition of the universality of our suffering

It is only through such recognition that we can strive together towards a new social consciousness grounded not in self-interest, but concern for the collective.

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

Be kind. Stop the oppressive cycle of internalized gay shame.

Essy Knopf gay men masking shame with contempt
Reading time: 6 minutes

My lack of body coordination has always been a painful fact, evoking a gay shame that stems from my school years. 

Raised in the stoic, sports-oriented culture of Australia, I often felt that my value as a male – at least in the eyes of my peers – was ultimately tied to my athletic prowess and sexuality.

It was not until my diagnosis with Asperger syndrome (autism) at age 26 that I found myself able to shrug off the feelings of masculine “inferiority” that had dogged me for so long.

Where previously I’d treated sports as a high-risk arena for failure, I now decided to turn this arena into a sandpit of experimentation.

After dabbling in cycling ended with me lodged in a stranger’s windshield, I turned to kickboxing instead.

While waiting for classes to begin, I’d watch the invite-only advanced members amble out of the ring, self-assured in a way I could never hope to be. 

Coveting the brass ring corroded my enthusiasm. All it took was one badly aimed kick landing in a stranger’s family jewels for me to decide to pack it in.

Judgment and toxic masculinity

My next stop was an LGBTQ+ recreational dodgeball league. Despite being a lousy aim and an easy mark, I was determined to commit to at least one season of play.

My team members proved for the most part friendly. Longtime players seemed unsparing in their support of newcomers, doling out praise and tips. 

But what had begun as something casual very quickly into an exercise in extreme competitiveness, as gay judgmentalism – normally grounded in the assessment of other’s physicality – now found focus in player’s on-court capabilities.

It was present in how some league members ignored friendly overtures, in the way cliques closed ranks upon approach.

I witnessed team captains actively scouting games and handpicking members, choosing some while excluding others. Never mind that this was a recreational league.

Worse still, players would yell at one another for failing to catch balls. While dodging one ball, I found myself on the receiving end of a rude shove from another team member.

Then there were the players who strutted about with an air of superiority, engaging in dizzying displays of skill and berating first-time players for not knowing the rules. 

The behavior grew more ugly from there. Some players flagrantly defied the rules while the coaches weren’t watching, refusing to take their “outs” as if it were a matter of survival.

This inevitably led to verbal clashes, taunting, and the exchange of obscenities. Par for the course with any competitive sport – and yet an LGBTQ+ league was the last place I’d ever hoped to endure toxic masculinity.

Some people, it seemed, were replaying far older battles, where the stakes weren’t so much team ranking, as they were self-worth

essy knopf gay shame self compassion

A secret legacy of gay shame

In any LGBTQ+ sports league, there’s always an argument to be made for the commonality of our struggles.

As many of us have endured exclusion and bullying over our sexuality in the past, this is probably the last thing any of us would want to inflict upon others. So why does it continue to happen?

Society historically has regarded gay men with contempt, constructing our sexuality as either a despicable choice, a weakness of character, or a moral flaw.

Our way of coping with this atmosphere of psychological, social, and even physical danger according to The Velvet Rage author Alan Downs is by adapting, chameleon-like, to our surroundings.

We conceal visible expressions of our gay identity, such as our interest in members of the same sex. And we suppress expressions of traditionally “feminine” traits, such as emotional vulnerability, while muting our authentic selves.

In short, we make ourselves more acceptable to others, at the expense of our own wholeness. And in so doing, we internalize others’ judgment.

Being told our “perversity” is a choice, and believing this not to be the case, we are faced with an internal dispute. We find ourselves harboring what feels like a terrible secret. Other’s contempt thus becomes our shame.

As young adults emerging from the repressive social environments of our childhood, we may leap headlong into expressions and declarations of self-acceptance; “wrapping ourselves in the gay flag”, as it were.

Such expressions and declarations however represent a destination that can only be reached after a certain internal journey requiring some degree of excavation, examination, and healing.

As Brené Brown explains in The Gifts of Imperfection, “Shame needs three things to grow out of control in our lives: secrecy, silence, and judgment. When something shaming happens and we keep it locked up, it festers and grows. It consumes us”.

Gay shame, when left unaddressed, may even find expression, contrarily, in the form of more contempt.

essy knopf gay shape self-compassion

Calling out shame

The behavior I witnessed – the exclusion, the general disrespect towards others, and the desire to win at all costs – meant that old traumas were being exhumed.

It also meant that players who had once themselves been oppressed were now unwittingly assuming the role of the oppressor, perpetuating a cycle of gay shame.

It’s possible in saying this, I may be projecting my own internalized gay shame. As someone who was usually the last to be picked for any school team, I’ve grown especially sensitive to situations that drive home old beliefs in my being deficient in “masculinity”.

But even if I wasn’t merely indulging my insecurities, I was certainly within my rights to be hurt by how I was treated, and how I saw others being treated.

This left me with two choices: either remain in the league and try to ignore the toxicity or quit a potentially shame-triggering situation. 

Then again, quitting hardly guaranteed complete freedom from the contempt of other gay men.

Self-compassion heals gay shame

When faced with feelings of shame, inadequacy, and inferiority, we adopt one of three tactics: we don the armor of grandiosity as compensation, we crumple, or we employ self-compassion.

To quote eighth century Indian Buddhist monk Shantideva:

Where would there be leather enough to cover the entire world? With just the leather of my sandals, it is as if the whole world were covered. Likewise, I am unable to restrain external phenomena, but I shall restrain my own mind. What need is there to restrain anything else?

Thus, rather than attempting to soften all the world’s painful surfaces, we would be better served by accepting the sensitivity of our figurative feet and finding more practical ways of protecting them.

We do this firstly through self-compassionate inquiry. In the words of Buddhist Pema Chödrön, if we are to attain a new, more empowering view of our suffering, we must embark upon “a process of acknowledging our aversions and our cravings”,

(becoming) familiar with the strategies and beliefs we use to build the walls: What are the stories I tell myself? What repels me and what attracts me? … We can observe ourselves with humor, not getting overly serious, moralistic, or uptight about this investigation.

Having put a name to what I was feeling in the dodgeball league, I was now able to pay attention to the script it was activating and to query its accuracy. 

Hardening into anger, or adopting rigid convictions about other people would not serve me. What then was the alternative?

By abandoning my fixed conception of reality, of right and wrong, by leaning into the discomfort, I could learn to be truly present with my own feelings about the situation.

Being present enabled me in turn to self-soothe, an action Self-Compassion author Kristin Neff says is crucial to the process of healing.

The peace of mind ultimately arrived at was a natural outgrowth of such self-compassion. In my case, that transition was facilitated with the guidance and insights of a therapist.

essy knopf inner critic victor frankl

Using kindness and humor to defeat shame

Pema Chödrön’s suggestion of employing humor when investigating your own patterns of thinking can be particularly helpful, at least where shame is concerned. 

Humor can help dissolve armor and deflate puffed-up defenses. But humor is only possible once we learn to recognize our cognitive and behavioral scripts as they are being activated.

Confronted by subtle and oftentimes not-so-subtle expressions of contempt from other dodgeball players, my instinct was either flee or fight.

On one hand, they could be viewed as reasonable coping strategies. But on the other, they offered no true grounding against these perceived threats. What was required here was the development of resiliency: the ability to tolerate, rather than avoid, adversity.

So I began to actively laugh off my own mistakes, gently poking fun at other’s egotism or aggression, while striving to show others the generosity of spirit I’d witnessed in the more seasoned players.

In cultivating inward and outward kindness, I found myself forging friendships with other players that served as a bulwark against the toxicity surrounding us.

When I eventually decided to quit the league six months later, it was motivated not by anger or hurt over the conduct of others, but by an on-court injury.

This accident aside, looking back, I realized my decision to remain in the league was a kind of victory. No – I hadn’t mastered the game. And no – the demons of childhood past remained.

Rather, what I had achieved was the greatest freedom that a person can desire. Namely, the freedom of learning to let go.

Takeaways

  • Identify “shame scripts”.
  • Practice self-compassion.
  • Use kindness and humor.

How judgmentalism is ruining gay dating

Essy Knopf gay dating
Reading time: 6 minutes

Gay dating is riddled with pitfalls, but perhaps the most significant is the rampant judgmentalism we face – and inflict – upon one another.

The irony is that we approach dating expecting chemistry while treating each other in ways that make it almost impossible.

The catch-22 is that unless we feel safe unless we can let our guards down, we’re going to resist being vulnerable. And without vulnerability, there is no chemistry.

Judgment and gay dating

I met Bryce* one evening over boba tea. Bryce was a guitarist from the UK who had come to Los Angeles with big hopes of breaking into the music industry.

As we exchanged details about our lives, Bryce made a number of flattering remarks about my appearance, flashing flirtatious grins, while indicating he genuinely wanted to get to know me.

As our conversation rolled on, Bryce asked me about my family and we somehow got onto the subject of trust.

“I like to give everyone the benefit of the doubt,” Bryce said.

“That’s great,” I replied. “I used to be the same.”

Bryce looked at me, expectant. I smiled, explaining I had firsthand experience dealing with a relative who was a pathological liar and that this had left me somewhat wary.

Almost immediately the warmth left Bryce’s expression. I excused myself to use the restroom, and when I returned he asked to call it a night. 

Out in the car park, I offered Bryce a polite farewell hug.

“Oh, we’re going to hug, are we?” he sneered, then walked away.

I got into my car, confused. Had my comment had been mistimed? Had I overshared?

Even so, I couldn’t shake the feeling that no time would ever have been appropriate for such an admission.

For in opening up to Bryce, I had breached an unspoken code by which many gay men live: never expose your vulnerabilities.

Gay dating and expecting perfection

Being born gay almost always guarantees an inheritance of trauma or invalidation. Having been bullied and marginalized for our differences, in particular our emotional expressivity, we learn early on to hide these, lest others brand us “feminine”.

Some of us do this by constructing a perfect exterior, or by hiding behind keen wit, brand name wardrobes, gym-fit physiques, or career success. In many cases, this is the mark of insecurity, born of an unrelenting inner critic.

Deprived of self-compassion, we, in turn, become incapable of mustering empathy for others. When a romantic interest tries to be vulnerable with us, to let their imperfections hang out, there is a strong possibility we will treat this as an infraction.

Uncomfortable with the demands this vulnerability makes of our own, we – like Bryce – reach not for understanding, but dismissal. 

Thus, having ourselves been rejected for being our authentic selves, we come to reject others for what we perceive as their weaknesses or flaws.

I believe it’s for this reason that many of us choose hookups over dating. We’re even more likely to avoid connections if we have in the past put ourselves out there, only to be shut down.

Hookups furthermore validate. They offer us instant gratification while sparing us the emotional risks typically associated with relationships.

In her book Daring Greatly, Brené Brown notes that we commonly associate vulnerability with “dark emotions”. But so long as we remain terrified of recognizing, acknowledging, and discussing such emotions, they continue to exert significant control over all aspects of our lives.

Imperfection is a given

Most gay men will suffer some form of trauma and a degree of neuroticism by virtue of what we have lived through. Psychology Today defines neuroticism as “a tendency toward anxiety, depression, self-doubt, and other negative feelings”. 

Unfortunately, the popular doctrine of masculinity asks that we hide our anguish and struggles. Those who fail to do so are mocked and rejected. Social conditioning has more or less made emotional concealment a condition for acceptance as males.

But our wounds and imperfections are a fact of human existence, ones that will sooner or later be revealed in the course of dating.

While I believe this act of revealing should be treated as a generous gift and met with compassion and understanding, many of us resort instead to the scorn and rejection we ourselves have suffered.

When we do this, we don’t just perpetuate a cycle of harm – we render gay dating an exercise in futility,

Until we have learned to be comfortable with our wounds and to reintegrate that emotional part of our identity we have split off as a matter of acceptance and survival, we will not treat vulnerability with the honor it deserves.

And so the meaningful relationships we all ultimately desire will continue to elude us.

Use discernment, not judgment

When dating, judgment may serve as a valuable defense mechanism, allowing us to screen out people who may pose a threat to our interests.

The gay dating world is, after all, rife with people who are irresponsible in their actions, inconsistent in motive, and generally lacking self-awareness. 

This is especially true on gay dating apps, which cannot enforce personal accountability. People we’ve been engaging in a heartfelt chat with can, for example, decide to reject, ghost, or block us, often without an apparent cause or explanation.

It’s no wonder then our reaction is to always be protecting ourselves, yet there is a difference between preemptively attaching negative labels to someone and genuinely trying to understand and relate to them

To this end, first dates should be treated as much as an exercise in rapport-building as one in information gathering. We should work to learn about our date’s habits and character; to build a holistic assessment in the place of making a snap judgment.

Chemistry is important, certainly, but true chemistry is a slow-burn phenomenon that can only flourish under conditions of emotional safety. So we must first create a gay dating environment in which it can flourish.

We do this by choosing discernment over judgment.

essy knopf gay dating judgmentalism

Discernment in practice

Judgment is a process of assigning values and drawing conclusions, while discernment is a process of perceiving facts and making informed inferences

As a discerning dater, your job is to be on the lookout for discrepancies, causes for concern, differences, and dealbreakers.

Your date for example may tell you they find you very attractive. They may insist they are looking to date. But they may also label themselves a workaholic.

You will notice here a disparity between a stated desire and practiced action, one that seems to suggest this person may not really want to date. Dating, after all, would require that they be willing to shift gears; to consider putting people before things

Workaholics by definition neglect their own needs. They are therefore unlikely to have the mental bandwidth to accommodate another person’s needs. 

When a date defines themselves as a workaholic, they may be intentionally or unintentionally “Mirandizing” you. That is, they are reading you your rights as a romantic candidate, telling you what to expect. Namely, that their job will always come first. 

This kind of distancing behavior is often indicative of an avoidant attachment style, which does not bode well for most people seeking romantic fulfillment. 

If we probe a little deeper, workaholicism for many gay men is an expression of covert depression, masquerading as grandiosity. There is a possibility this person may have some challenges they need to work through.

Unless your date is taking proactive steps to help themselves, to be in a relationship with them may require that you be willing to accept – if not enable – their avoidance. 

By making observations about the facts presented here, I have practiced discernment.

But discernment also tells me that while my date has admitted to being a workaholic, this is a clue, not a conclusion. 

Keep on gathering intel

Red flags may leave you with reservations, but it is imperative to keep an open mind, while also looking for data that may contradict or confirm the evidence at hand.

In the situation above, you may subsequently learn your date was joking about being a workaholic, or that they are in fact willing, ready, and able to break the habit.

With positive discoveries like this, we may feel tempted to abandon our assessment. Still, information gathering is a process that cannot – and should not – be rushed when gay dating, lest we miss evidence of future problems.

After all, when meeting other gay men we tend to put our best foot forward – at least initially. Over time, our true nature seeps out through the chinks in our armor. Such glimpses of our true selves are often the most telling.

One of the perils of expediting assessment while dating is that we may overlook this true self. Or we may never even get the chance because we’ve already ruled that person out, thus missing out on the opportunity to connect with a possible kindred spirit.

For this reason, we must strive to recognize the commonality in our stories and to offer one another the compassion we are all seeking – and rightfully deserve.

Takeaways

  • Dysfunction and imperfection are universal.
  • By dismissing a date, we may be perpetuating harm we ourselves have suffered.
  • True chemistry only happens when we feel safe.
  • When we judge, we create a hostile environment that undermines vulnerability.
  • The alternative is to practice discernment, compassion, and empathy.

* Names and identifying details have been changed to protect the privacy of all individuals discussed in this article.

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.

Four ways gay men can triumph over the inner critic

Essy Knopf gay inner critic
Reading time: 5 minutes

From an early age, my inner critic made me conscious of how different I was from other kids.

First, there were the niche interests, from learning the Latin names of dinosaurs to cataloging insects. I didn’t understand social nuance and was often direct to the point of being rude.

Labels inside my clothing chafed. I would lie in bed at night, disturbed by the feeling of pilling bedsheets against my toenails. All problems that seemed exclusive to me.

In second grade, I noticed my peers had mastered the art of tying their own shoelaces.

For me, it felt like an impossible task, as if the necessary neural connections just weren’t there. It took me a full year longer to acquire this basic skill.

My feeling of incompetence was deepened by the fact I scored poorly in handwriting and physical education.

I became acutely aware of my shortcomings, to the point I avoided playing sports, knowing it meant putting my coordination problems on display for all to see.

The terrible legacy of the inner critic

For 26 years, I labored under three contrary beliefs: that something was inherently wrong with me, that I was unfairly judged because of it, and that the problem must, therefore, lay entirely with others. My conscience self-righteously embraced the latter.

But as the cruel words and criticisms accrued, and I defensively pointed the finger right back, I subconsciously internalized them as the truth.

Then I received an official diagnosis: Asperger syndrome (autism). The pillars of my self-perception were shaken.

I knew now that there was indeed something different about me. I was not, as I had come to believe, an inherently bad person deserving of the scorn, mockery, and rejection I’d received in my school years.

This diagnosis enabled me to separate my sense of self-value from the limitations of my disability.

In so doing, I was able to abandon the blindspot in which I had lived; to accept that I had room for growth.

I experienced something similar with my sexuality, learning to accept that being gay did not make me a defective person. These revelations should have liberated me. They didn’t.

My inner critic remained, attacking me on an almost daily basis. So long as I took its tongue-lashings, I figured everything would be okay, and my self-esteem would remain intact.

But the critic proved a power-hungry tyrant, demanding constant achievement, perfectionism, and workaholism – what I’ve called three faces of grandiosity.

essy knopf gay identity grandiosity achievement perfectionism workaholism

What began as a means of survival had become the greatest obstacle to my wellbeing.

1. Resist ‘preemptive suffering’

While you may not have a disability, as gay men we are likely to have experienced marginalization, persecution, or invalidation. We may have even suffered neglect, abuse, or trauma.

These experiences teach us to adopt self-criticism as a means of protecting ourselves. The insidious whisperings of this inner critic may not always reach your conscious awareness.

You may not even exhibit obvious signs of its influence, such as grandiosity. Yet sooner or later, these signs surface, sometimes in the form of catastrophizing, or what I’ll call “preemptive suffering”.

People who preempt are their own worst enemies, operating by the principle that they would rather cut themselves down before anyone else can. 

Popular culture leads us to believe that negative self-talk can be countered by building positive self-esteem. But self-esteem is by nature delusional, or contingent. To quote Self-Compassion author Kristin Neff: 

To always feel like you’re awesome you need to either divorce yourself from reality or be on a treadmill of constantly proving your value. At some point you won’t measure up, which then craters your self-esteem. Not to mention relentlessly proving yourself is exhausting and unsettling.

Is there a better alternative? According to Neff, yes. Instead of manufacturing an inflated image of yourself or “slaying dragons every day”, we can opt instead for self-compassion

2. Avoid the blame game

When we fail, when often feel inferior or inadequate. Rather than acknowledging our pain, we go into attack mode, using blame to displace our feelings of guilt, shame, or humiliation onto others.

Venting your feelings may feel great at that moment in time, but it often triggers an escalating, zero-sum conflict. Forced to defend their pride, participants dig in.

Hostility poisons the pool of mutual understanding, and before long both parties have plunged headlong into interpersonal trench warfare.

In the words of Man’s Search for Meaning author Victor Frankl: “Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom”.

So rather than reacting, take a moment to pause and reflect. What has this person said/done? How did this trigger the inner critic? What familiar scripts is it resorting to?

3. Be OK with imperfection

If we don’t blame others, we will most certainly blame ourselves.

When we make mistakes, the inner critic is always there, waiting to pounce. “See?” it says. “I told you so. You’re irredeemably bad. You should feel ashamed. You’ll forever be a failure – that’s a fact.”

essy knopf inner critic victor frankl

Living under the yoke of the inner critic can be incredibly taxing. But rather than refuting such accusations or challenging them with contradictory evidence, we can sidestep them entirely.

We do this by acknowledging our fallibility as a fact. This disarms the inner critic. Finding truth in criticism robs it of its power.

Try repeating this handy syllogism, paraphrased from David Burns’ book Feeling Good

  1. Humans occasionally make mistakes, 
  2. I’m a human being, 
  3. Therefore I should occasionally make mistakes. 

4. Be your own comforter

When something goes wrong, we can offer ourselves comfort and consolation. We do this by verbally affirming our own worth and assuring ourselves that everything is okay, that we did our best given the circumstances.

Here are three self-compassion tips by Nonviolent Communication author Marshall Rosenberg and Kristen Neff you can consider practicing:

  • Call your inner critic out. One trick therapists recommend for dealing with unwanted thoughts or emotions is to wear a rubber band around your wrist and snap it every time they surface. Use one word to identify what you’re feeling, e.g. “shame” and repeat it as an acknowledgment. Identify your inner critic’s intentions in trying to protect you, while offering some gentle course correction.
  • Reframe your inner dialogue by asking yourself four questions: What am I observing? What am I feeling? What am I needing right now? Do I have a request of myself or someone else?
  • In moments of emotional distress, find somewhere private and adopt the role of a comforter, speaking to yourself in the tone of a mother trying to soothe a baby. Caress your arm. Hold your face in your hands. Hug yourself. 
inner critic gay

These nurturing gestures can help trigger a release of the powerful chemical oxytocin, which will, in turn, improve your mood and shift the tone of internal dialogue towards kindness.

By cultivating self-compassion, we can take steps towards achieving the healing we all deserve.

Takeaways

  • Recognize when you’re engaging in preemptive suffering.
  • Rather than blaming others for our feelings, simply acknowledge them – then offer yourself the comfort and reassurance you’re really seeking.
  • Disarm the inner critic by accepting your imperfection as a fact.

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.

Takeaways

  • 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.