The secret shame of being autistic in a world built for neurotypicals

Essy Knopf autism
Reading time: 7 minutes

As an undiagnosed autistic child, my favorite part of primary school was the weekly show-and-tell sessions.

It wasn’t so much the storytelling aspect of this activity that appealed to me, as it was the occasional chance to present.

But whatever the focus of my presentation might happen to be—dinosaurs, guinea pigs, insects—there was always a good chance it wasn’t shared by my peers.

This was a detail nevertheless lost on me. For all that truly mattered was the presence of a captive audience, bound by convention to listen.

In other settings, explaining to my classmates the, say, minutiae of insect classification, usually earned me a look of bemusement.

To hear someone use the term “bug” to describe a spider for example almost always led to a correction. 

Spiders, I would note, were arachnids. What set them apart from insects was that their body had two rather than three segments. They also had eight legs instead of six.

No one else lived for such factoids, and this was a source of perplexity. Worse still, my sharing of them was not meant to be received as criticism…and yet often was. 

And perish the thought that it might be interpreted as intellectual showboating. Yet the pearls of knowledge I so casually strew before my peers were received with indifference, or worse.

Essy Knopf Asperger syndrome
My childhood had many moments of joy. But these memories are clouded by the prevailing sense was I was out of sync with the rest of humanity.

How autistic folks’ attempts to connect can backfire

Friendless as I was, I would tend the fires of my passion in quiet solitude, sometimes for weeks, if not months.

The merest of kindnesses—a “hello”, a smile, a polite question—had the effect of kerosene, sending flames bursting outwards.

It seemed irrefutable that others should prize the tender morsels of information I dispensed as much as I did. It didn’t even enter into my mind that the case might be quite the opposite.

Words would rush forward in great exuberant billows, and in my naivete, I would fail to read the blank looks I was inevitably met with.

These attempts to connect ironically had the inverse effect of creating disconnection

And so the distance between me and other kids would only grow, until we stood upon different hilltops, regarding one another warily through binoculars of mutual unease.

A ‘disastrous’ deed

While my show-and-tell sessions rarely drew more than polite applause, the desire to infect others with my passion remained.

Maybe what was required, I thought, was something of more obvious value. I set my eyes on one of my mother’s rings: a silver band set with a single, brilliant sapphire. 

I asked to borrow it, explaining that my purpose was to use it as a show-and-tell prop. Yes, I promised, I would bring it home that afternoon, and reluctantly, my mother agreed to lend the ring.

Arriving at school early the next day, I sat on the steps of my demountable classroom, toying with the ring and the idea of the warm reception that must surely await.

A classmate appeared, depositing her backpack on the rack that passed for school lockers. Accompanying her was a woman I assumed must be her mother. 

Joanna was transferring to another school, and today was to be her last day. I considered this tidbit. Joanna wasn’t exactly a friend, but wouldn’t it be nice if I offered her the ring? 

After all, this was a special occasion. And wasn’t it considered normal to present gifts on special occasions?

Indecision wracked my mind. I had given my word that I would return it to my mother. 

Yet if there was anything I understood about human relationships, it was that they were transactional. If I wanted people to like me, I would need to take the initiative.

My mind made, I stood up.

“Hey, Joanna.” She turned. “This is for you.” Joanna considered the ring, shyly teasing a blonde curl. Not understanding. “It’s a going-away gift,” I added.

“Well, that’s very nice you.” This response came not from Joanna, but her mother. A smirk eased onto her face. It was an expression I could not read, and which nevertheless made me uneasy.

“Joanna, what you say?” Joanna’s blank expression split into a smile.

“Thank you,” she said. And took the ring from me.

Essy Knopf Asperger syndrome
I was never really “people-oriented”. Yet over time, my negative experiences led me to actively avoiding others’ company.

Stupidity, not disability

Less than an hour later, however, my doubt had deepened, becoming a dead weight upon my conscience. 

Having had the time to consider my impulsive act, I realized that there would inevitably be consequences. 

But when I returned home, hangdog, there was no blame and no bluster. Instead, my faltering explanation was met with silence. 

It was as if my mother had all along suspected that something like this might happen. 

The absence of a reaction stung. It felt like an affirmation of an unspoken truth: that I was stupid. 

I promised my mother that I would try to get the ring back. But when I returned to school the next day, Joanna was gone, and my attempts to reach her through one of her friends came to nothing.

The wounds of systemic ableism

This memory remains enshrined not as an act of shameless exploitation by an adult who had undoubtedly known better, but as one of the most disastrous acts of my youth.

When I reminded my mother of the incident more than two decades later, she couldn’t recall ever having the ring, let alone my blunder.

Yet how could she not? Was this possession not as precious as I had long imagined it to be?

To me, this incident reflected a longstanding habit of socially inappropriate behavior, which I would later learn was all too common among those with autism.

Yet for something so poignant as this to have had no lingering significance to the one person it should have, surprised me.

Just like the casual dismissals, the lack of replies to my comments, the way so many cut in line ahead of me on the handball court, I had notarized this event as just one more proof of my inferiority.

And gradually, I had retreated behind the walls of a crumbling bastion of false pride, manned by sentinels of shame and self-criticism.

It was a lonely existence, but it was safe, in that it was largely unpeopled by those who seemed to so scorn me on the basis of who I was.

In my mid-20s, I received a diagnosis of Asperger syndrome, and this would crystallize for me that it was not so much who, as what.

At last, the faultline that ran through the foundations of my social life had a source.

At last, I knew that I was not broken, but a survivor of a society grounded in systemic ableism.

Essy Knopf Asperger syndrome
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The catch-22 of being autistic

Yet until the moment of my diagnosis, I had had no choice but to stumble my way through the intricate dance of social connection.

This dance was a necessary precursor to the embrace of friendship. And yet to me, it seemed frivolous and a waste of effort and time.

Others did not share this view. Nor did they see the virtues of my info-dumping, my dispensing with social niceties, and my papercut directness.

Without their friendship, there was often no socially acceptable basis for the sharing of interests I longed for.

But I persevere, storming the dancefloor, shirtfronting potential partners, and treading all over on their toes.

My prospects of friendship thus damaged, I found myself deprived of the emotional support many individuals who are neurodiverse need in order to navigate a world built for neurotypicals. 

I also missed out on the social coaching that might have otherwise helped prevent my missteps.

Without the label of disability, my only frame of reference was the one bestowed on me: a belief that I was a person whose lack was the result of choice, or some personal flaw.

The allure of the life interior

While I can see now that autism was the source of my social cluelessness, memories of my school years continue to pain me today. 

One of the earliest and most enduring was being invited to join a game of prisoner’s base in kindergarten. 

“Tagged” by a member of the opposing team, I was taken prisoner and deposited in an imaginary cell under the jungle gym. Here I was expected to remain, awaiting rescue.

In my imagination, this did not simply represent a return to play, but rather an acknowledgment that I was worthy. Evidence that someone—anyone—cared about me.

But that rescue never came to pass. I was left forgotten until the bell for class rang.

Hurt and confused, I took a vow of social abstinence, using lunch break to play make-believe on my own or to read.

This solidified my status as an outsider, denying me the warmth of others’ company, of which my own fire was but a weak imitation. Still, what else was there?

When fiction-based escapism was not jostling for my attention, I tended to various projects of my own devising. 

The first involved catching and cataloging the myriad insects living in my backyard. This was followed by a compulsive desire to write sprawling portal fantasy novels. 

During another period, I set myself to covering a length of green marble A1 card stock with designs for an adventure board game of my own devising. 

The game was meant to be played with at least four friends; that I was entirely lacking this requisite was a consideration I chose not to dwell on. 

It was, for the most part, a life interior. But eventually, it became a prison of self-narration. 

“You are worthless. You are unloveable,” went the familiar refrain, a refrain seemingly substantiated by my continued isolation.

Essy Knopf Asperger syndrome
Social awkwardness and the feeling of being apart only grew throughout my teen years.

Freedom by diagnosis

My life is sharply divided between two very distinct periods: before diagnosis with autism, and after.

Before diagnosis resembled a black-and-white etching. But in the months and years that followed, this etching became saturated with color, slowly assuming the richness and depth of an oil painting. 

Liberated of one label—being a “bad” person—and awarded another—”someone with a disability”—I began to consider myself in a new light. 

The critical dictator in my head was dethroned, his antique reign gave way to a democracy of thought grounded in self-compassion.

I came to understand that the shame I carried was undeserved. That I was not at fault for the unusual architecture of my mind. That I was a person of value. That I needn’t live a life sentence of “if only”. 

The skills I lacked could be learned. As for the friendships that had failed to take seed—these could be nourished into new life. 

With enough effort and persistence, the connection I had once craved when standing before my class during show-and-tell could be mine.

Gatekeeping actually makes the autism community less of a safe place

autism community gatekeeping Essy Knopf
Reading time: 5 minutes

Living within an ableist society, autistic folk often experienced marginalization. But to experience it within the autism community is not something most of us would expect.

Consider the many young autistic individuals who go in search of others like themselves on social media.

Some reach out in the hopes of finding community, only to have a total stranger blast them for using terminology some have deemed inappropriate.

Any sense of belonging and acceptance this young person might have found is suddenly withdrawn the moment they express themselves.

This was my experience, and one I believe is shared by many. The policing of the autistic identity is a very real phenomenon, and one I think requires further discussion.

The people responsible for this behavior—I’m going to call them “gatekeepers”—have a tendency to treat our community as monolithic.

According to these gatekeepers, only their worldview is endorsed, while all others are incorrect and subject to harsh criticism.

Knowing that one could be punished by such folk for speaking “out of turn” creates a chilling effect in online discussions. And so it’s the voices of the gatekeepers that usually end up being the loudest—to the exclusion of all others.

Some disclaimers

I want to make it clear that many advocates within the autism community do important work. And I’d like to believe that most of them are motivated by genuine compassion. 

Yet the gatekeeping approach to advocacy raises a number of concerns, some of which I’ll touch upon shortly.

Full disclosure: I am speaking today as someone who is autistic. Any opinions I share here are entirely my own.

I acknowledge that my ability to speak out in the first place is a privilege. Not everyone in our community enjoys this privilege, for reasons I’ll go into later.

I also want to acknowledge that autistic folk as a group have been marginalized and oppressed throughout history.

Widespread ableism means that the status quo largely exists to serve the interests of neurotypicals. This is why challenging the status quo and fighting for autistic empowerment are so important. 

Gatekeeping in the autism community feeds toxic shame

That said, I believe gatekeepers often challenge for the sake of challenging in and of itself. What doesn’t help is that the manner in which such challenges are performed is usually dogmatic, if not militant

Gatekeepers thus appoint themselves the authority, defining what is “good” and “bad”, “right” and “wrong” for everyone else.

Typically, they take a very strong stand on hot-button topics, like the use of person-first language, the term “Asperger”, or the pathologizing of autism as a disorder.

Yes, these are important topics worthy of discussion. And yet discussion can’t happen so long as one party feels they have a monopoly on the truth, as gatekeepers so often do.

Believing in their own righteousness, many gatekeepers will label those who disagree with them as ignorant, ableist, and oppressive.

Demonizing people in this fashion creates shame. In the words of Brené Brown:

Shame is the fear of disconnection—it’s the fear that something we’ve done or failed to do, an ideal that we’ve not lived up to, or a goal that we’ve not accomplished makes us unworthy of connection. I’m not worthy or good enough for love, belonging, or connection.

Nobody likes to feel this way. Everyone—and I mean everyone—wants to feel worthy of love and belonging. 

Worse still, if the intention of gatekeepers is to create shape, when they shame others, they undermine their capacity for change. As Brown goes on to explain:

“Shame corrodes the very part of us that believes we can change and do better… In fact, shame is much more likely to be the cause of destructive and hurtful behaviors than it is to be the solution.”

There is a history of neurotypicals weaponizing shame against autistic folk. So when autistic folk neurotypicals and other autistics, it is—to say the very least—problematic.

Gatekeeping drowns out other voices

Gatekeepers claim there is a consensus within the autism community, one again that usually aligns with their own personal beliefs. 

But in fact, no such consensus exists. The community comprises diverse individuals who identify and express themselves in a variety of ways.

No one has the right to speak for every member, just as no one has the right to silence those who don’t agree with their points of view.

One example of this is when gatekeepers whitewash autism, painting it exclusively as a positive while failing to acknowledge that it may be experienced by others with mixed feelings, or as a negative.

Similarly, many gatekeepers frame autism as a mere social challenge caused by systemic ableism. This social model of autism has been adopted as an alternative to the medical model, which has sometimes been used to oppress autistic folk.

But romanticizing autism in this fashion dismisses the reality of those individuals who experience autism as a debilitating disability. 

Likewise, gatekeepers who insist that autism is an intrinsic part of our identity fail to admit that this isn’t the case for everyone.

By dominating discussions about autism, gatekeepers fail to hold a space for other community members, and even compromise their right to self-expression.

Gatekeeping ignores privilege

What a lot of gatekeepers don’t realize is the ability to advocate is a privilege not all autistic folk get to enjoy.

For example, many individuals on the spectrum experience some form of intellectual disability and/or are nonspeaking. 

These individuals may not have the opportunity to express how they feel. And so, their wishes go unheard, and their needs unmet. 

If the inclusion of all autistic individuals is our priority as a community, why then are so many of us assuming the right to speak for others? 

Again, by virtue of being the loudest, gatekeepers get to decide what issues receive the most attention.

Their advantages allow them to privilege their own voices, rather than elevating those of the underprivileged.

Gatekeeping undermines coalition-building

The final issue I want to address is the “us vs. them” attitude gatekeepers take towards the medical community and parents of autistic folk.

The history of autism at the hands of the establishment is a dark one indeed. One only needs to look at how horrifically neurodiverse individuals were treated during the Nazi regime to understand why suspicion of medical authorities endures even today.

Still, the sweeping narrative by gatekeepers claiming all researchers want to “cure” autism—an action compared to eugenics—is a smear campaign.

Consider those autistic individuals living in full-time care who are prone to frequent seizures, meltdowns, self-injury, and violence. They undoubtedly experience autism in a way that differs vastly from that of privileged gatekeepers.

Many researchers are working to enhance quality of life for such individuals, and yet gatekeepers continue to accuse these professionals of endorsing ableism.

Similarly, when desperate parents of autistic folk reach out to the community seeking understanding, insight, and support, often they are shut down and declared the enemy.

Instead of building coalitions with community allies, gatekeepers sideline them.

Gatekeeping is not social justice

Gatekeepers believe themselves to be part of a social justice movement. But there can be no justice so long as one party assumes the moral high ground, dominates the discourse, and bullies both allies and autistics alike.

I gave up my previous career to enter social work with the hope of serving my community. 

Yet I’m troubled by the knowledge that should I ever fail to measure up to the demands made by autism gatekeepers, I’ll be treated to judgment and shaming. 

This leads me to wonder, are these individuals truly invested in serving the autism community? Or are they just perpetuating the trauma that was done to them?

Yes, words such as those gatekeepers often take issue with can be oppressive. But when they themselves use words in oppressive ways, there is no mutual understanding, no dialogue, no positive change.

There is only a Twitter argument. And what, really, have we then accomplished?

Wrap up

Have you experienced some form of autism gatekeeping? Or do you completely disagree with my argument? Let me know in the comments.

How magical thinking destroys gay men’s chances of living authentically

Essy Knopf magical thinking
Reading time: 6 minutes

Are you sitting down, dear reader? There’s something I need to tell you: almost everything we’ve been doing up to this point in the pursuit of happiness may very well have been undermining it.

Many aspects of the gay monoculture—the party lifestyle, substance abuse, hookups, out-of-control sexual habits, love addiction, our obsession with personal image, status, and achievement—are in some way tied up with magical thinking.

“If I get this, do this, be this, then I’ll be OK.” Wish-fulfillment keeps us walking the hedonic treadmill, riding an endless carousel of self-gratification.

Even supposing we achieve our goal, we may find the bar only continues to rise. So we clutch in vain for the brass ring of materialism, personal transformation, acceptance, recognition, and adoration.

Maybe all of this isn’t exactly news to you, and you have long since grown out of chasing elusive thrills. Or you may have simply upped the dosage and drowned out the hurt and disappointment.

The trauma of being gay

The first step on the way to surrendering the magical thinking that keeps us trapped in this cycle lies in identifying the causes.

As gay men, we can arrive at chronic suffering in a variety of ways. We may have also experienced misattunement with our caregivers, who may not have had the capacity to fully meet our emotional needs.

Or our caregivers may have invalidated us on the basis of our sexuality—an all-too-common experience for gay boys

We may have experienced some form of childhood adversity. Some of us are even survivors of trauma

Trauma includes abuse and neglect, but also any experience that places “an overwhelming demand placed upon the physiological human system”, to quote International Trauma Center President Dr. Robert D. Macy. 

You may for example have been traumatized by individual acts of homophobia, or from the minority stress that results from its many systemic manifestations. Rejection, exclusion, marginalization, or physical harm for many can take a great toll. 

If we are already lacking social support, such as the unconditional love and acceptance of family members or friends, the damage is only magnified.

For men, this is a fact of our existence. We are socialized from an early age to believe that in order to qualify for gender membership, we must strive for an impossible masculine ideal of self-reliance.  

We do this by cutting ourselves off from our emotions, from the support of our mothers, and from our communities, a tragic development outlined in Terrence Real’s I Don’t Want to Talk About It.

We suffer even further from the absence of father figures and a lack of parental involvement. According to the Pew Research Center, one-in-four US fathers live apart from their children

Twenty-nine percent of those same fathers see their children at least once a month, while 21% visit several times a year, and 27% don’t visit at all. 

And according to the National Fatherhood Initiative, this absence carries a very real impact on children’s wellbeing.

Healthy, mutual relationships with primary caregivers are how we learn how to form nurturing attachments with others, maintain personal boundaries, regulate our emotions, and soothe ourselves in times of distress. 

In this sense, our first relationships are the most defining, setting the stage for how we adapt—or maladapt—to our future circumstances.

When we are deprived of these crucial supports, we can develop an insecure attachment style, and struggle to develop the resilience so necessary to weathering life’s many storms. 

A final but crucial source of trauma emerges from the relationships we engage in as adults. For those of us with difficult histories, we may turn to our partners for comfort and healing, only to find ourselves re-enacting toxic attachment patterns.

We may even lash out, inflicting the abandonment, abuse, or betrayal we ourselves have suffered. This only serves to compound our existing pain, driving us with increasing desperation towards escape and reprieve.

magical thinking the thoughtful gay

Becoming ‘masters of survival’

When we feel threatened, the system charged with ensuring our survival—the autonomic nervous system (ANS)—kicks into gear.

This “personal surveillance system”, Polyvagal Theory practitioner Deb Dana moves us many times daily between states of social engagement and connection (safety) to mobilization (scared), and immobilization (shut down).

These state changes are adaptive survival responses, driven by special powers of danger perception Polyvagal Theory author Stephen Porges calls “neuroception”. 

Trauma survivors or those with insecure attachment styles may find their neuroception runs in overdrive, leaving them wary and hypervigilant. As a result, they may spend long periods stuck on the lower “scared” and “shut down” rungs of the “autonomic ladder”. 

Our autonomic responses eventually become patterned not around the need for connection, but self-protection

An out-of-whack autonomic response thus makes a state of safety next to impossible. With the ANS no longer able to adequately self-regulate, we suffer ongoing stress, physical illness, relationship strain, and changes in our mental functions.

While the ANS is activated, we are unable to socially engage, causing us to miss out in turn on the benefits of co-regulation—what Dana calls the “reciprocal regulation of our autonomic states”.

This co-regulation occurs when we connect and attune to others in healthy, mutual relationships. It is a key requisite to shifting from a state of danger, back into a state of safety.

“Supported by co-regulating relationships, we become resilient,” Dana writes. 

“In relationships awash in experiences of misattunement, we become masters of survival.”

Given the collective trauma within the gay community, however, finding such co-regulation within may prove difficult. 

In its absence, we will pursue less savory means of regulation such as objectification, exploitation, invalidation, and exclusion, which have reached new lows on gay dating services and hookup apps.

essy knopf authenticity

Deception, magical thinking, and self-medication

We survive through adaptation. When things go wrong early in life, however, we stand a great chance of maladapting instead.

Experiencing homophobia and resulting shame leads many of us into a life of emotional inauthenticity. Denied the ability to explore our own identities and to embark upon relationships during our formative years, we don a cloak of secrecy and self-deception as a matter of survival.

“Something about growing up gay forced us to learn how to hide ugly realities behind a finely crafted façade,” writes The Velvet Rage author Alan Downs.

Outwardly, we may proclaim self-acceptance. Inwardly, however, we are still carrying around unworthiness and internalized homophobia.

Its poisonous whisperings may lead us to reject other gay men arbitrarily, just as we ourselves were once rejected. Prejudices within the gay dating scene—be it racial, age or weight-based—are just a few expressions of this.

The deep, unexpressed pain we carry as trauma survivors, if left addressed, may eventually bubble back to the surface in the form of deep-seated anger.

That anger may be directed either at ourselves in the form of self-harming behaviors, or at the individuals or systems that we believe have failed, betrayed, and harmed us.

Without the knowledge or means to move forward, we ignore our wounds, numb the pain, and chase distraction.

We may find it in fantasies of personal transformation or romantic fulfillment. For those of us weaned on Disney—a company that built an empire on the power of dream—it’s all too easy to indulge in the idea of Cinderella-style transformations.

One day, we tell ourselves, we’ll shed our sooty smocks and don the glass slipper. Some dashing Prince Charming will appear and bestow upon us the fortunes of unconditional love and acceptance.

Our pursuit of such an embodiment of perfection of course is doomed from the outset. And yet we continue to plunge headlong into romantic liaison after liaison, without pausing to consider the whys and hows.

Denied co-regulation, we may also turn to self-medication in the form of process (behavioral) addictions, such as compulsively working out for hours on end so we can achieve some idealized physique.

Or it may take the form of substance addictions, which are present among gay men at significantly higher rates than the general population.

When we indulge in magical thinking, we try in vain to paper over the void at our core, believing that someway, somehow, our injuries will be healed and all wrongs righted.

But so long as we spend our energy cultivating distraction rather than introspection, our damage will go ignored and our very human need for healthy attachment and co-regulation unrecognized. 

essy knopf magical thinking co-regulation

Letting go of the false solutions of magical thinking

Each of us understands on some level that magical thinking is an act of deception. We recognize that the forms of satiety we seek run counter to self-care. 

And yet it is all too easy to get caught in the rut of trying to appease, ignore, or blunt our autonomic responses.

Try though we might to escape our dysregulation, all we are ultimately doing is deferring peace of mind.

Polyvagal Theory teaches us that in order to course-correct from scared and shutdown back to safety requires healthy relationships.

It is only through co-regulation that we can ever hope to loosen the hold misattunement and trauma have on our bodies, minds, and spirits. 

If your autonomic state makes finding co-regulations difficult, or if you’ve been burned by past interactions, a relationship with a mental health professional can prove an effective substitute

Through the support of a therapeutic alliance, open wounds both past and present may eventually start to close. Through a therapist’s supporting presence, autonomic regulation may suddenly become possible. 

In recognizing and addressing your autonomic needs, you are taking the first step towards a life of authenticity. To quote Brené Brown:

cultivating the courage to be emotionally honest, 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 connected to each other through a loving and resilient human spirit; nurturing the connection and sense of belonging that can only happen when we let go of what we are supposed to be and embrace who we are. Authenticity demands wholehearted living and loving—even when it’s hard, even when we’re wrestling with shame and fear of not being good enough, and especially when the joy is so intense that we’re afraid to let ourselves feel it. Mindfully practicing authenticity during our most soul-searching struggles is how we invite grace, joy, and gratitude into our lives.

By choosing authenticity, we surrender the false solutions of magical thinking. By choosing authenticity, we give up temporary rewards and commit ourselves to some much-needed repair. 

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.

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.

Why grieving the heteronormative life gay men were promised is okay

Essy Knopf gay men
Reading time: 7 minutes

You would think that as gay men, we shouldn’t be bound by the same life goals as our straight counterparts. 

Yet as much as we try to shuck off the expectations inherited from heterosexual living, many of us still continue to be burdened by them.

I remember as a child studying the greeting card stands at newsagents, noticing how certain birthday ages seemed to be assigned greater importance. 

“Thirty” was one of them: a perfectly rounded number signifying the transition to competent maturity. An expectational cut-off point for all the usual milestones.

Until my teen years, I harbored ideas about the life I would live. They weren’t necessarily my own, but rather the ones all boys were prescribed: a wife, kids, and a house in the suburbs. 

All of this, I somehow believed, I’d attain by the age of 30. But as my interest in other boys grew, I was eventually forced to surrender these signifiers of adulthood for the wicket picket fence dream they were. 

Thirty is, when you think about it, an arbitrary number. Life expectancies in the West have steadily risen. We live for much longer now, and our lifestyles have shifted to accommodate this. 

Couples are having families later, and a growing gap between income and real estate prices has rendered homeownership impossible for many.

Yet when my third decade rolled around, I couldn’t help but feel like something was missing. Not only had I clung to those old expectations – I also secretly believed my worth as a person depended upon their attainment.

I found myself scrutinizing the zigzagging missteps of my life, criticizing each and every false move. Maybe if I had stayed in one city and planted my roots somewhere, I’d have a wider, stronger circle of friends; possibly even a partner. 

Maybe if I hadn’t devoted most of my income to creative projects, I’d now have something approaching financial security. Maybe if I had kept my aspirations humble, I might have something more tangible than life experiences to show for it all. But to show whom, exactly?

I had lived what Passages author Gail Sheehy called the “wunderkind” life pattern, caught up in chasing risks and victories. I had deceived myself into thinking achievement would blot out insecurity, to discover that the victories I did achieve were ultimately empty. 

To quote one of the men interviewed by Sheehy: “I’m near the top of the mountain that I saw as a young man, and it’s not snow. It’s mostly salt”.

Gay men and the failure of dreams

What troubled me most was an unarticulated belief that in spurning the dependable comforts of home and family, I had failed and was now declining into a life of gay spinsterhood. 

I convinced myself that the connection and happiness I was seeking would forever remain out of reach. Everything I told myself to the contrary was just whistling in the dark. How’s that for a catastrophic spiral?

Life after 30 for some gay men is riddled with uncertainty. Society promised us one thing – then biology pulled the rug out.

Logging onto Facebook today, I see people I’ve grown up with buying homes, marrying, and having children. While they were hitting their life goals, I was like a wheel, spinning in the mud.

Resist comparative thinking

Comparative thinking is especially destructive where it comes to gay men. It does not acknowledge the fact that straight people have thousands of years of social tradition working in their favor. The modern gay community, on the other hand, is without precedent.

Worse still, in the spiritual teachings handed down to us, homosexual people are typically cast as undesirables living in the margins. There is little to no guidance offered to gay men committed to living an authentic, value-led existence.

Comparative thinking also fails to account for heterosexual privilege. Straight people by virtue of their sexuality don’t experience the specific kind of trauma, marginalization, and disadvantage we do. 

And let’s not forget the fact that many gay men in the West could not, at least until relatively recently, get married. No surprise then that we should struggle to achieve these life goals at a speed comparable to that of heterosexual men.

The journey faced by all gay men

Still, as we grow older, missing familiar life milestones along the way, some of us may find ourselves asking: “So that’s it?” 

We may flee our shame, grief, and dread, into the wilderness of material and sensual distraction.

For some gay men, however, these feelings are an opportunity to address the desires we once held for ourselves and begin the process of rewriting them.

In facing our supposed failings, we find we have no choice but to remove the yoke of social expectation. Those of us who make the journey through this valley of symbolic death will face the assailing winds of pain and doubt. 

But if we push on, we will most certainly emerge anointed with a newfound sense of personhood. For it is in the struggle that we learn to articulate our personal definition of a “life well-lived”. 

This journey does not simply involve grieving the things that could have or “should have” been: the children to whom we might have left our legacy, the symbolic safety that a life partner or a home offers. It also involves grieving the life that simply “is”.

For a long time, I pretended I was fine, that growing up as a gay man with a disability, suffering exclusion, bullying, the slow implosion of my family and the figurative loss of my parents had not affected me.

Attempting to escape the resulting depression and anxiety, I connected my sense of worthiness to striving and constant forward action. By setting milestones of my own making when those prescribed to me were no longer possible, I found purpose through achievement. 

But to value one’s self conditionally is to live conditionally. And living conditionally is a life defined by fear, not fulfillment. 

According to The Velvet Rage author Alan Downs, fleeing from pain into grandiosity is an almost universal behavior among gay men. Entering my 30s proved the tipping point in this regard. It was also an invitation to change. 

Entering the ‘neutral zone’

What I lamented when I turned 30 was the fact I had not fulfilled socially prescribed rites of passage. 

Rites of passage help mark the onset of new stages of life or social roles. Dutch anthropologist Arnold van Gennep defines each rite as having three stages:

  • Separation of the individual/group from the larger collective.
  • Transition from the old ways of existence to the new.
  • Incorporation of the individual/group back into the collective.

Gennep noted that during the transition phase, those making the journey will find themselves caught in a neutral zone, where they would remain until the change has been internalized. 

Transitions author William Bridge argues that completion of the middle step means letting go of “something that you have believed or assumed, some way you’ve always been or seen yourself, some outlook on the world or attitude toward others”. 

This requires passage through five states:

  • Disengagement from “the old cue system that served to reinforce our roles and to pattern our behavior”
  • Dismantling of old habits and behaviors
  • Disidentification from old ways of being
  • Disenchantment: realizing you do indeed want to change
  • Disorientation: enduring the confusion and emptiness that follows your choice to let go

According to Bridge, a successful passage is thus marked by a willingness to let go, to experience the resulting crisis, and to embrace self-examination. 

essy knopf gay men heteronormative life goals

Seeking alone time

The middle step for me involved disengaging from systems that perpetuated my sense of having failed. Specifically, I applied “voluntary simplicity” to my social media usage, reducing and sometimes cutting it off altogether. 

Why? You may have heard of the phrase conspicuous consumption: the purchase of luxury goods as a display of economic power. Social media I believe facilitates what I’ll call “conspicuous identification”: promoting images of an ideal self in a bid to capture social capital.

By disabling my Facebook feed with a browser plugin and deleting social media apps from my phone, I dismantled my habit of mindless scrolling, putting an end to what David Brooks calls the “hypercompetitive struggle for attention, for victories in the currency of ‘likes’”. 

No longer did I need to compare myself to others, to analyze where I had supposedly fallen short.

By negotiating with my employer to switch from full-time to part-time work, I was able to disidentify from the rat race and my sense of self as an achievement.

In cocooning myself in therapy and self-help books, I gained better insight into the disenchantment I was feeling. I formed a daily meditation practice to help find meaning in the midst of my disorientation, placing me on the path of self-realization.

While dwelling in the neutral zone, I cultivated self-compassion and started deliberately setting aside time for things as simple as relaxing. I suddenly found I had the time and energy to work my way through aspirational to-do lists, lists that I long since consigned to the dust heap. 

This allowed me to embrace those beliefs that were of most value to me while discarding those that had only kept me shackled to unhappiness.

Coming of age as gay men

Coming of age for many gay men means learning to surrender the baubles of distraction and to grieve old hopes. 

In learning to let go of what we may have long clung to, we escape an existence governed by impossible dichotomies like success/failure, worthy/unworthy, good/bad, and come into an inheritance of vast inner wealth. 

Without the struggle, there are no spoils. So it was, that in finally confronting the source of my inner torment, I understood that while my life had not “gone to plan”, my experiences had endowed me with compassion and empathy.

This realization inspired a career change, a shift towards a life of service, and the decision to launch this blog

Psychoanalyst Erik Erikson argues that from our 20s onwards, we are caught between two opposing forces: intimacy and isolation. Once we have established a firm sense of identity and a desire to share our lives with others, a choice that may not come until our 40s, the struggle after this period becomes one between stagnation and generativity. 

If we choose generativity, we achieve new levels of creativity and productivity in the service of others. We discover a life path oriented toward prosocial behavior and altruism. 

It is only now, years after crossing the gulf of what I then saw as a major crisis, that I recognize the true value of the life I now live. And all things considered, I’m doing pretty darn well. 

For those of you committed to making this transition, as countless others have done before you, I offer this assurance: you’ll probably think so too. 

Takeaways

  • Recognize how you might experience disengagement, dismantling, disidentification, disenchantment and disorientation during this transition.
  • Find wholesome ways of easing your passage through the neutral zone.
  • Imagine what generativity might look like for you.

Five reasons gay men should consider doing therapy

Essy Knopf gay men therapy
Reading time: 9 minutes

It’s not uncommon to meet fellow gay men suffering from anxiety and depression. It’s also not unusual that they are either unaware, in denial, or unwilling to recognize these challenges, or to take the steps necessary to address them.

Some years ago, I had a falling out with my flatmates. At the time I was directing a major shoot at film school and was under immense pressure. Amid my mad scramble to find a new apartment, I decided to meet Samson*, a gay man in his 20s who worked as an IT consultant. 

Having exchanged niceties, Samson quickly got down to brass tacks, advising me he wanted a flatmate willing to hang tea towels and stack dishwashers in a specific fashion.

As someone known for my somewhat OCD tendencies – I for example never allowed people to sit on my bed while wearing their “outside clothes” – I could to some degree relate. 

But Samson seemed to take things one step further. A health fanatic devoted to all-natural products, he told me I wouldn’t be allowed to clean with bleach, on the account he might be exposed to its fumes.

Despite my reservations, I took the room. But from that first meeting onward, the stipulations piled up. One minute I was using too much fridge space, the next I was filling the kettle with “excess” water and wasting energy.

Samson even took to switching off the oven when he believed I was using it too long.

While he managed to bend some of his rules for me, I couldn’t shake the feeling that my presence in Samson’s home was not welcome. I could tell that while he wanted to save on rent, but also wanted to live alone. 

Worse still, whenever we happened to cross paths, Samson would complain. First, it was about his cutthroat colleagues at work. A week later it was the ex who seemed incapable of empathy, and the friends who failed to understand Samson’s very specific health choices. 

Samson told me he was against eating hydrogenated oils, on account of them being carcinogenic. For him, discovering that a meal contained even a trace of such was enough to ruin an entire night out.

Listening to Samson, I felt torn. Some of his complaints were understandable, and yet I knew I was being used as a sounding board for his discontent.

I tried to bring empathy and some perspective to the issues Samson raised, and yet nothing I said or did made any difference. Samson was trapped in a cycle of negative thinking, focused only on assigning blame to others.

So long as he continued to see the apparent failures of others as a reflection of their respect for him – and by implication Samson’s worth as a person – this would likely continue.

Samson’s paradigm was clearly at fault here, but I became convinced that it was serving double duty as a smokescreen for Samson’s inability to manage his own distress. 

By pretending it was not there, he would never have to confront it. Yet this unwillingness to accept and recognize his covert depression was precisely what was keeping him stuck. Rather than practicing introspection, Samson searched for scapegoats. 

Once or twice I broached the subject of seeing a therapist. Each time, Samson produced a readymade excuse.

The few therapists Samson had approached would not take his health insurance. The nature of Samson’s job meant he was often on the road with short notice, making it difficult for him to plan therapy sessions in advance.

Then there was the question of trust: Samson didn’t want to open up to just anyone

These were legitimate friction points, ones faced by many gay men looking to undertake therapy. But they were also excuses. As per the old maxim, if you really want to do something, you’ll find a way.

1. Gay men often suffer from depression

An inability or unwillingness to acknowledge one’s own mental health struggles is usually a product of self-denial; of alienation from one’s own authentic feelings.

Like a majority of men, we as gay men often suffer interpersonal prejudice and discrimination over our identities. These minority stresses can leave us stricken with shame while placing us at greater risk of depression, anxiety, and suicide.

That risk is exacerbated by the fact that males are socially programmed to go at it alone. Masculinity is popularly coded as being self-reliant, an idea more widely echoed in our culture’s embrace of rugged individualism, i.e. the “I don’t need help from anyone” mentality (see my earlier article on embracing your authentic gay identity).

Gay men tend to be more emotionally expressive than their straight counterparts. Gender-atypical tendencies like this often lead to us being singled out and persecuted. Any wonder then we should be especially challenged when it comes to asking for help.

But forcing ourselves to repress our emotions and to cut ourselves off from the help of others leaves us prone to covert depression. This depression is often the reason many of us should seek help…and yet it can also serve as a major source of resistance.

Depression sufferers know all too well how we can become trapped in the stasis field of negative thoughts and “automatic”, self-perpetuating cognitive distortions.

In his book Feeling Good, David D. Burns notes that these distortions lead in turn to procrastination and “do-nothingism”. That is, we found ourselves restrained by the very same inertia we are seeking to escape. 

Thus the depressive, lacking the motivation to change, surrenders to the comforting familiarity of their unhappiness.

Another reason it is difficult to take action is that covert depression operates as a kind of background presence that evades easy detection, or may be put down to just a passing “mood”.

Similarly, anxiety – depression’s fraternal sibling – may also be dismissed as an inevitable feature of modern life. It may even be regarded as a helpful crutch that gives the sufferer a motivational edge; a willingness to go the extra mile that is recognized and rewarded by employers.

2. We may have attachment difficulties

Caregivers play a crucial role not just in early development but our future wellbeing. They comfort us during times of distress, fostering a sense of security through healthy attachment. That attachment serves as a template for future relationships, shaping whether we are able to form close bonds with others. 

Attachment also provides children with an internal working model of self-worth. It defines whether we see the world as a safe or nurturing place, or one full of pain, uncertainty, and anguish. It provides the primary reference point for our lived experience

Ruptured attachment is the result of either active trauma, which typically involves a boundary violation such as physical or sexual abuse, or passive trauma, which involves some form of physical or emotional lack, such as neglect. Ruptured attachment can occur at any point during childhood or teenagehood.

Gay men experience both active and passive trauma when a parent rejects, neglects or attacks them over their sexuality, an experience which is all too common.

During early attachment, trauma is preverbal, making our suffering literally beyond words. As such, it can be difficult to “re-cognize” the experience and come to grips with its effect on us as adults.

Without the help of a trained practitioner, we will continue to live unknowingly in the shadow of our trauma, afflicted with mental health conditions like depression.

3. We may be unable to self-soothe

Ruptured attachment results in an inability to self-soothe. When our caregivers fail to properly “attune” to us and provide the correct behavioral modeling, we fail to develop this vital skill. 

Self-soothing means being able to realize we are hurting, to give ourselves the comfort we need, and to seek it from others when we can’t

Without self-soothing, we may find ourselves prone to “fight, flight, or freeze” in times of stress. 

That is, we engage in one of three coping strategies: coming out guns blazing, running from danger, or shutting down. We don’t seek the support we so desperately need, leaving us beholden to depression and anxiety.

In an attempt to pacify our troubled minds and hearts, we may turn to the Band-Aid fixes of grandiosity or process addictions.

4. Gay men are debilitated by shame

For gay men, depression is often compounded by longstanding shame. The distinction between guilt and shame, as pointed out by Brené Brown, is that guilt involves believing “I did something bad”, while shame involves assigning a permanent negative quality to yourself, like “I am bad”.

We come by shame firstly through socialization. Society teaches us our sexuality is abnormal, perverse, and even morally wrong. When this view is adopted by our caregivers, it may not necessarily lead to outright rejection, but rather words or deeds that are invalidating.

Invalidations, no matter how small they may seem, can inflict profound psychic wounds, Alice Miller says. If the only people in the world duty-bound to love you unconditionally mock or belittle you because of your sexuality, you may come to believe you are inherently unlovable.

The child with a devastating belief in his own unworthiness is likely to carry it into adulthood. If left unaddressed, this belief can leave us relationally impaired, resulting in an insecure attachment style.

Attached authors Amir Levine and Rachel Heller estimate about half of the adult population suffer from insecure attachment styles. In the case of gay men, this figure may arguably be even higher.

essy knopf gay men therapy

How a therapist can help gay men

Therapy is one way we can identify the impact ruptured attachment or invalidation has had upon us. It offers avenues for reconnecting with aspects of ourselves we may have become alienated from as a result of parental and social rejection and invalidation. 

And it is through this connection that we develop self-awareness, what Daniel Goleman calls “emotional intelligence”, and thus the ability to self-soothe.

A relationship with a therapist ideally is reparative. They model the unconditional acceptance of an ideal caregiver, creating an accepting space in which clients can vent to thoughts and feelings they have been forced to repress, often as a matter of survival. 

A good therapist uses compassion and insight to help their patients reintegrate alienated parts of the self. Through their guidance, gay men can come to terms with the loss and anguish they have suffered.

Therapy requires that we go to places we have been avoiding. After a lifetime spent mastering the art of emotional concealment, gay men undergoing therapy are asked to forgo their craft and expose their wounds and weak spots.

Embracing vulnerability in this fashion allows us to ultimately regain our long-lost ability to be emotionally authentic.

As Buddhist Pema Chödrön points out:

Without realizing it we continually shield ourselves from this pain because it scares us. We put up protective walls made of opinions, prejudices, and strategies, barriers that are built on a deep fear of being hurt… Finding the courage to go to the places that scare us cannot happen without compassionate inquiry into the workings of ego… Either we question our beliefs – or we don’t. Either we accept our fixed versions of reality – or we begin to challenge them. 

Choosing a therapist

Making the decision to undergo therapy sometimes feels like half the struggle. Then you have to deal with the deadly triad: money, scheduling, and what Samson called trust, but which I like to think of as compatibility

You can’t put a price on your mental wellbeing, so don’t let the cost alone thwart your efforts. If you don’t have a mental health care-inclusive health care plan, consider finding a therapist who offers sliding scale fees. If you need to take time out during working hours, negotiate with your manager or HR department.

When choosing a therapist, we all need assurance that we are in safe hands. We are, after all, seeking the unconditional acceptance we were once denied. Our chosen confidant, therefore, needs to show they will honor this responsibility. 

Bessel van der Kolk suggests three criteria by which you can gauge this: comfort, curiosity, and collaboration. To that list, I would also add proactivity and accountability:

  • Comfort: Do you feel comfortable and safe in the presence of this therapist? Do they seem comfortable with you? In the words of van der Kolk: “Someone who is stern, judgmental, agitated, or harsh is likely to leave you feeling scared, abandoned, and humiliated, and that won’t help you resolve your traumatic stress”.
  • Curiosity: Does the therapist seem interested in you as a person? Or do they see you as just another patient to be handed a rote list of advice and instructions? Do they actually listen to you? Are they comfortable sitting with your distress? Or do they immediately leap into diagnosis and prescription?
  • Collaboration: Is the therapist demonstrating a genuine desire to work with you, to explore your issues in-depth and to formulate a treatment plan?
  • Proactivity: Some therapists tend to take a nondirective role. As a result, you may feel you have to overcompensate. Sessions may become endless talk marathons, broken only by you prompting your therapist for participation. There is great value in a sympathetic ear, and venting is definitely part of the process. But given for example depression’s tendency to keep us trapped in automatic thoughts, we are never going to make the necessary shifts in our thinking without the help of someone willing to interrupt, redirect and even challenge, where necessary.
  • Accountability: Does your therapist honor their appointments with you? Do they cancel or reschedule on short notice? A therapist who is unpredictable or inconsistent can’t provide you with the security and caregiver-like “containment” you need. This also works in reverse. Do they help keep you accountable? Set tasks and homework? Without proper follow through on your behalf, your recovery may be hindered.

Remember: you are not locked into any therapist relationship. Treat the first session and those that follow like you would a date. You may be seeking immediate relief, but your objective should be to assess compatibility. 

In the end, there is no use building a relationship with someone who isn’t capable of giving you the support you need. Be willing to shop around until you find the right fit. And if it isn’t working, be prepared to move on. 

As with any endeavor, you will face setbacks. Sometimes these setbacks may simply come down to lack of motivation. If this is the case, break the task of finding a therapist into baby steps and try to complete one step a day.

The act of unlearning maladaptive behaviors and patterns can take months, if not years. Your recovery ultimately comes down to your being patient with the journey, flexible in your approach, and perhaps most importantly, remaining committed to your wellbeing.

Creating a new self unburdened by the injustices of your past first requires that you choose to break with the old.

“When I let go of what I am,” says Chinese philosopher Laozi, “I become what I might be”.

For advice on finding a therapist, check out this handy post by the American Psychological Association.

Takeaways

  • Acknowledge you may have depression.
  • Consider how your attachment history and feelings of shame might be playing a role.
  • Fight motivational inertia! Take it one baby step at a time.
  • Stay committed. You're in this for the long haul.

* 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.