My therapist gave me this mantra: “I give myself permission to put myself first” – and I’ve been rotating around it for a couple of weeks now.
Growing up gay in a straight world involves a lot of manoeuvring. The thing at the core of your being (who you love, what attracts you, your desire) seems like a VERY BAD THING. I’m sure my parents wouldn’t have wanted me to feel that way, but that is how I, and many other gay and lesbian, transgendered people felt. Everything around us said that we were A VERY BAD THING and somehow it became a matter of life and death to wiggle by in the big, bad, homophobic world at large.
I’m thinking about these things because I’m running a four week course called “Didn’t Gay Used to Mean Happy?” for Mindsprings, my meditation organisation. The warmth and shared intention we all had last night as we sat down to think about what we’d like to achieve was inspiring. But we were also sharing wounding, the distortion and deformation of Self that many of us feel having wiggled our way through our childhoods in that way.
Nowadays, I hope children growing up gay will have a very different path. We’re just celebrating the advent of gay marriage here in the UK, brought to the law books by a Tory government (something that would have been inconceivable even 10 years ago). And the number of openly gay men and women in the British media and world-at-large is far greater and more diverse than it was when I was growing up.
Nonetheless, the baggage that we as adult gay men and women (say over 20) carry can be quite considerable even though the outward framework of the world has changed so much for the positive.
And one of the major ways in which we ingratiated ourselves with the homophobic world was by putting others first. We may have been the ‘carer’ of the family, or the one that made everyone laugh. We might have been the ‘little adult’ who made themselves indispensable. Or the ‘little professor’ who jemmed up on information to impress and caress the grown-ups around us. In all of this there is a de-centring going on. We become more and more magnetized by what others want, what others think, what others expected and less and less in tune with what we want, what we think and what we can expect for ourselves.
It is a truism – espoused by Madonna, no less, – that until we learn to love ourselves, we can never ever ever love anybody else. But on a more basic, less pop-song level, we cannot really help people in the world unless we start putting ourselves first. It seems like a paradox but only because we’ve been in the trance of self-erasure. How can a car drive people unless it is full of petrol? How can a tree give fruit unless it roots are deep and well-watered? How can a human being mean much in the world if they mean little to themselves?
Religion, sadly, has much to answer for in this. The literal belief that putting others first is ALWAYS a good thing, feeds into this self-etiolating behaviour.
I remember one of my trainers at psychotherapy school pointing out to me , that if I didn’t consciously acknowledge my own needs when working with a needy client then my needs would go underground and unconsciously I would extract revenge and retribution further down the line, either with harsh interpretations or unconsciously punishing attitudes. Similarly, people who care for others IN ORDER to get some security will finally lash out (or “lash in”, flaying themselves) if their covert needs are not met.
For gay people, this can lead to what Alan Downes calls ‘the velvet rage’, the furious, acid attacks of people who have compulsively put other people first for too long with too little return.
So, as the snow starts to fall outside on this freezing Hackney Friday, I am closing down my email account, packing up my school books, and sitting my sorry, achey bones down on the sofa with some tea, and putting myself first. With full permission. Over and out.