Shame and loneliness
Shame begets loneliness.
Loneliness begets shame.
Let’s turn our shame into our ally.
I’ve written previously about how the stigma of loneliness is based in shame. But what is shame?
Shame, according to Wikipedia (I know… but this isn’t meant to be an academic source) is ‘an unpleasant self-conscious emotion typically associated with a negative evaluation of the self; withdrawal motivations; and feelings of distress, exposure, mistrust, powerlessness, and worthlessness.’
Shame, according to my intellectual crush, Dr Brené Brown differs from guilt. Guilt is the thought and feeling reflected in ‘I did wrong’. Shame is the thought and feeling that we get when we tell ourselves that ‘I am wrong’.
With those definitions done, I want to say three things:
Shame is a fundamentally important topic about loneliness for gay men. This is a long post in which I share some personal details about myself. Please read this with an abundance of self-care and when you have time to receive the information I'm sharing. Wrap yourself in a blanket or otherwise get comfortable. To be honest, I had a tough time mentally and emotionally writing this post. I feel that you may also experience some reluctance surface within you as you consider your sources of shame. Please be kind with yourself;
I want to say how proud of you I am for your courage and bravery in reading these words. No one ever wants to engage with the thoughts and feelings of loneliness and shame unless we know we must. I hope that you get some love, support and encouragement from these words; and
I have details for some resources to help you through any issues you may experience. The links are at the bottom of this post. You’re not alone. I’m here to help you get the authentic connection you need.
Shame and the gay man
As a gay man you’re likely familiar with the feeling that ‘I am wrong’ evokes. We can spend our whole lives trying to prove that statement wrong, or right.
Of course, being gay does not mean that we’re broken or wrong but we can often internalise messages that it is. For this reason I cannot recommend ‘The Velvet Rage: Overcoming The Pain Of Growing Up Gay In A Straight Man’s World’ by Dr Alan Downs and ‘The Gifts of Imperfection’ by Dr Brené Brown. These books changed my life and are inspiring, relatable and accessible.
Shame is a powerful behavioural motivator for humans. We will say or do almost anything to avoid our shame being exposed to the world.
Think about it for a moment. What would you do to avoid your greatest source of shame; that thing you said or you did or that someone said to you or did to you from being public knowledge? What would you do if this was to be published on the front page of The New York Times? What would you do to avoid it becoming fodder on social media for the world to pick over?
If that thought didn’t make you feel a little sick in the stomach, have you feel the first prickles of a nervous sweat or make your mouth go dry then try again.
Or consider this: What did you say or do to avoid being outed?
Yes, shame is powerful. We can fear everything about shame. We can fear the possibility of our shame being exposed and being relived.
We fear it so much that we shut it off from the rest of the world. We shut it off from those closest to us. We shut it off from ourselves.
But, my friend, the path to loneliness starts here.
Shame and loneliness
Shame is part of the human experience. We all – well, mostly all – live with it. It makes us deeply uncomfortable, so we try very hard to avoid it.
Avoiding shame can have us projecting images of ourselves into the world. We hope that by showing the world how awesome we are and how we have everything together we will distract enough to avoid others seeing the reality of our thoughts and feelings about ourselves.
Or if not avoiding shame, we spend time and energy trying to prove it wrong or atone for the words, thoughts and/or actions that caused us to feel shame.
We numb by turning to drugs, alcohol, sex, work, exercise, eating, shopping, travel, gambling, etc. We try to avoid situations where our shame may be triggered (like family events). The great irony of shame is that the more we fight against it or fight to prove it wrong, the stronger its hold on us becomes.
I contend that for many gay men who are experiencing loneliness – possibly even you – our loneliness has its genesis in shame. Specifically, has the effort of avoiding triggering situations or projecting all these images of our awesomeness or working so hard to achieve success in an effort to deflect attention from our sources of shame lead to us disconnecting and becoming lost to ourselves? Have our lives become consumed with proving our worthiness to our selves that we’ve lost who we are?
Ah, there it is: worthiness.
Loneliness and shame
We know from ‘The stigma of loneliness’ (read or listen) that worthiness can lie at the core of why we’re so reluctant to admit our loneliness aloud. By even entertaining the thought that we may be a gay man who’s lonely, we’re inviting the discomfort of the thoughts and feelings that we’re a human who’s not worthy of being seen, being heard or feeling that we belong. These thoughts and feelings can lead us to believe that we’re not worthy of being seen, heard or feeling that we belong. We can believe that we deserve our loneliness and that we’re worthy of the type of connection that I write about – the type of connection that all humans need – when we’re _______ enough.
What’s the ____________ for you? What's stopping you from engaging with the world as you are, right now?
Oftentimes, working through the thoughts and fear of loneliness involves speaking about what causes us shame. The fear of judgement that we have about our shame keeps us quiet, thus exacerbating our loneliness.
Shame and loneliness dance together so well that it’s hard to tell them apart.
How do we fix it?
Stop hustling. Stop projecting. Stop avoiding.
Sit with the discomfort. Identify it. What triggers a shame response in you? What makes you lash out? What makes you want to retreat into yourself? Paying attention to what triggers you and how you respond is the first step to identifying your areas of shame and then beginning the work of understanding it more.
Please, resist the temptation to do this work alone and emerge fixed and ready for authentic connection. It doesn’t work that way and completely misses the point. We get the connection we need when we’re vulnerable. We need help. Again, as Dr. Brown has said:
Shame cannot survive being spoken... It needs three things to absolutely grow exponentially: secrecy, silence and judgement. The antidote? Empathy. It cannot survive being spoken and being met with empathy.
And while not everyone deserves to hear your story, who do you have in your life that you can speak your shame and be met with empathy? Can you speak your shame to yourself and be empathetic?
And we don’t fix it; we can work with it as we understand it more. As you’ll see in my story below, while tempting to fix or solve your shame, it can be turned into a valuable ally within you.
I've known for years about my self-deprecating streak. In Australia, where the tall poppy syndrome rules the way we interact with others, self-deprecation is considered charming and disarming. It’s making ourselves approachable through our humility. I noticed that my self-deprecation typically emerged when I spoke in meetings at work. I’d start my contribution – my reluctant contribution – with something like ‘I don’t know if I’ve missed the point’ or ‘I don’t know how relevant this is, but…’. I thought that these words would put others at ease and make me seem normal and one of the crowd.
When I paid attention to this and sought the advice of Mike Campbell as part of his coaching program I did, he told me that this was a clue to a deeper relationship that I had with myself.
My charming, and chronic, self-deprecation expressed verbally through harmless words were very harmful. The words reflected my poor opinion of myself and that I didn’t believe that my voice was worthy. It reflected that I did not believe that I was worthy.
Self-deprecation is a cornerstone of comedy, and it’s far from harmless. As Hannah Gadsby brilliantly said in ‘Nanette’:
‘Self-deprecation isn’t humility. It’s humiliation.’
I was humiliating myself – repeatedly – in the hope that I’d make others more comfortable and in the hope that others would like and accept me.
Suddenly, I began to see where else this happened in my life and was alerted to the presence of the voice in my head that loved to tell me that I wasn’t good enough, smart enough, strong enough, good-looking enough or brave enough and that I was a scrawny nerd who never fitted in and always had to pretend to be something or someone I wasn’t in the hustle for acceptance.
I began to name the voice in my head Joe.
Let’s meet Joe
Joe tells me, in the most unkind ways imaginable sometimes, that I’m not good enough and that I’m not worthy of love or belonging. Joe tells me that my voice doesn’t deserve to be heard and that I have nothing valuable to say. Joe loves those silent moments between when I say or write something and the response.
At work, Joe loves to tell me that I’m not able to keep up with the other people around the table who are obviously smarter and much more competent than me.
Socially, Joe loves it when I feel excluded and I’m not invited to parties, meals or other gatherings. He revels in the pictures on social media of people I know getting together and having fun. He wants me to believe that the reason that I’m not there is that others don’t like me; that my general presence is being tolerated and that I’m not worthy of having friends.
Perversely, when I do feel that I’m enough and that I’m worthy, he wants me to worry about being too much. He wants me to believe that I’m too intense. I’m too focused. I’m too verbose. That I’m intimidating and that I’m a bore.
For Joe, I'm either too much or not enough. I just can’t win.
Joe searches for any reason for me to stay quiet and to stay small. When he finds one, he lets me know very strongly. Usually by making me feel nauseous. I begin to sweat or he takes every word that I would normally think of to use and puts them just out of reach.
For a very long time, Joe was very effective at getting me to be small. He wanted me to withdraw into myself and disconnect from those around me. He fiercely resisted any attempt I made to remove the masks I wore and be seen as who I am and had convinced me that I wasn't worthy of love and belonging.
I realised that listening to Joe was leading me to a scary and isolated place.
Why is Joe this way?
I have spent a lot of time thinking and reflecting on how, and why, Joe works in this way. In short, these behavioural responses happen as they had previously served me. While I was being bullied at school, external voices told me that I was not good enough. Being different wasn’t something of which I should have been proud. I took on these external comments, so they became a part of my internal voice.
I feared being judged and found lacking or deficient in some way, especially about my sexuality and masculinity. Joe kept me in the closet for almost 30 years. There's a lot in that small sentence. I feared that by being myself that I wasn't worthy of love or belonging. Staying in the closet and denying and ignoring a part of me was preferred to being abandoned and alone.
I thought that if I aired my doubts and highlighted my shortcomings before anyone else did, then their words couldn't hurt me because I already knew where I was deficient and of how I wasn’t worthy.
At work, I would start my contributions in meetings by apologising. I’d use humour and funny quips to deflect focus from me. I dreaded receiving feedback. If it was negative, I’d dwell on it for days. If it was positive, I’d dismiss the feedback as if it was given just out of politeness. If someone had an opinion different to mine, it was obviously their opinion that was right and more nuanced, and I’d tell myself that I was wrong. Perversely, I’d talk myself out of making contributions during classes or meetings and then berate myself afterwards for not having spoken up.
Socially, I was terrified of my sexuality and being outed. I felt that I could never really engage as 100 per cent myself. I was showing up in the world at 98 per cent, but never all the way. My sexuality, and the fear I had about it and the belief that I’d not be accepted, loved or would belong anywhere if I announced being gay to myself and the world, was something to hide. It was a huge factor in the slow disconnection to myself.
I believed Joe when he said that I was not enough. But I would work so hard to prove to Joe wrong. The great work I did, the promotion I won, the postings, the amazing wife and family, the quest for the perfect me were all to prove that Joe was wrong about me.
No matter what I achieved, nothing was ever enough for Joe. He still found fault.
Listening and giving in to Joe – thinking that his voice was that of my conscience – was a key reason for my loneliness. I was not allowing myself to be fully who I am and engaging with those I loved and the world as my authentic self.
Where did Joe come from?
Joe thrives when I’m in the midst of a shame storm.
A shame storm is the yuckiness we experience when being overwhelmed by our shame and enduring a barrage of intense and negative thoughts and feeling about our own lack of worth. They're intense.
When I didn't meet my own high standards, I didn't see it as an attempt that failed, I saw myself as a failure. Harsh, right?
I believed my own stories that I was not enough. I was not smart enough. I was not sporty enough. I was not funny enough. I was boring. I was ugly. As a friend has said: 'These words were planted externally, but were grown and cultivated internally'.
Digging deeper with some help, I saw that there were events in my life about which I carried immense shame. These were the events and memories from which I spent much of my life running. There was my sexuality and the fear that a look, an admiring gaze or my internet browser history would out me. There was my suicide attempt when I was 14-years-old. Instances when I was bullied. Instances when I bullied people. People I'd depended on and opened up to as friends turning on me and me taking personal responsibility for their decision. Mistakes that I’d made at work. The list went on and on.
Eventually, I realised that Joe's just a scared, sad, confused and lonely 14-year-old boy who wants to be safe. When I'd look in the mirror, I'd not see me as I am in the present, I'd see me through the eyes of the sad 14-year-old within me.
Joe and I are a team
While I often talk about Joe in the third person, Joe is me. Joe's role is to keep me safe by staying small.
Now that I know this, I can work with Joe. I have turned him into an ally. When Joe wants my attention, I give it to him. I sit down and listen. I work to feel what he's trying to tell me in the midst of the shame storm he's whipped up within me. I work hard to not act during these storms, when Joe is going full throttle. I know that I can act contrary to my values and say and do things that I regret when that happens.
I've also taken to writing notes to Joe to let him know that he's been heard and I talk to him with logic. Crazy? Probably. Does it work for me? Absolutely. Usually within moments.
I also have an amazing support team around me who I know will listen to me when I speak of Joe and I know will respond with empathy and kindness.
Even now, as I write this, Joe is telling me that no one wants to hear this story. That this is too long and I'm being self-indulgent. Joe catastrophises and runs doomsday scenarios like a boss. He wants this to be perfect so no one will judge me negatively. He's really good at finding ways to distract me. I think I invented a few new ways of procrastinating, including just Googling how to patent an idea.
This post has actually taken a long time to write, as I’ve needed frequent breaks to feel what Joe wanted me to feel. I’ve had a lump in my chest that’s only now dissipating after writing this far. I written notes to reassure Joe with reason that this is what it’s like to be authentically and unapologetically me.
Why have I shared this?
While I have just outed myself to the internet as some kind of crazy man who's named the voice in his head and write it notes, I tell you this so you know that you are not alone. To live with shame is part of the human condition and we can all carry that nagging doubt about whether we are enough.
But we are enough, and more.
After reading this, I challenge you to join me in some reflection of our sources of shame and pay attention to how they show up. This is tough work that you cannot do alone (God knows I tried…).
So, whoever your version of Joe is, let's acknowledge their presence in you and think of why they may be there.
If you haven't already, click on this link to get a brilliant suggestion on how empathy works. Who do you know can respond in that way? Who has earned the right to hear your stories? Could you reach out to them and talk?
This was intense for me. How are you? Are you OK? Do you need help? I have a page on my site with links to crisis counsellors if you need help right now. If you need help digging into the sources of your shame and how it plays out in your life (and you do...), I have the details of two amazing coaches, Michael DiIorio and Mike Campbell, who can help you through their coaching services.
Check it all out here.
Where to now?
Connection is the antidote to loneliness. Subscribe to my website through either a basic subscription (free) or premium subscription (monthly charge) and let’s stay connected as we work to de-stigmatise loneliness and promote authentic connection for gay men.
Thank you for reading this post. I hope that you’ve found it helpful.
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Important notice: All views expressed above are my own and are intended to support, challenge and inspire gay men to consider the issue of loneliness and increase awareness of the need for authentic connection with themselves, with others and their communities as an antidote to chronic loneliness. They are not intended to, nor should they, replace the advice of a licensed helping professional. Please consult the Resources page if you feel that you need the services of a licensed helping professional where you are in the world.