Part fourteen in a series.
Week 12 of James Mellon's "Mental Muscle" Spiritual Boot Camp focused on self-esteem. "Self-worth is not the basics of spiritual practice, but the graduate work," James said.
My self-esteem is a mixed bag. It's high in some areas and low in others. The high column is represented by good things I do for my emotional and physical health, where the low column is centered on my lack of faith in my talents and abilities. Without faith, my self-esteem is definitely not "all that."
The biggest issues of self-esteem that came up this week were tied to being a gay man. At age 16, I flew out of the closet without really knowing what I was doing. Although I'm about to turn forty, I still cope with degrees of internalized homophobia.
I've had many people say they don't automatically know I'm gay when they meet me. Given my fears, I've taken comfort in that. Over time, I subtly worked at "de-queening" myself, at least in terms of certain mannerisms. I've often been on eggshells in situations where I fear the "wrong person" will have a negative reaction to this part of my identity.
A few years ago, someone I was dating wanted to hold my hand in a very public place and I couldn't do it. I said to him, "I'd really like to, but I have no idea if there is some psycho hanging out here that might go ballistic if he sees two guys holding hands."
That story is indicative of how I have been walking through life. Perhaps the most powerful thing I've learned through Boot Camp is how I have been hiding myself, or not been 100 percent authentically who I am in every situation. I've been living in fear that somehow the truth will cost me.
When we discussed this in Boot Camp, James said, "Paul, if you're not truthful, how much do you think that will cost you?" The answer was obvious. It already has cost me, and I've been paying too high a price.
I've thought about whether these issues and others in terms of being gay are the main reasons why a healthy, loving and intimate spiritual partnership with a man has eluded me. The fear that I may never know what that kind of relationship feels like chips away at my self-esteem.
For years, I felt my sexual preference robbed me of a few things. In fact, I've always darkly joked that my first kiss was "a robbery" because the guy didn't really like me. He just wanted to show me what it was like to be kissed.
As a teenager, I never experienced the dating rituals kids are a part of. I was so clear on my preference that I didn't bother "practicing" how to date with girls. The only other gay person I knew that was my age was a platonic friend. I looked much younger than I was and couldn't fool anyone when I tried to get into gay bars to meet people. There was really no way for me to learn how to date.
About a year into college, I met a guy who wound up introducing me to certain places he would go in order to meet men. They were all sexually motivated and became the only real outlet I had until I turned 21. As a result of being introduced to these places, whether or not I was sexually desirable defined my self-worth for years.
I developed a complete disconnect between love and sex. Once I was able to get into bars, I was at a loss for knowing how to meet people in a "normal" way, where sexual activity wasn't the first thing that happened. It seemed I was invisible with my clothes on. I compared myself to almost everyone I saw and I was always "less than."
I couldn't handle seeing affection between men without feeling extreme lack, jealousy and envy. All it did was make me want whatever they had right now! The only way I knew to get it, and fast, was through sex. I decided to stop going to bars that made me feel like crap, and only go where being found attractive was guaranteed.
It took years, but I have thankfully evolved out of those places. Even so, wanting to feel attractive and lovable still affects me in certain ways. If I am around people I find attractive, my mind works overtime to pump up my confidence. I tell myself that I'm "all that" but at same time I'm conscious that I don't really believe it. It feels like I'm acting the role of someone who has confidence. People can smell that at 40 paces.
One of James' directives was to write "I Am Worth It" on post-its and place them where we would constantly see them. I put one up at work and my room-mate Tamara, also taking Boot Camp, took care of putting them all over our apartment. She even stuck one in a quite brilliant spot: the snack tray in our refrigerator!
James asked what went through our minds when we would see those reminders of "I Am Worth It." The good news is my answer was always "I know."
Sometimes affirmations can feel a little too "Stuart Smalley" for me. It's one thing to say or write affirmations because you're told to. It's another to actually feel an affirmation as truth.
I use songs as affirmations. My favorite is called "Lullaby for Myself.' It was written by Rupert Holmes and is the last song on Barbra Streisand's Streisand Superman album. Throughout this week, "Lullaby For Myself" was at the forefront of my mind.
The lyrics are all about self-esteem, particularly, finding pleasure and strength in being alone. Although I've always loved the irony of the last line ("if just one damn man would share the need to be alone with me"), I always questioned whether that line negated the empowerment that preceded it.
From what I've learned through Boot Camp, I understand that line much better. If you desire someone special to be alone with, it is very important they are equal to who you are, especially when it comes to a healthy sense of self.