You know the expression "it hit me like a ton of bricks"? Well, that proverbial ton of bricks fell on me recently. It happened over lunch with my best friend. I was talking to him about my latest mixed bag of thoughts on religion, family, and homosexuality when he posed this question: "Do you think that if your parents don't feel disappointed about you being gay, then you lose your power?"
I was confused. "My power?" I asked.
He explained "power" as my ability to stand out, that something they talk about, the thing that makes me special. Then he compared it to being the black sheep of the family. Ah, yes, the black sheep. That family member who is considered wayward, a disappointment. The black sheep is the one who is constantly doing something that warrants those secret conversations held in gossipy, hushed voices. Disappointment in the black sheep is communicated through deep sighs and head shakes. Said black sheep probably didn't set out to play this role, but it's the reason that he stands out in the familial crowd.
You know, I think I've been thinking of myself as my family's black sheep for a long time. I'm not the alcoholic, the drug addict, the loner, the one unable to hold down a job, or the one who frightens people with his temper tantrums. I'm the gay one. At some point I decided that being gay is my claim to fame in my family, and that my "fame" is cause for disappointment. I have so convinced myself that my parents are disappointed in me for being gay that I keep pushing them to confirm my suspicions. I seem unable to accept that, as they've told me, they aren't disappointed in me or ashamed of me. You know what I think that might mean? That I'm disappointed in me, and I'm trying to project that onto them. There's that damn ton of bricks again.
So here's the kicker. All the delving into and questioning my black sheep syndrome led me to realize that I have shame about being gay. What?! Who am I? Where is the proud gay man I thought I was? The instances of low self-worth, low self-esteem and self-disappointment are products of shame. My shame. I've been so busy trying to place the blame on others for these feelings that I failed to see that the person most responsible for them is me.
In her book Daring Greatly, author Brené Brown talks in depth about shame. I'm now beginning to understand that my feelings of inadequacy, unworthiness, and self-disappointment are products of my shame. I often think I'm not good enough. Well, that's all on me. While reading Brown's words I was reminded of that scary moment when I had picked up the phone to come out to my dad, and the number had been dialed, and it was ringing, but he had yet to answer. I knew I had to do it. I was ready to do it.
Realizing that I have to deal with my own shame is the same. It's scary, but I have to do it. I'm ready to do it. I've started the process. It's unsettling, but the outcome can only be better than the current situation.
It has become clear to me that for many years I've defined myself as gay. Defined myself. As if being gay were all there is to me. Believe me, I did the head shake and the eye roll that you might be doing right now when my disbelief at my own self-imposed limitations began to sink in. I'm more than just a gay man, and being gay doesn't make me the black sheep or even a black sheep. I'm neither odder nor more disreputable than any other member of my family. I'm not wayward or a deviant. Being gay is just one facet of the multifaceted person that I am. How in the world did I allow myself to believe that being gay is the most important thing about me? Why did I ever start entertaining the idea that I'm my family's black sheep?
I am a man who had the courage to come out to his family and friends. I am a man who left what would have been a suffocating small-town life to move to New York City and follow his dreams. I am a man who finally understands that it's OK to ask for help and is seeking that help. I am a man who is discovering what his life can be. I am a man who now questions things instead of just accepting them. I am a singer, a storyteller, a red-wine enthusiast, a lover of television, and sometimes I cut my own hair. (Don't tell Truvy.) These are just a few elements that contribute to the whole me.
I am the writer of my story, and I've been writing myself a shitty role. Beginning to acknowledge how shame feeds my feelings of self-disappointment and my black sheep syndrome has been interesting. I'd been looking for someone to blame and using my being gay as a scapegoat for my feelings of unworthiness in my family. I'm important to my family for many reasons, the first of which is that they love me. My being gay might get a few sentences from them here and there, but it's not what makes me me. That is not my "power." I realize that I have to change the way I see myself and know that I'm more than the limitations I keep putting on myself.
No parent or friend or therapist or book is going to be able to make that change. It can only be me. The aforementioned can be supportive and provide helpful tools, but ultimately I have to climb out of my shame box and face its byproducts. I have to stop thinking of myself as the black sheep and find pride in the man who continues to examine his life in order to become a better person. A person who just happens to be gay. Now to secure that ton of bricks.