Q: I've known I was gay since I was 14 years old, and growing up in the '80s gave me a lot of baggage. I've had many years of therapy, but still don't feel very self accepting, and I'm wondering what the next step should be? How long should one stay in therapy? I work hard at it but I wonder if happiness is even possible for me. Any advice?
A:The short answer is that you need to talk with your therapist about your expectations of "self-acceptance" and "happiness." The problem may be in something as simple as your definition of what they are. If you are expecting nirvana, you are setting yourself up for continued disappointment making therapy (and the rest of your existence) a life-long struggle.
If you want my thoughts on the definitions of happiness and self-acceptance, read on...
People who complain they can never be "happy" usually expect themselves to feel elation most or all of the time. If that were the case, most mental heath experts would label that person as manic! Happiness is not the absence of negative feelings. People who describe themselves as "happy" usually feel the full range of feelings from joy right down to sorrow and regret. So what is happiness? There are many definitions but my favorite is "happiness is sustained satisfaction." If you can manage to be satisfied with most parts of your life more often than not, chances are you will describe yourself as "happy."
Like everything else, happiness is a process, not an outcome. To remain happy you do need to continue to do things that support your happiness including nurturing relationships, keeping your basic needs met, and stimulating your mind and body. If you are unsatisfied in an aspect of your life, work on improving that part while simultaneously appreciating the other parts that are satisfactory.
Self-acceptance is something a little different. Most think self-acceptance is liking everything about yourself. That's B.S. and it sets you up for failure. If you don't like even one aspect of yourself, you will then judge your whole self as bad and down goes your happiness ship once again. You were probably taught that being gay makes you a "bad" person and you have been struggling to make yourself "good" ever since.
The concept I like to teach is "Unconditional Self-Acceptance" which is accepting your "self" (other words could include your "core," your "humanity," your "soul," your "essence," the very thing that makes you alive) and accepting it unconditionally as neither good nor bad, but simply as acceptable and the same as every other person on the planet (neither better nor worse than anyone else). This is a major paradigm shift for most and does not come without push-back from your comparison-oriented ego which would prefer to make you think you are better than most people (yet still not as good as those you idolize).
If you master this (and you can with the guidance of a therapist who is knowledgable on the concept of Unconditional Self-Acceptance), then it will be much easier for you to separate out and look at your behaviors and judge them for what they are. You can also more easily see if these behaviors fit into your value set and your vision of the man or woman you want to be.
If you practice this concept and embrace it fully, an amazing thing will happen with your so-called "baggage." You will develop compassion for yourself and it will be as if your baggage develops wheels and a retractable handle. It will still be with you, but you will be able to more easily go where you want to in life and your baggage won't weigh you down. In fact, that baggage could come in handy because inside are life-skills that you learned through hard-knocks that may actually help you in this unpredictable world.
So go back to your therapist and start the conversation about your concerns. Take your current angst as a sign you have more work to do. Then pack a lunch, this may take a while, but it is worth it! -- Greg Cason, PhD