We all know what it feels like to be judged. Sometimes it’s just a look, or a facial expression. Maybe it’s the person’s body language – a flinch, or a step backwards. Perhaps it’s their tone of voice, or choice of words – or a blatant, stinging criticism. Or maybe the person just drops off the radar screen and disappears from our lives, without a clearly articulated reason.
If you are an LGBTQ person – particularly if you’re also in a “fringe” community – then you know exactly what this feels like. We can say over and over again, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me.” But that’s not the reality. Names hurt. Rejection hurts. And when we’re hurt, we hurt. We hurt ourselves – and we may hurt others.
In some ways, internalized hate is like a cancer that metastisizes. The more we hate ourselves, the more that self-hate travels throughout our bodies and our psyches, expressing itself in a variety of ways. And there’s concrete research data that supports this idea. Studies have shown a link between internalized homophobia and relationship problems, sexual dysfunctions, substance abuse, eating disorders, physical health problems, stress-related disorders, and a host of other problems. According to a 2010 study published by Brian Mustanski, a researcher at Northwestern University, internalized homophobia is significantly linked to “internalizing mental health problems” such as depression and anxiety. Research from the Family Acceptance Project, headed by Caitlin Ryan at San Francisco State University, confirms this pattern – according to her research, LGBTQ youth who were rejected by their families were more likely to have poorer mental health outcomes, such as depression and suicide attempts, illegal drug use, and unprotected sex. When we hate ourselves, we act out in hateful ways against ourselves – and in ways that can potentially injure other people.
And in the LGBTQ community, it’s not just homophobia we’re talking about. A bisexual woman may feel ashamed that she passes as heterosexual – and that her life is easier – when she’s with a man. A person who’s bisexual and non-monogamous may feel shame for reinforcing existing stereotypes of bisexuals. A transperson may feel shame and embarrassment because they don’t pass well (or guilt because they do). Or a transperson may only feel like a “real” transgendered person if they’ve had the bottom surgery. The ways we judge ourselves negatively are endless. And it’s these statements that ultimately lead to depression – and worse.
If we pay attention, and listen carefully to the negative judgments we inflict upon ourselves, it becomes more clear that the things we say to ourselves weren’t created in a vacuum. We repeat (or reinvent in more creative ways) the things that we heard from our families, our peers, the media, our teachers, our mentors. If a fish is swimming in toxic water, it’s inevitably going to drink some of that poison, whether it wants to or not. And no matter how resilient of a person you are, the toxic effects of societal hate are going to have a trickle-down effect into our psyches.
Obviously, eliminating societal hate is powerfully effective in reducing internalized homophobia (I wrote about this extensively in a previous blog post, “There Oughta Be A Law.”). In the meantime, however, how do we learn to practice unconditional acceptance of ourselves? How do we inoculate ourselves from the individual, institutional, and cultural judgments that surround us? I wish I had a simple answer to that question.
There is, however, a passage from Alcoholics Anonymous (known to AA members as “The Big Book”) that I’d like to quote as food for thought. It goes like this:
And acceptance is the answer to all my problems today. When I am disturbed, it is because I find some person, place, thing or situation — some fact of my life — unacceptable to me, and I can find no serenity until I accept that person, place, thing or situation as being exactly the way it is supposed to be at this moment.
Practicing acceptance of everyone – even those who hate us – is a tall order. And, to be clear, this doesn’t mean resigning yourself to accept the unacceptable. When a queer person is the victim of a hate crime, that criminal act is completely unacceptable. Subjecting ourselves to self-inflicted abuse – abuse stemming from our intolerance towards ourselves – is also unacceptable. However, those of us who have been victims at the hands of others, or who have victimized ourselves, need to remember that the victim is not to blame. But we also have the power to effect change – and that change begins with ourselves.
What if, for today, I choose to accept this person – myself – as being exactly the way it is supposed to be at this moment? Instead of feeling overwhelmed with the monumental task of changing the world, what if we started with ourselves? What if we really listened to the words of Michael Jackson (who probably understood judgment better than anyone) – and actually heeded them?
I’m starting with the man in the mirror
I’m asking him to change his ways
And no message could have been any clearer
If you want to make the world a better place, take a look at yourself and make that . . .
If you are in the Sacramento area on Saturday, October 6, please join Julie Interrante, MA, and Gayle Pitman, Ph.D., for Born This Way, a workshop that begins to explore the idea of changing ourselves and our world through radical self-acceptance. For more information, visit http://www.elements-sacramento.com.