Gay Men’s Skills of Living Series: #3 – Self-Care at Any Age
I’ve been a specialist in therapy for gay men for over 26 years, working almost exclusively with gay male individuals or gay male couples. In that time, I often get asked how self-care for gay men can be enhanced, and how we can learn to love themselves more profoundly and compassionately to overcome guilt, doubt, and internalized negative messages we have received from others over the years. It takes work, but it can be done. I use primarily Cognitive Therapy and Schema Therapy, which is slowly and gradually changing all the negative statements and phrases you say about yourself in your mind into something more positive and life-affirming. This helps you to want to take better care of yourself, and enjoy your life more, both professionally and personally. And, this can be done at any age. Since I work with guys in my office and through phone/webcam sessions all over the U.S. and even the world, I see men at many ages and phases of life. Here’s what I’ve learned that helps guys in those different phases of life, to help them build self-care:
1. Teens – For gay male teens, the main thing in self-care is getting support. There are lots of resources like GLSEN.org and PFLAG.org, and Gay-Straight Alliances in schools. Connecting with others while still staying safe is key. Resisting the pressures to “be” or “act” heterosexual or gender-normative is part of it. Your rights vary from state to state, but the real focus is on breaking isolation and connecting with supportive others. For suicidal teens, The Trevor Project (www.thetrevorproject.org) has a hotline and other support resources. Coping with bullying or unsafe school conditions is another challenge. Self-care here means understanding that the “rules” you might have been taught when you were a child that all “legitimate” relationships “must be” heterosexual just ain’t necessarily so. LGBT teens might still be a numerical minority, but that doesn’t make them less valuable as human beings. Self-care means understanding that there are many different types of teens (people) in the world, and no one is too young to fight intolerance and bigotry. Self-care for teens usually means finding adult allies, and peer allies, and identifying ways to feel safe and confident. If your parents don’t help, find someone (school counselor, etc.) safe who will.
2. 20’s – Guys in their 20’s often struggle to make the transition from the high school or college years in to working life. There are still a lot of comparisons of yourself to other gay men, and it’s important to self-care to focus on what makes you unique – your skills, talents, even personal style, and to resist the urge to conform to others, either in the straight world or even to other gay men. Self-care here means exploring your sexuality and finding ways to satisfy your natural desires, while learning to master sexual self-empowerment and self-care like HIV risk management, STD monitoring and treatment, and building the confidence to say yes when you want to say yes, and no when you want to say no. Self-care here can mean overcoming any traumatic experiences of incest or sexual abuse in your history, and reclaiming your right to a healthy adult sexuality (my article on that, is here). Self-care here is about accepting yourself as you’re developing your adult identity, and accepting yourself as “perfectly imperfect”. You can’t do every job equally, so you choose what makes your contributions professionally unique. This is also about self-care through resisting peer pressure. Frankly, screw what everyone else thinks. You don’t have to have any kind of body, haircut, wardrobe, car, etc. that everyone else has, unless you want that. Bette Midler used to say, “F— ‘em if they can’t take a joke.” I think that’s very empowering. There will always be critics, but you don’t have to internalize what they say as gospel. Consider the source, and you be you
3. 30’s – Guys in their 30’s are almost always preoccupied with work, building their careers and probably getting their first management-level jobs. Self-care here is about work/life balance, and also probably navigating a relationship, home life, and perhaps even kids. Self-care here means that you’re not a 20’s kid anymore, but not yet middle-aged, so it can be a fun time. Self-care means developing boundaries and limits with work, so that you don’t set yourself up for an ulcer or stress heart attack by middle age. Self-care here means also paying attention to your body so that you keep good habits from your true youth, and it also means having your financial stuff in order and being a grown-up when it comes to saving and investing for your future. Self-care in your 30’s means understanding the domains of your dating/relationships, quality of sex, good exercise/food habits, being connected to good medical care, having good debt management and investing skills, and enjoying a social life while you climb the professional ladder. It’s also really about shrugging off any remaining anti-gay messages you’ve internalized, and not being afraid to be “out” in all settings, now with all family, your community, and at work.
4. 40’s – Self-care in your 40’s is the very earliest stage where you might start to feel “not so young” anymore, exactly, as gray hairs come in, you get less hair where you want it, and more hair where you don’t (in general). Gay men tend to defy aging overall, but you can’t party as hard and recover as fast, and you can’t eat whatever and still stay lean (if that’s what you want). Self-care at this age means reconciling the young man that you were, and maybe even still feel like, with the older guy that you are rapidly moving toward. Many guys around 40 enter therapy, because it’s at midlife that we tend to self-reflect on our lives, and come to terms with our issues that maybe were dormant for a while. My article on gay men at midlife covers these topics more in depth. Self-care here is more of the same, but there is also a certain “now or never” urgency about really revisiting and coming to terms with issues that you might have been avoiding when you were preoccupied with getting your career going. Understanding that there is more to life than work, and starting to realize that you won’t always be in the professional rat-race, are hallmarks of the 40’s, as is an intensified focus on planning for retirement (financially, especially). The 40’s can be a golden time of life for gay men, because it just naturally becomes easier to be more self-accepting, and our natural ability to resist pressures from our peers and “the community” gets easier to do. In general, we adopt a “this is me, take or it leave it” approach that is far different from the “please accept me” days of our teens or 20’s. Self-care here also means the duality of the physical self-care (preventing obesity, diabetes, heart disease, and other risks that can be present by the 40’s, and maybe coping with lower testosterone or even erectile dysfunction) with the mental self-care (including dealing with our aging, or even dying, parents) and coming to terms with aging (which, in the gay community, can be especially tough because of the emphasis on youth and beauty). We go from being the Twink, to the Stud, to the Daddy in what feels like no time at all.
5. 50’s and beyond – Self-care for the “gay and gray” is a topic I’ll go into in another article in more depth, because it gets complicated. By this age, self-care becomes an art form, which is necessary, because it will really separate our community into the guys who “age well” versus the ones who don’t, and who are plagued by health concerns or even a cynicism that can come with aging if we aren’t careful. Coping with resentments that everyone seems younger and prettier can also be a challenge, but it’s at this stage that mental self-care involves really rocking the Daddy thing and enjoying being Golden Boys, collecting tips on how to take care of ourselves, staying active in the ways that have meaning for us, and defending against the pitfalls of aging. Healthy Aging for gay men is a special interest of mine, because I had many relatives who lived to be quite elderly (90’s or above) and I have taken notice of what they did to help – or to hurt – their own aging process.
What all of these ages have in common when it comes to self-care is the idea that compassion for ourselves is paramount. Sure, we live in a capitalist, aggressive, competitive, crowded, expensive, dog-eat-dog society, especially in the United States, where everyone seems to say get the f— out of my way or everyone seems to be jockeying for position or status. But there comes a time to just either reject or ignore the nay-sayers. I have no patience for the sadistic anti-gay (usually conservative Republican or religious) figures out there. They can deliver a package of hate, and we can either “sign for the package” and internalize it, or we can refuse it at the door and mark it “return to sender”. Self-care means acknowledging that stresses all of kinds exist, but they don’t have to be run our lives, and they don’t have to be internalized. You be you.
For more help on self-care tips and coming to terms with your own stresses, consider therapy or coaching with me, or with my associate clinicians, here at GayTherapyLA. We offer sessions in the office in Los Angeles (near San Vicente and Sixth, not far from West Hollywood) or via phone, or via webcam to people anywhere in the world (with internet access). For more information on schedule and rates, email Ken@GayTherapyLA.com, or call/text 310-339-5778 for your free 15-minute consultation.