Whether it’s Trump’s election and his appointment of virulently anti-gay cabinet members (my article on that is here), or just everyday life challenges that would be there regardless, gay men need support to face stressors of various kinds. Things happen that are barriers, setbacks, and losses, and when they do, we need to mobilize both in our thinking and in our behavior to cope with these situations, fight back, and get back to being on top (so to speak). We need resilience. According to the American Psychological Association, resilience is the ability to adapt and grow from adversity, trauma, and other stress – whether from relationships, work, finances, politics, health challenges, family, etc.
Various authors have listed the traits of resilient people, including Susan Dunn, who wrote about the “Top Ten Attributes of Resilient People”. I want to adapt some of these specifically for gay men, here, and then in a second part of this article, discuss how to develop that resilience.
- Reflect on Experiences – Historically, gay men are a resilient group, if we think about it. We went from having no rights and living rather hidden in earlier times, to increasingly getting more and more legal rights, starting with Stonewall in 1969 and then through the end of Don’t Ask/Don’t Tell and even marriage equality. Think about these group experiences, or think about your own history. How have you dealt with hard times in the past? What did you do? Who helped you? How did those challenges ultimately pan out?
- Be Realistic – It’s important to acknowledge hard times as such, a setback, a trauma, a loss, a disappointment. By recognizing the nature of a problem, we can then start to solve it. Maybe the problem is a very “mainstream” one that anyone could have, but for gay men, sometimes problems are related to gay community “drama” or being the victim of homophobia or discrimination from our broader society.
- Identify and Express Feelings – What are you feeling about this situation? Is it more sad, anxious, angry, or scared? Knowing your feelings and expressing them to someone (friend, colleague, family member, partner/spouse, therapist) helps to make emotional sense of what’s going on. Sometimes gay men can feel isolated in their challenges, because they feel no one in “mainstream society” really gets it in a gay male context.
- Know The Time – Try not to be distracted by things of the past or anxiety about the future; focus on what’s going on right now, and how to not just “react” to it, but calmly “respond” to it, which is more sober-minded and careful. Louise Hay has said, “The point of power is in this moment.” Ask, what can I say, do, believe, or allow that would help myself and my situation, right now?
- Let Yourself Grieve – If you’ve had a loss, the only way out is through. Acknowledge the hurt of what you’re going through. Ironically, the more you allow yourself to acknowledge a loss and do the grieving process, the less time you’ll have to spend grieving it. And everyone grieves or mourns a loss differently.
- Find Meaning – Try to see beyond the current situation. Ask yourself how this particular time, or challenge, fits into the context of the life you’re trying to lead. For the loss of a relationship, for example, this could be just one intimate relationship in a number of them that you’ll have in a lifetime. There is more to your quality of life and its meaning than any one setback, loss, or challenge.
- Think Creatively – If you’re hit with a problem, don’t fall down and stay down. Get back up and be creative with how you can cope adaptively and healthily. Try not to shut down. I love the major cliché, “When the going gets tough, the tough get going.” Experiencing a setback, instead of shutting down, try activating and being more motivated than ever. (The current election situation is one example – people who never were “into” politics are getting involved at every level, because there are certainly threats in the new government to the rights we have achieved in recent years.)
- Practice Self-Care – If you’re going through a particularly hard time, that means there is an extra drain on your physical and emotional resources. Pay attention to the basics of your self-care of food, clothing, shelter, sleep, personal supports from loved ones, exercise, and maybe even work. I’ve seen many of my clients keep themselves stable through a tough time by continuing to work, if at all possible, so that the steady routine stabilizes them in an otherwise crazy time. For example, years ago, I was able to still work during the time that I was undergoing daily radiation therapy for cancer, and the routine helped to give me a sense of normalcy when I was otherwise dealing with health symptoms.
- Enlist Help – Identify and contact the people you rely on, who know you, accept you, and support you as you are. Almost everyone has a “core group” of people to turn to in tough times, and if you don’t, this is something to work with a therapist on so that you cultivate an “inner circle” of people in your life, or a “Family of Choice”. I think a “system” of supportive people drawn from a partner/spouse, family, friends, colleagues, or even neighbors can build a network of support. I think having friends who are both older, younger, the same, and different from you can also be helpful, so that you get support from several perspectives that can be enlightening.
- Hire Professionals – While support from well-meaning family and friends can be great, they sometimes lack the specific professional skills that you need to resolve a problem. If you’re sick with something, they can give general comfort, but you would need a health care professional to really address the issue – oftentimes a specialist or expert in that area. The same with therapy and coaching – beyond what “friends” could say, therapists are trained (at the graduate level!) for many years specifically in identifying, assessing, and intervening with all kinds of problems. Chances are, when you bring your problem to a therapist, they have seen people with similar problems in the past (sometimes, such as in my case of working with gay men in therapy for 25 years, MANY times!) and they can help you learn how others have resolved similar problems in the past, and help you strategize a way to get back on track with pretty specific actions.
These are the traits associated with resilient people. In Part II of this article, we’ll look at tips and ways to develop resilience in yourself. Stay tuned.