Many people struggle with self-esteem issues, especially those of us in the LGBTQ community. That’s a generalization, of course, however there are mental health statistics that back up our struggle.
As Andrew Tobias pointed out in his memoir The Best Little Boy in the World and Alan Downs explored in The Velvet Rage, being gay is hard. It’s getting easier, but growing up with a deep sense of being different can lead us to thinking we’re wrong. That can have profound affects on our mental health going forward.
Gay men with low self-esteem
Low self-esteem can lead to higher rates of depression, suicidal thoughts, risky behavior and problematic substance use. This is not something that should be taken lightly. And it’s not something you have to just grin and bear.
There is no quick fix to improve your self-esteem. Many have tried with drugs, alcohol, sex or working out. When you think poorly of yourself on a deep level, external changes rarely help. Working on your self-esteem is an inside job.
Looking at your negative thought patterns is a good place to begin the internal work needed to improve self-esteem.
What are negative thoughts? They are the work of a tough inner critic. They say things like:
You’ll never be good enough.
No one thinks you’re hot.
Why are you such a loser?
Negative thoughts usually come from a place of feeling inadequate or unworthy. When you grow up gay in a straight world, even with the help of a supportive community, you have to grapple with being different. That can show up in a number of ways.
The Trance of Unworthiness
The author and psychotherapist Tara Brach has addressed the “trance of unworthiness” in her book Radical Acceptance, Embracing Your Life with the Heart of Buddha. She states that “feeling unworthy goes hand in hand with feeling separate from others, separate from life.”
When you don’t feel worthy, there can be a strong tendency to want to mask those tough feelings with drugs, alcohol, work or general busyness. Masking the problem only provides temporary relief. It doesn’t address the problem at the core.
Where to start?
The first step to addressing issues around self-esteem is slowing down and turning inward. Imagine if you had a plumbing leak. You could start patching various holes and grabbing buckets to catch the water. However, to really fix the problem you’d have to first understand the overall scope of the issue.
The same is true for human suffering. Suffering is universal, that is a main principle of Buddhist teachings. As with the plumbing leak, fear can keep us from looking at the full extent of the problem.
If we allow ourselves to zoom out and search for the root of our suffering, we can then begin to face it.
Love yourself, flaws and all
Whether you choose to explore and face the suffering through meditation, art, mindfulness or psychotherapy, the first step is coming to know more about the pain. It can seem counterintuitive to lean into the pain, but we have to understand the problem before we can work on it effectively.
It certainly won’t be easy, but chances are when you realize the depth and extent of your suffering, you will also realize the hope, possibility and chance for growth.
Once you understand where your pain comes from, affirmations can provide a powerful tool to start healing your self-esteem.
What is an affirmation?
When I say affirmations, I’m referring to short and powerful positive statements that you can repeat to yourself in order to challenge negative thought patterns. Keep reading for some concrete examples below.
You can use affirmations in a variety of ways. I recommend brainstorming a list of 10-20 that feel meaningful to you. Think of statements that empower you and make you feel good about your strengths. If you’re struggling, I’ve included a list below that you can use as a starting off point.
How to use affirmations
Once you have a solid list of affirmations, pick 5 that resonate the most with you. Then repeat them to yourself or say them outloud several times throughout the day. You can add calendar reminders in your phone or post a list by your mirror. The point is to repeat the positive statements often enough that you begin to form new neural pathways and actually rewire the way your brain works.
Here are 10 examples of positive affirmations that you may find useful.
- I deserve to have a supportive, loving and kind partner.
- I’m enough, just as I am today.
- I accept my body as it is right now.
- I’m a compassionate, caring and strong person and I want to share those qualities with other people.
- I will forgive myself for any mistakes I’ve made in the past.
- I have the courage to be open and vulnerable.
- Asking for help makes me stronger
- No one, including my inner critic, has the right to make me feel unworthy.
- It’s enough to simply be present in the moment.
- Success is mine to define.
Which affirmations speak to you? Print this list out or create one of your own. Make a commitment to try saying these affirmations everyday for at least a week. Check in with yourself after the week is up and notice if anything is different. You can change the affirmations daily or stick with the ones you find most powerful. It will take time, but you can make positive changes.