Buddhist nun Pema Chödrön wrote that ‘without loving-kindness for ourselves, it is difficult if not impossible to genuinely feel it for others’.1 Or, as drag artist Ru Paul puts it, ‘If you can’t love yourself, how in hell are you gonna love somebody else?’ For me, the second part of that famous line is actually much easier than the first, but I’m working on it.
What I like about bringing the concept of kindness into the client conversation is that this captures some of the challenges involved in relating. Relationships aren’t easy; they demand work, difficult decisions, sacrifice and pain. When I talk about being kind, I’m not talking about being ‘nice’, putting on a false, polite mask to get along with everyone. Kindness is not a blanket attitude we should indiscriminately adopt. We have to be discerning with our kindness and, as with love, sometimes we need to be tough with ourselves in order to be kind.
There’s a lot of talk about self-care these days – how to look after yourself during a pandemic; the importance of taking some time for yourself; practising mindfulness. Most of us accept that these things matter and perhaps try to do them to some extent. When the conversation turns to truly being kind to ourselves, rather than doing things that we know are good for us, it can get a bit more tricky. Professor Paul Gilbert writes: ‘We are a species that has evolved to thrive on kindness and compassion,’ and that we need to ‘recognise the importance of kindness and affection and place them at the centre of our relationship with ourselves’.2 In my experience of working with queer clients and reflecting on my own relationship with kindness, putting kindness at the centre seems to be something that the LGBTQ+ community particularly struggles with.
Many of my therapy clients speak with generous compassion about others in their lives. They readily forgive people, offering second chances, sometimes far beyond what seems reasonable from the outside. But these same clients can be very resistant when it comes to applying even a fraction of that kindness inwards. I spend a lot of time asking my clients to be kinder to themselves. I find people have a variety of responses to this. Some take to the suggestion readily, grateful for the reminder. Others are baffled or confused, never having considered doing so. And some are irritated and dismiss the notion as self-indulgent. It’s not an easy concept to grasp if it’s unfamiliar. Some of us weren’t given the space to think about self-kindness growing up. Maybe our parents or caregivers weren’t around much or they didn’t have the space for our needs.
I struggle with my own relationship to kindness. I am not inclined to go easy on myself; I am a perfectionist, and I have a tendency to harshly berate myself for the one tiny thing I could have done differently, rather than celebrating or even acknowledging what I did well. It takes work for me to respond in a different way – an ongoing process of remembering to be gentle with myself. As a queer woman, I grew up questioning my place in the world, unsure of the validity of my opinions. I didn’t look around and see myself out there, reflected back at me, except from shadowy corners. There was an inherent sense of ‘wrongness’ floating around me that I couldn’t name then. People said the word ‘lesbian’ in a strange mouthing whisper, conveying that it was shameful in a way that stayed with me. This was not a good foundation for a kind and loving relationship towards myself as my sexuality emerged and I could ignore it no longer.
I believe the biggest stumbling block to developing self-kindness is shame. Queer people are handed shame early on, in a variety of ways. For many of us, the shaming is unapologetic and explicit – we are simply told we’re sinful and wrong. We also receive subtler shaming messages – our relationships not being acknowledged, the lack of representation in the media. If we have lacked validation, we can be quite susceptible to those messages and more receptive to the idea that there is something wrong with us.
Queer stories often linger in this shame, even now. Films and TV shows almost always centre on coming out, and these stories usually stop short of showing us the protagonist going on to live a happy and fulfilled life out of the closet. And that’s if we’re lucky enough to be centre stage and not the sassy best friend. The US comedy Schitt’s Creek is a rare, shining example of stories in which we see central queer characters whose queerness is not the storyline, but this remains the exception.
Many of us create our own ‘chosen’ families and seek out queer spaces and culture – Pride parades, club nights, drag performances. We create worlds for ourselves in which we are accepted and cherished, in which we thrive. These worlds often exist in the shadows, still. There can be joyful defiance in queer culture, in an identity that is marginalised, but isolation is intrinsic to it too. Dr Brené Brown writes that ‘the opposite of experiencing shame is experiencing empathy’.3 This is where therapy comes in and can be so transformative for people whose identity has not been validated in the past. A lot of my clients find me because they have specifically sought out a queer therapist. Many carry with them harmful experiences of previous therapists who did not affirm or validate them, who asked ignorant questions and left them feeling undermined and misunderstood. I heard someone at a seminar talk about the therapist’s role being to add affirmative weight to balance out queer people’s experience of prejudice, discrimination and shaming. I believe that a cisgender heterosexual therapist can fulfil that affirming role for queer clients, but they must have put in the work to have a basic understanding of queer experience in order to do so.
Being kind and loving to ourselves isn’t going to happen accidentally, if it’s not already second nature for us. It takes work to dismantle the unhelpful ways of treating ourselves we’ve developed over time – work we can do in therapy. It can help to acknowledge that a lot of those ways come out of necessity – survival techniques to help us navigate difficult childhoods, painful experiences, the loneliness that being queer in a heteronormative and binary world can engender. It is helpful, too, to realise we can put those techniques down.
A supportive, affirmative relationship, be it a therapeutic one, or a friendship or romantic relationship, can allow us to develop a kinder relationship with ourselves, to create an inner cheerleader instead of a shaming inner critic. Often, in early work with clients, I feel I take on the role of cheerleader, and it’s gratifying to witness those clients become that for themselves by the end of our time together. I had a female bisexual client, Sophie,* who was very good at looking after other people; it was a big part of her identity. In exploring this with me, she began to realise that looking after others was a way of neglecting or not focusing on herself. It emerged that she experienced a lot of shame about her queer identity and because of being a survivor of childhood sexual abuse, and that those two issues had a very complicated relationship.
In one session, I asked Sophie how it felt to be looked after in therapy, as this was not something she was used to. This was an extremely emotional question for her and prompted her to reflect on her anger and sadness for her younger selves who were not looked after – the child who was not protected from sexual abuse and her teenage self who was shamed by her mother for her attraction towards women. She had come to therapy as a form of maintenance – a way to continue functioning and being useful to others. She began to see it as an act of kindness towards herself and a place she could be looked after. I started to consistently ask her about how she was looking after herself, and it was as though I gave her permission to think about that. She began to bring this into our sessions unprompted, connecting with her own needs and becoming kinder to herself as she did so.
Another client, Michael,* was in his mid-30s, gay and non-binary (his pronouns were he/him). I experienced Michael as a ‘good’ client – always on time for sessions, rarely cancelling, coming to sessions prepared in terms of what he wanted to talk about. I began to feel Michael was self-sufficient, doing the work outside of the therapy room and presenting me with the results. I shared this in a session and Michael burst into tears, saying that he felt in naming this I was giving him permission not to carry that burden anymore, and that this felt like a relief. We connected this with Michael’s mother not having time or mental energy for him when he was younger as she struggled with her health, and how Michael became a ‘good son’ so as not to be a burden to her. Michael did not come out to his parents for a long time because he feared their reaction; they had consistently made homophobic comments when he was younger. Michael realised he had internalised this shame and added it to the pile of things not to bother his mother with after his father left. As Michael began to see me as someone who could be trusted with his ‘mess’, he let himself come to sessions less prepared and shared half-formed ideas with me that we explored together. We identified that he could become his own supportive parent, meeting a need that was not met when he was a child, and that his inner child continued to feel the lack of.
When it comes to my own journey with kindness and shame, there are three main factors that have helped me move from a place of deep shame about my sexuality to utter joy and pride in it. First, I identified that the evangelical church I had been brought up in was not a safe place to be myself and I took the dramatic step of leaving it. It was a step towards loving myself, but meant losing a great deal in the short term. Much later, I began a relationship with an incredibly supportive person who kindly but firmly called me out on my self-criticism. She didn’t let me get away with putting myself down, and over time that has become something that I have internalised and can challenge for myself. The third factor has been therapy – warm and affirming therapists who have held up a mirror to my shame, allowed me to get in touch with needs that weren’t met growing up, and helped me to really believe that I am OK as I am – that I deserve kindness and can give that to myself.
To quote Pema Chödrön again, ending where we started: ‘Self-improvement can have temporary results, but lasting transformation occurs only when we honour ourselves as the source of wisdom and compassion.’1
*Clients’ names and identifiable details have been changed.
Next in this issue
1. Chödrön P. The places that scare you: a guide to fearlessness. London: HarperCollins Publishers; 2013.
2. Gilbert P. The compassionate mind. 3rd ed. London: Little, Brown; 2013.
3. Brown B. I thought it was just me (but it isn’t). New York: Penguin Random House; 2007.