Gay Men: Your Worth Already Exists (But You Might Need to Uncover It)
I once told my counsellor how I sometimes felt my self-worth was this tiny platform I was standing on, and that certain situations could just knock me off of it entirely.
She listened and nodded warmly in that typical counsellor way.
I continued on by saying that I felt like I needed to “build” a larger platform of self-worth so that I couldn’t be knocked off so easily.
I remember being so pleased with the analogy I’d just shared, and expecting her to agree and give me a pat on the back.
But something else happened which I’ll never forget.
She looked at me kindly, and very gently said “you know, I actually have a different view on that.”
… I was shocked.
She went on: “I don’t see self-worth as something to be built. I see worth as something you already have which can’t be taken away from you. It’s inherent. The task we have is to uncover it by sweeping away all the layers of ‘dust’ from our past. Because the ‘dust’ (society, upbringing etc.), has covered our worth and tricked us into believing we don’t have any.”
Again, I was speechless.
I cleared my throat and could only muster a “yes, that makes complete sense, I agree.”
But the truth is, that was a radical shift in thinking for me.
And I hope, it may be for you as well.
What I learned in that counselling session is the reason one of my core beliefs is that gay men have inherent worth and that we deserve to live fulfilling lives.
What is self-worth?
Out of all the “self-” words, I think self-worth is the most important for our wellbeing.
But what actually is self-worth? There are a lot of terms that sound similar and sometimes are used interchangeably, such as self-esteem, self-efficacy, self-compassion, self-acceptance, self-respect, self-confidence, self-love, self-care and even self-self (okay I made that last one up).
At it’s core, I think having a sense of self-worth means that you value yourself, and believe you’re worthy.
Worthy of what you might ask? It’s believing that you’re worthy of being treated with care, kindness, love and respect by other people, and yourself.
It’s also important to differentiate self-worth from self-esteem. I like the way that Dr. Christina Hibbert highlights this difference:
Self-esteem is what we think and feel and believe about ourselves. Self-worth is recognizing ‘I am greater than all of those things.’ It is a deep knowing that I am of value, that I am loveable, necessary to this life, and of incomprehensible worth.
Where does self-worth come from?
While I believe that we all have inherent worth, having a sense of that worth is another matter.
Our sense of our worth comes from how we’re treated by other people. This process starts at a very young age. As children, we’re like sponges for the information in our environment. This sponge-like quality is excellent for learning new things quickly. It means that children have an incredible capacity to absorb helpful information. Unfortunately, it also means children can easily absorb beliefs about themselves that are harmful to their wellbeing. In other words, internal filters and boundaries for receiving information don’t exist for children the same way it can for adults.
When a caregiver is sensitive to your needs, your emotions, and accepts who you are, this provides you with a framework for understanding that you have value and are worthy. The same goes for the overt, and subtle, messages we receive from other people, religions, institutions, and more broadly, society.
Maybe you see where I’m going with this for gay men. Defining the concept of self-worth, and understanding where it comes from, isn’t the challenge. Unsurprisingly, the challenge lies in how self-worth shows up for many gay men.
So how does self-worth show up for gay men?
I’ve worked with many gay men in counselling who experience a radical shift in their sense of self-worth that fills them with greater wisdom, clarity, and nourishment. But for a lot of gay men, they aren’t starting from a strong sense of self-worth when they begin to look at it more closely.
Why is this? Well, the straightforward answer is what was already mentioned above. We can internalize the harmful messages about ourselves, and gay men in general, and this then sets the bar for our sense of self-worth.
A low sense of self-worth can show up through your “inner critic.” This is the internal dialogue, or thoughts, you might have about yourself. These thoughts may be things like:
➡️ “I’m not good enough.”
➡️ “I’m trash/garbage.”
➡️ “I’m unlovable.”
➡️ “I’m bad/evil.”
➡️ “I’m unworthy.”
➡️ “I’m broken.”
➡️ “I’m too thin/too fat.”
➡️ “I’m stupid”
➡️ “I’m ugly.”
Even as I write this list of internal thoughts out that I see all too often, it still gives me pause to think about the gravity of how these types of thoughts can affect us.
While low self-worth can show up in these sorts of explicit thoughts, it’s also common for it to show up in behaviours, the overall way you feel, and how you behave toward yourself and other people. Some of these other signs of low self-worth can include:
➡️ Substance use issues
➡️ Body image issues / obsessing over diet and exercise
➡️ Getting into abusive / unhealthy relationships
How do I start uncovering my self-worth?
The secret to uncovering your self-worth lies in where your sense of self-worth originated: how you’ve been treated and the messages you’ve received.
This means changing the messages that you tell your adult and younger self. Depending on your specific challenges and history, you may find addressing the adult version of yourself, the younger version of yourself, or both, to be the most helpful.
In the counselling work I do with clients, I’ve seen that often times, the conversation we have with that younger version of ourselves can be the hardest. Yet, it’s usually also the most powerful way to start uncovering your inherent worth. You can think of it as a sort of reparenting: you’re holding up a loving mirror to that younger version of yourself and showing them their inherent worth.
When you haven’t been shown your worth before, it can be hard to know what this means, and how to do it. One place to start is the mindset you have when referring to yourself. A mindset of self-compassion is extremely useful here.
The word self-compassion can be off-putting to some gay men because they view it as self-pity or patting themselves on the back. But self-compassion is something deeper. Self-compassion, as Paul Gilbert puts it, is simply a sensitivity to our own suffering with a commitment to try to alleviate and prevent it. It means giving yourself the same level of compassion that you might give to someone else in your situation.
There are a few additional practices which will help you to start uncovering and increasing your sense of self-worth:
➡️ Positive affirmations.
➡️ Surrounding yourself with people, media, and writing that reflects your inherent worth back to you.
➡️ Counselling. Some of the interventions I use with clients include guided conversations with your younger self, and trauma processing interventions like EMDR.
I truly wish that an increased sense of self-worth was something that could be installed just like an app. But in reality, it’s not instant, and it takes some time. So if you’re frustrated with yourself for not being able to change instantly, know that it’s normal to feel this way. In fact, moments of frustration with yourself are also an excellent opportunity to practice some self-compassion (which then helps with increasing your sense of self-worth).
When you’re growing your sense of self-worth, you’re intentionally rewiring the neural pathways in your brain. It’s like walking off an old well-travelled path and carving out a new one. Over time, the old path will become overgrown and harder to travel as it gets used less, and the new path will become easier to walk the more it’s travelled.
So here’s my invitation to you. Try compassionately and curiously taking your first few steps toward uncovering your worth today. Will it be easy? Probably not. But will it be worth it? 100% yes. 🙂