A lot of my friends tell me that I am a perfectionist, and that it can be a turn-off. It is true that I have very high standards for myself and that I probably work too much. My friends are much more chill. They all also happen to be straight. Is this a gay thing?
Getting Tired in Toronto
Dear Getting Tired in Toronto,
Being perfect is one way to manage being an outsider in your own family, school, city, or country. Feeling like an outsider is a pretty typical experience for young gay people. And too often they can also feel like they are gross, disgusting, or sick. It can be quite humiliating to grow up gay.
Look under the surface of “out and proud” gay men and you’ll frequently find these old tapes lurking inside, running in the background. Here’s what gay perfectionism looks like for men I’ve worked with. All their names have been changed. Do any of these feel familiar to you?
• Arturo believes his marriage needs to be perfect in order to survive. He thinks that because he and his husband don’t have kids there will be no pressure to stay together if they hit a rough spot. Or if the sex isn’t mind-blowing, he worries his husband will want to open up the relationship and that will ruin it.
• Kai believes he must reply to every email and text from colleagues and friends within 10 minutes or he’ll lose his job or his friends will dump him. He checks his phone at all times, even in therapy sessions.
• Joshua goes to the gym every day to maintain his perfect body. When he occasionally misses a day he becomes anxious that he’ll never find love. When he misses two days, he gets depressed.
• Sanjay is constantly productive. Not a second is wasted. When he showers, he brushes his teeth and does his physical therapy exercises. He over-prepares for routine business meetings.
All these men started therapy with complaints of being tired and unhappy, even though their lives looked great on the outside. As we uncovered a few layers, each man came to see what drove his need to be perfect: to manage the unconscious shame that comes from growing up in a world that found them pathetic for being gay.
It’s there, even when you don’t know it’s there.
How did these men recover and bring more relaxation and joy into their lives? Their first step was to acknowledge that they had bought into the false teaching of their culture. They discovered that they believed the cultural myths that feminine qualities in men are bad, that gay sex is dirty, that men can’t be trusted, or that being straight is best.
Their second step was to feel some righteous anger about these cultural teachings and their destructiveness. They felt empowered by their anger.
Their third step was to affirm that while they wanted relief from their perfectionism, it had brought them some good things in life. It allowed them to survive middle school or a homophobic parent. Or it gave them financial security. This realization allowed them to be more compassionate with themselves. It avoided the common trap of beating themselves up for being mean to themselves.
Their fourth step was to experiment with being just a little less perfect and to observe what happened. Here’s what happened:
Kai tried slowing down his text responses by 5 percent and noticed that his friends still liked hanging out with him. So then he slowed down another 5 percent and the same thing happened: nothing.
Arturo began asking his husband for “boring sex” just to make a joke about it and to relieve the pressure. Now it’s something they laugh about.
When Joshua noticed he was getting stressed about not working out every day he let his heart break a little for his 10-year-old self that was tortured in gym class. He felt compassion for that adorable little boy and smiled gently at him in his mind.
Sanjay is still multitasking and working too much, but he has started to get curious about his own thoughts, and that’s the most important first step.
Perfectionism is a defense. It’s there to ensure that you are loved and safe. The good news is that you can be loved and safe and also be really imperfect.
ADAM D. BLUM, MFT, is a licensed psychotherapist and the founder of the Gay Therapy Center, which specializes in relationship and self-esteem issues for LGBTQ people. The center offers services in its San Francisco, New York, and Los Angeles offices, or by Skype and phone worldwide. Visit its website to subscribe to its e-newsletter and free e-class on building a better relationship with yourself. Follow the Center on Facebook and read its blog. Email Adam your questions for possible publication. (Questions may be edited.)