Jeremy Ortman, Lighthouse therapist and the Clinical Director of Real Talk Therapy, explains why perfectionism plagues the gay community, and how to deal with it.
Perfectionism is a collective struggle for the gay community. While LGBTQ rights have come a long way over the last five years, generations of gay people were born into a world where being gay was severely stigmatized. At various points throughout history, being gay has been considered deviant, sinful, a mental illness, and in many places, criminal. Even for those who grew up in a more “accepting” time or community, the word gay was often still synonymous with gross, lame, uncool, strange, or freakish.
In The Velvet Rage: Overcoming the Pain of Growing Up Gay in a Straight Man’s World, author Alan Down argues that shame is the byproduct of growing up gay in a heteronormative world. The discrimination gay children experience interferes with a healthy development of self-worth. Scrutinized by loved ones and subjected to homophobic messages through mass media, this barrage of invalidation causes self-doubt as to whether you measure up. This internalized shame can lead to a belief that something is inherently wrong with you. To overcome the threat of isolation, some gay men become determined to prove themselves against traditional standards of success. If this urge goes unchecked, perfectionism can dominate your life.
Never Good Enough: the Perils of Perfection
Ambition is healthy. However, if your will to succeed is powered by a belief that you’re not good enough, it could lead to a crash when life throws you too many curveballs. Because perfection is either unattainable or unsustainable, the endless cycle of proving yourself leads to self-defeating behavior. Deep down, perfectionists are convinced there is something fundamentally wrong with them, and no level of praise or success will change that. You may accomplish a great deal, but you rarely take pleasure in a sense of satisfaction and reward for hard work.
Striving for success is healthy, but if you are driven by an underlying belief that you will never be good enough, it can lead to a massive crash when you fail to measure up. If you can’t maintain the constant demands of achievement, perfectionism can contribute to anxiety and depression. Often hiding underneath the mask of perfection is someone who is feeling alone, helpless, and fearful of being discovered as an imposter and rejected by family, peers, and coworkers. To cope, some turn to substances, disordered eating, or excessive exercise. These may numb shame temporarily, but they’re not long-term solutions.
The Vulnerability Armor
The closet trains gay men to obscure parts of themselves that are deemed unacceptable. Even after coming out, some gay men are conditioned to continue hiding “undesirable” parts of their personality. Since intimacy is established through vulnerability, it can be difficult to let your guard down with someone fixated on being flawless. A rigidness to show only your best side interferes with the development of a deepening connection. To reveal fragile parts of yourself can be challenging for gay men trained in the art of self-editing, but hiding them from a partner can leave you feeling isolated and unseen.
A satisfying romantic and/or sexual connection doesn’t come from two perfect people showing off for one another. Without the ability to appreciate life between the extremes of outright success or total failure, perfectionists can sap a relationship of its spontaneity, passion, and mutual respect.
The Cost of Being Picture Perfect
In order to avoid the shame of not being good enough, gay people often assess themselves with comparisons to peers. Downloading a hookup app can be fraught with questions of, “Does my body measure up?” “Am I successful enough?” “Am I masculine enough?” The desire to have a higher income, have more sexual conquests, or be more Insta-famous can be viewed as the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. The myth is that once this is achieved, you’ll receive acceptance. But once people gain access to the “Flawless Club,” they are sorely disappointed by how isolated and empty it feels — not to mention how exhausting it is to keep up with the competition.
Don’t Break, Bend.
I work with clients to explore the benefits and consequences of perfectionism. We do reality checks by exploring what failure actually looks like. We consider scenarios — best, worst, most likely — to replace distorted thoughts with more realistic ones. When you desperately avoid failure, you give it more control over your life than it would otherwise have. It sounds counterintuitive, but I encourage my clients to lean into failure. When it happens, ask: “Do people actually think less of me?”
I want clients to understand they’re lovable for who they are, not what they accomplish. Some gay men will ask whether this is just lowering standards, but you can maintain a commitment to your goals while being flexible in your approach. Success in life isn’t about doing everything right — that’s impossible. It’s about bending instead of breaking and accepting yourself for who you are. Once you get there, you may find that the happiness you’ve been looking for has been within reach the whole time.
While perfectionism and its risks are not unique to gay men, experiences unique to gay life contribute to and amplify the risks this mentality engenders. Be compassionate in your self-talk. Instead of asking yourself how can you achieve more today, ask yourself how you can be kinder to yourself today.