Shame, Fear and My Search for Self - Pretish Raja-Helm's Contemporary Psychotherapy Article
We realised that we forgot to post Pretish's Contemporary Psychotherapy Article: Shame, Fear and My Search for Self published in last summer's edition.
Using his own experience as a British-Indian, Hindu, gay man, Pretish explores the complex and frequently painful way in which our identities are formed, and charts his own journey towards self-acceptance.
When I think about who I am and how my identity has evolved, I can easily say that it is a vast, complex and fluid topic. What I hope to share in this piece of writing are thoughts and reflections that have stood out to me from my personal process. I identify as a British-Indian, Hindu, gay man. I will use these ‘loose’ labels to thread together the different aspects of my experience, with the aim of giving a frame to an area where there is so much to be explored.
Much has been said about the various difficulties the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgendered and Queer (LGBTQ+) community have experienced over the years, but so little has been written about these immense difficulties in the first person by a therapist, with a similar background to mine. I can only speak from my experience and do not represent all Indian, Hindu gay men or the gay community. But I do hope to give a voice to the part of the LGBTQ+ community that feels silent to me. Which raises the question: why is it silent?
Reflecting with my LGBTQ+ peers and writing about my sexuality in this article, a sense of shame and internal struggle became apparent. After years of therapy and self-development, shame still sits within me, intertwined with a fear of judgment. These feelings almost prevented me from writing this article, but then I realised the very reason I wanted to write the article was to give voice to the experience of shame, fear and the construction of a robust false self which was, and is, inherent to my experience of being a British-Indian, Hindu, gay man.
Those belonging to the LGBTQ+ community can carry an immense sense of shame throughout childhood, adolescence and, at times, some or all of adulthood. The effect of carrying this shame can result in complex issues and behaviours being formed (eg addictions), hiding in secrecy, unable to disclose who we really are, to name a few. As we age, these defences or ‘covers’, as K. Yoshiko (2006) puts it, strengthen, and we can lose who we really are under the weight of these covers.
My journey has been to look at and recognise these covers, to find out who I really am, to break through the shame. Understanding the complex weave of these covers has enabled me to ‘uncover’: it has been a journey of empowerment. My hope is that reading this article will provoke thoughtfulness and curiosity in others, no matter what their background or sexual orientation. If you are a counsellor or psychotherapist working with diverse groups, I hope to offer you another perspective to work with.
From the age of five, I started to notice how I felt different to others around me. These feelings were not just to do with what could be seen, like the shade of my skin or the sound of my voice, but something deep and invisible, and known only to me. I knew that, in me, I had these feelings, and for some reason they were forbidden. It was a torturous secret that my young mind could not even begin to understand. I carried a sense of being different, which was heightened because it was connected to some of the most taboo and despised images, not only in my culture at home in the UK, but also within Indian culture and the wider world.
Growing up in the 1980s, HIV was heavily in the media, spoken of as the ‘gay disease’; homophobia was rife, and any whiff of ‘gayness’ was ridiculed. Until 2001, the legal age of sexual consent for homosexuals was 18, differing from 16 for heterosexuals. It was therefore illegal to explore one’s sexuality before the age of 18. Transgender individuals were granted the right to change their legal gender in 2005, and homosexual marriage was only legalised in 2014. Both the media message and legal restrictions instilled fear and shame in me, and pushed me into silence and hiding.
Being raised in a British-Indian home added to these feelings, as men traditionally marry women and often our partners are chosen for us, to some degree, by family members. I had witnessed the severe consequences for close relations who married out of caste; what would be my fate, a gay man wanting to marry a man? The anxiety within me grew and I became more and more frightened to talk about it.
Fitting in: The Development of a False Self
I identify as a practicing Hindu and religious and mystical celebrations were a significant part of my childhood, for example, the festival of Holi, the stories of the Bhagwat Geeta, and daily prayers with my grandmother in the temple we created at home. I was raised to feel the importance of faith, culture and community, and that family was central to our lives. I was taught to place the family’s needs beyond my own and that the needs of my elders surpassed mine. How was I to break these traditions and put my needs beyond or before those of my family? Intense feelings of guilt, shame and fear further occupied me: who am I, if I am not a part of this unit? I felt I would be abandoning all that I had been taught, and no one had dared to do so before.
My cultural difference was reflected by my parents and other relatives to some degree, but with my sexuality there was no one to mirror my experience. In fact, I felt blamed or rejected for not being like everyone else. These experiences, compounded by my cultural values, left me with a weak sense of self. I faced isolation, loneliness and deep shame. It was, at times, too much to endure, and I often suffered in silence, worried I would be found out. I lived in fear that the people I loved most would abandon me as a result of what they had been conditioned to believe.
Meyer and Dean (1998:161) describe internalised homophobia as “the gay person’s direction of negative social attitudes towards the self, leading to the devaluation of the self and resulting in internal conflicts and poor self regard”. My feelings of difference relating to being gay were far too complex for me or any young child to process and make sense of, especially when coupled with external homophobic attacks. As a result, I kept a distance from others, couldn’t deal with the alienation, felt rejected, and rejected others as I rejected myself. As time passed, I internalised these attacks and developed a strong internal critic. Over time, my internalised homophobia grew powerful, compounding my feelings of anxiety and low self worth.
Winnicott (1965) makes a distinction between a true self and a false self, which can describe the uncovered and covered selves I referred to earlier. The true self gives a feeling of being real and whole (Winnicott, 1971). When we are not layered, we can relate to ourselves and others authentically. The false self, in contrast, gives a sense of being unreal, a sense of futility. It negotiates the relationship between the true self and the world. The reality is that we need the false self to protect us from the judgments and challenges of the world; it is when the false self takes centre stage, however, that we lose who we really are. We can hide so deeply in these layers that our true identity becomes buried beneath them. I longed for acceptance and to fit in, but at what cost?
As a young gay man, I found myself stepping out into the London LGBTQ+ scene alone. It was frightening and exciting, and a place where I felt my latent adolescence came charging through. It became a space to explore and play, but under it all, I longed to fit in. Again, I found myself developing covers. Which one would I ‘put on’? Twink, Vauxhall Muscle Boy or an East London hipster, to name a few? I tried once again to shape my uniqueness to adapt and fit into the images that were out there. I felt I had taken a big step forward in coming out, but I still had so far to go. I tried on the different images, but nothing felt right. I asked myself: if none of them fit, who am I?
I lived life inauthentically with all the destructive soothing behaviours that came with this, desperately trying to relieve my anxiety. The challenging feelings I experienced led me to get attached to behaving in ways that ultimately isolated me more, and took me to a place that I struggled to escape from. You might wonder, why did I choose these destructive, harmful behaviours? It was everything I saw, or unconsciously chose to see, in the London scene, reflected in the mirrors of the media; it was what I felt I ‘should’ be doing. I quickly found myself caught in dangerous cycles. I only had to look around at the community that I belonged to, to see so many individuals struggling with their identities, with social and familial rejection, unable to love or be loved authentically, all masking their pain in some way. I finally belonged, but to what?
Nurturing my Inner Child Child
Around the age of 29, my therapeutic journey began. I began to understand how I became the man I was underneath the various covers I had put on to survive, and healthier relationships entered my life. It was through these loving, accepting relationships that I was able to start breaking my destructive rhythms. My default patterns were strong, but there was enough space now to reflect and breathe into something new. Through these more secure attachments and through feeling accepted for who I was, I found some peace, but not without my wounds.
I reached this understanding after discussing the early stages of this article with fellow LGBTQ+ therapists, and realising that our processes towards healing felt similar. Our experiences resonated with the narrative of Alice Miller (2011), who writes of the importance of offering the inner child love, compassion, acceptance, safety, and a lack of judgment; letting them grow as if the rest of the world did the same. It was a process of telling my story and having it heard, valued and met with authenticity.
Carl Rogers (1961) prefaces a chapter about genuineness with Soren Kierkegaard’s (1849) words: ‘to be that self which truly is’. In my experience, a genuine and authentic person deeply lives as they are. They are open and accepting of themselves. In dropping some of my toxic covers, I began to identify who I really was when I was not conforming or being told how to be. I began to feel my light, my shadow, and all that is in between, without judgment. I noticed how my internal critic softened.
Petruska Clarkson (2014) writes about the importance of accepting and celebrating our multidimensional wholeness, and how this enables us to feel our individual richness and to integrate the diverse aspects of ourselves. I started to feel more whole than I had ever done before and my need to be destructive lessened. My bonds with others strengthened, as did my sense of my internal world. I felt less fragmented.
Softer Armouring, Empowerment and a Truer Self
With my various therapists and in my training, I learned how to lower my defences and to trust. I also learned how important these defences are. We need our armour, we need resilience and robustness. That’s why we retain the defences of the false self: the world can be a judgmental, critical and non-accepting place. But finding fluidity between false self and true self enables us to feel more authentic within ourselves and with others. The path is not to let the false self dominate the true self, but to allow the false self to be a help, rather than a hindrance.
I believe the core of my healing was that I was met with love, non-judgment and compassion for my unique story. I began to internalise this love and defuse the harshness of my internal world. Along with this came peace, and the ability to secure further healthier attachments with others. I began to negotiate a less anxious place in the world, in which I could respect parts of my Indian, Hindu identity and still exist as a gay man exploring my sexuality. I could be an individual as well as a member of my strong family unit.
My journey of searching for an authentic self continues to be an important part of my personal work. The more I identify the true characters at play inside me and give them the space and voices they deserve, the more whole I feel. My experience has also shown me that this is not a linear process, nor does it have an end. The more I discover and manage to work with my false self and soften those harsh inner voices, the more I feel there is space for something new and enriching to exist within me.
My hope is that in reading this, you can appreciate the complexities and difficult negotiations in the development of our identities, and the challenges we can face when working towards a more integrated, truer sense of self.
Clarkson, P. (2014). Gestalt Counselling in Action. London: Sage Publications. Miller, A. (2011). The Dream of Being a Child: The Search for the True Self. London: Virago. Meyer, I and Dean, L. (1998). Stigma and Sexual Orientation. California: Sage Publications. Rogers, C. (1961). On Becoming a Person. Boston: Houghton Mifflin. Winnicott, D.W. (1965). The Maturational Processes and the Facilitating Environment: Studies in the Theory of Emotional Development. New York: International University Press. Winnicott, D.W. (1971). Playing and Reality. New York: Routledge. Yoshino, K. (2006). Covering: The Hidden Assault on our Civil Rights. New York: Random House.