Inspiration for Therapy Work: Alan Downs’ Book The Velvet Rage

Seen as a Bible for understanding the hurts and challenges of growing up gay, Alan Downs’s, „The Velvet Rage: Overcoming the Pain of Growing Up Gay in a Straight Man’s World“, is a deeply insightful and useful book for many of us in the LGBTQ+ community.  There’s so much I would like to say about his book but here I want to focus on aspects that can be helpful in psychotherapy work.
In the first part of the book, Alan looks at the results of the pain and deep shame involved in growing up as a gay boy and later man in a patriarchal culture. I warn my clients when they read the book that this entire first section  rightfully triggers a lot of sadness in readers. In the second half of his book, he gives some clear advice to people who recognise the described patterns in themselves. One key piece of advice is headlined „Contentment over approval“ and I’d like to explain some of this later as it is key for therapy work. Before that, I’d like to describe Alan Downs‘ useful three part model for the prototypical development of gay men, which could be widened to apply to many of us in the LGBTQ+ community. The model focuses on supporting us to understand the difficulties we may have using our genuine feelings to navigate life.

The Escape from Shame

In the first part, of the model, he describes the experiences of deep shaming that occur in childhood that lead to parts of the true Self being exiled, suppressed, sometimes banned even from consciousness. In the second part, he describes a psychological adjustment to this process led by the question “Well, what do I need to do around here in order to be accepted and loved?” The responses to this question become the compensation mechanisms that help us get through life with a belief that we are valuable enough to be included in our community. This is a survival-mechanism: It is hard-wired into us as human-beings to ensure we are not ostracised because it can jeopardise our well-being so much to be isolated.
Over the course of many years or decades, we can become so identified with our compensation mechanisms that we may confuse them with our selves. In “The Velvet Rage” we read descriptions of gay men as sometimes being stuck emotionally in a perpetual adolescence of people-pleasing, sometimes very alienated from our own wishes, needs and longings. He writes: “The acquisition of validation is so rewarding that we become validation junkies. The more we get, the more we crave it, the better we feel and the harder it becomes for us to tolerate invalidation…. Explore the finest of anything in this world and you will always find gay men clustered around the helm…. In fact, in our rush to achieve validation, we run roughshod over the subtleties that lie within us, and choose instead to grab the nearest and brightest flag that will draw the attention and, hopefully, validation of the world around us.” The survival-mechanism of approval-seeking can alienate us so much from ourselves that even once we are in environments later in life where acceptance might be possible, we are so rehearsed in doing what others expect that we are clueless about our own needs.

Contentment over Approval

The solution is in the third part of the model and can be headlined „Contentment over Approval“. This phase involves reorienting ourselves towards our own feelings, needs and longings, towards what Alan called the „subtleties that lie within us“. In this phase of development we are invited to ask ourselves the questions: “How am I? How am I really doing? How do I feel deep down about this? What do I want and need?” And particularly with respect to approval seeking, we might ask “What is this impulse connected to? When I have done this, how do I anticipate feeling? Do I think I will be more at ease, contented or happy?”

How can psychotherapy help?

We are trained to help you slow down your experience of your internal life and separate out the different things that drive you: various internal patterns including your emotions, body feelings, thoughts, impulses and the stories behind these. The important first part of therapy work is generally developing greater awareness of what is going on within you and learning to respect its origins and attempts to steer you towards health even though this may no longer serve you well and may now even be damaging. The second important part of therapy is the establishment of a long-term project guided from a fuller adult, healthy perspective that is finely-tuned to what is genuinely joyful and fulfilling and helps you feel connected and centred in life. This phase of therapy involves a consistent and loving recalibration towards a self-attunement that we could call your life-compass.
It is my mission to help members of the LGBTQ+ community to lead healthier and more balanced lives by freeing their authentic selves from their automatic patterns. Get in touch if you would like to ask more about how we might work together on this.

Respect your body

Alan Downs nuggets of advice include an acknowledgment of the pressure many gay men feel to embody masculine perfection. He writes: “The body image issues of gay men are wildly out of control. We have objectified the male physique to that point that many feel that they aren’t worthy of relationship with another man unless they have at least tried to improve their bodies. We see sex as something of a beauty pageant and less an intimate connection of lovemaking. In short, it’s all about the body.”
This may seem obvious but your body is the thing that enables you to live, breathe, feel, think, love and to experience everything that becomes your life. But in the gay community we are very used to a perspective on the body that sees it as a commodity in the marketplace. When anyone says “He’s got a great body”, this is not generally intended as a compliment on well-functioning lungs, a heart that is likely to beat for 80 or more years or knees that still function well into later decades of life even while climbing stairs. If one of your main connections to your fellow gay men is through apps that tend to emphasise visuals, your brain may inadvertently have been trained to assess every man you see according to his value in the market place of grindr. Personally I don’t see the objectification of the body itself as the problem. The body is an object for the outside world and in a world of reflective surfaces and photography, we will never get away from an external perspective on the body. I see the problem as primarily the reduction of the body to this external function.

Beyond objectification of the body

It is possible to move beyond this. We can enhance our connection to the body from the inside. We can learn to appreciate rather than constantly criticise our bodies for all they do and we can learn to lovingly befriend aspects of our physical appearance that we may not automatically like. In sex, we can learn to pay attention to more senses than just sight. We can learn to deepen our connection to ourselves and others and appreciate other human beings for many other things that can be attractive about them including their internal lives and values.

How can psychotherapy help?

The therapeutic encounter is a unique opportunity to explore who you are from the inside. It is an invitation to benefit from a relationship in which it is not your surface self that is decisive but instead your development of authentic connection to your deeper self. Experiencing this in depth with your therapist has the potential to enrich your relationships to others including romantic partners. In the therapy room, we give you our full attention, reflect with you deeply on who you are in such a way that you develop a fuller appreciation of the unique human being you are. Together we seek fuller perspectives, understand how your stories about your identity are weaved into your life and seek to respect more of the resilient person you already are and your potential as a human being ready to thrive and experience greater meaning and love in this world.
It is my mission to help members of the LGBTQ+ community to lead healthier and more balanced lives by freeing their authentic selves from their automatic patterns. Get in touch if you would like to ask more about how we might work together on this.