September 17th 2017. 8am. Soho, London. I approach the building with trepidation. It’s too early to be up on a Sunday, especially when you’re not quite sure where you’re going. Especially when you were up too late the night before. Especially when you have to talk solidly for the next hour, in a logical way that makes some kind of sense. And you’ve paid for the privilege. There is no-one around. Soho is dead. I clutch my phone until Google tells me I’ve arrived and I find I’m standing in front of a grand Georgian townhouse, the kind I’ve seen a million times in London; the kind I’ve always wanted to look inside. The historian in me whirrs into action. Who lived here? What job did they do? Did scandals happen here? Love affairs? The past merges with the present as I imagine a young tutor in days gone by standing on this exact same step, reaching up to ring the bell about to begin work educating the children of the house. I too ring the bell and let out a deep breath. I feel like the imaginary tutor, unsure and trepidatious. I imagine we are quite similar, except he was here to teach and I am here to learn.
Inside, my therapist awaited me and I was to begin what would turn out to be a 10 month journey of discovery. I’d been to counselling before, for 12 months in 2008/9, but here I was 10 years later about to start again. The first time round had been after a relationship fell apart and took me with it. I’d needed help quickly and for longer than the 6 sessions the NHS had been able to offer, so I’d bitten the bullet and gone private. It had been quite the financial sacrifice but it was “investing in me”. The therapist was good. I was amazed by her ability to listen and remember, and by her kindness. It took me a while to adjust to the quiet coldness that descended each week as I handed over the cheque at the end of the session. I wanted to fill the space with small-talk – find out who she was, ask what she was doing for the rest of the day, comment on how tasteful the furniture in her therapy room was – but she was a professional, not my friend, and once the hour was up, the time for talking was over. I got used to this, eventually. Over the course of almost a year, she helped me out of a very difficult spot, enabling me to adjust to being a single gay man in London. I left feeling more confident, although I couldn’t pinpoint specifically anything I’d learnt. There existed more a general feeling of her having helped me to survive a tough time.
Back to September 17th. 10 years after my first therapy journey, I was back. This time with a different therapist. Why? Had it not worked the first time? Well, yes and no. I was angry. Thoughts that I couldn’t turn off were churning in my head. I was frustrated with the world. Things in life were not happening the way they were supposed to. Nothing seemed fair. These were different feelings from the first time, when I was simply falling apart at the seams. But I recognised that though the symptoms were different, the underlying cause was the same. The real reason I needed help was because of an almost non-existent understanding of my own self-worth.
In the 10 years since my first foray into therapy (and in my life before then), I’d achieved a lot. In my objective, getting-out-of-the-swirling-thoughts-in-my-mind moments, I could see and appreciate that. Fleetingly. For brief moments I could appreciate that I’d learned to play the piano and speak French; appreciate that I had sung on many occasions in many fabulous locations with the London Gay Men’s Chorus; appreciate that I had written successful shows for the Edinburgh Festival; appreciate that I wrote a blog that some people said they liked; appreciate that parents and children said I was a good teacher; appreciate that I had made a life for myself in London at a time when it seemed all was lost. But those moments were all too brief. Appreciation isn’t believing. Most of the time, I just saw failure.
And so this became the unspoken focus of my second course of therapy: to make Richard believe in himself.
We worked at it in our weekly Sunday morning sessions for almost a year. Like the first time I went to therapy, I talked. Like the first time, the therapist listened, reflected things back and offered no direct advice. And like the first time, I learnt things. Important things about myself. The underlying aim of the therapy, which only became clear as the layers of symptoms were peeled away, was to increase my feeling of self-worth. It turned out that for my entire life I had never felt I was good enough for anyone. Ever. It turned out that this was the cause of my frustration, anger and unhappiness. I’d hidden behind perfectionism since childhood in order to avoid standing out, meaning I’d never dared to make mistakes. I’d worked hard to achieve things (all of them good things, like playing the piano and writing) without realising that my real self-worth lay in myself and who I was, regardless of what I could or couldn’t do, what I had or hadn’t achieved.
In all honesty, I didn’t need therapy to tell me I’d never felt good enough. You can’t go through 30+ years of life feeling like that without knowing it. It permeates every hour of your waking day. It rears its ugly head at the time of your greatest failures and your greatest successes. It’s an invisible, coiling boa constrictor that crushes your talents and achievements into dust, but in a way only you can see. You know it exists; you don’t need therapy to tell you it’s there.
What you might need therapy for is to help you learn how to deal with it. Or, at least, to start to deal with it. A deep-seated lack of self-worth is not something you sort out over night (or even over several months). But a change of mindset helps to make a start. A lot of my feelings of low self-worth come from within. Sure, there have been times in my life when other people have contributed to those feelings, directly or indirectly, which hurts and needs dealing with, but ultimately I can’t control what other people say and do; I can only control what I say and do. And in the context of self-worth, what is especially important is what I say and do to myself.
I realised the importance of this as my therapy stretched into July. Determined to come away from counselling this time with practical learning points I could work on, I arrived at a session one Sunday morning and summarised off the top of my head three things I had learnt over the course of the previous few months. It turned out that they were three ways in which I could change my mindset to start the process of building my self-worth. They were simple (almost too simple if I stopped to think how much I’d paid to learn them) but in reality they were priceless. Here they are in their almost ridiculous simplicity.
GET RID OF SHOULD: Should, if we’re not careful, can take over our lives. It ruled mine for years. I should go to church. I should be better at playing the piano. I should like girls. A heavy, oppressive sense of obligation (I should) pushed the real me deep into the background, my true personality receding as I tried to live up to what I thought others expected of me, rather than what I wanted to do and be. My life was dominated by a desire to do the right thing and please others and I never really understood that in my life it is me who gets to decide what I do and how I act, and, most importantly, I never really understood that that is the only way to feel happy. I decided there and then in that therapy session that if I wanted to realise my own self-worth, I had to change the language I used. Rather than saying I should, with its weighty sense of obligation and guilt, I would say I want to or, most significantly, I don’t want to. It might sound like semantics, but I want/don’t want puts me in charge, should keeps me in the background, an unknown force of obligation directing my life. If I want to feel my own self-worth, I need to be in charge.
YOU HAVEN’T DONE ANYTHING WRONG: I have never murdered anyone. I have never pushed a little old lady over in the street. I have committed no heinous crime. Nothing I have ever done means I deserve to feel as bad about myself as I have most of my life. Even the things I have done wrong – and there have been many lies, selfish acts and misjudged words in 40 years – even they do not mean that I deserve to feel so bad about myself. Nobody is perfect. I, however, have held myself to an ideal of perfection so high it can never be reached. Taking the almost ridiculously simple step of looking in the mirror – metaphorical or real – and saying, “You don’t deserve to feel bad about yourself” was perhaps the most important – and powerful – thing I learnt in the whole course of therapy.
BE KIND TO YOURSELF: I can be so unkind to myself. I can set expectations so high they are out of God’s reach and then beat myself up for not achieving them. I can feel anxiety in situations even the most confident of people would shy away from and then criticise myself for not being confident enough. I can have the patience of a saint with schoolchildren, nephews and nieces, friends in crisis, but pull myself to pieces when I don’t do something perfectly the first time or don’t solve a problem in an instant. That is unfair. I wouldn’t dream of treating anyone else the same way. I actually spend my life educating against such behaviour and yet I don’t practise what I preach. Realising the importance of cutting myself some slack was the final piece of the self-worth jigsaw for me, and the beginning of the journey.
And there you have it: the three things I learnt in my most recent bout of therapy. It’s taken me quite a while to get round to writing them down in a post (I actually started writing about a year ago). I’m not sure exactly why it took so long. It’s partly because I didn’t want to sound pretentious and arrogant, as if I had the answers to anyone else’s problems. And it’s partly because the three things I learnt are not magic bullets and have not solved all of my problems. Whatever the reason, I’ve done it and you’ve read it. Maybe you too sometimes feel a lack of self-worth, forgetting how wonderful you are and how much you deserve to feel happy. If you do, I hope this post and the lessons I learnt in therapy have been useful. Maybe one or more of the lessons resonates and you can try them too. Or maybe you have realised that going to a therapist would be a good step for you. Whatever your situation, I wish you well on your journey. You are wonderful and deserve happiness.
July 30th 2018. 3pm. Soho, London. I walk out of the front door of the beautifully-restored Georgian townhouse on Broadwick Street and let it close behind me with a thud. The sun is shining and the street is bustling. It’s a bit of a shock; I’m not used to coming out of this door to find other people around. I pause for a minute, taking in the sights and sounds, and let the sun warm my face. A family of tourists wanders past, looking me up and down with an air of curious incredulity, perhaps wondering why this tall, unshaven man in T-shirt and denim shorts is emerging from this grand building that appears to house trendy, expensive-looking offices. I let them and their curiosity pass and take one last look at the door behind me. I smile, step off the flagstones that lie in front of the door and walk into my future.