Be Yourself, So the Right People Will Love You
This is a true story. The names have not been changed to deconstruct shame and to empower radical self-acceptance.
When I was about five years old, I realized that I was attracted to other little girls, and I was also aware of the fact that I didn't want to be a little girl. I hated wearing dresses; I loved wearing pants. I didn't like playing with dolls; I liked playing with GI Joes and guns. And my favorite activity was sharpening popsicle sticks on the sidewalk and stabbing little girls with them.
I noticed that other little girls didn’t behave this way. And so, at a very young age, I felt that there was something wrong with me, that I was defective – like God made a mistake and put me in the wrong body. And I began to internalize the message that if anyone ever found out who I really was, I would never be loved or accepted. Quite a burden for such a young being.
I knew I couldn't talk to my parents about this. I grew up in a family that barely communicated. We mostly spent time doing things together or for each other and that was our way of showing love. I was taken care of materially but not emotionally. I didn't know how to express what I felt. I just knew I was scared.
And the belief that there was something wrong continued. I would go to birthday parties of classmates, and kids would come up to me and ask, “Are you a boy or girl? Are you a boy or a girl?” I didn't know how to respond. I felt a lot of shame. I knew that I was a girl, but I didn't feel like a girl. It was just really confusing. And then puberty hit. I felt like I had been able get away with being a tomboy, but then I started to develop. I was like: “What's happening?”
I didn’t know how I was going to live in a body that did not reflect how I felt inside. My main coping strategy was to just be a good kid. I told myself to just be whoever everyone else wants me to be and do what they want me to do. I tried to meet my parents' expectations about being the perfect Asian child: getting straight A's, being a great athlete and playing the piano. I couldn't have other feelings like sadness or anger; I only showed the good side and completely suppressed everything else. Moreover, my folks believed that to survive in this country, I needed to assimilate into white culture and forego my own heritage, which reinforced the sense of something being wrong with me.
This pattern continued when I started being in relationships. I had my first relationship with a woman when I was 19 and again it was like, “who do you want me to be?” I never felt like I could be true to myself. After multiple, serial, monogamous relationships, I realized that the common denominator in all these relationships was me.
I finally realized that I needed to stop and focus on understanding who I was, rather than trying to find happiness outside of myself, especially in someone to complete or validate me.
The person I needed to be in relationship with… was me.
A dear friend recommended that I come with her to a class with Tara Brach, a local meditation teacher. Tara’s teachings on compassion and self-acceptance were what I needed to hear to break the trance of believing that I was defective. It was at my first weekend retreat that I finally sat with and acknowledged all the self-criticism and lack of esteem I had experienced all of my life and how it impacted my body, heart, and mind. I had suffered for so long but now had found a path to liberate myself from that suffering.
Over time, something deeply shifted in me. I loved being with myself and eventually trusted that if I wasn’t in a relationship, I would be ok. And if I did have another relationship, it would be the icing on the cake and not the cake anymore.
And then, just a few months later, I met a woman after answering her personal ad in the gay paper. We’ve been together 19 years since.
What was interesting about finding Wendy at that juncture is that it was the first time that I was actually clear about who I was and what I wanted from a relationship.
In the past, I shortened relationships because I felt that if I stayed too long, my partner would find out who I was and leave me. Yet with Wendy, I discovered what it was like to risk being fully known by someone. When I was able to find the courage and trust, I told her all the things that I had been afraid to share with anyone else only to find that she accepted me and loved all of me. I never imagined anyone would ever do that. It was and continues to be one of the biggest gifts and biggest healings of my life.
Through the practice of being aware of my internalized stories and having compassion for my younger self’s struggle for survival, I was able to take refuge in my own innate goodness, to find the courage to love, accept, and be all of who I am, and to be open to receive the love that was always there for me. My advice: Be yourself so the right people will love you.
Lama Rod Owens is a Buddhist lama in the Kagyu school of Tibetan Buddhism. He holds an M.Div from Harvard Divinity School and is the author of Love and Rage: The Path of Liberation Through Anger.