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‘Should I Give Up on Trying to Make My Family Accept Me?’

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Dear Polly,

Recently I tried to discuss the option of coming out to my grandfather with my sisters. They were supportive at first. They called a day later, together, to tell me that after thinking about it and discussing it, they think it is a bad idea. They told me that they think it will go down a worst-case-scenario route. Our grandpa is a preacher in the South. They have heard him speak disparagingly about the LGBTQ community. My mother, they said, would also pitch a fit. She does not want me to come out to anyone in my extended family or hometown.

They also let me know that if I did tell my grandpa, they would have to step away, because of the drama it would cause. One of my sisters is pregnant. I understand that she has a right to be selfish right now. They say they have tried to advocate for me to my parents, and that me rocking the boat again by telling Grandpa is too soon, and will be too much for them to handle. They say I need to be patient and let everyone have time.

I know I need to dig deep to understand why I want to continue coming out to folks who I know won’t be receptive, or who aren’t ready. I know it’s possible that I’m motivated in part by the feeling of acceptance I crave, and I’m probably trying to alleviate the pain I feel in knowing I’m only partially accepted. I want to be able to be myself fully. I can’t endure another Christmas where I can only smile and say small white lies or half-truths about my life. Even before I had come out to, well, myself, I was a fierce advocate. As a teenager, I would yell and fight, but as an adult I learned, mostly, how to advocate more gently, so that folks might actually listen. Now, because it is me who needs the advocating, I don’t know how to have a voice. I want to scream, and stomp, and storm — that they are my family and they promised to love me unconditionally and they broke that promise. I also want to hide, become small, and have them open their arms and tell me that they are sorry and they understand that it’s not my fault. I want to get on my knees and beg forgiveness and say that I know that my coming out hurt them, but it’s not something I can change.

Instead, I listen to them talk about the weather, and ultrasounds, and new cars, or a new task at work, and just play nice. I tell them about the weather or my dog. I try to mention my girlfriend, but the silence the mention is met with is deafening.

My family thinks that I am selfish. And immoral. And that my gayness is a phase or the result of my depression. I’ve always been “too much” for them. A running joke in the family is, “What will she cry about this Christmas?”

Am I an insane person to continue to try to make them hear me? I don’t want to cause “drama,” I just want to be me. I just want to bring my girlfriend down for a visit. I just want to post pictures of me and my girlfriend without blocking half of my tiny hometown to make my mother comfortable.

And this is about so much more than me being gay. I have always craved a different kind of relationship than anyone in my nuclear family has been willing to give. They have a right to that, I guess. They have a right to feel that I’m too much. My mother told me she couldn’t handle the “roller coaster of my life.”

Should I simply give up trying to make them accept me? Should I be more accepting of them and their limitations? I’ll be an aunt soon and I don’t want to be cut out of their lives, but I don’t want to live as a ghost in theirs either.
Fucking Hopeless and Brokenhearted

Dear FHAB,

Ouch. I get it, I really do. When you wrote, “I want to scream, and stomp, and storm — that they are my family and they promised to love me unconditionally and they broke that promise,” I really felt that, and it hurt. I spent so many years wanting to take my family by the shoulders and shake them, to set shit on fire, to rage and cry and make them understand me. But I need for you to listen to me very closely when I tell you this: It won’t work. You need to stop returning to the same empty well, looking for water.

There is no water here. You can be TOO MUCH in every other part of your life, forever and ever — commit to it, live out in the open, do what you do unapologetically, scream it to the moon and back — without spending another hour sobbing by that empty well.

Now if this were JUST about coming out, I would say, “Yes, come out. Wait until your sister has her kid, and then do it.” If all you wanted was to come out, announce yourself, make your identity known, and that’s it, I would encourage that. But what you want is much more complicated than that, isn’t it? You want your family to see you clearly for the first time. You want them to hear your words. You want them to treat you the way you deserve to be treated. You want them to accept you for exactly who you are. You want them to meet your girlfriend, and accept her, too. You want to stand up and deliver a moving speech about who you are and what you want from this world, and then you want your Grandpa to stand up and cheer for you, and you want everyone to give you hugs and cry and celebrate this glorious day together.

And why wouldn’t you want that? Who wouldn’t want that? The problem is, what you want is a fantasy. Your sisters already know that, which is why they’re trying to warn you ahead of time. Your family didn’t accept you even before they knew you were gay. They’ve always seen you as too much. They’ve always lived in fear of your heavy statements and your tears.

They’re just people. A lot of people are like that. A lot of people want to talk about the weather and lunch and ultrasounds and new cars and job stuff. A lot of people never, ever, want to talk about the heavy shit you’re going through — never, ever, ever.

If you could show up and be too much without feeling ashamed of yourself, then I’d say go ahead, show up and be too much. But you’re still ashamed. You’re still afraid. You still need a lot — way more than anyone in your family can give you. And you’re still in denial about what they can and can’t give you. It seems like most of your family knows that you’re gay, but you still want to come out to the one person who’s sure to reject you for it. That’s the kind of choice you make when you’re grappling with your own shame and insecurity. I’m not blaming you for that, I’m just telling you that you won’t always feel compelled to take this action. The path to peace doesn’t necessarily lead straight to your Grandpa’s door.

You need to take a minute. Because even though your sisters are saying, “Please just let it go, there’s a lot going on, this is bad timing and it won’t go well, we need this as a favor from you at a fragile time,” you’re a little obsessed with telling him, aren’t you? You want them to OPEN THEIR ARMS TO YOU. You’re craving a feeling of being truly, unconditionally loved. I understand that, I really do. And like many emotional people who were never fully supported as children but who’re smart and persuasive verbally, you’re sure that IF YOU JUST EXPLAIN IT ALL REALLY WELL, your nightmare family will transform before your eyes into a fantasy family.

But that’s not how it works. Your fantasy of being accepted is actually CREATED BY YOUR SHAME. I know that because I was like that, too. I thought I could just coax everyone in my family into behaving differently. I can coax my family gently NOW, a decade later. But you know what it took to get here? Ten goddamn years of reliably talking about the weather, and ultrasounds, and new cars. I had to play nice for ten years, motherfucker. I had to shut up and go with the flow. I had to smile along. I had to stop being way too much and getting mad when no one liked it. I had to stop demanding more. I had to stop returning to the empty well.

And I had to address my shame and my fears about myself and my anger at myself. I had to do that in order to be heard and to be seen. I had to be very patient, and I had to give MYSELF the unconditional love that I was craving from them.

I know that’s not what you want to hear. If I were you, hearing that would probably make me angry. I’d probably say, “Fuck you, you’re straight, what do you know?” And you should look to the LGBTQ community for more answers if you haven’t already, because there are many, many different perspectives on this. Plenty of people will tell you to do what you feel, and your family can either catch up or go fuck themselves.

Personally, though, I think the fact that you want to return to the emptiest well of all — your ideologically rigid Grandpa — is a real tell. You’ve tricked yourself into believing that all you want is to live your truth, out loud. But really, you want a response. You don’t just want love. A part of you wants rejection. You want to knock down these rotten walls, so you have a solid excuse for just walking away, thereby releasing yourself from the pain of this rejection forever.

But I don’t think forcing the issue and walking away from your family will improve your life right now. I think patience and refocusing on your relationship with yourself will improve your life. I think once you give yourself the compassion you need, you won’t need as much compassion from your family. You might even be able to give them YOUR unconditional love. I know that sounds a little empty at the moment, but once you land there, it feels really good.

Unfortunately, when you’re emotionally starved, the empty well becomes a big part of your religion. God, how I loved to cry at that empty well! I loved to peer down into it, and sob, and feel terrible for myself. This was true because I was so mean to myself the rest of the time. I was drowning in self-pity in those empty-well moments because the rest of my day was just me punishing and scolding myself for fucking up, over and over again. I was plastered in shame. I needed a way to feel some compassion for myself. The empty well gave me that. And my magical thinking told me that my family could release me from my shame — by loving me, by accepting me, by hearing me, by seeing me.

That was a fantasy. My family was not capable of doing that job. Likewise, your relatives are the exact wrong people for this job you keep trying to get them to do. They are saying to you, very directly, “We are bad at this. We can’t do it.” Are they assholes? Did they grow up in a fucked-up culture? Are they terrible? Should they be excised from your life forever?

I don’t think so. I mean, they might be terrible. They’re certainly infuriating and unfair. But they’re also familiar to me: They’re typical humans. They hate heaviness and they don’t love unconventional choices and they want to be safe from your drama. They fear emotions and emotional confrontation more than you or I could ever understand. It’s not just revulsion, it’s RAW FEAR.

So even though they’re a little pathetic, show them the mercy that they won’t show you. Forgive them for this in ways that they won’t forgive you for being who you are. Your ability to do that is contingent on your ability to forgive yourself.

Forgive yourself for what? For being you. For being different. For not doing the dishes this morning. For running late to work again. For being messy and emotional. For caring too much. For crying a lot. For having so many unpredictable layers and moods. For feeling lost a lot. For not fitting in well. For not shutting up quickly. For needing more. For being too much. For being not enough. For being.

You blame yourself for everything. You know that, right? It’s not your fault. It started with them, the message that you weren’t enough. But now you’re repeating it to yourself, every day. That’s why you’re seeking absolution from your family. That’s why you’re living inside a fantasy of their forgiveness and love. But you don’t need their love and acceptance to feel free.

Once I addressed my shame thoroughly and worked hard to accept my family for who they were, I wasn’t triggered by them nearly as often or as dramatically. I stopped looking for sustenance from them. I stopped telling them things they couldn’t handle. I stopped trying to herd them in directions they didn’t want to go. I let them take up space the way they wanted to, and I listened. With my mother in particular, I made a very active choice not to push her anymore. She was getting older and I was terrorizing her, essentially, with my emotional agenda. It wasn’t fair. Whatever her limitations and personal boundaries and slightly withholding tendencies happened to be at the time, she had a right to be who she already was. Why did I insist, so fervently, that I had a right to be me, if I couldn’t extend her the same right?

I made a choice to accept her for who she was. I made a choice to stop hurting myself by returning to that empty well. I refocused my energy on showing up and trying to be of service, to be a friend, to be supportive, without constantly focusing on my own needs. I vowed to stop setting shit on fire.

I know that it’s much harder to accept family members with hateful attitudes about being gay. Why should you, really? You have lots of good reasons for wanting to take your family by the shoulders and shake them, hard. Just keep in mind that sometimes when people are afraid of you and your emotions, they can’t calm down enough to hear you. And once you stop needing them to hear you, that’s when they start listening.

Do an experiment. For the next year, stop pushing them. Just show up and be present. Ask questions about their jobs. Ask your sister about her pregnancy. When your emotions come up, though, serve yourself by getting some distance. Go for shorter visits, and when you do visit, spend time with yourself and treat yourself with care. Respect your limits. Make sure that even though you can’t get what you need from them, you will give yourself what you need, no matter what. Protect yourself more.

Right now, you’re giving too much to them and you’re furious at them all the time. Give yourself more. Give them less. But let go of your anger as much as you can.

If you do that, I think you’ll be surprised at how much better you feel. And you’ll be amazed at how much more relaxed and kind your family is to you, once they aren’t afraid of you anymore. Stop explaining yourself to them and let them solve these puzzles on their own instead. You might just see them slowly start to give you more — more attention, more understanding, more respect.

Is that a fantasy? I don’t think so. I’ve seen it happen many times. You give other people your respect, you let them take up space, you ask them questions about their challenges and fears, you enjoy their company — even when it’s a little trivial-seeming and small-talky — and suddenly they shift their attitudes toward you.

It’s not that there aren’t triggers now and then. It’s not that you’re not VERY SAD at times, that you can’t get exactly what you want and need. It’s not that it’s super fucking easy to be around your family without spontaneously combusting. Family is hard, full stop.

But don’t mix together the inherent trials of family life with the built-in challenges of coming out. Don’t throw in your shame and confusion and anger and self-hatred until you can’t tell what’s what. Separate these things from each other. Seek clarity. And above all, be patient.

Because your family is never going to bring you emotional salvation, not today and not in the future. You have to find peace without them. Enlist your friends and your girlfriend in this work. Talk to a therapist about these things. Write this stuff down. Write a poem, write a song, write a book! IT IS YOUR JOB TO BE TOO MUCH, right here, right now. Celebrate exactly who you are, without shame. That will make you stronger, and it will matter more than anyone else’s acceptance or approval.

Even if your family does forgive you and love you exactly the way you want to be loved TODAY, it won’t come close to what you’ll gain from simply loving and forgiving yourself. BECAUSE YOU ARE THE ONE WITH THE WATER IN YOUR WELL. Once you discover that, you’ll never go back to begging and weeping and groveling to people who can’t help you.

Should you come out to all of them eventually? Should you reveal yourself to your entire hometown at some point? Maybe. But until you thoroughly accept yourself for who you are, without shame, I think that will be a rough road. My sense is that you need more time.

As long as the empty well makes you cry, and as long as you return to it compulsively and obsess about it and fantasize about it as THE SOLUTION TO EVERYTHING, you have reason to question your motives. These small-minded people should not be your focus right now. Fixating on them and their limitations is beneath you. Can you feel that?

Have mercy on them instead. Your emotions are creating an illusion that you’re the beggar, you’re the thirsty one, you’re the lost one. But the truth is, they need your help more than you need theirs.


Polly’s evil twin Molly has a newsletter; sign up here. Order Heather Havrilesky’s new book, What If This Were Enough?here. Her advice column will appear here every Wednesday.

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‘Should I Give Up on Trying to Make My Family Accept Me?’