Gay Men and Discipline: The Secret Weapon for Achieving Your Goals
I’d like to start this article about “discipline” by admitting that I’ve been procrastinating writing it. Which shows exactly why it needs to be written. How many of you have done the same? You think about doing something. You know it would be valuable toward some goal to do it. You want to do it. And yet, you find yourself not doing it, even though you should, and by the time you get around to doing it, you could have it done by now.
As crazy-making as this ironic, circular logic can be, it has importance to life, in order to achieve the goals we want, and we all want something, in either our personal or professional lives. This is what I’ve been helping gay men with for over 28 years as a gay men’s specialist psychotherapist and life/career/relationship coach. Being a certain way, doing certain things, even having certain things or having certain experiences is what “goal-setting” and “quality of life” are about; they are existential issues that make life worth living.
And yet most of us live with this permanent dichotomy between what we “think” we “should” be doing to achieve various goals, and what we actually do. The difference is the word “discipline”, short for “self-discipline”. Discipline is really holding ourselves to our own standards and accountability, and living with fidelity and integrity to an ongoing set of behaviors that we have chosen for ourselves, as free, autonomous, consenting adults. The challenge is, absolute faith to our own values and goals through discipline is always wanted, but only rarely fully achieved.
We battle the enemies of discipline daily. There are many. Distraction. Impulsivity. Inattentiveness. Fatigue. Feeling conflicted between competing needs, or even desires. Interruption. Shifting priorities. Undermining our own confidence. Imposter Syndrome. Negative self-talk. Criticism. Pessimism. Anxiety Depression. Ignorance. Resentment. Despair. Hedonism. Indulgence. Any or all of these, and more, can undermine the discipline that we wish we had, or wish we had more of.
So how do we resolve these, the conflicts, often between immediate gratification or even a sustained comfort, versus finding ourselves engaging in behaviors that are goal-directed and may even have a short-term investment of pain for a long-term gain of accomplishment, some of which are permanent (such as earning an education degree or professional credential)?
In my weekly (or biweekly) sessions with clients in either therapy or coaching (my practice offers both services, as well as couples work, consulting, expert witness services, speaking, teaching, etc.), we are almost always discussing improving quality of life by changing something about the way we think or behave in service to a goal. Someone who doesn’t earn enough wants to cultivate ways to earn more. Someone with an unhappy relationship wants to learn what can be changed to have a happier one. Someone who lacks the job they want can learn strategies for getting another. Someone who is burdened by anxiety wants to know the pathway to relief. Someone with an unsatisfying sex life wants to cultivate a different one. All of these are goals, which require changes in thinking, behaving, and relating in order to shift from one set of existential circumstances to another.
The complaints about the enemies of discipline that make us think we want to act one way, but somehow “end up” acting another are many, as I said. And they all need specific ways to fight back and reclaim your right to stay on track, and discipline yourself toward a goal, because you feel like achieving the goal has value. Let’s look at some of these, in turn:
Distraction – While I work with guys who are truly carrying the Attention Deficit Disorder/Adult Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder (ADD/ADHD) diagnosis, for most of us, distraction is less clinical. We respond to stimuli in our environment of something to watch, read, listen to, or somehow pay attention to (even just daydreaming) that takes our mind off what we really wanted to devote time to in our personal time management.
Solution: Develop the ability (with practice) to recognize when you’ve gotten “off track” with a distraction, and then put energy/effort into re-directing your attention to the thing that matters in that moment. “Oh, look at me here, playing on YouTube for 20 minutes, when all I really needed was to Google something for 30 seconds. Now, where was I?”
Impulsivity – If our lives were 100 percent scheduled, they might be dull and lack a sense of fun. Sometimes, changing plans at the last minute (like taking an unexpected invitation from a friend to do something) is worth abandoning what we had originally planned to. But only sometimes.
Solution: Evaluate the impulse before you act on it. Use critical thinking. If you really compare what your were originally going to do with the thing that’s come up suddenly, maybe there are good reasons to go with the new action, like the opportunity to see a friend you haven’t seen in a long time who is only in town for today. But, promise yourself that you will schedule and actual time to do the thing you were going to do. And, if you’ve already put something off once (and certainly twice), then commit that nothing else will usurp its place again, if it truly is worth doing. And if it’s not worth doing, take it off your list.
Inattentiveness – See above regarding ADD/ADHD, but sometimes just allowing your mind to wander and lose focus can be a good thing, if you’re brainstorming creative solutions or thinking of creative options to solve problems.
Solution: If your mind wanders as a bad habit, learn to increase your awareness that, “Oh, sometimes I do that – daydream – Now, where was I” and get back to what you were doing, even if you have to do this repeatedly (I have to do this frequently when I’m grading graduate MSW student papers, but I just keep coming back until they’re finished).
Fatigue – If you’re not accomplishing something because you get sleepy or just lose energy, consider why this is happening. Are you not sleeping enough, or well? Do you need to be evaluated for something serious, like Sleep Apnea? Or did you just stay out partying too late last night? Do you need to schedule a vacation or more “down time” to rejuvenate? Are you exercising enough to keep your stamina up? Are you having medication side-effects from a medication? Do you need a better environment to keep doing something important, like better light, being cooler, being warmer, or having peace and quiet?
Solution: Think about what has always revitalized you when you’re fatigued. Can you do a 10-minute mindfulness meditation exercise? Can you walk around the block? Can you listen to music? Can you have a (reasonably healthy) snack? Do you have a brief conversation? Learn to know what revitalizes you, and do that when you recognize fatigue. Then, when you’re refreshed, come back to your project with renewed focus, and you’ll probably work both faster and better.
Feeling conflicted between competing needs, or even desires – I hear this a lot. You only have limited time, and yet unlimited goals, especially when you have a competition between disciplining yourself to do things that “feed your wallet” with work-related items, and “feed your spirit” with fun, recreation, relationships, and self-care (like relaxing, or paying bills or cleaning something).
Solution: Learn to be the CEO of your own life. With the adult prerogative, you get to decide how to allocate all of your reasons, of time, energy, and money, according to your values, priorities, and goals. Which value, priority, or goal needs to be applied here? What is the “tie-breaker” between one activity or another? If you’ve been working a lot, and haven’t done anything fun in a while, maybe you need to choose the fun thing for once. If you’ve been having fun a lot lately, but not buckling down and doing the things you need to do for work or school, especially to stay competitive or to move the needle along toward a long-term goal (like earning a degree or credential), then maybe you need to choose to hit the books instead, and reward yourself with something fun later. But it’s your choice. It’s empowering to learn to control your resources when no one’s really looking (like a parent or boss).
Interruption – If you’re trying to do some goal-directed behavior that takes time and concentration, but you’re interrupted, it’s time to set some limits.
Solution: You’re not a victim; you’re not obligated to “let” others interrupt you, if you know you need time and focus to get something done. You don’t have to be a total jerk, but you do need to be the CEO of your life and firmly state, “I need some time to get this done right now. Let’s set another time to do what you’re suggesting.”
Shifting Priorities – Sometimes, you’re doing one thing, and being disciplined about getting it done, but something comes up and you’re immediately tempted to jump to that thing, as if what you were doing ceased to be important at all. You get conflicted between devoting limited resources to one thing, or the other.
Solution: Don’t fall for the bait automatically. If you see two options before you, and only one “time slot” to do them, then you need to invoke that adult prerogative again and make an executive decision to choose one or the other, and to stand by your rationale for why you chose. Often, if we have chosen to do something, we have given it priority, and it’s usually more important to complete what you’re doing rather than stop everything and shift. Exceptions should really be compelling, like emergencies or one-time opportunities, which are actually quite rare. The mantra should be “completion, not perfection”. One of my favorite fun sayings (given to me by a previous therapist) is, “If something is worth doing, it’s worth doing badly.” If you’re very hungry, sometimes it’s more important to just eat a banana rather than to wait and take time to create Bananas Foster. It can be very important to simply check things off a list, except for (again, rare) occasions when it must be perfect, or close to it. Multi-tasking has largely been proven a myth. It’s OK to say “good enough” sometimes, except when you’re doing a truly shoddy effort, which is also probably quite rare.
Undermining our own confidence – As gay men, I’ve found that many of us still (well into adulthood) undermine our own confidence, self-worth, and self-esteem. It’s no wonder, when we get thousands of messages that we are “sick, bad, wrong” throughout a generally homophobic society, which makes only slow progress worldwide. But just because we’ve been told we’re some variation of worthless a thousand times doesn’t make it so. We have to consider the source, and challenge it. I’m not basing my self-esteem and self-concept on some bigot who can’t get their head out of their ass. I don’t respect their opinion. They haven’t done the work.
Solution: Cultivate the critical thinking skills to evaluate whether negative feedback should be listened to, from someone whose experience, skills, knowledge, talent, and values you respect, or ignored, from someone who is a bigot, idiot, ignorant, or otherwise unqualified to evaluate what you’re doing. Staying disciplined is at least in part the ability to keep your confidence in yourself and in what you’re doing to see it through. If you finish your novel and then the critics pan it, OK, fine, maybe you do a re-write or write another play. But don’t fail to finish the play because you’re afraid that someone who doesn’t even like plays might not like it.
Imposter Syndrome – See above regarding self-confidence. Imposter Syndrome is this feeling that we don’t really have knowledge, talent, skill, or ability that we have somehow been able to get the opportunity to do anyway. Many people have it, and it’s just a variation of anxiety, especially for high-achieving people. Gay icon Judy Garland had it, questioning whether she really could sing at all, and then listen to her.
Solution: Recognize that Imposter Syndrome is a common higher-order anxiety, then forgive yourself for indulging it (even briefly) and then get on with it. Part of discipline is recognizing is that everyone is a bit vulnerable to little neurotic moments, but the disciplined person who accomplishes great things (or even just small, rewarding things) doesn’t dwell on negative moments like that, but re-commits (over and over) to doing what they started out to do.
Negative Self-Talk – In the world of Cognitive Therapy (which I use a lot), negative self-talk is like a ticker-tape or inner monologue of, well, bullshit. See above about confidence. Gay men have made the terrible error of giving credence to the bigots out there and internalizing ideas that never should have been listened to in the first place. Negative self-talk is like a poisonous “fertilizer” that undermines and distracts from our goals, and it’s not what disciplined people listen to.
Solution: Develop the ability to recognize what negative self-talk is, and become able to listen to yours. Then, re-write it in your head. Recognize that that’s not really your thinking; that’s you listening to someone else’s mean or ignorant ideas that you don’t have to keep for your own. Return to sender. Re-write negative statements into positive ones that let you get back to what you were doing with drive and confidence, feeling convinced that what you’ve decided to do has value, if only for yourself.
Criticism (from the Self or Others) – Criticism is a tricky thing. Done well, from people we trust, it can give us perspective and help us identify the weak parts and strengthen them, with the benefit of someone else’s objective viewpoint. Done badly, and it can sap our confidence and make us second-guess things that shouldn’t be changed at all.
Solution: Learn to discern your sources of criticism. A good example of this might be a novelist, who might engage the services of a good editor. If you trust your editor, and he/she says that chapter six needs more dialogue to clarify the story, then write more dialogue (if you trust them). But if someone who doesn’t read or like novels says it sounds like a boring book, that’s not the person to listen to. Bring critical thinking to others’ critical thinking. It’s important to seek out feedback from people whom you trust to have the superior perspective, such as taking fitness advice from a skilled trainer, health advice from a qualified physician, or financial advice from an experienced accountant/planner.
Pessimism – Doing anything worthwhile takes energy. Discipline is nothing if not the sustained application of energy to a specific activity. Believing that it’s all worth it is key, but if pessimism creeps in and you lose your drive or sense of purpose, it can stop you dead in your tacks.
Solution: Recognize that sustained energy toward a goal is challenging. But the difference between people who meet their goals and achieve things that might be satisfying to them and/or valuable to others is pushing through doubt or pessimism and persisting in the quest. Sometimes pessimism is just a notion or a signal that something needs to be altered. If you’re getting in shape, and you look in the mirror or on the scale and you’re frustrated by what you feel are a lack of results, get good advice from a trusted source, like a trainer. Maybe you need to make changes in your routine. Maybe you’re not lifting heavy enough. Maybe you’re not really sticking to a healthy diet plan. Maybe you’re overlooking the triumvirate of training, nutrition, and rest. Make adjustments where you need to, but don’t just indulge negative thinking because you’re tired. Disciplined people take a breather/break, and then get back to it, perhaps with a refined strategy.
Anxiety – Similar to negative self-talk, anxiety can be loosely-defined as the “fear of loss”, either loss to actual life-and-limb health and safety, or loss of dignity or comfort. But disciplined people stay out of anxiety because it requires having a crystal ball about the future, which no one (despite claims) can really predict.
Solution: Go back and check your self-talk. If you’re saying “what if” and then imagining a negative outcome, that’s trying to be a fortune-teller. Maybe the turban doesn’t fit. Balance out that statement with a complementary, more positive “what if” scenario. Then, accept that you can’t predict the future. It is what it is. And you’re more likely to have a better future if you are relaxed, confident, and, yes, disciplined, in what you’re doing.
Depression – Depression is a very common clinical mental health syndrome. I see it often in my practice. It’s unfortunate, but it is treatable. If you’re losing motivation, aren’t enjoying things, feeling guilty, losing sleep, indulging in too much sleep, feeling worthless or suicidal, or even feeling irritable or hopeless, you might be experiencing a major depressive episode. You can lose discipline and become vegetative and unproductive in most things if you’re depressed.
Solution: Both medication and therapy, and usually both, can help. Depression can be situational, or quite organic that comes out of the blue with no one known cause to point to, like a recent loss. Disciplined people realize that depression can happen to anyone, but they don’t just accept it as a bad fate. Seek out mental health professionals that treat people with depression every day, and ask them to help you in the same way they have probably helped many others.
Ignorance – This can be an enemy of discipline somewhat insidiously. We’re not accomplishing the things we want to have, be, or do, because we simply don’t know how. Or how, enough.
Solution: When you’re trying to do something, think about if you have the information or skills (which is knowledge, put into practice) to do it. Sometimes, people just lack talent. Even if you have the best voice teacher, you still might not make the Metropolitan Opera. That requires a combination of talent, training, and opportunity, perhaps along with appearance, networking, politics, and luck. But information on many things that might be important to you is usually available, especially in this day and age of Google, YouTube, and books on Amazon. Don’t feel shame if you don’t know something. Instead, discipline yourself to seek out the knowledge, soak it up, practice it, and work to adapt and incorporate it to make it your own.
Resentment – Sometimes people lose their discipline to do something because they resent someone else who has already done it, done it better than them, or gets more credit for it. This way lies madness. If you decide something is important to be, do, or have, that’s all the legitimacy you need to stake your claim. Even if someone else is doing it, or has done it, you still get to make your play for it in your own way, and for your own satisfaction.
Solution: Be happy for them. They have applied their own discipline, had their own inspiration, made their own mistakes, and enjoyed their own outcomes. You can’t live someone else’s life, or even be a copy of it. Don’t try to be them; be the best you. When they made you, they broke the mold. You can use the example or inspiration from others to energize you, or refine your focus and efforts, but it’s still your goal to make.
Despair – While similar to depression, despair can be the complete cessation of work due to the overwhelming feeling that you can’t do something, or can’t do it in the way you’d like, or soon enough, or impactfully enough. Sometimes, failure is just an education and a guidance to direct your energies somewhere else where they are more needed. But counting yourself out and just finding ways to declare yourself as failed and dejected never leads to satisfying life experiences.
Solution: Try to recognize why you’re despairing. If you’re writing a play, and the second act doesn’t seem to work – even to you, let alone your director, audiences, or critics – don’t wallow in the disappointment; work to find out why. Is it the plot? Characters? Dialogue? Theme? Seek out people who can lend a fresh perspective who might inspire you to make the changes you need. Then, discipline yourself to make changes, with the hope that sound changes will give you a better play, that you and everyone else can enjoy. Hope is one of the most important components of resilience, and adaptive coping for stress. Don’t quit the minute before the miracle. If you really need to throw in the towel on something, you’ll know, and it won’t feel despairing, it will feel liberating and self-compassionate, and will free you to pursue something else that brings you more joy.
Hedonism/Indulgence – Another enemy of discipline can be immature thinking that lets you get sloppy and indulge yourself in the actual or pursuit of pleasure in the short term that prevents pleasure in the long term. Don’t sacrifice the great for the good, and certainly don’t sacrifice the great for the mediocre. If you’re a student, but you’re jeopardizing your degree (and the profession it will lead to) because you’re partying too much, that’s infantile, and you need to get your priorities straight.
Solution: Success comes to those who are disciplined enough to know when to work hard, and when to play hard, and not really mix the two. To everything there is season. Recognize that you need fun, or life loses its luster. But discipline means that you self-regulate your desires, impulses, and motivations. Your Ego and Superego have a place in keeping your infantile Id in check. The people we see as often miserable due to their own frustrations, and again, lack of their own accomplishments (that they wanted, not what others wanted for them; that’s key) are often ones who insidiously indulged hedonism at all times (not just sometimes) and paid a high price.
No discussion about discipline, goals, achievement, and satisfaction would be complete without recognizing that it’s not always up to you. Even people who are actually quite disciplined lose out on achieving things they want because they were denied opportunity by people with privilege, the ones we all know and recognize,frequently: Privilege about race. Class. Ethnicity. Nationality. Family. Sexual orientation. Able-ness. Cisgenderism. Networking. Politics. Appearance. And, that sucks. This is why social justice is a goal of a society (for many, not all) and we are not there yet – by a long shot. But discipline is one way, one resource, to fight back against the privilege and “ism’s” that we can’t control, by controlling the things we can. We might have to work longer, or harder, or more strategically, but when people from minorities who do achieve, despite not being handed privilege on a silver platter, discipline is often one of the ways they overcame those inherently unfair but all-too-real obstacles. That’s why discipline is so important to cultivate, because it has an awesome power to help you get what you want to be, do, or have, despite sometimes very significant obstacles that you had nothing to do in creating.
Think about what’s important to you. Allow yourself to hope, dream, brainstorm, and imagine. Then, when your head is up in the stars, bring it all down to earth, and get to work. Find support from others, from any source you can access. Gay men get told way too often that we “can’t” because others think we are somehow less than. Fight back. Little by little, discipline shows that the bigots will not have the last word. We will. And we will have a fabulous time doing it.
For more information on therapy and coaching services available at Gay Therapy LA, call/text 310-339-5778, or email Ken@GayTherapyLA.com. Also visit GayTherapyLA.com/blog for a library of hundreds of helpful articles, or the “Gay Therapy LA with Ken Howard, LCSW” podcast show, now with over 6o episodes.