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An Older Gay Therapist’s Advice for Younger Gay Men: 12 Tips to Improve Your Life — Now and Later

Younger gay men can get a lot of valuable advice from older gay men who have been there, done that.

In my private practice of psychotherapy and coaching, I enjoy working with gay men (and others) of all ages.  While I see many guys at midlife (especially for relationship or career issues), I also work with younger gay men (also for relationship and career issues!).  I admire the young guys I see, and their outlook of optimism and ambition in so many things.  I get it; you’re young and beautiful and full of promise – you’ve got it all.  Many guys confide in me things they don’t really feel comfortable talking about with their dads; I call using putting our age difference to good use in therapy the “Listen to Your Gay Uncle Ken” moments.  We daddies know a few things that can make today even better, and can help you make sure your life stays wonderful, even when youth fades.  Below are some of the tips I wish every young gay man knew, and what I wish some daddy had told me years ago.  It would have helped me to put my best foot forward.  So, since they didn’t tell me, I’m telling you, now.  Take these to heart:

1. Get a 401(k). Borrrrrring, right? In 25 years, you’re going to thank me. The sooner you get on this retirement plan, the better you’re going to love your life in later decades, like your 40s or 50s, or even later. It’s relatively painless to have a percentage of your salary (try 10%) diverted, at any income level.  Start now and you can keep it small enough that you won’t miss the cash, and you get a tax break (deduction) for doing it. By 2033, it’s predicted Social Security benefits will be cut by 75 percent unless something changes in the political will of the country to preserve its full benefits (Republicans have been trying to kill the Social Security Act since it was introduced by President Roosevelt invented in the 1930’s).  So, you have to start saving NOW, or there is a risk you will have to live on the cheap when you’re much older.  With compounding of interest, a little bit (or a lot) saved now will be worth much more later.  (I can explain more of how that all works if we do some financial coaching together.)  (I can’t guarantee results for anyone, but my favorite of the personal investment services, that I use as a self-employed person, is Vanguard,  I think they have low fees and their website is easy to use, including being able to transfer money from your bank’s Checking or Savings account to your investment account.  If you don’t have enough money to buy into a “mutual fund ETF” yet, which is basically a collection of carefully-selected stocks (minimum investments can be from $0-10,000; many are typically a $3,000 minimum), then save up in a regular bank Savings account, and then invest in the mutual fund when you have that (usually) $3,000 minimum saved up.  Their website can help teach you how to go from knowing nothing about this stuff at all to being a savvy investor. I also recommend the books by (lesbian) financial planning guru/author/speaker Suze Orman, but not by the anti-gay Dave Ramsey (who has some good advice, but I don’t patronize anti-gay authors or businesses, except maaaaaaybe if you buy it used). 

2. Careful with drugs and alcohol. I’m not going to say never to indulge; it’s all too pervasive to say that.  If you have drinks with friends or ingest a little something now and then, the important thing is to stay in control enough to be safe.  I see guys all the time “get by” with some cocktails (use Uber or Lyft; don’t drink and drive!), weed, and maaaaybe a little “molly” or “coke” here and there (even though you’re better off not doing it at all) — but there IS such a thing as “relative harm” to what you can choose to use or do — so absolutely, positively, no — and I mean not even once — “tina” or crystal meth, or heroin, or other opiates (Oxycontin, Dilauid, etc.) unless prescribed by a physician for medical pain management (and even then, only as prescribed; we have an opiate addiction tragedy going on in this country right now).  If you’re down, lonely, or upset, drugs and alcohol are NOT the solution.  You’ll only wake up tomorrow foggy and regretful and still facing the same problems.  Celebrate when you’re feeling good, not bad.  Indulgences should be like the star/angel on the Christmas tree; they’re ornamental to fun events with your friends; they are not the whole event.  (For more information and support on this, again, stuff you “can’t” talk to your parents about, let’s set an appointment and talk about what we shrinks call the “Harm Reduction” Model, and if you (or someone you love) is already in over your  head, let’s talk about how someone liberates themselves (and other people they burden) from problems with substances.) 

3. Sun, some. We’re built to worship the Sun god.  Our bodies need some sun to make the vital vitamin D that protects us from pancreatic cancer, heart disease, and stroke. Most Americans are deficient in Vitamin D, so plan accordingly. But…too much sun and you’re at risk of skin cancer (not to mention wrinkles, freckles, and premature aging). It depends on where you are located and how pigmented your already skin is, but generally after 15 minutes of exposure, be a good Golden Girl and seek out a shady lanai.  People who are still looking great when they are older attribute much of this (maybe not all) to getting only a little sun when they were younger.  Conversely, very “leathery” older skin got there often by too much sun exposure in their youth.  Both vanity and health prefer the shade, or certainly heavy (SPF 20 or more) sun screen. 

4. Money. Simply put, you need to be budgeting. Try this formula: All the “musts” (rent, insurance, car payments) should equal about half your take-home (net) pay, after taxes and other deductions (like for your health plan and 401-k).  Thirty percent (30%) is your “play stash” (dinners out, theatre, concerts, vacations/family visits). The final 20 percent goes to savings or to pay off debt. If you can’t live on what you make, figure out how to make more (that’s a topic for counseling, too; get in touch with me on strategies to earn more money) or spend less (no whining, just do it).

5. Education. Get some. A high school degree is pretty much a minimum if you’re going to have a chance of supporting yourself. A college degree will (statistically) get you more money and more job security when the economy dips. However, it no longer guarantees prosperity; an estimated 13 million recent college grads are working jobs that don’t require their degree. Figure out what makes you happy and get as much education as you need to do well at it.  If you’re self-employed, or want to be, I can coach you on how that’s done (I’ve been successfully self-employed, full-time, for over 15 years, after many years of working for others in the private/corporate, public, and non-profit sectors, and I do executive coaching in all of those areas).  Graduate educations (like my own) are valuable, but have to be planned carefully to make them pay off in the long run. 

6. Get some life skills. It goes way beyond being able to open a jar of spaghetti sauce or get your underwear flower-fresh. You can learn “life hacks” online, but you also need to know some basics like how to communicate, how to set goals, how to stand up for yourself (I teach Assertive Communication skills), and how to solve life problems. Master persistence, resilience, gratitude, flexibility, balance, anger management, assertiveness, and forgiveness. Most of that comes from living life, observing people you respect, screwing up and trying again.  But counseling and coaching can help with all of those. (We’ve read all the self-help books and gleaned the best from them already, so you don’t have to!)

7. Figure out how to network. None of us goes through life alone. Relying on others when you need to, helping when you can, and putting people together is networking, whether you apply it at a business mixer or a pool party.  In today’s economy, it can be as much about “who” you know as “what” you know.  If Panic Disorder, Social Anxiety/Phobia, or general shyness get in the way of this, it’s time to address these (usually through Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy, or coaching) on how to overcome these social-life and career killers. 

8. Read great books. This is a list that never ends (and never should). IMO, every gay guy’s nightstand should hold at the least City of Night by John Rechy, Tales of the City by Armistead Maupin, And the Band Played On by Randy Shilts, Dancer from the Dance by Andrew Holleran, Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin, Stonewall by Martin Duberman, Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh, The Charioteer by Mary Renault, and on and on and on. Just read.  I incorporate a number of books in my practice with clients, because I know from my own experience and the experiences of my previous clients how valuable certain books are to success in your personal and professional life (which ones requires an individual assessment and is valuable consulting information). 

9. Travel. See the world. There’s a lot to be learned and enjoyed just about anywhere outside your day-to-day life. A couple of cautions: make sure you’re heading for a place that’s safe and gay-affirmative, and expect that not every place will be even minimally welcoming.

10. Grandparents. This one is simple: Spend as much time talking to them as you can.  Do the math; they will pass away by the time you’re middle-aged, at best.  Take advantage of access to them now, if you have it, and their stories and advice will (like 401-k investments) increase in value over the years.  I had mine for over 30 years of my life, and what I wouldn’t pay for just 5 more minutes to speak with them.

11.  Sex – I hear about so much mis-information, hearsay, and hysteria about sex that it’s troubling.  Education is key.  For example, so many myths about HIV abound.  Educate yourself as best you can.  Read information sources about how HIV risk can be managed, such as using PrEP (pre-exposure prophylaxis, which is a fancy term for “prevention”) like the PrEP Facts page on Facebook, here.  When it comes to sex, we need, as a community, to separate the political and moralistic posturing (“sex is bad!”, “sex is dangerous – don’t do it!”) from the public health facts about how bodies, diseases, and treatments actually work, scientifically.  We see this in the debate (as if there should even be “debate” about using an effective medicine) about PrEP, and the relentless anti-gay rhetoric from the conservative world religions of all kinds and from most Republicans, and even in the gay community, where there is far too much “slut-shaming”.  Get educated on how to manage HIV and STD risks, sure, but also relax and enjoy what your young body wants to do.  I would say sex when you’re younger generally is easier; this is a time (again, in general) of youth, beauty, energy, and abundant sexual functioning. Later, sex becomes a bit more complex with more demanding jobs that require more hours and responsibility, the complexities of relationships, and lots of grown-up “duties” that can be stressors on a sex life, not to mention age-related erectile dysfunction that is really quite pervasive (but easily addressed with erectile dysfunction medications that are effective –  But at this stage, use a lot of critical thinking to defend against all the “sex negative” messages you hear.  Consider the source and take it all with a grain of salt.  When anti-gay social forces, or even your own peers, try to label you as “promiscuous” (as if the mere frequency of sex, or number of partners, is inherently “sick/bad/wrong”), don’t feel like you have to tolerate that projected moralism.  Slut-shaming in the gay community is just a leftover from how straight men have treated straight women historically, like they were only any value as a human being if they were “virgins” and were the straight man’s “property” intended only to serve him with no rights of her own.  It’s your body; don’t let anyone but you tell you what you can and can’t do with it (with another consenting adult).  Sexual self-empowerment, as I say in my book, is saying “yes” when you want to say “yes”, and saying “no” when you want to say “no”.  (For more help on treatment for problems related to sex that I address in my practice, which some clinicians call “sex adddiction” but which I call “sexual self-empowerment”, visit here.)

12.  Family – Plan your life, career, and income so that you get to see your family — frequently — assuming, of course, they aren’t terribly toxic or depressingly dysfunctional.  I’ve lived on the opposite side of the country from my family since the time I was in college, and didn’t have the kind of jobs that let me afford to fly to visit any of them very often.  I missed the vast majority of seeing my niece and nephew grow up, and I’m sorry I didn’t live closer, or earn more, sooner in the process, to afford to see that.  Plan ahead now so that you get the “face time” you need and want with those you love, because the time that passes isn’t time you get back. 

I really believe that the best quality of life requires strategizing, and planning ahead.  Life moves in one direction: forward.  With self-awareness, intention, and a strong commitment to the goals and values that help you thrive, now, you’re setting yourself up for success later — personally, professionally, and socially.  That’s quality of life. 

For help with any of these 12 tips that need improvement, or for more support (and maybe a li’l ass-kickin’ accountability, where needed), consider spending some time with “Uncle Ken” in counseling, coaching, or therapy sessions, at my office in LA near Beverly Center, or via phone, or via Skype.  Call or text me at 310-339-5778 or email for more information.

To get your copy of my 2013 self-help book, Self-Empowerment: Have the Life You Want!, click here.  It’s your “portable therapist” for the challenges you face today in your mental health, health, career, finances, family, spirituality, and community. 

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