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Gay Therapist Discusses “Toxic Busy”: How Much Is Too Much for Gay Men?

Recently in my psychotherapy and coaching practice that has focused on gay men and gay male couples for over 26 years, a client started a session by talking about his previous week.  “How was this week?” I asked. “Oh, boy.  Lots going on.  Been busy.  Very busy.  Toxic busy!”

That phrase struck me. “Toxic busy”.  Not just a busy week filled with activities both professionally at work and personally with partner, friends, or family, but “toxic busy”, meaning it’s too much, not OK, and can’t be sustained healthily.

I then applied some tips from the world of Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT), my favorite framework from which to work, and we talked about time management skills.  I also used his own phrase, “toxic busy”, to then discuss what thoughts, feelings, and behaviors would represent a “detox” for him.  (I kept thinking of those scenes in “Silkwood” when the lead character, Karen Silkwood, played by Meryl Streep, worked in a nuclear power plant and occasionally had to be harshly de-toxed with powerful showers and scrubbing to be shed of any radioactive material.)  But a gentler version of a “time detox” might include reviewing one’s schedule, not only in a given day, but overall “these days”, meaning in the past few months and in the upcoming few months.

The themes that come up with doing a “toxic busy” detox are two: guilt and acceptance.  It’s the guilt that comes with having to say no to things.  As gay men, we’re not taught to validate our own feelings often; instead, we are taught to not only suppress our natural feelings of affection or sexuality toward other males, but to capitulate to others and “pass” as straight far too often, by doing things we don’t like to do (date girls for show, for instance).  We get conditioned at an early age to set our real selves aside, and to spend time (and money, and energy) on things we don’t really like to do, just to conform to heteronormative expectations.  It’s no wonder that if we fast-forward into our adult lives, we might have come out and told the heteronormative pressures to stick it, but we still might have that lingering “people-pleasing” instinct to do what we are told to do, versus what we feel we want to do.

Some of this is just maturity; we might want to sleep in on a Monday morning and leisurely make pancakes, but we can’t if we have a job to go to that puts food on our table.  Sometimes, we have to do things we don’t want to do because that’s just being a grownup in a modern, capitalistic society.  OK, fine.  But it’s when the cumulative habits of doing things that are people-pleasing of others because we “should” is when our busy-ness becomes toxic.  That feeling that everyone else’s needs come before our own.  Doing the detox means coming to terms with the guilt associated with saying “no” to things, and while we still might feel the pangs of guilt of whom we are “letting down”, we do it anyway.

The other theme is just acceptance.  We might accept that we need to get off our ass and work even on the days we don’t want to, but we also have to accept that we are human, limited, finite, mortal creatures.  We can go into denial and try to pretend that “limits” are for chumps and that the limited stamina of most humans doesn’t apply to our Super Selves, but eventually reality comes home to roost and we realize that everyone has just 24 hours in a day.  The more we accept our limitations, of energy, money, and certainly time, the more we are (as AA says) “living life on life’s terms”, and not living in a fantasy world of unlimited time and energy for everyone and everything.

To do your own de-tox, think about where your own guilt lies.  If you were to say no just often enough to reclaim your sanity in your schedule, where would you feel the guilt?  Why?  What values would be violated if you did?  And in your own detox, where do you need to practice acceptance?  You can still acknowledge yourself as a productive, skilled, valuable person to your job or to others and still recognize (and accept) your limitations as only one person who can only do so much.  Louise Hay had a saying, “All you can do, is all you can do, but all you can do, is enough.”

If you can come to terms with the initial pangs of guilt, and take a deep breath to find the wisdom of radical acceptance that you can’t do everything, then you can reclaim your existential equilibrium enough to feel like you’re not doing battle with the clock all the time.  The further I get into middle age, the more I realize this, and wish that the younger guys I work with can get there, too.  Diana Ross sang, in “It’s My Turn”, “if living for myself is what I’m guilty of, go on and sentence me, I’ll still be free — it’s my turn.”  When you declare that it’s your turn to take control of your schedule, you detox.  Then even if you’re still plenty active, we remove the toxicity and you’re left with robust activities that either feed your wallet, feed your mind, or feed your soul.  Anything else can wait.

If you need help with stress management, but in a gay men’s specific context, consider coaching with me.  Email, or call/text 310-339-5778 for more information on sessions in my office in Los Angeles (San Vicente and Sixth), or via phone, or via webcam all over the country, or anywhere in the world…

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