How I learned to live life on my own terms
When I was a young boy in small-town Nebraska, I knew what everyone expected from me. Tribal values hung over Wakefield like a tornado-producing dark cloud that could drop a twister upon you at any moment.
I followed all the rules, and damn, I was good at it! Yet, I never felt good about myself.
Other mothers would say to my mother, “I wish my boy would be more like Loren.” That never felt good. And note: They said like Loren, not just like Loren.
I wanted to be more like those other boys who were a little bit naughty. I wanted to flaunt the rules and have adults look amused and say, “Boys will be boys.”
No one demanded of me that I will be a good boy. I never really believed that my family would stop loving me if I misbehaved. Still, I felt I couldn’t risk the disapproval of people I love.
Shame is a feeling that you are bad
The driving force behind my good behavior was shame. Guilt is a feeling you’ve done something bad. Shame is a feeling that you are bad.
A lot of gay men and women say they felt “different.” But the feeling is heavier than feeling like a misshapen tomato. I felt different in all the wrong ways. I felt if I could get everyone to ratify my goodness, it would take the shame away.
When I think back on the validation I received, I get a bit nauseated. What a sweet boy. Such a nice young man. It feels like I just ate all my Halloween candy in one sitting.
I’d know they were lying if they added I wish my son could be more like Loren. All they really wanted was a child who was more compliant with their wishes. I am even more distressed when I remember how self-righteous I felt about being such a good boy.
On the rare occasion I did something wrong, I always got caught. When I was about ten years old, I stole a pack of cigarettes from the Rexall drug store to smoke with some friends. When I got home, my mother asked, “When did you start smoking?”
Gossip travels fast in small-town Nebraska, where everyone knows everyone. It’s hard to keep secrets. I felt like a surveillance camera was on me all the time. I had no place to escape to where I could safely be naughty.
Most of us want approval, but some of us need it more than others
We seek the approval of our parents most of all. But we also demand the collective endorsement of our lovers, our tribe, and all of society. We even want approval from people we don’t like or don’t respect.
I was very good at being good because approval was my heroin. I’d take a hit, but the high didn’t last long. Then I’d have to shoot up another. And another.
I sought validation from my family, my tribe, my community, and my religion. I adopted their values, and those values directed my choices.
It was a delusion to think I would feel good about myself if I followed their rules. However, the delusion was pervasive and seductive. I let them direct my choices even though they didn’t recognize they were doing it. I didn’t recognize it either.
No prisons are more confining than those we know not we are in.
— William Shakespeare, TWELFTH NIGHT
The truth is, though, that I didn’t know who I was apart from the roles I played. I understand now that I feared knowing who I was outside of those good-boy roles. I was an actor waiting for the director to coach my performance.
I couldn’t find a place to feel safe to be myself.
We believe that something “out there” — a person, social stature, or ideology — will give us some validation that we are worth something. But in the process, we lose our sense of “self.”
Adopting others’ values as our own is confusing. Those values sometimes conflict with each other. I was a paint-by-numbers person. Someone else had drawn the lines and chosen all the colors.
I once said to my younger daughter, “What I like best about you and what I like least about you is the same thing.”
What I like best is that she is her own person. But it also means she will always do what she wants, not what I want her to do.
Some people want to be just like their parents. On the contrary, others decide to be anything but like them. In either case, their parents are still the template for how they live their lives. It doesn’t work.
The first time I set myself free
The first time I remember setting myself free was when I told my mother I wanted to be a psychiatrist.
She asked, “Why do you want to stop being a doctor?”
I assured her, “I’ll still be a doctor, but I want to do something that will give my life meaning.”
I knew that being the small-town family doctor – particularly if I returned to my hometown in Nebraska – would give her life meaning. But it would have been a disaster for me.
Related content: How I Learned to Give Permission to Myself
Later, I broke free of the bondage when I ripped off the chains and came out as gay. The world didn’t fall apart as I anticipated.
You must seize permission to live your life
As I matured, I discovered that someone doesn’t grant you permission to live your life. You must seize it.
When I speak to groups, I often ask, “How many prefer chocolate ice cream?” Then I ask, “How many prefer vanilla?” I follow that by asking, “Who’s right?”
If we demand that chocolate is the right answer, we deny the humanity of those who prefer vanilla. If we say we like vanilla because we were told it was better, we deny our own humanity.
The more we wish another person to satisfy us, the more dissatisfying a relationship becomes. Any relationship can climb no higher than the level of maturity of each partner.
Our sense of our “self” isn’t out there somewhere. It is within us. A life pursuing the “highs” we get from approval is transient and superficial.
Attaching ourselves to a strong person never gives our lives meaning. We do it to give their lives meaning while sacrificing ourselves.
Excessive reliance on other people for approval leads to an estrangement from our souls. It arises from two false assumptions:
1. We are powerless
2. We attribute unlimited power to others
Sometimes we use a distorted logic in service to our emotions. It leads us to do crazy things. We only recognize it as illogical after we begin to see the patterns in our lives. We resist this insight because it makes it hard to blame our parents, our society, or someone else.
Whose life are you living?
We all want the freedom to choose either chocolate or vanilla. Being loved is being accepted for your own choices.
Loving someone gives them the freedom to like whatever they choose. Snatch the right to find meaning in your own life. Set those you love free to find meaning in theirs.
Whose life are you living? Ask yourself:
- Whose approval are you seeking by adopting their values?
- Who are you apart from the roles you’re playing
- Who does your thinking for you?
- Have you sacrificed your sense of self to be what others expect you to be?
We must deconstruct the values we inherited and reconstruct a value system entirely of our own making. Then we can capture the power we have ceded to others.
Loren A. Olson, MD
Loren A. Olson, M.D. is a board-certified psychiatrist who obtained his medical degree from the University of Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha, Nebraska, in 1968. He spent four years in the United States Navy as a Flight Surgeon. After his discharge from the military, he completed a psychiatric residency at Maine Medical Center in Portland, Maine.
Awards and Recognitions
• His proudest professional achievement was the patient-nominated Exemplary Psychiatrist Award from the National Alliance on Mental Illness.
• He has received several awards for his writing.
• His book, Finally Out, won the IBPA Ben Franklin Award for BEST LGBT Non-fiction.
His clinical focus has been on the treatment of major mental disorders. His philosophy of treatment includes addressing biological issues, developmental experiences, and current life circumstances. He believes healing occurs when treatment is delivered with genuine warmth, accurate empathy, and unconditional positive regard for everyone.
Associations and Clinical Membership
• Dr. Olson is a Distinguished Life Fellow of the American Psychiatric Association.
Publications and Books
• Dr. Olson’s essays in Psychology Today have been accessed over one million times. He has also written for The Advocate, Huffington Post, Medium, and many other local and national newspapers.
• He has just released another book, Finally Out: Letting Go of Living Straight
Dr. Olson is married to his life-partner Doug, of thirty-four years. Before Doug’s retirement, they raised grass-fed beef on their farm in Iowa. He has two daughters and six grandchildren from his previous marriage. They all continue to expand their definition of family.
Dr. Olson considers himself to be an expert in retiring, “I’ve done it so many times.” During his current “retirement,” he continues to practice psychiatry part-time and writes extensively for various platforms.