The Meaning of Same-Sex Attraction
By Joseph Nicolosi, Ph.D.
In this paper taken from an upcoming book, the author describes his concept of same-sex attractions as a reparative drive.
During twenty years of clinical work with ego-dystonic homosexually oriented men, I have come to see homosexual enactment as a form of "reparation." The concept of reparative drive has been well-established within the psychoanalytic literature; in our application, the person is attempting to "repair" unmet same-sex affective needs (attention, affection and approval) as well as gender-identification deficits (Nicolosi, 1991, 1993) through homoerotic behavior.
Homosexual enactment temporarily relieves the stressful self-states that we repeatedly in our SSA clients: most particularly, shame, conflicted assertion, the depressive mood that I call the "Grey Zone," and the social posture of the False Self.
For my clients, homosexual enactment does not represent their personal intentions, will or self-identity, and it is in violation of their aspirations and life goals. Gay life is unsatisfying to them, so they enter therapy in the hope of reducing their unwanted attractions and developing their heterosexual potential.
Homosexual acting-out, for these men, is an attempt at restoring psychic equilibrium in order to maintain the integrity of the self-structure. Through homosexual enactment, they unconsciously seek to attain a self-state of authenticity, assertion, autonomy, and gender-relatedness, but they have found that it eventually brings them none of those things-only a nagging feeling of inauthenticity, and still deeper discouragement.
Homosexual Enactment as Reparation of Blocked Assertion
As our clients begin to live more authentically, they discover that they have a growing ability to be assertive. Living in an authentic self-state brings a person freedom, self-possession, and healthy social relatedness. At first, they may confuse assertion with childish acting-out. Acting-out is troublesome behavior, an old maladaptive way-of-being in the world. But healthy assertion is quite different: it forms the foundation of authentic relationships and direct communication. It is a positive, adaptive medium for learning new skills and new ways of being, and involves intentionality and responsibility. Assertive behaviors help fulfill male identification needs, and propel the client toward mastery of interpersonal conflicts, especially those that repeatedly arise with other men.
Growth in assertion means that the client will begin to experiment with new behaviors (sometimes, paradoxically, even homosexual behaviors). On the other hand, assertion may take the opposite form, meaning a deliberate inhibitory response-- the willful choice to refrain from acting out sexually with other men.
Assertion vs. Acting Out
The exhilaration of the transgressive, the false vitality one feels when engaging in sex with other men, is --our clients intuitively understand--a maladaptation. Their sexual acting-out is compulsive, stereotypic, and repetitive; it represents an unproductive attempt to resolve past traumatic conflict--in particular, the conflict between love and fear, often having to do with memories of the father figure. The same-sex behavior never resolves the original conflict, instead, it creates further intrapsychic and relational stress.
The homosexual impulse is an attempt to rediscover the free, expressive, open, powerful, gendered self, which requires an assertion of self regarding which he has felt humiliated. The intent of the impulse is "reparative" in that its goal is gender affirmation; the man strives to be "seen" by other men as an attractive male.
Homosexual Enactment: A Reaction against the False Self ("Role Reparation")
Most men cannot live perpetually in the False Self of the "Good Little Boy" and "Nice Guy" roles which are so common to homosexually oriented men. These are repressive, inauthentic and inhibited presentations of self to the world. In an effort at reparation, they then choose the opposite: the rebellious, shocking, "naughty," offensive, "bad boy" and "sexual outlaw" roles. As a form of rebellion against the restrictive, false role of the "Nice Guy," homosexual enactment seems to promise liberation and rebellion. It feels transgressive, outrageous, "free."
The perception of danger adds to the excitement. This sometimes means that the man allows (or even actively seeks) exposure to the AIDS virus -- there is an entire culture devoted to "barebacking" with HIV-positive partners-- or he may seek sex in a semi-public place such as a bathroom or park where there is a risk of being seen. One client described the thrill as "The possibility of getting caught, doing something naughty, risky and illicit. In that moment I get an adrenalin rush... 'F--k you, world!' It gives me energy, purpose...I feel alive. It's empowering, it's powerful. 'F--k you, I'm in charge of my life.' Yeah... it's a temper tantrum."
A 21-year-old art major tried to explain his anonymous sexual contacts:
"My sexual exploits are like, 'You know what, I can be bad like you guys.' I can have battle scars...'I've been there, I can tell you stories.' It's like showing off to my friends, 'I've done this and this and this. I've got something to talk about,' like, 'Here I am!!"'
Another 35-year-old client struggling with unwanted SSA, returning from a vacation in Amsterdam, had explored the "gay scene" and involved himself in some homosexual activity. He said:
"I wanted to feel I could go out and do whatever I wanted. I wanted to feel independent... 'I can make my own decisions, and be open to anything... I could be myself, and check things out and decide for myself...go explore, and feel my own power. After all, my power to say 'no' has to be based on my freedom to say 'yes.'"
To what extent was this client's homosexual acting-out a true effort to "explore his own power" through self-assertion? Or in this case, was it just a rationalization to take a step backward in the therapeutic process? Here we see a possible avenue of therapeutic exploration.
Homosexual Enactment: Reaction to the Needs of the Grey Zone
Feeling alive, excited, connected, aroused-homosexual activity promises that visceral charge, that "zap" of primitive arousal that rescues the man out of the impotent, "shut-down," depressive mood he feels in the Grey Zone:
"I'm so used to covering up my sadness with sexual arousal that, when I feel sad, I know arousal is right around the corner. I used masturbation ever since I was a kid. I'd [do it] three times a day, so as not to feel like a loser...to feel weak, sad."
Attempting to explain his anonymous sexual contacts, another 21-year-old client in his first session said: 'It makes me feel kinda alive inside my body. I feel established, in touch with myself. Usually I forget my body; I go through the day in this hyper auto-pilot mode; I don't eat right or sleep enough."
The Grey Zone has an affective association with profound despair, and in this sense, the Grey Zone can be a pre-grief state. One man said: "If I grab hold of my sadness and pull it close to my chest, I believe it will absorb me, consume me." Anticipation of deeply felt despair prompts manic defenses, including what the client most wants to resist-- homosexual enactment.
Homosexual Enactment: A Reaction against Shame (Esteem Reparation)
Shame is a double-edged sword; it cuts the person off from both self and others. The shamed self feels humiliation and believes it is defective, insignificant, and worthless. Homosexual acting-out, as a narcissistic function, seems to promise the opposite of those negative feelings: i.e., attention, admiration, adoration and masculine reassurance. It seems to offer...
* A reparation of depleted masculinity and personal weakness
* Intimate contact to reassure against the painful isolation and alienation which characterize the shame experience.
* Special attention and positive regard-a specialness (narcissistic reflection of the self) that mitigates deep feelings of humiliation, defectiveness and insignificance.
* Reassurance that he truly does possess a worthy male body.
But these promises always fail to deliver. A 21-year-old client put it this way:
"I've always asked myself why all these other distractions don't satisfy. The whole power of the fantasy is that I'm not good enough. All that I seek, everything I do, is to keep me away from the feeling of inadequacy; that I'm nothing.
"The empty pleasure of porn is like every other anesthesia; it dulls life. Its roots are in darkness.... It's a pleasure that closes off life; [with] a turning-away from relationships.....
"What makes me want to do it is a greater emptiness beneath, an emptiness that is a condemnation about me. This pleasure temporarily defeats that condemnation."
Shame and Narcissism
The narcissistic function of same-sex attraction was illustrated in a recent cable TV program, where two characters were discussing a third attractive man. One gay man said to the other, "I was so attracted to him, I either had to be him, or have him."
Shame and narcissism are dualities on the same continuum, both essential to the understanding of homosexuality. Narcissism is a defense against shame, and homosexuality is a form of narcissism that defends against the shame that is felt for masculine assertion.
Narcissism is a central challenge to be met during the healing of homosexuality, because same-sex attraction embodies the narcissistic illusion that gender-based shame can be "made better" through same-sex behavior. Same-sex attraction is the illusion that compensates for the shame-based distortion of gender inferiority. In fact, we may view shame as the knife which cuts apart the totality of the self and separates off the "disavowed" or "denounced" gendered part of the self. Homosexuality, then, is used to "close the wound" by importing masculinity from another man.
The Shame Moment
The Shame Moment is a moment of conflict between two conflicting impulses-- assertion and shame. Thus it is the collision of a vital affect hitting up against an inhibitory affect. The Shame Moment has a particularly painful quality because the person is unable to defend himself against an overwhelming, yet unarticulated injustice. The feeling of shame is, "I can't explain myself, and no one will understand me. I can never win." The result is a "shutdown" of assertive affect. There is a frozen, paralyzed quality to the Shame Moment; what one client describes as "that palpable fear that keeps me from connecting with others...I'm still, I'm numb. My mind is blank and I'm just taking the abuse."
The Double Bind and the Creation of Shame
Shame is not an "emotion" since emotion means "to move," or "to emote"; rather, shame is a counter-emotion. It is a wedge that splits gender identity from the totality of the person. The result is an incompletely masculine-identified and false self.
A significant number of our clients report a family background which could be defined as narcissistic. In the narcissistic family, the child is placed in the communications structure of the Double Bind, or the "no-win predicament." If he assumes responsibility for the fact that he does not feel loved for who he really is, the child is rewarded with parental love and attention (but of a narcissistic and malattuned sort). That is the nature of shame -assuming responsibility for "not having been lovable." However, if he maintains his assertive stance, holding onto the integrity of his own perception and his own his internal state, he is punished with parental inattention and withdrawal.
To comprehend the profound gravity of this choice, we need to understand what we mean by a parent's well-intentioned but malattuned love. When one is a very small child, parental malattunement feels like a profoundly painful expulsion, a "shunning" that is experienced as nothing less than hopeless abandonment. The price of choosing to maintain his own perception means, to the small child, having to confront the primal fear of abandonment-annihilation.
Abandonment-Annihilation as a Cause of Shame
Essentially, shame is about not being seen, becoming non-existent, invisible. As one client said, "At that [shame] moment, I could disappear, hide under a rock." The southern-Italian dialect word for shame, "scompaire," means literally "to disappear."
Shame is an affective death of the self, and finds its evolutionary roots in the survival instinct. Field observations of wolves reveal the function of this shame posture. Each wolf's acceptance by the pack is essential to its survival, because expulsion from the group almost inevitably results in death. The outcast wolf displays slinking, cowering behavior in an effort to be readmitted to the pack, and that behavior is strikingly reminiscent of our clients' own embodied experience of the shame moment: sinking chest, shoulders caved in, bodily collapse, with the back hunched over.
The Triadic-Narcissistic Family's Double Bind and Creation of Shame
The consequence of the Double Bind for the child is a split from the self. The result is a disowning of the True Self, which--for our clients--included a disowning of their masculine ambition. Thus is born the False (and genderless) Self. Later, homosexuality will appear as a narcissistic attempt to bridge that shame-induced self-split that separates the man from his masculine ambitions. Same-sex attractions will then substitute for the lost masculine within.
Shame and Grief
Shame implies that one has blamed oneself for the attachment loss. The client may identify with the parent figure's pain and sadness; as a small child, he thought he caused parental pain himself, for which he feels anger. Shame "switches places" with his sadness and anger and inhibits their open expression. But fully experiencing these two core affects in the present (sadness and anger) is essential for the client to begin to grieve and to heal, because shame is the gatekeeper to his unexpressed grief.
Shame has another important function for the child who was the product of the narcissistic family: it preserves the relationship with a parent. Shame also preserves the false hope that if he keeps trying, someday that parent will "see" him and attune to him for who he really is. Thus, shame "fills in" for grief.
One client sitting in the middle of his grief said, "There's a hollowness inside that I used to fill with shame." The often-heard phrase "I am filled with shame" suggests its actual function. For when he abandons the defense of shame, the client feels the full impact of the parental attunement loss as an actual "bodily hollowness."
Shame for Gender Autonomy
As we've seen, for the boy who is the product of the narcissistic family, the parents have failed to offer sufficient support for this son's gender autonomy.
In some cases, the parents explicitly punish the boy for his autonomous strivings. Reinstatement into the family may mean accepting the message, "You do not qualify to be masculine." Or, they failed to support the boy's masculine strivings through a non-response. (For example, parents who consistently fail to defend a boy from a bullying older brother.) In the case of the temperamentally sensitive and non-stereotypically masculine boy-the boy who is biologically predisposed to struggle with gender identity-- the parents have neglected to elicit his biologically appropriate masculine strivings.
All of these reactions are experienced by the boy as parental emotional detachment.
Most people have difficulty understanding how a person can feel shame when other people have done nothing to them-all they have offered is a "non-response." To this I answer, "Have you ever told a joke and no one laughed?"
Faced with the choice between his biologically-based imperative to be an authentic, separate, gendered individual, and the shame-inducing experience of parental non-response to that natural imperative, the boy who became homosexual has chosen the latter. He felt unworthy of the ambition to actualize his True-Gendered Self. The perceived threat of "expulsion from the pack" has induced him to accept what felt was the message that he was defective. Thus, he renounces his gender ambition.
We see this flood of feelings of shame when the client expresses his masculine ambition to the therapist. He expresses his desire, as an adult, to attain male attention, affection and approval, while he admits to the therapist that he actually feels "weak," "flawed," "silly," "stupid," or simply "bad." One client said, "I recognize my need to be affirmed by a man. But to seek it seems weak." As a compromise formation, his homosexual attractions emerge out of the conflict between wanting masculine identity, but feeling shame for seeking it.
Clinical Example of Anticipatory Shame for Masculine Ambition
In planning a home visit, a 23-year-old, gay-identified client expressed the desire to spend time with his older brother. In preparation for his visit, I encouraged him to make a plan to achieve his goal. He was hopeful, imagining how they might enjoy time together as they took bikes and went out for a day's ride in the mountains.
Continuing his fantasy, he imagined how his mother, who considered him her "special" son, would disapprove when they returned home:
"She'll say, [imitating a patronizing voice] 'Oh, did you boys have a nice time?' I know she'd be smiling, but I know she disapproved, like I did something wrong. I violated something between us. ... That's when I want to go into my 'gay- defiant-can-stand-on-my-own' self."
Shame's domination derives from the unexamined assumption that one deserves to be shamed; it presupposes the existing internal conviction, "I am shame-able." Shame often means one is assuming the childhood burden for not having felt loved for who one really is. The person assumes responsibility for this situation, thus essentially blaming himself for being unworthy of affiliation. As one 45-year-old man confessed, "I am rejected because I am rejectable. I am unloved because I am unlovable." Shame is the affective "shutting down" with a flood of self-blame for the desire to authentically assert oneself.
Anticipation of Shame
Anticipatory shame is auto-generative, and for the client, it seems not to be internally generated, but to come from "out there." Here the therapist points out that this punishing distortion is representative of the internalized critical parent. It is internally created (projected), and amounts to an active imposing of shame upon the self. In this way, the client (who was often a temperamentally sensitive child) is simply doing to himself what he felt his parents did to him. There is the ever-present fear of devastating rebuke; always underneath is the little boy ready to be punished.
The Embodied Anticipation of Shame: The "Shame Posture"
The Shame Posture is a stance toward the world in which the person is "braced" for the next Assertion-Shame collision. Living in the False Self, the person is in a state of continual vigilance against suddenly and unexpectedly becoming the object of contempt while in the act of some sort of innocent, spontaneous self-expression. Thus he takes the "Shame Posture" in anticipation of the next Shame Moment.
One man described this stance: "I don't feel I relate to people as people, but as negative judges of me, harboring mean thoughts about me. I think, 'Yeah, they're right about me; I am a failure, loser...weak, fake, stupid, defective, weird, 'sissy,' 'queer,' not male.' I live with the fear of someone discovering I am fake. I'm always anticipating rejection, but when the moment comes, I never seem prepared for it."
Tracing his False Self back to childhood, one 28-year-old man admitted, "As a kid I felt like I didn't belong to my family. I have flashes of smirks, contemptuous glances, disparaging looks. I tried to understand it. I thought, "What did I do? My behavior? My looks?"
Another man described his anticipatory shame as "...this interior sense that I am unlovable. On some level I convey this sort of unspoken plea; 'Please don't do anything to remind me that I'm unlovable. In fact, if you want to be my friend, you'll work hard at distracting me from that truth.'"
A Lifestyle of Hiding
This ever-present vigilance of anticipatory shame creates a lifestyle of hiding, avoidance, withdrawal, and passivity. In clinical settings we have seen that anticipatory shame can become so intense as to approximate paranoia, with the frightening conviction that another person has the power to turn everybody against him. The assumption of such a client is that he is helpless against slander. His projected omnipotence of the other person (a shame-based distortion) obliterates any belief that he can have a direct impact upon others. The "offended other" has all the power. He is still a child in the world of adults, powerless to directly influence others' opinions of him. Past associations to this frightening anticipation often go back to early adolescence, when a bully turned the other boys against him, and earlier yet, to the "omnipotent" mother who could turn family members against him.
While children may experience shame for a wide repertoire of behaviors, the pre-homosexual boy somehow felt shamed for desiring attachment to his father-- shamed for exposing his masculine ambitions. If (as is often the case) he was a particularly sensitive child, he felt shame for desiring the emotional needs associated with male bonding-he felt unworthy of the three "A's" of attention, affection, and approval. Perhaps his gender assertion also violated the mother-son relational stability. Whatever its source, the result was shame, and the boy's ultimate abandonment of his true-gendered self.
Central to reparative therapy is assisting the client's transition from the False Self to the Gendered True Self. Here are some guidelines:
TRUE SELF FALSE SELF
Feels masculine Feels unmasculine
Adequate, on par Feels inferior, inadequate
Secure, confident, capable Insecure, lacking confidence, incapable
Experiencing authentic emotions Emotionally dead or alternatively, hyperactive
At home in body Body is object, not self
Physical confidence Anxious clumsiness
Feeling empowered, autonomous Feeling controlled by others
Accepting of imperfections Perfectionistic
Active, decisive Passive
Trusting Defensive posture
Spontaneous Over-controlled, inhibited, "frozen"
Forgiving, accepting Retaliatory, resentful
Genuine, authentic Role playing, Theatrical
Seeks out others Avoidant
Aware of others Constricted awareness
Assertive, expressive Nonassertive, inhibited
Mature in relationships Immature in relationship
Respectful of others' power Resentful of others in power
Empowered A victim
Integrated; open Double life; secretive
Rapport with opposite gender Misunderstanding of opposite gender
Sees other men as like self Pulled by mystique of other men
"Homosexuality rarely comes up for me. I can willfully visualize it - but it doesn't have that compelling quality."
"I'm in that whole gay mindset... Sexual attraction to guys preoccupies and dominates my entire outlook."
The therapeutic setting provides a "holding environment," an opportunity in which as client can explore, re-experience and assimilate painful trauma. The therapeutic "corrective experience" permits liberation from old repetitive patterns of self-sabotage, and establishes authentic new relationships. There is an inner sense of cohesiveness and self-integrity. With a heightened sense of genuine intimacy comes a diminishment of homosexuality's illusionary power.
Freed from the fearful power of grief and the defenses it evokes, a new identity emerges. As the client faces his illusions and distortions, he spontaneously expresses curiosity about his true identity: "When I give up my False Self, who am I?" Through Grief Work there is a transformation of self-identity which--simply stated--is the quiet but sure conviction that "I am good enough."
Nicolosi, J. (1991) Reparative Therapy of Male Homosexuality. Northvale, NJ: Aronson.
1993) Healing Homosexuality: Case Stories of Reparative Therapy. Northvale, NJ: Aronson.