Mindful Self-Compassion for Queer Trauma


Trauma has played an important role in my life. After a tumultuous relationship with my parents, I began living in foster care at the age of sixteen. I was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder as a result of the heterosexist oppression that I had experienced in my life, which included flashbacks, nightmares, panic attacks, depression, disassociation, and major anxiety. I was terrified of interacting with men because of the hypervigilance that my body used to try to keep me safe. Once I opened myself up to interacting with the queer community around me, I realized that this was not an isolated issue. Particularly with my gay male friends, I saw a group of sad, hurt, and scared people who wanted desperately to live healthy lives, but were frightened by their own emotions. Through years of psychotherapy, I was able to learn about techniques of mindfulness and self-compassion, which I later completed a research thesis on. These techniques are what held me together through tough times, and allowed me to process difficult emotions. These are some of the techniques that I believe can promote resilience in a queer community that has been through collective trauma.

Mindfulness is a tool used in psychotherapy and counselling that stems from Buddhist meditation practice. It is about paying attention, moment by moment, to the thoughts and feelings that we experience, without judging ourselves. This means of being present has been particularly effective with anxiety, depression, and chronic pain. When we get into certain emotional patterns, they create neural pathways in our brains and they can be reinforced as habitual, patterned responses. The science of neuroplasticity shows that those pathways can be undone, as the brain is plastic and malleable, and mindfulness is one of the ways to undo such patterns. What I find takes it to the next level is the practice of self-compassion, which is particularly useful when we’re in the midst of emotional suffering. Self-compassion is staying with our difficult emotions, allowing them to be there, and then giving ourselves a kind, reassuring outlook on what we’re feeling. It is about realizing that we are all interconnected in our suffering, and that everyone feels these emotions in some way, to some degree.

When I was in psychotherapy I learned that, as a defence mechanism, I often stay in my head, rather than living from my heart. In my family of origin, feeling emotions was unsafe, so I began to intellectualize everything. It impacted my mental health, my relationships, and my overall quality of life. Mindfulness and self-compassion were tools of emancipation. I did not have to rely on anyone else to give me caring reassurance—though sometimes relying on someone else is the most self-compassionate thing to do, but if I wasn’t ready to reach out, I could help myself. I was able to close my eyes, stay with my breath, feel my feelings, and put my hand on my heart to let myself know that no matter what; it’s going to be okay. I learned a technique called R.A.I.N, which stands for: Recognize the emotion(s) that are coming up, Allow them to be there, Investigate where they are physically manifesting in the body, and Nourish with self-compassion. I became more emotionally intelligent and able to understand where I was being triggered.

In the gay male community, we are under immense pressure to conform to ideals of hegemonic, toxic masculinity, and this harms us all. These heteronormative beliefs about manliness are in themselves traumatizing, and they disconnect us from our emotional selves. When two men (or more), who have poor emotional health and no tools, get together to form a relationship, the end can be devastating. However, when two men (or more), who have the tools to help them understand their own emotions, get together, even though they may not be the most mentally healthy people, they have a better opportunity to heal themselves and each other.

I did one of those alternative, hippie undergrad programs where everyone sits in a circle and talks about the world. One day, an integrator (we call them integrators instead of professors), was talking about her research in horse therapy. Christy Clarke said something that I will never forget, “emotions do not happen to us, they happen for us.” That is exactly the crisis that we are facing among people of all genders, particularly men. We are raised to think that emotions are things that inhibit us, and that we must avoid, rather than seeing them as signs from our bodies about what’s going on in our minds, or tools that can be used for emotionally intelligent leadership. I encourage you, as fellow queers, to look into mindfulness and self-compassion programs when you are not feeling well. There are incredible books, academic articles, online meditations, and resources available. Queer yoga is offered in some major cities, and there are Buddhist centres such as the Shambhala Meditation Centre that can be welcoming to queer people. Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction is an eight-week course that is offered by many psychologists, social workers, and medical doctors. I have found these techniques to be incredibly helpful, so I invite you to try them! In order to heal this queer community that has been traumatized by centuries of oppression, we must band together to create a new masculinity, one that is kind, caring, and compassionate, and in order to do that, we must first be compassionate to ourselves.

Bio:Kody Carlson is a queer who lives with his cat, Eve, in Atlantic Canada. He wrote his thesis on mindfulness and self-compassion for university students, and graduated the Renaissance College Leadership Studies program at the University of New Brunswick. He is currently studying Social Work at St. Thomas University, and working at a group home. Kody has taught mindfulness in Germany at a Special Needs School, and he hopes to work with queer people in his future practice. He is an avid lover of RuPaul’s Drag Race, iced coffee, and pasta.

Other Work: https://www.nrd.de/de/blog/posts/Kody-Carlson-Cross-Cultural-Lessons-in-Disability-Education.php

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