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Who am I? Searching for authenticity as a gay man.

From self-destruction to self-discovery - shedding the parts of my conditioned self and embracing what's underneath.

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Michael Edward Stephens of Create Space Retreats
Michael Edward Stephens by Andrew Urwin

I was led to believe that after ‘coming out’, things would get better. And in so many ways they did. I came out at 19 to supportive friends and family. I was so elated to be free of the lie I’d held onto for so long, and so relieved that I could now go out into the world and start living my best life.

No longer needing to pretend to be someone I wasn’t, I jumped right into living ‘authentically’ as a gay man. 

But ‘authenticity’ didn’t come naturally to me, because I’d been conditioned to behave a certain way my entire life. I was acting from a point of fear and shame because I had no other point of reference to go from. I had hidden this part of myself for so long, I didn’t actually know how to be authentic. I only knew how to be someone else. So, it’s not surprising that I automatically went on to create yet another persona for myself as a gay man: the person I thought I should be, the person I thought other people wanted me to be.

So, it’s not surprising that I automatically went on to create yet another persona for myself as a gay man: the person I thought I should be, the person I thought other people wanted me to be.

At 19 years old I transitioned into this brand-new shiny chapter of my life. I moved at such a fast pace that I didn’t give deeply ingrained parts of me any time to catch up. I just layered glitter and sparkles on top of that fear and shame, subconsciously hoping that by doing so I’d effectively leave the past behind me. 

But by not processing everything that happened ‘before’ coming out, I was later in life to be confronted with some serious personal mental health and physical health challenges. This included an eating disorder that I hid for over ten years, chronic anxiety and periods of depression. All while holding down very high-intensity jobs and partying a lot – which naturally took its toll on my body. 

At age 30, and at the height of my professional career, I finally burnt out. From the outside it looked as if my life was perfect. Great job, social life, holidays… But behind closed doors I was experiencing chronic pain, eczema, IBS, and insomnia – for which I’d self-prescribed daily heavy doses of diazepam – another addiction. I was a mess!

I decided to take some time off to recover and reset. It was clear that I needed to get out of London for the sake of my mental and physical wellbeing. In the process I had to leave behind the identity I’d spent over a decade constructing. It felt like the only option to be honest, and was surprisingly one of the easiest decisions I’ve ever made.

Taking away the money, the status and the recognition, it soon became clear that I didn’t really feel confident knowing WHO I was without these ‘things’ that validated me and gave me a sense of identity. The things that I thought were going to make me feel content and satisfied, in fact left me feeling a bit empty when they got taken away. I realised that I knew exactly who I’d wanted everyone to think I was – but being that person had become all-consuming and tough to maintain. I felt less of a human-being, and more of a human-doing.

I felt less of a human-being,

and more of a human-doing.

That’s when my journey of self-discovery began in earnest. 

Inauthenticity, like even the best fashion knockoffs, can’t last. The leather starts to fade, the threads unravel, and the buttons come off one by one. In human terms, the real us begins to emerge and light starts to shine through the cracks. 

It was clear that in order for me to start living from a place of authenticity, I needed to fully process my past and understand how it shows up in my present. I needed to face it, honour it and then finally let it go. 

It’s been a long and bumpy road, and I have tried a lot of different things. I’ve spent a lot of time, energy and cash to try and ‘fix’ my problems, find someone to blame and ‘heal’ myself.

Naturally, I was initially disappointed when I didn’t see results over night. But fast forward one year and I am somewhat amazed by the transformation. What I’ve found, is some of the simplest techniques continue to be the most powerful. They just require patience, commitment and compassion.

From therapy, to group work, psychedelics, breathwork, coaching, creative workshops, holistic practices, journaling, meditation, retreats, books, webinars… They were each useful in their own way in helping reveal my conditioned thoughts and behaviours and process my suppressed emotions.

Essentially, this combination of psychological techniques and holistic practices helped me go into deeper modes of self-inquiry and ‘re-discover my true self’. I believe that when we understand WHY we behave a certain way, we can use that knowledge as power to instigate change.

I believe that when we understand WHY we behave a certain way, we can use that knowledge as power to instigate change.

Creating space for others to get curious about themselves has now become my life’s work. Using all the tools, techniques and practices that helped me. I’m so grateful that I am able to openly share my own story and my struggles. I do it for all those who don’t yet feel able to share their own. To give them optimism, and hopefully educate, inspire or empower just one more person to start their own journey of self-discovery.

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