From a very young age, I've based my behavior on what I thought would bring me love. I sought love from parents, teachers, peers and partners by being a “good boy.” This “good boy” was respectful, didn't abuse drugs or alcohol, never fought verbally or physically and tried to always treat others with respect. I constantly strove for approval, inclusion, appreciation and love.
As I developed this “good boy” character, I learned to be curious about people, to find out how to make them laugh and smile along with me and to explore unique ways of getting to know them. I also learned how to make my parents and teachers proud by doing homework and housework, getting good grades and excelling in my extracurricular activities.
While I didn’t realize the trappings of white, cis, male heteronormativity at the time, I would eventually learn how these parts of my identity, along with my upper-middle-class upbringing, contributed to what made me a “good boy” in the eyes of many, far beyond my personality and behavior. On the flip side, I learned that my sexual desires, as they began to overtake my body and attention, were not part of the equation that made up my “good boy” persona.
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I Thought Being a Good Person Meant Neglecting Myself
Recently, I’ve begun to understand the person I have been my entire life was a person who bypassed his own needs and desires, sexually and otherwise, in service to others. I never learned how to check-in and understand what I truly wanted and needed, or if I did have needs and desires, I often felt ashamed or selfish asking for them. All I knew how to do was get others to like me and appreciate me by bending over backward to like and appreciate them first.
I had no way of knowing how to manage my sexual desires in communication with others, and I was explicitly socialized to believe that my sexual nature was something to keep to myself. I remember my parents teaching me at an early age (quite appropriately) that my private parts, and anything to do with them, were explicitly private. But when I was caught in the bathroom with my mom’s Victoria’s Secret catalog and she asked, “What is this doing here?” I felt deeply ashamed and had no answer.
Now, I’m in my late 30s, recently married and about to have a kid. As I begin to uncover the truth behind always being a “good boy” and recognize the unspoken desires I’ve always had, I'm realizing I'm not who I thought I was. I’m learning that I still make decisions based on what my parents would approve of, my partner’s needs or getting love from people I admire.
I find this showing up in the simple daily questions of what I want for dinner or what I do for work. My wife inquires, and I almost always defer back to her. “What are you in the mood for?” I ask. In explaining my work, I find ways to identify as an entrepreneur, a designer, an artist, depending on who I’m speaking to, always thinking about how I can explain it to parents and friends in a way that they will find admirable.
I’m also learning how to slowly break free from this cycle of thinking that has hijacked my awareness and true identity. With help from therapy and my wife, I’m realizing that I’ve muted myself for most of my life and I need to take time to feel into my body and determine what I actually want. Slowly, I’m learning to voice what I need and want.
It’s scary, but it’s time.
I Didn't Realize How My Identity Affected My Behavior
As millennials, we have grown up through an explosion of identity politics. The way we define our race, beliefs, sexuality and gender are often as important, if not more important, in society than how we speak about our careers and passions. As early as first grade, I learned that I had lots of privilege as a white, upper-middle-class “good boy.” I experienced the differences in how my family lived and some of my classmates with different identities and privileges.
Over time, I learned that my privileges informed how I behaved. I learned to mute myself so as not to stand out, and I learned that my identities weren’t necessarily cool in the circles where I wanted to be accepted.
The cool kids, especially in middle school, rode skateboards and bikes all over the city; they lived in modest houses and apartments, some in the projects; and they watched The Simpsons every night. For a while, I felt left out. I didn’t watch the right TV shows or have the balance to stay on a skateboard, and I didn’t have the freedom from my parents to roam free all day after school. But after spending some time listening and cajoling my parents to loosen up, I began joining my classmates in the Simpsons talk and on the skateboards and got comfortable spending time in their homes.
I felt more accepted for a while, and my self-esteem began to grow as I got better at skateboarding and more fluent in cool culture, but eventually, what was cool changed as middle school turned into high school. I could no longer hack it with just my activities and attention; now my race and privilege set me apart from the pack, and it was hard to overcome those differences that became more vast as we grew older by watching the right TV shows. I also gravitated toward new friends who were more like me in terms of privilege and felt more accepting of who I was.
I’m Tired of Being the “Good Boy” and Am Refocusing on Myself
I remember being frustrated as an adolescent into young adulthood as I grappled with my label as a “nice guy” amongst women I desired. I didn’t want to be mean or selfish or disrespectful to anyone, but I did want the respect and admiration many of those not nice guys got, especially from our female peers. Because the “good boy” knew how to make friends, I found many crushes led to friendships. Looking back now, I realize that “good boy” really badly wanted more than just friendship. He wanted to explore his sexual nature with others.
He wanted to fuck.
Even in college, it was challenging for me to comfortably share my desires for women I was attracted to and to fully express my sexual fantasies. I felt like I was being bad or disrespectful by voicing or being too overt about my sexual interest in someone else. When I did find reciprocity in a romantic connection, it felt like I was being granted a pass to a forbidden land where I wasn’t supposed to go.
Lately, I’ve noticed a similar feeling of shame and silence coming up around my comfort level being a white man in a non-white world. I feel like I should mute my expression or natural desire to lead, take up space and create when I carry the privileges of cis, white patriarchy. The thing is, like my sexual fervor, I do want to take up space and share myself with the world in my fullest expression without shame or self-suppression. I want to expand my expression, make bigger, bolder art, dress in wilder, more colorful ways, say provocative things that challenge social norms. I want to live fully without restraint!
Looking back on how I was raised and the culture that taught me how to be a “good boy,” I am thankful for many of the skills and sensitivities that got me here. Now I seek to unlearn some of the conditioning that leads me to neglect my own needs and desires for the sake of everyone else. I am ready to meet my “bad boy,” the one who knows when and how to prioritize his needs, the one who isn’t afraid to say what he thinks or engage in conflict that serves his growth.
I know that my friends and family can love this boy too. Those who know me best have been waiting for him to arrive for a long time.