The Cycle of Gatekeeping
What is gatekeeping?
For some, this term is way too familiar.
For others it may be unclear, so let me clear that up for you!
Gatekeeping is a term that refers to someone on the edge of a metaphorical gate assessing if someone may enter the gated community by proving they are “______ enough” (i.e nerdy enough; enough of a Harry Potter fan; enough of a techie to understand code; and the list goes on). A guard of culture, if you will.
Most gatekeepers don’t even realize they have taken upon this role, and are simply feeling protective of their safe space. These folks have potentially felt hurt or bullied by others making fun of their chosen interest. So, they may feel guarded about others wanting to become part of the group.
Early on in the gatekeeper’s life, this may look something like:
(Scene: High school gym class)
Bully: Hey dweeb! What’s that on your backpack? A Mario button? Wow, you’re such a loser.
Baby Gatekeeper: Leave me alone!
Bully: Have you ever even picked up a ball? I bet you don’t even know how to throw a football.
Baby Gatekeeper: …(feels embarrassed and angry).
When we look at where gatekeepers come from, we can get a sense of how the cycle forms.
If our friend the Baby Gatekeeper wasn’t able to soothe in their own community, group of friends, or in a supportive household those are big emotions to stick in their system. When we feel embarrassed or ashamed it’s a natural response to want to bounce back by feeling powerful and strong in some other way.
Leaning into our own achievements and ideas about what’s important to us is a fantastic way to get that need met. However, if it’s at the expense of others not feeling included, or feeding off their power imbalance it becomes unhealthy. It hurts the folks who are on the search for their own community and group interest.
So how does our grown up Gatekeeper interact with others now?
(Scene: Comic Convention)
New Fan: Wow, I love your costume!
Gatekeeper: (Squinty eyes) Thanks, I think you mean cosplay. Have you actually even seen the original season of Scooby Doo?
New Fan: Oh… no I like the movies though (feels embarrassed and angry).
Possible reactions from here: New Fan digs heels in and researches all things Scooby Doo to prove knowledge of fandom to other unsuspecting fans. Alternatively, New Fan becomes discouraged, feels like an imposter, and isolates from the community.
So how do we deal with these Evil Gatekeepers?
Alright, look. There is a reason that folks spend a lot of time (Hi r/gatekeeping!) calling out gatekeeping. It’s hurtful, sometimes subtle- sometimes not, hypocritical, and is validating to those who have been gatekept. However, at some point when we spend time shaming gatekeepers, we perpetuate the cycle.
Hear me out: we’ve all been gatekeepers. I myself used to be one with coffee. I thought if you weren’t drinking it black then you were ruining coffee. Even if meant in a joking way we can shame those close to us about how they choose to drink their coffee. I’ve learned how that affects others, and came to realize it just wasn’t worth it to do.
What to do instead?
If you’re interested in breaking the cycle of gatekeeping, the following are some options I’ve brainstormed. (See Dan Siegel’s strategy of connect, then redirect for more inspiration).
- Try being very clear and calm about explaining that their comment comes across as gatekeeping.
- If this is a closer friend and you’re feeling up to it, start up an open and honest conversation about what you know about gatekeeping and how it has affected you in the past. Get curious about their own experiences with gatekeeping.
- Steer clear from blatant criticism and shaming if you can. Instead focusing on “I feel ______when you_______” statements. Follow up with “And this is what I need from you in this conversation…..” (i.e. validation; an apology; advice; etc.)
- Listen to the wisdom of your body for when you have the energy to choose to engage in a direct confrontation. It’s okay to let some things slip by or to keep ourselves safe moment to moment.
Let me know if you have any questions about gatekeeping!
I’m available for individual counseling in south Austin. I even offer free 30-minute in-person consultations if you’d like to test-drive what counseling with me would be like. You may reach out here for inquiries.
Julia Stamman, LPC
Hi, I’m Julia! I’m an LPC (licensed professional counselor) practicing in South Austin. I understand the personal importance of a therapist groking my lifestyle, so I started helping others who identify as geeks, gamers, and/or misfits. Over time, I realized that I’m passionate about attachment-related trauma, social anxiety, and neurodiversity. On this blog, I write on topics like the overlap of alternative culture and mental health, and how to find services catered to these lifestyles.