I think of coming out as not simply solving a problem, but rather making a developmental leap toward becoming your true self. While many commonalities exist among coming out stories, each person’s experience is unique to the emotional, interpersonal, and cultural contexts in which they are embedded. Going through a process of recognizing the internal and external forces that held you back, while building the strengths to overcome such adversity, can be personally transformative in ways that often supersede the initial problem of being closeted.
Coming out is not a single day marked in red on the calendar. It’s typically a process that unfolds over time, involving multiple changes in how you have come to know and understand yourself, and in how you relate to other people and the world around you. Gay affirmative psychotherapy may help you not only gain relief from the distress of being closeted, but also contribute to your growth and development in substantial ways. Our work together may help you sort through a complex array of multiple contexts, identities, and relationships in ways that may lead to increased self-awareness, self-esteem, mature relationships, and the strength to be yourself in the face of adversity.
Anxiety and isolation in the closet
It’s normal and understandable to spend considerable time wanting to come out of the closet but remaining inside–fearful, confused, and stuck. Excessive anxiety, difficult family relationships, and homophobia (both internal and external) are just a few of the most common barriers to coming out. The conflict between wanting to come out, yet fearing doing so, can be a source of tremendous distress and is a common reason to seek professional help. Our work together may help you identify barriers to coming out, develop a plan to overcome such barriers, and feel supported and understood as you follow through with carrying out your plan. Such work is typically multifaceted:
Coming out to yourself
The ability to accept that being gay is part of who you are is typically impacted by multiple factors, including your personal history of exposure to prejudice against gay people, the quality of your interactions thus far with other gay people, ways you have seen gay life and issues portrayed by the media, and cultural and religious attitudes you may have internalized. Any of these factors may play major roles in your ability to feel comfortable with accepting yourself.
Just about everyone has encountered multiple forms of homophobia, whether it was expressed in the family, school, community, or society at large. Whether you encountered explicit homophobic bullying or more subtle privileging of straight experiences as normative, most of us come to the realization early on that being gay is not valued equally in our society. Knowing this can make it very challenging to accept and feel comfortable with yourself. Therapy may help you confront negative feelings and replace them with more positive thoughts, feelings, and attitudes about being gay, thus helping you to value being gay and to bolster yourself self-esteem because of your identity, not in spite of it.
Coming out to family
While some people choose to come out to everyone in their family at the same time, others prefer to build a small network of allies within the family from which they gradually expand to encompass the entire family system. Your family’s religious attitudes, political beliefs, and general attitudes toward gay people may inform your feelings of safety with coming out. Ideally, coming out may bring you closer to your family because they may then get to know you as whole person for the first time. Of course this does not always go as smoothly as one may hope. Particularly when family relationships are strained, when abuse or neglect has occurred in the family, or when a parent’s emotional problems create added complications, coming out can be more challenging than usual. Psychotherapy that focuses on coming out to the family involves consideration of idiosyncratic features of relationships in the family, such that it may be necessary to do some preliminary work adjusting boundaries, understanding others’ limitations, or working through other conflicts in the family that may pave the way toward a more successful experience when coming out.
Coming out to friends and colleagues
It’s not uncommon to worry about losing friends or professional standing when coming out of the closet. Therapy may help articulate such fears and evaluate to what degree they may be founded in reality. Usually the fear is greater than the eventual reality, though sometimes being in the closet allows the closeted person access to hearing homophobic comments from friends and colleagues behind another gay person’s back. It can be challenging to differentiate between those comments made in ignorance and those made with the intention to be cruel. Hearing such comments can have a chilling effect because with coming out, the privilege of being perceived as straight will be lost. While the value of authenticity and freedom from hiding eventually trumps the value of ascribed straight privilege, the struggle can be intense until it’s accomplished.
Joining gay communities
Coming out is not just about exiting a previous assumption of being straight. It’s also about entering a new chapter of your life. Ideally, you may come in to a world of new relationships based on authenticity. If coming out were just about the risk of rejection and the loss of straight privilege, what would be the point? But the benefits of coming out far outweigh such risks–authentic, loving relationships, being known and valued for who you really are, finding your place in a vibrant community, and significant reduction in tension and anxiety associated with hiding in the closet.
Yet for a person newly out of the closet, finding your way around gay life can be as confusing as moving to a different country with unfamiliar customs and language. Further complicating the picture, you may encounter people who have not successfully worked through their own trauma of internalized homophobia, and who like members of any marginalized population, may act out by recreating a hostile environment within gay social life rather than embracing others with kindness. Gay affirmative psychotherapy may help you navigate the process of joining gay communities in ways that allow you to navigate the potential minefield while building strong and rewarding friendships and intimate relationships.
Contact & more information
- If you feel I may be able to help, I invite you to contact me.
- In recognition of Pride, I’ll be posting additional mental health topics for gay men throughout June 2013. To receive more topics like this by email subscription, select the Follow dialog at lower right.
- For more information about my practice, visit drgeoffreysteinberg.com