The desire to be ourselves fully and openly with another person is an inherent human desire. Connection, intimacy, and closeness are fostered and developed through one’s ability and willingness to be open and honest with others. For lesbian, gay, bisexual, queer, and transgender individuals, one of the most profound experiences of openness is the coming-out process. Since sexual and gender identity originates as an internal experience, non-visible to other people, LGBTQ+ people must take the risk to share this important aspect of self with others. Unfortunately, the decision to come-out is complex and its benefits are often uncertain leaving many LGBTQ+ people with immense worry and anxiety about the coming-out process.
The Uncertainty of Coming-Out
One of the most difficult aspects of coming-out is that you do not know how the other person will respond or what he/she/they will do with that information. Without question, coming-out is a risk. This risk can become especially worrisome when the person you are coming-out to is a family member or close friend. Rejection, loss of relationship, and even homelessness can result from coming-out. Alternatively, not coming-out has its own consequences as hiding who we are can take a mental, emotional, and physical toll on our well-being and social connection with others. So, when faced with two seemingly unfavorable decisions, what do you do?
What Does the Research Say?
Intuitively, one would think that coming-out is a positive thing to do; however, scientific research examining the coming-out experience has elicited mixed findings. As a doctoral student studying the coming-out process, I was surprised by these findings and devoted my dissertation to better understanding why the benefits of coming-out were unclear. Through a reanalysis of all existing scientific research on the coming-out experience since the 1980s, I found that, on average, coming-out is a positive process associated with improvements in mental/physical health and vocational outcomes (i.e., job satisfaction, work productivity, etc.). I also found that scientific studies conducted in the 1980s and 1990s primarily accounted for negative outcomes associated with coming-out. This is a promising finding as it points to the shifting social, cultural, and political climate towards the LGBTQ+ community; specifically, through society’s increased acceptance of LGBTQ+ individuals, coming-out is a more positive and accepting experience. Finally, I found that the benefits of coming-out are specifically located in the social connection that develops after coming-out. When we are able to be ourselves with others, we are more able to enjoy the social relationship since we do not have to constantly monitor our thoughts, behaviors, or actions out of fear someone will discover who we really are. Further, being accepted and loved by another person who knows you deeply is powerfully transformative and makes life better and more enjoyable.
How to Navigate the Coming-Out Experience
Coming-out is an individualized experience and the above findings should be utilized as a foundation for deciding how you want to navigate your coming-out experience. One of the more important things to consider as you begin or continue in your coming-out process is the level of risk you want to assume. For example, if you risk homelessness, it may be more advantageous not to disclose your sexual and/or gender identity to that particular person until you have the financial means to find a place to live should such an event occur. For those early in the coming-out process, finding a close friend, family member, or other LGBTQ+ individuals whom you trust can be an important first-step in sharing who you are with another person.
Engaging in a therapeutic relationship with a mental health provider who understands the fears and complexities of the coming-out process can be a powerful buffer against any negativity or pain that may come from sharing your identity with others. Within a therapeutic relationship, you are offered a safe and confidential space where you can be out–fully and completely–with someone who is deeply interested in helping you to develop happiness and joy in your life.
If you are interested in discovering all of the joys of coming-out and living your true, authentic self, please check out my website to learn more or contact me by phone or email.