“Coming out of the closet” is a metaphor that has long been used to describe people who have hidden a core part of their identities from the world around them, typically because of shame, risk of persecution or violence, or possible disapproval from family members, employers, or others. Although this is most commonly associated with LGBTQ+ people being open about their sexual and gender identities, coming out is a process that anyone who has felt the need to hide who they are from those around them may experience. The process of coming out can be painful and it may seem easier to stay in the closet. However, hiding who you truly are, and who you love, from yourself and those you care about can have a negative effect on your well-being (Drescher, 2004).
It can be very lonely when your identity, romantic interests, or relationship style is different than what your family, friends, and society expect of you. For many, it can feel as though you are wearing different masks: who you truly are, who you wish to be, and who you present to the world. Although it may be difficult to come out, being true to who you are can have positive effects on your self-esteem, stress levels, mental well-being, quality of life, and relationships (Universite de Montreal, 2013).
Coming out is a personal process and is different for everyone. You might have supportive family and friends, or your loved ones might be less than supportive. You might experience feelings of shame about who you are that make it difficult for you to share this with those around you. No matter what your situation is, you deserve to be happy and comfortable as you are, to feel free to live openly and honestly in a way that fulfills you. Below are some steps you can take to figure out when to come out, to whom, and how to do it.
Come Out to Yourself
When we receive messages throughout our lives that we should live a certain way, it can be difficult to accept ourselves as we truly are. Living your life according to someone else’s plan for you can leave you feeling hopeless, vulnerable, and ashamed. Before you can come out to your loved ones and the rest of the world, you need to come out to yourself.
Ask yourself what you feel about who you are, who you love, and what you want out of life. If you feel shame, ask yourself where those feelings stem from, and what kind of messages you remember hearing that contributed to the shame you feel. Take the time to ask yourself what truly makes you feel happy and fulfilled, what you would do if there were no pressures on you to live another way, and how you might be able to make small changes in your life. You may benefit from talking to an understanding therapist who celebrates diversity and understands the coming-out process.
Develop a Support System
There are a lot of negative messages in the media and in our everyday lives about diversity. For many people who feel different than those around them, it can feel as if they are alone and the world is against them. It is important to fight those negative messages with love and support from someone in your life who you trust, and who accepts you for who you are. This might be your best friend, your lover, someone you know to be accepting and open-minded, or your therapist.
What if you don’t know who you might be able to trust? It might be time to build a community of support around you so you don’t feel so alone. You can try attending Pride events, joining a club or group of peers, and spending time in spaces that openly celebrate diversity. If you live in a rural area, you might find this support from an online group or pen pal.
Before you make the decision to come out to someone who may not respond well, make a plan for how to protect yourself from harm and cope with potentially negative reactions.
Make Sure You Have a Safety Plan
Coming out, especially to those you are closest to, can be a challenging process. Although many people are surprised to find just how supportive and welcoming their families are, some people experience a great deal of grief, anger, and emotional or physical violence when they come out. Before you make the decision to come out to someone who may not respond well, make a plan for how to protect yourself from harm and cope with potentially negative reactions.
Your plan might include a list of safe places to stay if needed, people you can talk to about your experiences, a list of resources you may need if things don’t go the way you hope, and even an appointment with a trusted therapist to process the feelings you experience during the coming-out process.
Be Picky About Who You Come Out to and When
It may not be in your best interests to come out to everyone in your life, at least not immediately. Just because some people in your life are accepting doesn’t mean everyone will be. Your choice to come out to someone might consider how it will benefit you and your well-being, and whether it is likely to have negative impacts on your safety. It is your choice when you come out and to whom. A conversation about who you are and who you love will likely go smoother if it is at a time you feel safe, comfortable, and supported.
Coming out is a difficult process for many; this is why so many people choose to hide their true selves. Being genuine and free to live your life according to who you are may be beneficial for your mental health, but it’s wise to plan and prepare for a variety of outcomes. Only you know whether coming out is right for you, when to do it, and to whom.
- Drescher, J. (2004, October 1). The closet: Psychological issues of being in and coming out. Psychiatric Times, 21(12).
- Universite de Montreal. (2013, January 29). Health benefits of coming out of the closet demonstrated. Retrieved from https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2013/01/130129074427.htm
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