Coming out in therapy
Coming out to friends and family members is a significant and daunting milestone in the lives of most LGBT+ people. Most, if not all non-heterosexual/non-cisgender people will face the decision of how and when to tell others at some point, in the knowledge that the newfound openness might increase their happiness. Yet coming out is always a very personal process – there is no rulebook telling you how to do it, and for some, it can cause great stress and anxiety, particularly if one’s loved ones are not very liberal.
As an LGBT+ client, you might hope that it will be easy to come out to your therapist when you meet them. Therapists are generally open and accepting people; therapy training will have imbued them with non-judgemental attitudes, and there should be no obstacles when it comes to having this conversation in the therapy room. However, when you have faced routine discrimination in your life, whether it took place in the family, at school, at work or in other familiar environments, the fear of opening up is likely to carry into the therapy room. If you carry negative scripts about yourself because of experiences around your sexuality/gender identity, then you may struggle to talk to anyone about it, even your warm, empathic therapist. They are another person that you have to tell, another person to explain things to, when you might be tired of having to do that.
The wider impact of homophobia and transphobia
Research has shown the traumatising impact of discrimination and abuse related to sexuality and gender identity on members of the LGBT+ community (Scheer et al, 2019). Bullying and emotional as well as physical abuse in childhood and teenage years directly correlate with greater levels of shame, depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD and substance abuse issues later in life. Poor mental health in the LGBT+ community as a whole is gaining greater recognition as we become more aware of the impact of discriminatory laws and social attitudes in previous times. Anecdotal evidence about excess drinking and drug use in the gay community in particular may support the idea that there is unprocessed collective trauma in this community.
Given the endemic effects of shame that an LGBT+ person may be living with, it’s understandable when they find it difficult to talk about their sexuality or gender identity to a stranger. The core conditions of person-centred therapy might be designed to put an anxious client at ease, but if you’re habitually weary of getting close to others following years or decades of non-acceptance, it could take much hard work to form a therapeutic alliance.
The shame of growing up LGBT+ in a world that is geared towards heterosexuality is pervasive and persistent. As a teenager, the realisation of difference is a painful one, when fitting in with one’s peers is all-important. Prior to 2003 in the UK, LGBT+ children generally could not seek advice about their feelings because of section 28, a piece of legislation that made it illegal for local authorities to ‘promote’ homosexual lifestyles to them. Although the legislation did not specifically apply to teachers, many in the profession were unaware of this and tended to be cautious when it came to these discussions. Therefore, an entire generation of LGBT+ children grew up in an atmosphere of silence, where talking about sexuality and gender identity was seen as impermissible.
Bringing shame into therapy
The effects of the past have led many LGBT+ people into therapy. With growing societal awareness of these issues, there are positive signs of an expanding willingness to talk about the shame and the trauma of these experiences. Many members of this community might prefer to seek a therapist who is LGBT+ themselves; whilst some might prefer to talk to someone outside of the community - if they have had negative experiences within it. A good therapist will try to meet you in your shame, and they will understand that this shame could persist for a long time. Don’t be put off by the hard work: it can lead to great changes.
The corrosive effects of shame may have caused you difficulty in sustaining relationships. You may struggle with trust, or maybe you have a tendency to sabotage things when someone is getting too close. You could be living with chronic anxiety, or depression, or anger. Maybe the anxiety and the memories of trauma have made finding work difficult; perhaps you’ve been in trouble with the law, or you find it difficult to stop drinking to excess. Whatever you’re dealing with, don’t be afraid to ask your therapist for time and space to own these things. A lifetime of shame may seem insurmountable, but with trust and patience it can be. The therapy space is yours – you can come out however you choose to.
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