The Psychology of Coming Out

Psychotherapist Alex Einsman explains why exploring the hidden layers of ourselves is essential to the process of being out in the world

It’s no secret that Americans’ support for gay marriage—and acceptance of LGBTQ people in general—has improved dramatically in a very short time. So it’s logical to infer that the process of coming out of the closet is getting easier too. But that’s not always the case. While greater acceptance has helped many people to transition from the closet to living life openly, too many others still find the process scary and daunting.

As a psychotherapist, I have the privilege of exploring feelings of identity dissonance with men and women of all ages. And as a gay man, I can identify their journeys with my own process of shedding the layers of a negative self-image so I could find pride in being myself. Many people, me included, are surprised to find that the resistance to starting the process of coming out and living authentically shifts to strength and becomes more sustainable over time.

Still, regardless of how, when, or if it happens, coming out is often presaged by a significant sense of internal psychological struggle and contemplation. While the LGBTQ community gains increased acceptance in many parts of society, the interpersonal and emotional challenges remain.

A lifetime process

While there can be a starting point in the coming-out process, there does not seem to be a clearly defined endpoint. Coming out continues throughout life in a variety of situations and relationships. However, the goal of coming out is not disclosure; it’s about authentically owning our identities and truly accepting ourselves as we are. Even so, we often seek acceptance from those we care about most before we are ready to accept ourselves fully and completely.

The choice to honor our own identities can be delayed by the unfortunate and unfair cost of potential rejection by family, friends, coworkers, and other people who are important to us. And when we consider the potential cost of being who we are, claiming our true identity may not seem like a choice at all.

Having grown up in a small town in the Midwest, I remember my own difficulties with coming out. On one hand, I wanted to truly own my identity, but like many I was very fearful of doing so. In this psychological state of confused dissonance, symptoms of anxiety or depression are common results—and understandably so. Not being able to be who we are significantly affects our emotional health and how we feel about ourselves. But there’s an added layer to the process, one that we aren’t always aware of.

The Role of the Subconscious

In order to best understand how to cope with identity dissonance, it’s useful to understand the difference between our conscious and subconscious minds. Right now your conscious mind is reading this article while your subconscious mind processes and compares past experiences and feelings related to the content of what you are consciously reading. It’s like a 24-hour news network in your brain; you watch the anchor (your conscious mind) discuss the featured story, but underneath there is a continuous ticker of text describing other stories, experiences, and perspectives (your subconscious mind).

While not all of our thoughts reach conscious awareness, they still continue to play a role in our mental health and behavior from backstage. We typically have tens of thousands of thoughts streaming through our subconscious minds in a single day.

The thoughts and beliefs coming from our subconscious represent a mixture of what we think about ourselves and what others have told us about ourselves. As our brain grows and develops, we receive a variety of messages about who we are, and we use those messages to ascertain our general sense of worth. These messages come from all sorts of systems around us: family, peers, friendships, relationships, the media, and religion. Our subconscious minds are the accumulation of these messages throughout our lives.

Over time negative messages about
LGBTQ identities that we receive from people and institutions can lead to a subconscious belief system that we are damaged, wrong, or just inherently not as “good” as others. The word gay is still commonly used by some to represent something that is wrong, different, or bad. Rigid gender expectations are still used to shame others. We tend to integrate these negative messages into our view of ourselves because it’s less painful than believing that the people who are supposed to care about us would want to make us feel bad about an important aspect of our identities.

Being Who We Are

While coming out can include an outward process of disclosure, the internal process of acceptance allows us to experience more joy and satisfaction about who we are. For those who are in a situation where coming out now would put health, safety, or shelter at risk, the process can be started inside, until it’s safe enough to represent it outwardly.

As we add acceptance to our identities, we gain power to subtract negative symptoms of criticism and shame that do not fit our true sense of self.

Awareness of negative self-talk in our subconscious allows us to counteract it, to redirect our conscious and subconscious minds to let go of shame and take pride in accepting our true selves.