“Coming out” is a term used to describe people of the LGBTQ+ community disclosing their sexual orientation or gender identity to others. The process of coming out can be extremely stressful, involving risks, stigma, oppression, discrimination, or shame.
I have always believed the term “coming out” should not only be reserved for people of the LGBTQ+ community, but also for victims of emotional, spiritual, physical, and sexual abuse.
I have also believed the term “coming out” should be applicable to all people who have been through war, exile, harassment, assault, rape, bullying, or discrimination based on their age, sex, gender, race, sexual orientation, social status, religious belief, physical disabilities, or mental health issues.
In fact, maybe “coming out” could refer to sharing any authentic part of ourselves which had previously been kept secret or hidden. Sometimes we all can hide important parts of ourselves and our experiences, in such a way that it limits our freedom and joy of life.
The common factor with all these “coming out” situations is that there could be a fear of being judged negatively by others, if the truth or the stories were known. So people have historically dealt with this fear of judgment by staying silent. Such silence, however, is harmful to all of us, and is harmful to society itself. It is healing and liberating for individuals, as well as for all of society, to speak the truth.
Telling people your true stories of difficult life experiences and showing people who you really are can be stressful; it could involve risks, stigma, oppression, discrimination, or shame. But these painful memories, stories, or scars are part of you, part of who you are. You do not have to be silent. You do not have to hide yourself and your own stories. There is nothing to be ashamed of.
Be brave enough to let people know who you are.
Suffering is our Common Ground
I have stumbled across a Youtube video, which I find moving and encouraging (DeGeneres, 2017). A very short clip of Ellen DeGeneres, Oprah Winfrey, and Michelle Obama—exchanging purely positive energy!
Listen to the way they talk to each other, listen to their words… is there a tiny little bit of jealousy there? No!
Any fear of their friends achieving greater accomplishments than themselves? No!
They lift each other up, encourage and support each other, embrace each other wholeheartedly, and wish each other well sincerely! What do you see in their smiles? Do they have healthy self-esteem?
All of them have been through hardships, in their own unique way.
But they have chosen to use their adversity as an asset to help other people.
One of the most amazing things about human suffering is that it can have the potential to help us understand each other, develop compassion for each other, and connect us to each other. All human suffering, if we have wisdom and open-mindedness to interpret them, shares common ground. This could be considered an “existential” idea—for this reason, Existential Therapy is one of my favourite therapies. And promoting equality and humanity is of paramount importance!
Healthy self-esteem is not attained only when a person has fame and wealth. Some people who have wealth, fame, luxuries, education, or a respected profession can still have very low self-esteem and can still have so much bitterness that they treat others unkindly and do not wish other people well!
Healthy self-esteem is a choice, made by your humility, self-awareness, disciplined hard work, and willingness to be guided by genuinely kind and compassionate people.
By protecting your abusers, violators, and bullies, due to personal, familial, cultural, or religious values and beliefs, you suffer. By burying the truth, healing is hindered. By denying your pain, you pass on brokenness to the next generations or to other people.
When you keep things on the inside, the weight of it can hold you down. (Iyanla Vanzant)
Do not be silent! Come out and speak the truth!
It requires a great deal of courage, strength, and self-esteem to share your difficult stories, or to tell people who you are.
By sharing your stories, not only are you empowering yourself, but you are also empowering other people, encouraging other people to do the same, leading to less stigma, discrimination, shame, oppression, and violence, but more understanding, compassion, equality, freedom, and love!
There will be people who respect you, admire your encourage, support you, cheer you on, and actually feel motivated to join you!
There will also be people who laugh at you, discriminate against you, condemn you, doubt you, or oppress you. In the video, we learn that Oprah and Ellen received a lot of hate mail and even death threats (DeGeneres, 2017)! Try not to focus too much on the people who lack understanding, compassion, and support; sometimes it takes a while for people to develop understanding, and sometimes, there are people who choose not to develop compassion for you, for other people, and even for themselves!
People are often unreasonable, illogical, and self-centered. Forgive them anyway. (Mother Teresa)
The strongest actions for a woman is to love herself, be herself, and shine amongst those who never believed she could. (Author Unknown)
I was once afraid of people saying, “Who does she think she is?” Now I have the courage to stand and say, “This is who I am.” (Oprah Winfrey)
If there is anyone on your journey who tries to shame you, rest assured that there are other genuine, compassionate, and kind people standing by you, supporting you fully, and cheering you on. Do not let negative behaviour from others hinder you from living a healthy, happy life! You deserve love, respect, and kindness!
The process of “coming out” can be scary, nerve-wracking, unsettling… but being able to accept and come close to your true stories, and letting people know who you are is therapeutic. In cases of abuse or trauma, the negative stories may become part of identity, sometimes in a very unwelcome way. But by sharing these stories courageously, the adversity can lose its power to define your identity. Your identity need not be one of an “abused person,” but rather it can become up to you to define… abuse or trauma may be part of your story, but as long as it is not kept secret or bottled up, it doesn’t have to have a damaging effect on your identity.
I encourage you to take one step at a time, and start sharing your stories with one or two of your close confidants who have shown you trustworthiness, understanding, respect, and compassion. Working with a therapist in the process can be immensely helpful; sharing with your therapist is already a kind of disclosure, and therapy offers understanding, support, and healing.
Remember, you are the one in control: when you would like to tell people your stories, how you would like to talk about them, who you would like to disclose your stories to, or how much detail you would like to go into are all under your control. Treat yourself with gentle care and compassion. Listen to your heart above all other voices. Know your limits and try not to let your sharing become too overwhelming. Share it only when you are ready, and start sharing with the people who are genuinely compassionate and open-minded. You are not obligated to tell everyone all of your stories.
Be courageous and be kind.
Let your light shine: it is never, ever meant to be dimmed.
Your whole calling is about you being who you were meant to be…. You would not be who you are… you wouldn’t have been able to open hearts, and touch hearts, and change people’s minds, and make a difference in the world had you not had the courage to do that. And 20 years ago, you had no idea it would put you in this seat. (Oprah Winfrey said to Ellen DeGeneres)
Live a life that says: “This is who I am.”
The science behind revealing our stories and telling people who we are
Studies show that people who have written about their trauma exhibit improved physical health and reduced visits to physicians. Writing about traumatic experiences can prompt people to discuss the details of their trauma with others, which in turn lead to improved social relationships and reduced psychological symptoms. When people keep their traumatic experiences secret, they are more likely to be socially isolated and to suffer alone, leading to lessened ability to cope with negative thoughts and feelings associated with the trauma (Pennebaker & Graybeal, 2001; Sloan, Marx, Bovin, Feinstein, & Gallagher, 2012; Stuckey & Noble, 2010).
If you are interested in writing about your trauma or other difficult life experiences, there are books that can help you start, such as The Story You Need to Tell: Writing to Heal from Trauma, Illness, or Loss (Marinella, 2017).
Liberation & Balance
There are many reasons to communicate about past traumatic experiences. By sharing, and “coming out,” with a person whom you trust, it can allow you to feel more free. The events from the past will then have less power over you. And you will be less alone with your memories.
Sometimes, we can become immersed and preoccupied with our negative memories. This is something to watch out for: remember, a goal of sharing your story is to be more free, to empower yourself, and to empower others! Be careful not to let the frequent sharing of your story become something that only makes you ruminate, or makes you feel more trapped in negative memories. So, we must strive for balance as well as openness. Sharing, and “coming out” with our painful stories, may also allow us the freedom to also “come out” with our joys, our talents, and all other parts of ourselves.
How you tell your story can keep you wounded and stuck, or it can help you grow in understanding. (Iyanla Vanzant)
May Your Voice Be Kind
Nelson Mandela was imprisoned for 27 years, but he did not come out of the prison with bitterness. Instead, he transformed his adversity into kindness, humility, peace, wisdom, and positive changes for his country!
Practice using a calm, peaceful tone of voice and transform your adversity into kindness. In the process of sharing, may you search for meaning and purpose, practice gratitude and forgiveness, and embrace faith and hope.
As I walked out the door toward the gate that would lead to my freedom, I knew if I didn’t leave my bitterness and hatred behind, I’d still be in prison. (Nelson Mandela)
No one is born hating another person because of the colour of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite. (Nelson Mandela)
Viktor Frankl, a psychiatrist and psychotherapist, said, “As it happens, I did most of my work for no money at all, in clinics for the poor” (Frankl, 2006).
I admire him, for his love, courage, and wisdom.
During the Holocaust, Frankl was a prisoner in concentration camps. He wrote Man’s Search for Meaning, which was first published in 1946, based on his experiences and observation of other fellow prisoners’ experiences (Frankl, 2006). I think Frankl’s work is an act of great leadership—to guide us, through personal example, how to approach suffering and adversity by nurturing hope while developing our values and inner strengths. I think his own personal experience of unbelievable suffering makes his message unbelievably deep and persuasive, as though his own voice is like the voice of a million people. His book itself, and the story of how it was created, is part of his own therapy! I love therapeutic ideas where the therapist can lead by personal example.
Love is the only way to grasp another human being in the innermost core of his personality. No one can become fully aware of the very essence of another human being unless he loves him. By his love he is enabled to see the essential traits and features in the beloved person; and even more, he sees that which is potential in him, which is not yet actualized but yet ought to be actualized. Furthermore, by his love, the loving person enables the beloved person to actualize these potentialities. By making him aware of what he can be and of what he should become, he makes these potentialities come true. (Viktor Frankl)
As a psychotherapist, I believe it is not the most fancy skills, techniques, and assessment tools that heal, although it is important and interesting to learn about them. Love and unconditional positive regard are the essential healing components in therapy. It is love that heals.
Compassion, kindness, and forgiveness shall not only be reserved for people whom we love, but also for our enemies, abusers, bullies, people who do not like us, and people whom we do not like.
One of Paul Bloom (2016)’s points, in Against Empathy, is that maybe we don’t have to like or love people who do us harm, but we do have to manage our anger or dislike in a peaceful way, so that we do not get drawn into an escalating cycle of aggression or even violence. I think, though, that the idea of “love” is exactly that: “love” in the agape, or the Christian sense, suggests an attitude of peacefulness, tolerance, and self-control, even with people whom we do not like or who do not like us.
The latest brain scan research suggests that we have a rather binary understanding of self and other and that our empathy circuits do not activate unless we see the other person as part of our own group. So many wars have been fought and so much injustice has been perpetrated because we’ve banished others from our group and therefore our circle of concern (Dalai Lama, Tutu, & Abrams, 2016, p. 183).
Loving the people who love you is easy. Loving the people who have done harm in your life, or whom you do not appreciate is not. But it is possible, and not only it is possible, it is healing, transformative, and liberating. I am no different from the people who do not like me or whom I do not like, if I were to refuse practicing compassion and forgiveness.
Forgiveness does not only happen under the condition of bullies, abusers, or violators apologizing sincerely, making amends, or participating in restorative practice. Some people are resistant to reflect on their problematic behaviour and make positive changes in their life. When these people are not sincerely remorseful and apologetic, it may not be safe or healthy to be physically or emotionally close to them. But forgiveness, developing compassion for them, striving to do no harm to them, as well as letting go of hatred and anger is still possible.
To be able to love your enemies requires time, disciplined effort, and sustained practice.
May we always choose love, no matter where we are on our journey and no matter how hard it is… love for all humanity.
Equality Reduces Violence in the World
Stephen Pinker (2011)’s book, The better angels of our nature: Why violence has declined, reviews a huge body of evidence showing that historic rates of violence, in almost all its forms, were proportionally orders of magnitude higher the farther back in history one goes. With this violence, obviously there was a much lower degree of wellness in all its forms. Part of his thesis is an examination of causes for reductions in violence, and an examination of causes for why violence still persists.
Pinker (2011) has his own generalized list of features of a healthier community associated with reduced rates of violence, including having freedom of speech, free trade (which transforms “zero sum” situations of aggressive looting into “win-win” situations of mutual cooperation), a cultural emphasis on empathy and cooperation rather than chauvinism, and especially an emphasis on universal education (particularly with equal access for men and women) to foster reason, communication, and understanding of others. His evidence is quite compelling, in a lengthy survey encompassing thousands of years of human history. He also adds an argument with some evidence-based support, that there has been selective pressure in recent centuries, towards a decline in aggressiveness in human populations: quite simply, aggressive, violent, impulsive behaviour is found to be much less attractive or permissible in a mate in the modern age, compared to hundreds or thousands of years ago.
In my pursuit, as a psychotherapist, to help increase wellness, I think the same principles apply as those which reduce societal violence: encouragement personally and politically to have better education, improved equality for all, and an economy which is based on fairness with a global view.
Life is filled with pain and struggles, but also surprises and happiness.
In the midst of suffering, we can learn to derive meaning from it, and we can also continue to embrace all the wonderful things in the world, such as spending time with our loved ones, journaling, reading, listening to music, drinking a cup of rooibos tea or brown rice green tea (my recent favourite beverages), exercising, being in nature, painting, enjoying our fashion style, savouring sweet memories, smiling, and even laughing!
You are allowed to feel sad and shed tears, but you are also allowed to feel happy and laugh, no matter what you have been through in life! Being able to smile or laugh, even when you are surrounded by arduous experiences and memories, is a sign of resilience.
Life is like a movie; there are comedies, tragedies, a mix of both, and boring movies which are neither joyful nor miserable. As long as you play your part to the fullest, your movie is a good one. (Tong King Sum / 唐景森)
I wish you freedom. I wish you peace. And I wish you healing.
Affirmation: I enrich my life when I “come out,” speak the true stories of my life, and let people know who I am.
Bloom, P. (2016). Against empathy: The case for rational compassion. New York, NY: HarperCollins.
Dalai Lama, Tutu, D., & Abrams, D. (2016). The book of joy: Lasting happiness in a changing world. New York, NY: Viking.
DeGeneres, E. [TheEllenShow]. (2017, April 28). Oprah and Ellen remember the history-changing 'coming out' episode [Video file]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tZyodLr-4oY
Frankl, V. E. (2006). Man's search for meaning: An introduction to logotherapy. Boston, MA: Beacon Press.
Marinella, S. (2017). The story you need to tell: Writing to heal from trauma, illness, or loss. Novato, CA: New World Library.
Pennebaker, J. W., & Graybeal, A. (2001). Patterns of natural language use: Disclosure, personality, and social integration. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 10(3), 90-93. doi:10.1111/1467-8721.00123
Pinker, S. (2011). The better angels of our nature: Why violence has declined. New York, NY: Viking.
Sloan, D. M., Marx, B. P., Bovin, M. J., Feinstein, B. A., & Gallagher, M. W. (2012). Written exposure as an intervention for PTSD: A randomised clinical trial with motor vehicle accident survivors. Behaviour Research and Therapy, 50(10), 627-635. doi:10.1016/j.brat.2012.07.001
Stuckey, H. L., & Noble, J. (2010). The connection between art, healing, and public health: A review of current literature. American Journal of Public Health, 100(2), 254-263. doi:10.2105/AJPH.2008.156497