A version of this article was originally posted on the Mental Health America website.
Accepting your LGBTQ+ identity is often complicated and emotional. Doing so in adulthood brings some unique challenges. Adults who have lived most of their lives seeming to be straight may experience imposter syndrome when coming out and claiming their LGBTQ+ identity. This means feeling self-doubt, feeling like a fraud, or like they’re undeserving of identifying as part of the LGBTQ+ community.
You can’t always control thoughts of self-doubt. But you can work to respond to them in a way that affirms your LGBTQ+ identity. Regardless of your journey with sexuality and gender: Your identity is valid. Feeling secure and confident in who you are is a big factor in protecting your mental health.
Fear of taking up space
When you first come out, it’s common to feel like you can’t (or shouldn’t) claim space in the LGBTQ+ community. Maybe you know you’re not straight, but aren’t sure what you should, or can, call yourself. Maybe you’re worried about how it will look: What will my LGBTQ+ friends think if I suddenly start identifying as part of the community? If I’m happy with my opposite-gender spouse, can I still be part of the LGBTQ+ community? Will my current partner feel betrayed? Is everyone going to think I’m lying? Maybe you’re secure in your identity, but don’t feel like you’re outwardly “gay enough” to be part of the larger LGBTQ+ community – especially if you don’t already know other LGBTQ+ folks.
Being part of a community can play a large role in your quality of life. Communities act as support systems and prevent isolation. Holding yourself back from identifying with the LGBTQ+ community can also make you feel disconnected from yourself. One way to get through this fear is to put yourself through a sort of exposure therapy. Face your fear in manageable steps—like only bringing up dating with people who you know affirm you, or finding a buddy to arrive at events with. It might feel uncomfortable at first, but keep putting yourself out there! You are not doing anything wrong by being out with your sexuality or gender identity. Push yourself to keep doing it, even if you don’t quite feel like you “deserve” it yet.
Insecurity in labels
Putting a label on your sexuality or gender identity can be validating, but it can also cause a lot of distress. Sometimes self-doubt in your identity manifests as questioning if you’re “gay enough,” bisexual “enough,” or nonbinary “enough” to call yourself that label. Do I deserve to call myself a lesbian if I spent years married to a man and haven’t ever dated a woman? What do I call myself if all I know is that I’m not cisgender?
Labels are meant to serve you, and you can identify as whatever makes you feel the most yourself. If you’re questioning your gender or sexuality, you don’t have to rush to find a term to describe yourself or force a label that doesn’t feel right. It’s also okay for your identities and labels to change and evolve as you do.
Dating comes with some uncertainty and anxiety for almost everyone. But dating for the first time as an LGBTQ+ adult can be a uniquely intimidating experience. Maybe you were married for 20 years but feel like a teenager again as you prepare for your first date with another man. Maybe you’re worried about if you should tell your date that you recently came out as asexual and how they’ll react. Maybe you’re in your head with self-doubt, wondering how you can be transgender if you didn’t realize it until your forties.
Remember that everyone starts somewhere. You don’t have to start dating before you’re ready—or ever, if you don’t want to! But it’s normal to feel a bit nervous, hesitant, or like you just don’t know how to break into the LGBTQ+ dating scene. If it feels intimidating but is something that you want to do, take some of the pressure off of it being a success. Try to view it as an opportunity to learn about what you like, don’t like, and what it’s like to date in the LGBTQ+ community.
Coming out as LGBTQ+ can bring up a lot of emotions, uncertainty, and change. Don’t rush the process – it’s okay to feel a bit uneasy as you adjust to this new phase of life. It often takes time to feel comfortable outwardly embracing an identity. But if it all feels too overwhelming or doesn’t get easier with some time, consider taking a mental health test to see if you may be dealing with symptoms of a mental health condition. For more information on LGBTQ+ mental health, check out MHA’s Resource Hub.