There are several seconds before a client enters my office or I open the “Zoom room” for a session, where I take a few deep breaths, ground myself, and imagine holding space for what a client might bring to therapy. It is a small ritual that I’ve had since I started practicing — a necessary one that helps me regulate, connect with myself, and be emotionally present.
While I have some regularity in the folks that I see, every day is different. Humans encounter new challenges, reach new milestones in their healing journey, and discover new emotions that need time and space to process. I don’t always know what to expect, but in a way, that is one of the things I like most about being a therapist.
Several weeks ago, I noticed a theme that kept coming up repeatedly: loneliness — and more specifically, queer loneliness.
As a queer couples’ therapist, a majority of the clients that I see identify somewhere within the LGBTQIA+ umbrella of identities. Sometimes a person’s sexual or gender identification plays a central role in what they present to therapy with, but certainly not all the time. However, on this particular day, I had multiple clients share that they had noticed an experience of loneliness within their queerness that was impacting their well-being.
According to professor, researcher, and lecturer Brene Brown, it is common for people to describe the experience of loneliness without naming it directly. This can include the naming of exhaustion, of emptiness, of a lack of connection. As a working definition, it can be best understood as “an emotional state where social needs are not being met by desired qualities and quantities of social interaction.” In some cases, you can have people around you and still feel lonely.
In the context of queer loneliness, it is critical to consider the unique factors that members of the LGBTQIA+ community face. These factors include stages of identity development, including identity confusion or identity comparison, as well as the perceived or actualized threat of discrimination, rejection, or disconnection from community members or their family of origin. Taken together, we can understand queer loneliness as the experience of psychological, relational, social, or emotional isolation as a result of experiencing gender or sexuality in a way that is subversive, different, or counter to the established norms of a given community.
Real Life Experiences, Real Life Impact
“Coming out” is a term understood within the mainstream as the process of revealing a part of your identity to the world. What is important to note is that this process is non-linear, often requires years (and years) of emotional work, and can take place in phases. Once we understand that coming out is a complex journey for many, we begin to see the layers of loneliness that can exist within the queer experience.
For example, when a person begins to question their sexual or gender identity, they may have questions that they don’t feel like they can ask others out of fear of judgement or shame. Keeping these thoughts, feelings, or curiosities to oneself can create a vibrant inner world, but a disconnection from social support.
Even once a person is “out”, they may have experienced rejection from family members or struggled to build a new community in the process. Unlike cisgender or heterosexual folks, queer people often have to build a new community of support that doesn’t come with established relationships like old friends, family, or colleagues. Moreover, if a queer individual lives in a place with very few other queer people, they are more limited in building connection and a felt sense of belonging (at least in a physical sense).
As I have sat across from my clients facing these different types of loneliness experiences in their queer journey, the impact of loneliness is undeniable. Loneliness has been connected to a variety of mental and physical health issues including, depression, anxiety, stress, suicide, low self-esteem, poor decision-making, increased risk of cardiovascular disease, sleep problems, high blood pressure, and even death.
The evidence is clear: loneliness has major impacts on queer communities.
If you are a helper in any sort of way and you work within the queer community, use curiosity and compassion as your guide and inquire about how a person is experiencing social connectedness and belonging. Ask about the barriers that exist. Explore ways for support to be possible. Queer folks have often had to do so much alone in figuring out who they are — we should at the very least provide a warm, welcoming space to propel a larger community forward.
Leveraging Our Resiliency
As we gain a better understanding about queer loneliness, there are ways in which we can promote the antidote: connection, community, and belonging. Of course, any of these steps require safety, bravery, and strength. Proceed with caution, clarity, and hopefully, a good therapist.
Self-care, self-care, self-care. Combating loneliness doesn’t work well on an empty tank. Before doing anything, prioritize what you need to take care of your mental wellness. This might be taking a walk, staying on top of your medications, stretching, reading, or engaging in a spiritual practice.
Talk about it. Whether with a trusted friend or therapist, it is important to process through all of the complex feelings that come with loneliness. Pink Therapy is a great resource in the UK; Therapy for Queer People of Color or Pride Counseling are great options in the United States.
Seek out queerness in the media you consume. Whether through books, podcasts, magazines, movies, or television, a great way to feel a part of a larger community is to see that community come to life. Representation reminds you that you are not alone in your journey.
Consider the role of online communities. Venturing out into visible, public, and queer spaces might be a big leap when first starting to tackle loneliness. As a first step, consider looking into digital queer spaces that might offer other ways for queer people to connect. This is especially a great option if you happen to live in a place that doesn’t have a large or accessible queer scene.
Research community events. Explore options for meet-up groups that are queer focused or for the LGBTQIA+ community. If you have another lived identity that is important to you (for example, practicing sobriety), you may want to look at events or groups that include both of these identities.
However you or we begin the process of shifting the effects of loneliness, know that one step at a time is all that it takes. We are in this together.