I explore the concept of psychological absence with physical presence with my LGBTQ+ clients who come from families that have rejected their sexual or gender identity. Such a loss is ambiguous, given the persecutory and punitive factors involved that a child may not clearly understand. Any form of emotional withholding or bargaining can be traumatic for a child/adolescent. Family rejection of LGBTQ+ identity is no different as the parent or caregiver is bargaining for the suppression of their child’s identity in exchange for keeping the relationship intact. These interactions look different for each individual.
For instance, a child may be told that being queer is a sin and that the bible does not condone it. Whether consciously or not, the child likely interprets the messaging from the family to mean that they are sinful and broken—perhaps even unlovable—if they cannot find a way to mute this aspect of their identity. The losses, in this case, are multi-faceted, including the child’s thwarted identity and the potential loss of their emotional attachment to their parent or caregiver. As the child grows into adulthood, these feelings and the overall narrative can manifest into self-hatred and self-doubt, potentially triggering anxiety and depression or leading them to exhibit passive or active suicidal ideation or experience other mental health-related struggles.
The symptoms, at times, and for the sake of maintaining their attachment to the parent/caregiver, are cloaked and can lead to self-destructive decisions in adulthood, including substance abuse, forced heterosexual relationships, or presenting as heterosexual or cisgender. Whether it is a conscious thought or not, an individual suffering this type of loss may feel compelled to fulfill any attempt to maintain the relationship with the parent/caregiver.
Often, a parent may even ask their child to forego their true identity to maintain the relationship, proposing that if they choose not to, they will only be permitted to remain in the parent’s lives on their terms. For example, they may be asked not to share when they are in relationships or bring up anything related to their sexual or gender identity that does not align with cisgender or heteronormative standards.
Ushering in the “False Self” After Rejection
Any loss of identity can trigger a domino effect of decisions that create a false self. A false self is, essentially, when one lives a life in which they are bending to fit the emotional needs of others, therefore neglecting their own needs. These accommodative behaviors maintain the pervasive sense of shame around the true identity, leaving feelings of unfulfillment and causing the individual to “grasp at straws” to maintain relationships that are not mutually beneficial.
Re-defining and Restructuring “Family” to Honor the True Identity
After feeling rejected by their families, many LGBTQ+ people form ‘chosen’ families as surrogates to experience the love, acceptance, and nurturing they did not or are not receiving from their nuclear families. In some situations, biological families may become more accepting over time and work toward rebuilding their relationships.
On the other hand, some LGBTQ+ individuals never get that response and are forced to restructure how they see their relationship with their family, making substantial changes to whom they spend their time with to seek out fulfilling relationships. The road to forming healthy relationships to mend the wound of family loss is not easy. Still, it is quite possible to achieve the goal of living life authentically, intentionally, and fulfilled.
Remember to honor the true self and relational needs by redefining “family” to mean those who are respectful and accepting of ALL of the self—not just the parts they choose.
We will continue diving into trauma’s impact on the self and other parts of psychological well-being. Look out for more on religious trauma in a future post.
Disclaimer: Content on my blog or any other social media platform is meant for psychoeducational purposes only. The content is not intended to replace treatment from a licensed professional.