The Challenges of Coming Out as a Highly Sensitive Introvert

A highly sensitive introvert hides behind a pride flag

Coming out can be a challenge for anyone, but can be especially challenging for highly sensitive introverts.

“What’s your coming out story?” is a question commonly asked of those of us who identify as anything other than heterosexual or cisgender. “Coming out” is considered a proverbial rite of passage for anyone in the LGBTQIA+ (i.e., lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, intersex, asexual, pansexual, two-spirit, nonbinary, and others) community. And, yet, it’s far more complicated than most people realize.

You see, there’s so much more to coming out than meets the eye. This is arguably further complicated for those of us who, on top of being LGBTQIA+, are introverted and are highly sensitive people (HSPs). I have experienced this both personally as a queer highly sensitive introvert myself, as well as with my queer and transgender psychotherapy clients.

Here are some of the most common challenges of coming out as a highly sensitive introvert.

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10 Challenges of Coming Out as a Highly Sensitive Introvert 

1. Coming out opens up the door for conflict, which you’re probably averse to.

It’s no secret that we sensitive ones are conflict-averse (to put it mildly!). Indeed, the very thought of conflict rattles my sensitive nervous system. And, unfortunately, the coming out process is no stranger to conflict. 

We live in a society steeped in queerphobia and transphobia; and while I wish I could say that we are making progress, I am reminded of the numerous anti-LGBTQIA+ laws being passed in several states throughout the United States. 

That being said, having an identity under the LGBTQIA+ umbrella can still be considered contentious. Even in best-case scenarios in which others react well, being in that place of not knowing what the response will be creates a lot of internal tension. And since introverts excel at overthinking and internalizing things, you can just imagine what this is like.

To add insult to injury, this conflict is also not solely confined to the coming out process. Unfortunately, if there is conflict while coming out, it is more likely than not that the conflict will continue, oftentimes indefinitely. Sometimes this means that more boundaries will need to be put into place (which tends to be difficult for highly sensitive introverts). Or that certain relationships will need to end in order to protect our mental, emotional, or even physical wellbeing. This one hits close to home for me, as the most difficult aspect of my coming out journey was the loss of a friendship that was once very dear to me.  

2. Before you come out to others, you must first come out to yourself. 

Some people have “always known” that there was something different about them — that their crushes were of people of the same gender, that their gender identity was not the same as their sex assigned at birth, etc. However, that is not the case for a lot of us. This is due, in large part, to what is known as “compulsory heterosexuality,” which posits that because society assumes that we are heterosexual (until proven otherwise), we will essentially do the same to ourselves. There is a lot of truth in that it is easy to internalize societal heteronormativity and cisnormativity, dismissing our own queerness or transness as “just a phase,” something that isn’t that big of a deal, or believing it will “go away” if we ignore it. 

For highly sensitive introverts, this process is worsened by our natural tendency to people-please. After all, following the rules of heteronormativity and cisnormativity allows us to “stay in line” and not “ruffle any feathers.” Therefore, it can be harder to admit to ourselves that we might be some flavor of LGBTQIA+. Because I was so good at compartmentalizing, I didn’t realize I was queer until I was in my mid-twenties.

3. You typically don’t like being the center of attention. 

Highly sensitive introverts are known for our disdain of being the center of attention. The very thought is enough to send shivers down our spine! That being said, most highly sensitive introverts have mastered the art of blending in, as to not draw any unnecessary attention to ourselves. Yet, the coming out process entails being in the spotlight. 

Even the visual of “coming out of the closet” implies all-eyes on you! This can dissuade some people from coming out once they realize they’re LGBTQIA+, because that attention around the coming out process is just so intense. What’s more, the attention doesn’t end there. The attention lingers as others start to recognize this newfound identity, making the discomfort linger, as well. 

4. Many LGBTQIA+ spaces are overstimulating.

After coming out, many LGBTQIA+ people desire to connect with other queer and trans folks. This can help us make new friends, start the dating process, build community, and simply feel less alone. And yet, many queer and trans spaces take the form of bars and clubs, which tend to be very loud, very bright, very crowded, and very overstimulating (read: these spaces are not HSP- or introvert-friendly!). 

Since overstimulation is a constant struggle for highly sensitive introverts in our daily lives, for most of us, the last thing we want to do is seek out even more stimulation. Another introverted queer friend and I were commiserating about how we long for something like an LGBTQIA+ coffee shop. That way, we’d be able to avoid sensory overload while still allowing for the opportunity to (quietly) connect with like-minded others. Even the less extroverted-oriented queer and trans spaces, such as LGBTQIA+ book clubs, writing groups, and the like, still involve going out and meeting new groups of people — which can feel like too much for the highly sensitive introvert’s nervous system. 

5. You are more likely to carry the burden of others’ negative reactions.

A trademark of being an HSP is our empathy for others. While this is often a positive, as it allows us to form deeper connections with those we care about, it can also be a hindrance at times, especially when it results in an undue burden falling on us. This can be true of the coming out process; specifically, how it might impact our family and other loved ones. 

Unfortunately, we still live in a world that holds queerphobia and transphobia, which impacts us on not only a larger societal level, but also our personal relationships, as well. This means that, for many of us, we hold the pain of knowing, by virtue of being honest about our sexual orientation and/or gender identity, that others in our lives will not take it well. This might look like carrying the burden of family drama, being asked to keep this aspect of yourself private, or witnessing others having difficulty coming to terms with this information about ourselves. 

Although I advocate for people (especially those with marginalized identities, such as being LGBTQIA+) to not take on responsibility for others’ feelings that are not ours to carry, I realize this is easier said than done. Again, this is especially true for highly sensitive introverts, as our high levels of empathy mean that we feel what others feel, making the coming out process even more fraught.

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6. Finding the right label can be tricky.

Labels can be incredibly helpful. For instance, many of us (myself included) have found solace in the labels of “introvert” and “highly sensitive person,” as they help to capture our reality, feel less alone, and give language and explanation to our experiences. Indeed, labels can be extremely powerful. 

And, yet, labels can also feel confining. For anyone who does not identify as heterosexual or cisgender, we are expected to have a label at the ready in order to legitimize our experience. If we are lacking a label, then our ability to recognize our own experience as “valid” is questioned. Further, once we have a label, we are expected to act according to that label. If we do anything that contraindicates societal perception of what that label means, then our experience is called into question yet again. 

Certain labels, too, carry more questions or stigma. As a bisexual woman myself, I’m all too familiar with biphobic misconceptions that we are “confused,” we cannot make up our mind, or that it’s “just a phase.” This process of being questioned and put into a box can feel challenging for highly sensitive introverts who desire to be seen and connect deeply with others. As queer activist Audre Lorde once said, “If I didn’t define myself for myself, I would be crunched into other people’s fantasies for me and eaten alive.”

7. Coming out is not a “one and done” deal. 

The way that coming out is discussed on a societal level, and depicted in movies and TV shows, it would seem that it is one grand declaration — and then we are officially “out.” End story, cue credits. Yet, in reality, coming out is a continual, ongoing process. 

For instance, coming out might be one experience with your immediate family, another with your extended family, another with one group of friends, completely different with another group of friends, and so on and so forth. This can pose a unique challenge to highly sensitive introverts, as this requires consistent monitoring, which adds up and can quickly feel overwhelming. 

The question of whether or not to come out also arises in otherwise mundane situations: when someone assumes your partner is your sibling or friend, when you are misgendered, etc. What’s more, coming out does not always look like “I’m gay, bi, trans, etc.,” but can take on many forms. Sometimes, just holding your partner’s hand out in public, or dressing according to your gender identity, is a way of coming out to strangers on the street. And more opportunities to come out also means more uncertainty of how others will react, potentially being misunderstood or even harassed — which is a lot for our sensitive nervous systems to handle. 

Even by virtue of writing this article, I am technically “coming out” to those of you who are reading these words. And despite feeling confident in who I am, I would be lying if I said I wasn’t anxious about the potential of reading queerphobic comments. As a highly sensitive introvert, that kind of negativity is poison to my soul, which tends to be the case for other highly sensitive introverts, as well. 

8. Coming out means the potential for getting hurt.

It likely does not come as a surprise that not everyone reacts kindly to those of us who identify as LGBTQIA+. Indeed, homophobia and transphobia are still alive and well. When we come out, we open ourselves up to bullying, the risk of rejection, harassment, and other cruelties. While this is, of course, potentially hurtful to anyone, some people are able to embrace the “love me or leave me” mentality. Highly sensitive introverts, however, do not tend to fall into that category. 

After all, as deep feelers, we’re going to experience our emotions more intensely than our less sensitive counterparts. This includes the pain of rejection, whether it be from our family, friends, or on a societal level. Given the potential of homophobia and transphobia from so many sources, that pain can start to wear on us and negatively impact our mental health. Indeed, as a result of this, research has found that people who identify as LGBTQIA+ have been found to be at greater risk for mental health struggles, such as anxiety and depression

9. Being a highly sensitive introvert is already an “othering” experience.

Being a highly sensitive introvert comes with its own set of challenges, one of which is feeling different or “othered” for both our introversion and high sensitivity. Regarding introversion, we live in a society that values the extrovert ideal, in which we are made to feel there is something “wrong” with us if we prefer to recharge by spending time in our introvert sanctuary rather than going out to dance our worries away. Regarding sensitivity, our experience is constantly dismissed, from being told to “just get over it,” that we should “grow thicker skin,” and that we are “too sensitive.” 

Such invalidation adds up to make us feel othered, which makes coming out as LGBTQIA+ feel all the more ostracizing. To add insult to injury, as HSPs, we’re also going to feel this pain of rejection more deeply than our less sensitive counterparts. As a result, we are more likely to feel lonely, especially during the early stages of coming out.

10. The loaded nature of what it means to “come out.”

The idea of “coming out” is becoming more controversial within the LGBTQIA+ community, and for good reason. The premise behind coming out implies that you are different from the norm, which can reinforce heteronormativity and cisnormativity. Since highly sensitive introverts tend to appreciate authenticity and aligning with our core values, framing the coming out process in this way can make doing so come with even more internal turmoil. 

This can be further exacerbated when elements of our experience, including how we come out, are called into question and invalidated. Indeed, with the idea of coming out are the supposed “rules” of how to come out, suggesting that there is a “right way” and “wrong way” to do so — which only adds that much more pressure to the experience. For highly sensitive introverts, who tend to not fare well under such pressure, this can make the coming out experience more tumultuous, perhaps even significantly delaying the process as a result.

Come Out Whoever — and However — You Are

Coming out as LGBTQIA+ certainly has its challenges; when combined with the unique experience of being a highly sensitive introvert, these challenges are exacerbated. And, despite these challenges, there is nothing that compares to living life as your authentic self, knowing and embracing who you are along the way. 

Whatever your personal journey may look like, whatever labels you identify with (or don’t!), your experience is valid. I encourage you to give yourself compassion for the challenges of coming out as a highly sensitive introvert, and to hold the knowledge that you are enough with all the pride that feels right for your introverted, highly sensitive soul.

Happy Pride Month to all my fellow LGBTQIA+ highly sensitive introverts! And if you’d like to share about your coming out experience in the comments, I’d love to hear about it!

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