Emotional Memory and the Enduring Impact of the Initial Coming Out Experience for LGBTQ Individuals: A brief review of the scientific literature.
Much of the literature on self-disclosure of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or queer (LGBTQ) sexual orientation, more commonly referred to as “coming out”, indicates that doing so can have important implications for the social, emotional, psychological, and physical well-being of LGBTQ individuals. Managing a concealable stigmatized identity such as LGBTQ sexual orientation can cause extreme distress (Pachankis, 2007; Rosario, Hunter, Maguen, Gwadz, & Smith, 2001). Some researchers have demonstrated evidence that, because of this, coming out is a crucial step in developing a healthy sense of self (Cass, 1984) and can have an enduring, positive impact on mental and emotional health by reducing allostatic load, lowering cortisol levels, and decreasing symptoms of depression and anxiety (Juster, Smith, Ouellet, Sindi, & Lupien, 2013). Other researchers, however, have found that coming out poses extreme risk to LGBTQ individuals as they face criticism and discrimination (Link & Phelan, 2001), rejection (Dyar, Feinstein, Eaton, & London, 2016; Pachankis, 2007), ostracism (Herek, Gillis, & Cogan, 2009; W. S. Ryan, Legate, & Weinstein, 2015), and even violence (Balsam & Mohr, 2007; Herek, 2009) as a result of the stigma associated with their identity. In fact, salience of stigma and awareness of high risk potential are key reasons that managing this concealable identity is frequently characterized by anguish (Pachankis, 2007). Consequently, LGBTQ individuals often experience higher rates of mental illness and suicide (Suicide Prevention Resource Center, 2008) than their heterosexual counterparts. What then, accounts for the conflicting data regarding the experiences of those LGBTQ individuals with positive well-being outcomes and those with negative ones? Some researchers suggest it is not simply the nature of the reaction (positive vs. negative) but also when the reactions occur (earlier in the coming out process vs. later) (Legate, W. S. Ryan, & Weinstein, 2012; W. S. Ryan et al., 2015).
It is important to regard coming out as an on-going process (Orne, 2011) of identity formation, increasing adaptiveness, impression management, and integration that LGBTQ individuals will have to negotiate throughout their lifetimes (Cass, 1984; Rosario et al., 2001). Many LBGTQ persons approach the coming out process strategically – coming out to friends first, then possibly to one or two close family members and eventually, depending on perceptions about social support (Waldner & Magruder, 1999) and potential risk (Dyar et al., 2016; Lelutiu-Weinberger et al., 2013; Pachankis, 2007), coming out professionally or opening up in more pervasive and public ways. Each time LGBTQ individuals come out to someone new, they are receiving new information and encoding and consolidating that into their existing schema of their sexual identity and their place in society as a result of it. Due to the dynamic, evolving, and adaptive nature of the coming out process, some researchers point to the importance of the initial disclosure experience in shaping the cognitive, social, and emotional outcomes of the individual (Chaudoir & Fisher, 2010; Chaudoir & Quinn, 2010; W. S. Ryan et al., 2015). The initial coming out experience is a significant milestone in the development of an LGBTQ youth (Waldner & Magruder, 1999) and, as such, the memory of the event can be laden with heavy emotions. Additionally, excessively unsupportive or negative reactions to disclosure of sexual orientation can be experienced as distinctively traumatic even to the point of causing posttraumatic stress disorder symptoms in LGBTQ individuals (Chaudoir & Fisher, 2010).
Memories that are created during times of extreme emotion are called flashbulb memories (Brown & Kulik, 1977) and were once thought to be far more accurate and indelible than nonemotional memories. However, further research on emotional memories, particularly of traumatic events, provides evidence that they are encoded and consolidated in different ways than memories associated with less intense emotionality, making them even more subject to fragmentation, inaccuracies, and post-event reconstruction (Diamond, Campbell, Park, Halonen, & Zoladz, 2007; Levine & Pizarro, 2004) despite their durability, vibrancy, and the exceptional confidence with which individuals recall them. Emotional memories shape individuals’ perceptions, expectations, self-evaluations and behavior (Pachankis, 2007; Stephanou, 2012). Verbally repeating the story, mentally rehashing the events, and encountering new information can fill important gaps in old memories (Levine & Pizarro, 2004) leaving one with a pervasive and lasting impression of their initial experience and all subsequent related experiences. In other words, an adverse initial self-disclosure experience can frame the rest of the LGBTQ individual’s coming out process in a similarly negative light as each succeeding coming out experience is informed and influenced by the first.
While positive reactions are certainly desirable, it seems much more important that reactions to coming out simply not be negative in nature. W. S. Ryan et al. (2015) found that “negative reactions to disclosure were associated with higher depression and lower self-esteem, whereas positive reactions did not explain additional variance in well-being” (p. 549). More specifically, negative reactions predicted distress and impeded LGBTQ individuals’ healthy development of autonomy (sense of self) in their relationships. Positive reactions did not have the same significantly lasting effect on overall mental and emotional well-being (W. S. Ryan et al., 2015). In research on self-determination theory, R. Ryan and Deci (2000) describe autonomy as one of three intrinsic psychological needs – the other two being connectedness and relatedness. Consistent with this research and the impact of episodic memory on personal and relational outcomes (Philippe, Koestner, & Lekes, 2013), a negative initial disclosure experience can be perceived as a threat to all three of these basic needs and encoded as a need-thwarting memory. Related to episodic memory is autobiographical memory, or memories of autobiographical events including contextual details and associated emotions (Pathman, Samson, Dugas, Cabeza, & Bauer, 2011; Philippe et al., 2013; Stephanou, 2012). Researchers have examined the relationship between this type of episodic memory and needs-satisfaction; specifically in line with the keystones of self-determination theory, and results indicate that negative emotional encoding that is interpreted as a threat to self may lead to self-preservation and self-protection strategies (Philippe et al., 2013).
A coming out process that is marred by a destructive initial self-disclosure experience informs expectations LGBTQ individuals have about the way they will be treated throughout the rest of their coming out process. When an individual receives stigma confirming information in the form of anger, rejection, or discrimination, this makes the stigma associated with their concealable identity more salient which could produce adverse psychological consequences (Pachankis, 2007). One such adverse outcome may be an increase in rejection sensitivity. Rejection sensitivity is similar to other types of social anxiety disorders and characterizes the unique challenges and concerns faced by culturally marginalized groups. Sexual minority related rejection sensitivity (Dyar et al., 2016; Pachankis, Goldfried, & Ramrattan, 2008) is an extension of the rejection sensitivity construct to specifically include mental health outcomes of LGBTQ individuals. LGBTQ individuals with high levels of sexual minority related rejection sensitivity report heightened stigma salience, fear of discrimination and ostracism, and preoccupying concern or anxiety that undesirable social interactions are due to their sexual orientation (Dyar et al., 2016; Pachankis et al., 2008). Higher reports of rejection sensitivity are positively correlated with negative health outcomes such as greater depression, increased anxiety, and a diminished sense of autonomy.
One possible explanation for the unique significance of initial self-disclosure experiences could be the primacy effect. Present in even the most basic memory recall tasks is the well-established understanding that people recall the first information they receive (primacy effect) and the most recent information (recency effect) with the greatest accuracy (Kelley, Neath, & Surprenant, 2015) and are likely to assume it is true. Some researchers provide evidence for the unique encoding of autobiographical information which results in the primacy of development of autobiographical memories (Pathman et al., 2011). “Primacy may result from the greater self-relevance or self-reflective nature of autobiographical events, rendering them more meaningful and, consequently, more memorable” (Pathman et al., 2011; p. 832). First memories have also been found to hold more emotional salience and significance than later memories (Demorest & Gleckel, 2014).
An additional explanation for the durability of negative reactions during first coming out experiences could be the pervasive and enduring influence of negative interactions in close relationships overall. Research on interpersonal relationships has repeatedly shown negative affect to be a key predictor of relationship dissolution (Gottman, Swanson, & Murray, 1999; Gottman, 1993; Gottman et al., 2003). Gottman is well-known for establishing a mathematical model for predicting relationship dissolution which indicates a five-to-one ratio of positive interactions to negative ones as an important formula for relationship success. Increasing positivity does not necessarily determine relationship satisfaction or longevity but increasing negativity is almost certainly a relationship deal-breaker (Gottman et al., 1999; Gottman et al., 2003).
Taken together, it is possible that if the first information an LGBTQ individual receives regarding the self-disclosure of their sexual orientation is negative, it may be easier for them to believe they are deserving of this negativity and this detrimental information will be more easily recalled in the future. Furthermore, since LGBTQ persons often come out first to very close family or friends (Waldner & Magruder, 1999) before coming out more generally, the intimate nature of these relationships could make the negative reaction even more meaningful than if it had come from strangers, which could be more easily dismissed. Social stigma and confusion around non-heteronormative sexual orientation contribute to the difficulty some loved ones face when deciding how to respond when a person close to them comes out. One thing this research makes clear is that, while many factors contribute to the importance of the initial coming out experience, the first reaction need not be overly enthusiastic or even accepting. Starting the coming out process with a positive or even neutral memory is ideal, certainly, as that will influence the rest of the process and generate more favorable outcomes than the alternative. However, even if a person struggles to come to terms with the alternative sexual orientation of a loved one, for optimal mental and emotional well-being outcomes to the LGBTQ individual, and to reduce risk of depression, anxiety, PTSD symptoms, and suicide, loved ones should attempt to withhold judgement, curb potential negative reactions and strive to respond with an open mind and open heart.
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