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A December Survival Guide for LGBTQ+ Folks and Other Outcasts

Photo by Amit Singh on Unsplash
Cynthia Degnan, Phd, MSW, LCSW, Steadfast Center Intake and Trauma Therapist

Cynthia Degnan, PhD, MSW, LCSW

Intake and Trauma Therapist

Earlier this fall, I attended my first multi-day silent meditation retreat. Feeling a little nervous about committing myself to living in close quarters with 100 strangers, I chose an LGBTQ+ retreat. I thought that this would help with my comfort level and did not think much else about it. But from the first moments in the meditation hall, I was surprised to be deeply moved by how the teachers approached “Queer Dharma” and how wonderful it felt to be held by this community and to hold others in return.

I’ve been thinking about this experience a lot in the midst of this holiday season, one that can be especially complicated for LGBTQ+ folks and others who have experienced rejection or judgment in their family. No matter what our religious or spiritual practices are, it would be hard to get through November and December in the US without some feelings about family bubbling to the surface. Some of us are lucky enough to have families of origin that can provide the sense of affirmation and belonging that I felt on that retreat. If this is you and this is your holiday season, I wish you a very happy one.

Many of us, though, have struggled with how to be ourselves with our family of origin. Meanwhile, we are about to be surrounded by messages that this is a season of joyous reconnection and abundance. Many of us are facing a holiday season in which we will be grappling with the complexities of family relationships that do not conform to these images. And that grappling can come with many challenging feelings, like pain, grief, shame, and anger. If you are struggling with these feelings, here are some suggestions for ways to get through, and maybe even thrive, over the next month.

Connect to the life you’ve built

This is a wonderful time of year to connect more deeply with the life you have created apart from your family of origin. This could look like spending time reflecting on who has become part of your chosen family. It could mean reminding yourself of what you have done with your life that others, with their limiting beliefs of you, might not have thought possible. And it could be spending time identifying all of the sources of joy and connection that you have been able to find in your life.

If you are spending time with family and you anticipate that being difficult, try bringing tangible reminders of your current life with you, like objects that are important to you or remind you of the things above. You could ask your chosen family/friends to message you periodically, to help remind you of the richness of the relationships you have in your life. If you are not seeing your family of origin and feeling loss about that, spend time connecting with your present life by spending quality time with important people, or practicing gratitude for the things and people that bring you joy. Please note that these practices are not meant to erase the painful feelings. They are to give yourself something to hold alongside those feelings, to help remember that they are not the only feelings you can experience.

Become an anthropologist

Spending time with people who have judged or shamed you can be highly activating. It is easy to get caught up in emotions and old patterns when visiting family. Try to balance this out by imagining you are an anthropologist who is studying the customs and patterns of a community. How do members of your family communicate? What triggers conflict? What rituals bring people together? What roles are family members expected to fulfill? Cultivating this observational stance by being intentionally curious about what’s happening around you can help create some distance between you and the feelings that might flood in.

Release expectations (when it’s safe to do so)

Sometimes when we have been hurt we can become rigid in relationships. Whether or not we choose to continue to have relationships with people who have hurt us, our ideas about those people and relationships can be static. This is largely a protective impulse, I believe; we tend to look out for ways that we might be hurt as biological instinct and holding on to these perceptions can be a way of doing that.

If it feels possible to you, I offer an alternative that I learned on retreat. One of the teachers, Pascal Auclair, offered a metta (from the Pali word meaning lovingkindness) meditation that took a different spin. Usually metta meditations are built around wishing others well. But Pascal encouraged us to focus on more challenging relationships, and to try releasing the barriers to wishing those people well. He guided us repeatedly to picture a person in our lives, to release our expectations of them, and to “give [them] back [their] humanity.” He also asked us to do the same for ourselves - to release ourselves from others' expectations and reclaim our own humanity (You can listen to and practice this meditation yourself here.)

In other words, Pascal Auclair asked us to let go of the stories we tell about that person and let them be exactly as they are in this moment. And to allow ourselves to exist beyond the stories that others tell about us. This is not about bypassing accountability to jump to forgiveness or absolution. It is about trying more clearly to see all of the complicated humanness that influences any relationship. With that clarity we might find space for kindness for ourselves and others. And from that kindness and acceptance can come a desire for connection, for more clearly articulated boundaries, or both. This is probably best not to start by focusing on people who are or have been actively abusive. But in relationships where there has been harm and also still exists the possibility of connection, it can help us break out of the scripts that we might cling to and create space for curiosity, presence, and growth.

Whatever your approach to these wintery weeks ahead, I’m wishing all of us as much peace, comfort, and coziness as we can muster.

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