I came out really late in life. I’m happy and grateful to be out, but I can’t get past feeling like I have created pain and difficulty for so many people. I feel guilty about ending the “straight” relationship I was trapped in. I feel guilty for disrupting my parents and siblings’ lives with this bombshell and making them question their past behavior and feel bad. (They’ve been mega supportive and had no idea.) And I feel guilty for not allowing myself to live as myself for so many years. How can I let go of this old guilt and old sadness and open myself to new feelings and experiences?
Guilt is an incredibly unforgiving feeling. It says, unequivocally, that we have done harm, and demands that we remain confined by the knowledge of the harm we’ve done. There is no path forward with guilt.
I wonder if, rather than viewing your experience through the lens of guilt, you can re-frame it as regret and personal loss. Regret comes with its own trappings, but as Moya Sarner from The Guardian discusses, it is possible to work through regret.
I’m going to start with the guilt you’re feeling for not coming out sooner. I don’t know your story of coming into queerness for yourself and coming out to others about being queer. I don’t know if for some time before you came out, you knew for yourself that you were queer but were closeted or whether coming out to others happened in parallel with coming into your own queerness. I don’t know that there necessarily is or has to be a clear separation between the two, particularly for those of us who come out when we’re older.
What I do know is that you came out when you did for a reason and, in all honesty, probably more than one. I truly believe that when it comes to these matters of identity, when it comes to facing ourselves and examining the things we want out of our lives, that we can only discover these aspects of ourselves when we’re ready for them. As I work through similar things to what your describing, this sometimes feels like the most painful part: why didn’t I know sooner? It feels like I failed myself in the most fundamental way. It’s also impossible not to grieve for the life I might’ve had if I had come into my queerness earlier. But that framework means denying the validity of the decisions I made and the life I have lived. This tension may or may not be relatable to you. If it is, you might try thinking about your current understanding of and openness about your sexuality as the next phase of your winding journey through life, rather than the destination you were late in arriving at.
It’s worth examining for yourself your trajectory of coming into your queerness and coming out to others with a wider view. I would urge you to challenge the framing of you “not allowing [yourself] to live as [yourself] for so many years.” What other factors were at play in your life and in the world? For instance, did the lack of queer role models that you could relate to keep you from identifying as you do now? Or maybe, based on prior experiences, you were looking for stability and security in your life and you pursued it in the surest way that was presented to you. Perhaps neither of those are applicable to your situation, but it’s worth looking beyond yourself and seeing what other things may have influenced you.
Taking this wider view will require you to examine the various current and previous relationships in your life and how those relationships interacted with your coming into and coming out about your queerness. It’s completely reasonable, given the world we live in, to be inhibited by heteronormativity, but that doesn’t happen in isolation. Even the most supportive family and relationships can inadvertently reinforce heterosexual narratives because that’s the default worldview we are all surrounded with. That doesn’t mean your family or your ex bear full responsibility for your experience, but it also doesn’t mean that you bear full responsibility either. Allow yourself to reflect on all of this without judgement or blame but also without denying it.
This, inevitably, will bring you to what you owe the other people in your life and what they owe you. I want to be extremely clear here: you shouldn’t feel any guilt or regret for coming out to your family or ending your previous relationship, no matter how much those things affected other people’s lives. At the end of the day, the important thing is being honest with yourself first and foremost and then being honest with the people you care about — both of these in your own time. Sometimes that honesty means hurting people, but if they really care about you, they should be able to see that you aren’t trying to hurt them solely for the sake of hurting them but rather are trying to live your own life as authentically as you can.
I wonder if part of your guilt around disrupting your family’s lives and ending your relationship is actually regret around the way you acted, rather than the actions themselves. These things are messy and painful, and anyone in a situation like yours will end up saying or doing something that they later feel badly about. If you haven’t already, take some time to reflect on how you ended your relationship and came out to your family. Perhaps you said or did some things that you now realize you could have handled differently. You might find that you’re taking responsibility for making other people uncomfortable for having to reckon with their own beliefs, assumptions, and behaviors. And you bear no responsibility for that.
If you aren’t already working with a therapist and if you have the means, a skilled, LGBTQ-friendly therapist can be incredibly valuable in helping you hold and make sense of your feelings in the context of what happened.
At the end of it all, you just need to give yourself space to sit with the loss you feel for the life you had and the life you could have had. There’s a difference, though, between sitting with loss and wallowing in sadness. Part of grief is reflecting on the past and the possibilities that have been foreclosed. The other part of grief is taking the first small steps towards building your new future.
I’m always surprised by the variety of emotions that I can manage to hold simultaneously, and I know that’s true for everyone. As you begin to explore your queer life, you may find the feelings of guilt, regret, and loss pulling at your heart. That will be inevitable, but don’t let those feelings bind you in inaction. Acknowledge those feelings, acknowledge the validity of those feelings, but continue venturing forward in your queerness. And one day, hopefully, the regret and the loss will dull to a bittersweetness as you revel in the beautiful, queer life you’ve built for yourself.
You can chime in with your advice in the comments and submit your own questions any time.