Helping Teens & Adults with Identity Concerns
I often work with teenagers and adults who are questioning their identities. In therapy, we will explore how the person sees and understands him or herself and how the person perceives being seen and supported within larger circles (family, school, job, community). We can also look at whether a person has a sufficiently broad view of his or her “self” that includes consideration of personal and community values, interests, strengths and weaknesses. As we explore these areas, I strive to help my clients develop a path toward overall well-being (which includes the experience of positive emotions, engagement in the present, positive relationships, development of meaning, and achievement).
Exploring questions about sexuality or coming to terms with one’s sexual orientation is one of the topics I can help my clients explore in our work together. Questions about sexuality, particularly when coming up during the teenage years, can be an especially complex and significant identity challenge. Below are answers to some of the questions I have been asked about this topic.
Is sexuality a choice?
Many people experience little or no sense of choice as to whether they are mainly attracted to other women, men, or both genders. At this point, there is not a consensus among biological and psychological researchers and professionals about the exact reasons why a person develops a particular sexual orientation, but most believe that a person’s sexuality is determined by a complex interaction of environmental and biological factors.
How does peer or personal alienation in a high school setting affect students who are questioning their sexuality or identify as gay, lesbian, or bisexual?
Coping with verbal and physical threats and rumors about a student’s sexuality can lead that student to feel anxious, depressed, irritable, scared, and isolated. These feelings and moods can interfere with family and social relationships and school performance. Bullying is not only stressful for the student that is on the receiving end, it also causes strain on many of the students participating in or witnessing the bullying and breaks down the sense of community in a school environment.
Why do you think students can bully students who identify as questioning, gay or bisexual?
For many teenagers, a large part of high school is figuring out how to be “yourself” while also trying to fit in. This a touch challenge. Bullying students that are different or stand out in some way can sometimes happen when one leader starts making comments or threats and others go along to “fit in” or others are quiet so they won’t become a target, too.
Support from the school’s administration and smaller community groups (within and outside of the school) can make a big difference in how emotionally and physically safe a student feels in their school and overall community. There are so many ways that a student can experience feeling “different” than the perceived main group (sexuality is only on facet of perceived identity). Messages that support care and respect for all students facilitates an environment in which each student student benefits – leaders, those more in the main ‘pack,’ and those who feel on the margins of the main community culture.
What steps do you think we need to take to support students?
Schools can promote a culture of respect and acceptance of diversity in their classrooms and hallways. Students who identify as gay, lesbian, bisexual, or questioning of their sexual orientation need to know that they have the right to experience a safe educational environment, and they can go to the school administrators and counselors if an issue arises. It is also important for students to speak up if they experience or witness bullying occurring – sending a message that leaders and those in the middle of the mainstream school culture have a responsibility toward the well-being of their peers and community, as well. Lastly, providing activities and programming supporting respect for all students through student organizations or having a school or community sponsored event can have a positive impact at the community and individual level.
If you are struggling to cope with questions or stress related to your sexuality or another identity conflict, I encourage you to talk with someone you trust about your concerns, such as a parent, teacher, coach, counselor, or friend. Making a connection with a trusted other person is essential in getting the support and feelings of connection you need to cope most effectively with stress and work through your questions or concerns.
Kathryn H. Leugers, Psy.D., MBA.