by a Psychologist in Training
I am an excellent compartmentalizer. When one part of my life interferes with another, I keep them separate. A simple example might be keeping my home life apart from my school life. Or keeping the stress of one exam contained while I focus on studying for another. But I have found that compartmentalization is not simply an intrapersonal process, it is an interpersonal one as well. I know it is hardly original of me to admit that I exhibit different versions of myself depending on the social context. I am confident that most people act differently in front of their boss than they would in front of their closest friend. But the type of social compartmentalization that I am referring to has to do with identities. Behaving more appropriately in front of your boss is different than being someone else in front of your boss (See: Supergirl). Not too long ago, that is how I operated most of the time. I would be who I thought others wanted me to be.
I realized that I was attracted to women when I was 22-years-old (I know, what poor self-awareness for a wannabe therapist right?). When it finally clicked, I remember thinking, this is what it is supposed to feel like. But having romantic feelings for one of my closest friends was a difficult realization for me, and I harbored a lot of shame about it. She was still attending our alma mater, a place that was painfully heteronormative. Every time I went up there to visit, we were only our true selves in private. In public, I channeled Optimus Prime, the Animorphs, or some other transformable being of legend, in order to appear like an average heterosexual alumni awaiting her future husband. I developed a repertoire of Jedi mind tricks (See: Obi-Wan), which for me meant finding multiple ways to say, “I’m not the queer you’re looking for.” My dissonance was palpable, and my compartmentalization skills worked overtime. So much so that I shut many people out, including family and friends. Suffice it to say I hardly dealt with my sexuality during my master’s education. I kept it so separate from who I was at school, work, and even home, that I never owned the experience of being a sexual minority student. Those two years seem like a blur to me now, but I think my psyche prefers it that way.
I will never forget the day I came out to my cohort in my first doctoral-level class. I was giving a presentation on my research interests, which really boiled down to “me-search” interests. My professor poked and prodded at my ideas, activating my defensiveness. “How do you know this story is out there?” he inquired skeptically. Before I could even blink I said, “Because it is my story.” Tears came to my eyes and my face flushed red. Did that just happen?! I remember my professor thanking me for my transparency and my peers showing their support, but my head was spinning.
My dissonance was palpable, and my compartmentalization skills worked overtime. So much so that I shut many people out, including family and friends.
I would never wish that sort of unplanned public announcement on anyone, but that moment represented a pivotal turning point for me. From then on, I recognized my minority sexual identity and accepted that it was a part of who I was. I became more committed to authenticity, honest self-reflection, and identity integration with each passing year, which fostered my personal and professional development. But I also became more aware of what it means to be a sexual minority graduate student and the (obligatory/self-imposed?) responsibilities that come with it. In a predominantly White heterosexual program and university, being a sexual minority student of color is like being a rare gem. People often comment on how unique and shiny I am, without caring to go beneath the surface of my identity variables. I have also felt the pressure to educate those who identify with majority groups (Cue: Callie Torres). Perhaps the most consistent stressor has been knowing when to pick my battles or use my voice. Should I tell the professor that “homosexual” is an outdated term? Are people waiting for me to bring up multiculturalism? Are my peers afraid I will judge them if they speak on diversity issues? Do people think the professor is giving me special treatment because I am queer or a person of color? These are just a few examples of the many thoughts I have had over the last three years within academic settings. Many times, I wrestled with these thoughts alone. But there were times when I relied on a few close allies to hear me out and validate my perspective. I am very grateful for these individuals, for they have kept me afloat on countless occasions throughout my doctoral journey.
It is worth noting that my field of study is different from others. Psychologists as a whole tend to champion diversity and inclusivity in the U.S. and abroad (See: APA Multicultural Guidelines). Thus, it has been my experience that psychology faculty and students (sometimes) are more aware of diversity issues and more open to talking about them. I believe this explains why I have not experienced as much overt discrimination or prejudice in academia. Microaggressions are more common, resulting in minority stress that is subtle, internal, and confusing. I will admit that the general stance of the American Psychological Association on diversity has made me more critical of my colleagues. My assumption that psychologists should be aware of privilege and biases often leaves me disappointed (Cue: Santana Lopez). The fact is, psychologists are as embedded in systems of oppression as everyone else, and they are still vulnerable to the effects.
Many times, I wrestled with these thoughts alone. But there were times when I relied on a few close allies to hear me out and validate my perspective. I am very grateful for these individuals, for they have kept me afloat on countless occasions throughout my doctoral journey.
I am starting year four of my program, and I experience more confidence and peace about my identities now than I used to (See: Wonder Woman). I think the most valuable lesson I have learned in graduate school is to be whole. That is not to say that I have abandoned my compartmentalization skills—sometimes they come in handy. But I have given up compartmentalizing my identities. When I am in class, with clients, or at home, I am all of me. I embrace all the discomfort, confusion, anger, and pain that may bring, and the result is that I am more genuine, courageous, present, and fulfilled in all that I do. Being authentic has both facilitated my identity development and brought on minority stress, but I would not trade this path for one of silence and concealment.
Some of you may belong to programs and universities that are more hostile towards LGBTQ+ people, and for that I am sorry. I hope that you can be a part of changing that, straight or not. Regardless, my hope is that you find spaces to practice wholeness. They do exist and they are worth finding.
The author of this essay has chosen to remain anonymous. We ask that you respect her right to privacy.
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