Feeling at Home in Your Own Skin

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by Nick Lingerfelt

In one of Kae Papula’s graduate school classes, she and the rest of her classmates were doing a breathing exercise. When she went to take a deep breath, she had a realization.

“I was breathing into my stomach, and I think I realized for the first time that I had been holding my breath since I was 10 years old,” Papula said.

Papula, who is now a mental health clinician based in Oakland, California, said she felt like she had been tense, constricted, and pushing down her authenticity and vitality since she was 10 years old.

“There was so much grief there,” Papula said.

The LGBTQ community faces minority stress based on anti-queer stigma that is harmful for their health and well-being, according to research published in the journals Psychological Bulletin and Professional Psychology: Research and Practice.

Papula, who identifies as both sexually fluid and gender fluid, said she realized all the ways she wasn’t living the fullest expression of herself because she was waiting to take a breath, let her shoulders down and feel safe.

Part of Papula’s journey back into herself was understanding the social systems and structures that led her to feel oppressed.

“It’s important to talk about social change and work with local lawmakers and really understand how do we make
these places and spaces more safe for queer people,” Papula said.

Papula said people find self-acceptance in community with others like them. People cannot come into their body or their self in a vacuum.

“People will often ask me to talk about self-care,” Papula said. “Well, let’s talk about community care. I take care of myself in a way where the things I choose to do I know are not going to take care of just me but also a bunch of other people.”

Papula said research into queer people and other marginalized groups often focuses on risk factors and mental health risks, but she said there should be another lens to look at the community.

“Where’s the research about queer resilience? About queer joy?” Papula said. “Where are those ingredients around self-acceptance or community care or these important factors that we need to come into ourselves as queer people?”

Leah Newman, licensed professional counselor in Tennessee, said people can tend to carry all of the messages we’ve received from family, religious institutions, their schools or peers.

“We still subconsciously abide those rules or those messages,” Newman said.

While coming into your own skin might feel like a solo journey, we really come into our own when we’re in community with other people like us. Seeking out others like you, gender- and sexuality- wise, in this sense, is critical for feeling at home in your own skin.

Shifting your perspective can also help you feel safe in yourself. When you choose to see the good instead of always focusing on what’s wrong or what’s bad, that can vastly improve your mental health. Also, for me as a gay man, I find focusing instead on how I’ve had many challenges but that I’ve made it through them all is a powerful realization.

Shannon Brown, a therapist in Maryville, Tennessee, said that despite the negative environment queer people often find themselves in, it’s important to build resiliency within themselves.

“I think it’s important that we learn how to tell ourselves that we’re OK,” Brown said. “That it’s OK who we are, who we love.”