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Sebastian's Blog

A review of non-pathologizing psychology research that expands our understanding of trans identity, experience, and mental health.

 

Seeking participants for online survey on trans mental health

Sebastian Barr

My name is Sebastian Barr – I am a transgender man and a doctoral candidate in Counseling Psychology at the University of Louisville. I used to write the blog xxboy and for Autostraddle, and am now primarily researching and educating on transgender mental health and psychology. I am currently seeking participants for my dissertation research, which I am conducting under the supervision of Drs. Kate Snyder and Mark Leach. 

To qualify for the study, participants must identify as having a gender that is different from the sex they were assigned at birth and must be over the age of 18. Participation involves completing an anonymous online questionnaire that will take approximately 15-20 minutes to complete. After you finish the survey you will have the option of providing your contact information in order to be entered to win a $100 gift card. This study has been approved by University of Louisville’s IRB. 

The information collected will not necessarily benefit you directly, but may be helpful to others. As you are likely aware, gender diverse people are at increased risk of having adverse experiences and poor mental health. The information you provide will help us better understand the experiences of transgender and gender non-conforming people and may help us communicate these experiences to the scientific community and the general public. This could lead to important applications in therapy and counseling that might improve access to effective mental health care. 

It is important to us that the research reflects the wide range of identities and experiences of transgender and gender non-conforming people, so we strongly encourage the participation of individuals who are often left out of other trans-focused studies, e.g., those who live stealth and people with nonbinary identities. For this reason, we also encourage individuals with marginalized intersecting identities (e.g., trans people of color, trans people with disabilities) to participate. 

If you are interested in being a part of this study, you can complete the questionnaire here: http://bit.ly/BarrTransSurvey

If you have any questions, please contact Sebastian Barr at sebastian.barr@louisville.edu. 

Thank you, 

Sebastian Mitchell Barr
Doctoral Candidate, Counseling Psychology
University of Louisville

Self-Compassion & Trans People

Sebastian Barr

On Feeling "Wrong," Experiencing Shame, and Practicing Self-Compassion as a Trans Person

Clients who have gender identities that differ from the sex they were assigned at birth often come into my office with a great deal of shame. And how could they not? As one client recently put it after reading one of Sam Dylan Finch's excellent writings, "I feel like I am constantly apologizing." I do not know a single out trans person who has not had someone tell them directly that they are wrong about their own gender. And if someone manages to avoid this direct interpersonal invalidation, all they need to do is watch their TV for long enough or read the comments of any trans article on a major news site to hear a rejection of the validity of all trans people's genders, identities, existence. Just trying to navigate a world that assumes your gender matches your assigned sex is a fairly constant experience of being told something about you is wrong. I was female assigned at birth and have a clear memory of being told I was in the wrong line when I tried to line up with the boys in preschool. A seemingly simple decision of where to use a toilet or a sink can be an exercise in being told you don't belong.

This goes beyond stigma. This is not unrelated to but IS different from blatant anti-transgender beliefs, experiences of prejudice and hate. If you are trans and reading this, I imagine we are on the same page. You've either already thought about this or I've just given words to feelings and experiences that you've had for years. If you aren't trans, imagine existing in a world where everyone assumes you are a gender different from the gender you actually are. If you are a cisgender woman, imagine what it would be like to have people constantly expecting you to act or look like a man, to get in the boys' line, or to shop in the men's section, use the men's restroom. Imagine that they talked about you by saying "he" and "him." If you are a cisgender man, imagine what it would be like to have people constantly expecting you to act or look like woman. Imagine people talking about you by saying "she" and "her." What would it feel like? You'd be confused at first, perhaps angry, indignant. Would you correct them? What would it feel like to keep having to correct people? Now, importantly, imagine what it would start to mean that you have to keep correcting them. 

What it means is someone is wrong in this situation. Either their expectations and assumptions about you are wrong or you are wrong. I don't think a human can exist who wouldn't start to wonder if they were the ones that were wrong in this situation. For many trans people this looks one of two ways: a) That wondering becomes believing and suddenly they understand themselves as wrong, as broken; and/or b) They engage in an almost all-consuming effort to PROVE that they aren't wrong - to prove it to others and to prove it to themselves. Not all trans people respond in these ways, but many do. And it is incredibly damaging. After all, cisgender friends and readers, can you imagine how you might prove that your gender is what you say it is? What could you offer as proof? Imagine how you would demonstrate your woman-ness, your man-ness, the validity of your identity as a woman or a man? Cisgender people often think they can rely on their biology or their sex assignment or perhaps how masculine or feminine they are to prove their gender, but it turns out that none of those things really get at our internal understanding of ourselves as gendered people. Until we can find a way to directly experience the actual thoughts, emotions, and internal experiences of another person, we as society will never be able to have reliable "proof" of anyone's gender. Cisgender people are never asked to prove their gender, so they often fail to realize that when they ask (directly or indirectly) this of trans people, they are asking for something that is impossible. When trans people try to prove their gender, they are being set up to fail.

So both a and b ultimately result in a deep (sometimes very private) shame. A deep sense that something isn't right about you.

And what is so frustrating about all of this is that of course, there isn't anything wrong with trans people's gender. Trans people aren't the ones who are wrong. Society's gender system is wrong. So trans people are out here existing with this heavy sense of not-rightness, when they really are the ones who are right in this situation.

And most trans people come to understand this. Most trans people quite literally battle to accept themselves and to carve a place for themselves and their gender(s). But even as they achieve victories in this battle, they do so on the other side of years, maybe decades - a lifetime of understanding themselves as wrong, as failures or mistakes, as something that needs fixing. And if there's anything we know about brains, it's that the more you use a set of synapses, the easier it is to use them, the harder it is to not use them, and the more likely you are to use them in similar situations in the future. And thinking that you are wrong or feeling shame - these internal experiences are actual sets of synapses firing. So even as trans people start to understand themselves as NOT WRONG, as VALID, they are coping with these brains that have been wired to experiencing themselves as wrong, as invalid.

But another important thing we know about brains is that they can change. If we were in person together, this is the point in my talk where I'd say, "Raise your hand if you've heard of neuroplasticity." (You don't have to raise your hand if you're reading this and you've heard of it.) Neuroplasticity is a fancy word for the ability for our brain wiring to change. It turns out, this is something that human's brains are pretty adept at. It's why we are good learners. It's why we can change unhealthy habits. Heck - it's why therapy works. And what this means for trans people who have gotten very good and internalizing all that rejection and the messages of being wrong, is that their brain wiring that makes them prone to shame, that makes them feel wrong even as they start to know that they aren't - ALL THIS CAN CHANGE.

But it takes some effort. Most trans people (and listen, so we are clear - I include myself in this boat) will have to put some deliberate work into shifting that wiring that makes them move so quickly to understanding themselves as wrong, to being ashamed for something they've done, for something they are - that wiring that, as my client put it, makes us feel like we have to apologize all the time. I think the antidote is deliberate self-compassion practice. Now, self-compassion is kind of like mindfulness in that many of us can say the word and talk about how great it is, but we don't always have a clear sense of what it actually means or how to practice it. Fortunately for everyone, other people have done some great work in this area. So I'm not going to make this piece any longer, and instead will refer those of you interested in building your self-compassion, in being deliberate about shifting your understanding of yourself from invalid to valid from wrong to worthy of love and acceptance... to some outside resources:

  • First, a post by the folks at Happify includes a nice infographic on what self-compassion actually is and what it isn't. Check it out at EverydayFeminism.
  •  Second, I recommend starting self-compassion practice by engaging in loving-kindness meditation. This is a compassion meditation, based the Buddhist Metta mantra and meditation, which cultivates compassion for loved ones, strangers, enemies, and ourselves. I find it helpful, because it reminds me that engaging in self-compassion is really an act of directing inward all the compassion that we try to provide those around us. The Center for Healthy Minds at University of Wisconsin has a 30-minute guided meditation that I really like. You have to sign up to receive the download, but I can promise you I have yet to receive spam/solicitation from them. Sign up for their compassion training here: www.centerhealthyminds.org/well-being-tools/compassion-training.
  • Finally, psychologist Dr. Kristen Neff offers some guided meditations and exercises that specifically focus on self-compassion: www.self-compassion.org/category/exercises.

 

Coping 101

Sebastian Barr

Below is a review of an introductory discussion of coping strategies that I recently had with a group of trans and gender non-conforming youth.

The Chain of Emotion: Antecedents of Distress

The Chain of Emotion: Antecedents of Distress

Contrary to how it sometimes feels in the moment, emotions (that is, feelings) don't just come out of nowhere. And most emotions aren't a direct response to an event. As the diagram above highlights, there is typically an intermediate step between an event and our emotional response: the way we think about the event.

I define coping as managing our emotional responses or reducing distress. We can do this by directly targeting the distress or emotion, by directly targeting the thoughts or appraisals leading to distress, and/or by directly targeting the event or stressor at the beginning of the chain. So when we talk about coping strategies, they will fall in one (or more) of three categories, depending on which part(s) of the chain they target:

  • Problem-focused coping strategies directly target the stressor and try to change or remove it
    • Examples include:
      • Walking away from a negative situation
      • Seeking support and/or gathering resources to change a situation
      • Distracting yourself from the stressor
  • Cognitive-focused coping strategies directly target the thoughts about the stressor and try to change them
    • Examples include:
      • Minimizing the significance of a stressor
      • Focusing on the positive aspects of a stressor
      • Using self-talk to emphasize our ability to deal with a stressor
      • Making meaning out of a stressor
  • Emotion-focused coping strategies target the emotional response or distress and try to lessen that directly
    • Examples include:
      • Breathing exercises, meditation, and other calming activities
      • Rest and self-care
      • Engaging in activities that improve mood
      • Emotional release

Helpful Coping

There is no such thing as good vs. bad coping.

There are other ways of understanding and organizing coping strategies. But importantly, I do not believe in designating coping strategies as "good" or "bad." There is no such thing as good vs. bad coping, though you may have heard these phrases before. Instead, we should think about coping strategies in terms of how helpful they are and what risks they carry/how dangerous they are. 

Helpfulness.png

Coping strategies fall somewhere along multiple continuums of helpfulness:

  • How helpful the strategy is in reducing distress in the short-term
  • How helpful the strategy is in reducing distress in the long-term
  • How helpful the strategy is in aiding in you ability to cope in the future

There are strategies that are very helpful in reducing distress in the short-term, but might be unhelpful in reducing distress in the long-term, or might make it more difficult for you to cope in the future. Avoidant coping strategies often fall in this category. These include strategies in which we attempt to distance ourselves from the stressor, our thoughts about the stressor, and/or our emotional response. Sometimes this means actually avoiding situations and sometimes it means distracting ourselves or attempting to numb our emotions. Avoidant or distancing strategies tend to be pretty helpful in reducing distress in the moment, on the helpfulness continuum for the short-term, they might be pretty far to the right. But because avoidant coping strategies don't do anything to actually change the stressor, our thoughts about the stressor, or our emotional response, these strategies usually aren't helpful in preventing distress in the future, nor do they help us build a skill set that increases our ability to cope in the future. So on the other continuums of helpfulness, they are pretty far to the left.

Some examples of avoidant coping:

  • Stressor: Your mother continues to misgender you; Thought/appraisal: She doesn't accept me and my true gender; Emotional response: You feel rejected and experience distress
    • Avoidant problem-focused coping strategy: You distance yourself from the stressor by leaving home.
    • Avoidant cognitive-focused coping strategy: You distance yourself from your thinking about the stressor by watching your favorite Netflix show.
    • Avoidant emotion-focused coping strategy: You distance yourself from your emotional response by numbing your emotions through substance use (e.g., drinking alcohol).

Note that "avoidant" is not my euphemism for "bad." Sometimes avoidant coping strategies are the most appropriate or the only type of coping you have access to. They are, however, overall less helpful in achieving your goal of reducing distress, so when you can, try to utilize facilitative coping strategies instead. Rather than utilizing distancing techniques, facilitative coping strategies are those which actually change the stressor, your thoughts about the stressor, and/or your emotional response. These tend to be much more helpful in the long-term in reducing emotional distress, because they decrease future severity and frequency of the stressors and thoughts that led to distress AND they help you develop your coping skills so you are more equipped to take on difficult situations, thoughts, and emotions in the future. So using the above example, let's look at some examples of facilitative coping strategies:

  • Stressor: Your mother continues to misgender you; Thought/appraisal: She doesn't accept me and my true gender; Emotional response: You feel rejected and experience distress
    • Facilitative problem-focused coping strategy: You change the stressor by asking a supportive family member to talk to your mother about the way the misgendering is affecting you.
    • Facilitative cognitive-focused coping strategy: You change the way you think about the stressor by reminding yourself that your mother's interactions with you are due to her own ignorance and misunderstanding and not a lack of love for you.
    • Facilitative emotion-focused coping strategy: You change your emotional response by engaging in deep breathing and gratitude exercises.

Just like the examples of avoidant coping strategies, some of these may not be accessible to you in a particular situation. That's why therapists and others in the mental health and helping worlds like to talk about LOTS of different coping strategies. You can think of coping strategies as different tools. Your toolbox in your garage doesn't just have one tool in it nor does it have multiple sets of the same tool. Also your toolbox will have a different combination of tools based on the job you need the tools for, your personal preference, and other characteristics about yourself. An electrician's toolbox looks pretty different from a car mechanic's. It's the same way with coping tools. Your coping toolbox will be different than mine. And importantly, you won't be able to use the same coping tool all the time, so it's important to have multiple ones to pick from. And just like a real tool in a toolbox, it will take practice to be able to use it most effectively. And it's better to practice ahead of time - you wouldn't want to be using a wrench for the first time when your toilet is shooting water all over the place, and you wouldn't want the first time you practice a breathing exercise or a cognitive-focused coping strategy to be in the middle of a really serious episode of distress.

The final thing to consider when thinking about coping strategies is how dangerous they are. In other words, what risks are involved with a particular coping strategy? These risks could be interpersonal - for example, using a coping strategy that involves trying to change your mother's misgendering behavior may carry the risk of making her angry or hurting her feelings. Using a coping strategy of resting or taking nap may carry the risk of you not completing your homework or chores and/or receiving a consequence. Using a coping strategy of cutting carries the risk of scarring yourself and seriously injuring yourself on accident. Using a coping strategy of binge drinking carries risks related to cognitive impairment (e.g., you could get in a car accident), bodily harm (e.g., alcohol poisoning or long-term liver and brain impact), and interpersonal problems (e.g., yelling at your friend). I'm sure you can think about more risks and danger involved with a whole host of coping strategies. You want to consider these because 1) you are worth protecting and 2) often these risks are just more things you will have to cope with.


So in sum, to reduce distress, you can target the distress/emotion itself, or the things that lead to the distress: the situation/stressor and your thoughts about the stressor. Because we are all unique and are dealing with unique stressors, the strategies we employ to reduce our distress vary from person to person and between situations/stressors. Coping strategies fall along continuums in terms of how helpful they are at relieving distress in the short-term, how helpful they are at relieving/preventing distress in the long-term, and how helpful they are at building your coping skills for the future. The most effective coping strategies are called facilitative coping strategies, which focus on changing the stressor, your thoughts about the stressor, and/or your emotional response; they are most effective, because they reduce distress in the short-term and long-term and help you strengthen your coping skills for the future. Sometimes we engage in avoidant coping strategies, which instead of aiming to change anything, focus on distancing yourself from the stressor, your thoughts about the stressor, or your emotional response. These tend to be more helpful in reducing distress in the short-term, but not  helpful (and sometimes even harmful) in terms of reducing or preventing long-term distress and building your ability to cope with future stressors. Most coping strategies also carry some degree of risk with them - or the possibility of negative consequences, which must also be considered when deciding which strategy or strategies to utilize. Most coping strategies require practice and not all of them are easily mastered. But you are fully equipped with the ability to engage in helpful coping, and this is something therapists are literally trained to assist you with if you ever feel overwhelmed.