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.