From Acceptance to Support: Becoming an Ally is a Journey Too
In light of Transgender Awareness Week this November 13-20, I want to share some guidance and support for the families and friends of people choosing to transition to another gender or to a more comfortable non-binary place.
Whether it’s your child, friend, sibling, parent or someone else in your close network, for that individual, coming out about their body gender versus their felt gender is a significant time. It takes bravery and courage to share what might have been hidden away for years — even decades — very often to the detriment of their own mental health and emotional well-being. Studies show when the people who love them show support as an ally, it makes a huge difference in their mental health and emotional resilience.
This is a time of transition for everyone in that close circle, so it’s okay to be cheering on the sidelines for your person while also experiencing a range of your own emotions.
In the early days, there could be feelings of anxiety, worry, confusion or even grief. Many feel an intense pressure to understand everything about the trans experience and they want to be an expert as soon as possible. But! Keep in mind that it’s a process — your emotions will have their own timeline as you learn more about what your loved one needs from you during and after their transition. You’ll also need time to work towards understanding them in a way that help you become a genuine ally and source of support.
Learning to be an ally for your transitioning person is an ongoing process – it takes open-mindedness, compassion and two-way communication to learn and adapt to what they need from you for support. You are *also* in transition with them.
For example, if a sibling or friend shares they’ve decided to socially transition genders, they may later be quick to get exasperated and deeply upset if you accidentally use their “dead” name (name assigned at birth, typically coinciding with bio gender). And for you, the stress of making a mistake is heightened as you work to process this major change while also carrying around a possible deep fear that mistakes may be interpreted as “not being supportive.”
For others, the parent, sibling or friend may also be fearful of sharing their true feelings as they’re processing this new information. Some may experience grief, such as for lost future gendered milestones or future expectations about their person’s life. Others may feel anxious over the uncertainty of how that child, friend or family member will be treated by the world. So many thoughts and emotions will be running wild all at once! So how can you work through them while also being there for your transitioning person?
Try RAIN for emotions, a technique that’s been helpful for people who need support in understanding, grieving, processing and moving forward (accepting) as they navigate the nuance of an evolving relational dynamic with your transitioning person. Many people I work with found the RAIN tips helpful as they process their own thoughts and emotions on the journey to becoming an ally — something so incredibly important and meaningful to the transitioning person in their lives.:
RAIN: Working with Difficult Emotions —This is a meditative tool to help with emotion regulation. It allows you the time to explore your emotions and move through them. RAIN stands for Recognize, Allow, Investigate, and Nurture. Let’s dive into this one:
Recognize what’s going on — acknowledge the thoughts, feelings and behaviours that are affecting you, and note what you are most aware of.
Allow the experience to be there, just as it is — let all the thoughts, feelings, emotions and sensations you’ve recognized be present. Let those be, without trying to “fix” or change them.
Investigate with care — let your natural curiosity shine! Be curious and attentive about all you’re experiencing. You might ask yourself “What most wants or needs my attention right now?” “What am I believing?” “What is beneath this?” Call attention to and investigate what you’re experiencing or sensing without feeling like you have to analyze the logistics of the situation.
Nurture with self-compassion — sense what you need most and offer yourself a gesture of self-care. It could be soothing self-talk, curling up under a soft, soothing blanket, or placing your hand on your cheek or over your heart - it can be any act of self-soothing and self-care, no matter how big or small, that brings you comfort.
Looking for an additional technique? Try Radical Acceptance, featured in a previous blog post. It’s a great tool to have in those moments when situations are challenging and beyond your control.
Remember, it’s a process that takes time
It really does take a lot of strength and bravery for someone to come out to their inner circle as trans or non-binary. It’s also completely understandable to have your own reactions and emotions to deal with. Use the above to help you move through those emotions and have the hard conversations because there will no doubt be a lot of them! And remember, this process takes time and it’s entirely non-linear. Stay open-minded, communicate what you need, and ask the transitioning person what they need from you in terms of support and ally-ship. Making the time to process your own thoughts and emotions will help you support that person in your life who is finally comfortable (and free!) in living and sharing their most authentic self.
While this post is intended to support families, it might also be helpful to understand the mental health challenges of those transitioning in the realm of gender or even sexuality. Here is a link speaking to studies of mental health risks for transgender folx and another with Canadian info on the mental health risks and how important family/friend support can be for members of the LGBTQ+ community.