Narrative Therapy Tactics to Affirm Gender Identity and Expression

Tall person with short hair wearing bowtie, shirt, slacks, and heeled boots kicks out against splashes of paintSophia Dembling wrote, “One of the risks of being quiet is that the other people can fill your silence with their own interpretation: You’re bored. You’re depressed. You’re shy. You’re stuck up. You’re judgmental. When others can’t read us, they write their own story—not always one we choose or that’s true to who we are.

But sometimes even when others could choose to “read” us—by being curious, asking questions, and collaborating with us and honoring what we value—they choose to write over us instead. This is particularly true when one person has more social power or when their values are already maintained by external forces. They have more permissions already; they have more of a voice. In these situations, we might not be quiet by nature so much as silenced.

Asserting Experience and Identity

Some aspects of our lives come more pre-packaged and scripted than others—namely, our stories about gender. And we haven’t got a fighting chance to tell our own gender story if it’s been decided for us before we are even able to speak or choose our own adornments—for most of us, this takes place before we are even born. Ideally, babies would come into a home where love can be flexibly provided for many variations of expression—but many of us will be subconsciously “shaped” into something “More Appropriate” if we deviate from culturally-sanctioned ideals.

If you are cisgender, this may not feel oppressive. If your community affords men and women (and your gender is one or the other) a great deal of fluidity, flexibility, and freedoms, this may not feel so bad.

But even if this is your experience, it is not everyone’s—or even most people’s—experience. Keeping this in mind, listen for stories that differ from your own.

Transgender and gender non-conforming folks claim the permission of asserting (not choosing) their gender identity and sense of self rather than accepting what has been assigned to them. This becomes increasingly necessary if what has been given to them (“prescribed” gender, typically based on the sex category assigned to a person at or before birth) never fit that person, no longer fits that person, or sometimes doesn’t fit that person. Transgender and gender non-conforming people are claiming their own power over their bodies and voice.

It is here I want to assert my position: unless a person is directly harming another person, how they want to speak or adorn themselves is not for us to decide—unless we are that person’s parent. When we take on a parental role with a person we are not parenting, we are indicating we have decided we are not equals with the person, that we cling to a sense of power over them. (For instance, when we become the “gender police.”)

Narrative Therapy: Co-Creating Meaning

The following description of narrative therapy comes from the Dulwich Centre in Adelaide, Australia: “Narrative therapy seeks to be a respectful, non-blaming approach to counselling and community work, which centres people as the experts in their own lives.” I distinguish here between therapy styles that give people expertise over their own lives vs. the power our mental health system has traditionally exerted over those who come for help. Narrative therapists co-create meaning with the people they are treating; traditional therapy prescribes meaning onto the experiences of the person in therapy.

Narrative therapy acknowledges the power discrepancies between therapist and person in therapy but seeks to minimize them as much as possible. This modality is a collaborative, democratic style of therapy where what something means to the person in treatment is equally or more valuable than what something means to the therapist.

(I don’t want to pretend a truly democratic relationship can exist between therapist and person in therapy. Not only is there a transaction of money, but—in the case of individuals advocating for their own gender transition and especially in the case of those desiring hormone therapy—therapists are also in a position to determine whether or not the individuals they are treating are “of sound mind.” Thus they are the gatekeepers of access to desired medical treatments.)

Narrative therapy acknowledges the power discrepancies between therapist and person in therapy but seeks to minimize them as much as possible. This modality is a collaborative, democratic style of therapy where what something means to the person in treatment is equally or more valuable than what something means to the therapist. It involves listening to the words of the person receiving therapy, tracking the themes relevant to their life, and determining which stories were authored authentically by the individual and what stories were told to them and enforced by the Powers That Be.

Tactics Used in Narrative Therapy

In an attempt to subvert some of the gatekeeping power that has existed within my profession since its origin, I wanted to write about some narrative therapy tactics that can be self-taught and used by the chosen family and communities of transgender and gender non-conforming individuals in order to support and enrich their loved ones’ sense of self! Chances are, you are already using some of them.

  • The “Constitutionalist Self.” This term refers to a view of the self as malleable and continuously de-constructed and re-constructed through interactions. Who we are is largely determined through relationships and dialogue. Before engaging in the process of “deconstruction,” explained below, this sense of self is often derived from experiences fitting into the dominant narrative. Others—parents, teachers, etc.— often inadvertently “guide” this sense of self without even realizing it.
  • The Dominant Story. This is a name for the story with the most influence and power, often uncritically accepted as “true.” It tends to reflect societal values and might feel oppressive in nature, telling us what “should” be true but often isn’t. For example, girls should be quiet and submissive; boys should be aggressive and assertive.
  • Subjugated story/stories. This term refers to stories obscured by The Dominant Story, such as when someone cannot see the ways in which they are hard-working and supportive because they are bombarded with messages that they have failed in some other way (by being handicapped, by being unemployed). Another example might be someone who wants to view and present themselves as feminine, maternal, and nurturing but keeps focusing on (and being reminded of) their “mannish hands” and “broad shoulders.” These traits, often associated with manhood and masculine posturing, serve as distraction from the stereotypically “feminine” traits they are attempting to story. Somehow, certain stories are allowed and valued while others are not. Exceptions to normative stories are discouraged, often in subtle ways.
  • Deconstruction. This term refers to the postmodern process of constructing new meanings by examining hidden (often cultural/political) agendas and assumptions. Deconstruction begins when someone is able to tell their story in a context where the dominant cultural story can be viewed as a highly influential text the person did not totally author.)
  • Building Leagues. Narrative therapists assist the people they work with in the linking of resources and community—groups of people facing similar problems, sometimes called “Leagues” or “Communities of Concern”—to develop a sense of solidarity and power in numbers. League members learn from one another as peers rather than experts. For many, joining a gender support group or having other friends who are trans or gender non-conforming eliminates some pressures to educate and sometimes allows people to let down their guard in different ways than they might with a cisgender peer.
  • Identifying “Outsider Witnesses.” Narrative therapists assist people in identifying those who will affirm and support their new story. Which people in a person’s life are interested in learning their correct pronouns, their own unique style, the origin of their chosen name? Who values them for their chosen values and the ways in which they express them? It is a beautiful moment when our loved ones can see us in the ways we want to be seen.
  • Re-authoring. When we re-author our lives, we are choosing which elements are important and which are not. When we practice this narrative, we live our preferred story “as if” it were true. Over time, with enough traction and support, it becomes true. (This is different from being disconnected or living in delusion; we don’t fail to account for others’ experiences of reality. Rather, we seek out ways of living that are conscientious, critical, and authentic to what we value.)

In Practice

How can we do this? One of my favorite exercises to facilitate with multiple people in therapy is to ask them to think of a time they felt confident and tease this out. I have them name what they valued about that version of themselves and what made it possible. The other person (or people) is/are assigned to “track” instances of when they caught that person exhibiting those traits in their present life, in their present interactions. This can be effective for people battling depression, when they feel the “old” them is lost, as this can serve to remind them their “true” self still exists—but this exercise can also be of great benefit in affirming the gender expressions of those we love!

If your friend or loved one is transitioning, find out the values of the gender identity they are looking to embody and affirm them! If your friend’s experience of self exists outside of the language surrounding gender, don’t praise them for being “rational and fair” or for being “so pretty and thin.” Instead, figure out what matters to them and make an effort to witness them living these values authentically in the world. See them in the ways they need to be witnessed and affirmed.

References:

  1. Blakeslee Salkil, S. E., & Goff, J. D. (2014). LMFT Exam Preparation Workshop [Powerpoint]. Self-Published: Family Education Resources, LLC.
  2. Dembling, S. (2012). The introvert’s way: Living a quiet life in a noisy world. New York, New York: Perigee Books.
  3. Dulwich Centre. (n.d.). What is narrative therapy? Retrieved from: http://dulwichcentre.com.au/what-is-narrative-therapy
  4. Family Solutions Institute. (2011). Marriage and family therapy national licensing examination preparation: MFT glossary. Jamaica Plain, MA: Self-published.

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  • amelia

    amelia

    August 23rd, 2017 at 2:06 PM

    When you are surrounded by those who are louder than what you are, more outspoken, more forceful, it is easy to get trapped in the role of being submissive and allowing others to run all over you. Yes that includes them creating the narrative that they believe that they want to hear, and not necessarily the one that you would love to be able to communicate to them.

  • Theo

    Theo

    August 28th, 2017 at 3:24 PM

    uhhh shouldn’t all therapy be narrative based given that this is the last place that you want to go to feel judged?

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