Sasha Strong: Grieving Gendered Selves: The Cycle of Death and Rebirth in the Gender Journey
Finding out who I am as a person is an unfolding journey that has taken me through the uncharted waters of gender, identity, sex, power, and privilege (Bornstein, 2013). During this process, I have felt trapped, stuck, confused, angry, overwhelmed, powerless, ashamed, despairing, and joyful. Similarly, my trans* clients have experienced waves of confusion, disorientation, anger, grief, sadness, loss, and the discovery of something new. These emotions accompany different chapters of the journey of gender, as my clients and I have moved from a received/socialized gender identity into expanding vistas of gender possibility and freedom. As counselors and therapists, we can help people in their journeys of becoming their unique selves, by midwifing people through the process of becoming a new self, recognizing that self, growing into it, giving it up, and grieving the self—then beginning the cycle anew.
Our society recognizes but a few thresholds of grief: the death of a loved one, the end of a career, the loss of a home or property due to theft or disaster. In the clinical setting, we have insight into a few more sources of grief, some linked to changing roles due to circumstances and life transitions: birth and postpartum depression, children growing into adults and leaving the home, mid-life crisis, retirement, or the accomplishment of a major project. These grief processes are often understood as role changes, or adjustments of a person’s narrative and self-image to a new situation.
In the case of my ongoing nonbinary/genderqueer gender transition, my experience has been of multiple layers of self that bloom into awareness, ripen, wither, and die, only to reveal something new. Possibly this understanding is influenced by my background in Buddhism, which holds that the self is a fluid phenomenon, characterized by constant change— and thus open to possibility and improvisation. My gender transition, which is revealing itself as a journey without specific goal or endpoint, has involved the coming-into-awareness of a variety of feelings, wishes for gender expression/performance, and associated body states.
For example, an emergent transfeminine identity which has clarified over the last six months, feels graceful, vulnerable, gentle, kind, and open. Although I have had these sorts of feelings before in my life, this mode of being dominates my awareness lately. In the realm of outer gender markers associated with this self-state, I have bought more makeup and have begun studying feminine fashion. These gender performance options swim in my awareness like notes or chord progressions I could play in the spontaneous improvisation of life, an expansion of repertoire rather than a monolithic endpoint to be practiced and mastered. In this way of doing gender, it is much more interesting to learn jazz improvisation and mash up genres, rather than practice and perfect a single piano masterpiece with perfect technical skill and zero creativity.
With each reach for greater vocabulary and flexibility in my gender repertoire, I have had to mourn previously conditioned gender moves, many of which (in my case) have been male-socialized impulses to cover up and protect against vulnerability and tenderness. Harsh, barking words, gruff body language, and aggressive urges are the automatic gendered impulses I notice and restrain; then, feeling underneath the aggression, I soften into the tenderness of my open heart. Staying with that gentleness in the moment, the hardness and gruffness dissolve, and a sense of sadness arises. I do this over and over whenever I catch these hardened self-states arising. Practicing these skills of self-compassion and open awareness helps me gain greater neural flexibility (Siegel, 2010) and makes me a therapist who can accommodate my clients in their own vulnerability, tenderness, and growth. This is like a dying of the self, and a momentary grieving of who I have thought myself to be.
In these moments of my internal process, the self that is dying is the self protecting the self that is being born. The struggle between protection and tenderness is my transition between the male socialized self and whatever I am becoming in the world. Understanding this as a transitory process of death and dying, of rebirth and becoming, is a helpful metaphor for me because it frames it as a natural process.
In this way of thinking, we are not meant to be an endless constructive process, an edifice or amassing of ideas and experiences. Rather, like a plant, we grow, flower, bear fruit, give seed, and die, to winter over and then be reborn in the spring (Ferrer, Romero, & Albareda, 2005). This process of death and rebirth is mirrored in many cycles of life, and the gender journey is one of them.
Bornstein, K. (2013). My new gender workbook: A step-by-step guide to achieving world peace through gender anarchy and sex positivity (2nd ed). New York, NY: Routledge.
Ferrer, J. N., Romero, M. T., & Albareda, R. V. (2005). Integral transformative education: A participatory proposal.Journal of Transformative Education, 3(4), 306–330. https://doi.org/10.1177/1541344605279175
Siegel, D. J. (2010). The mindful therapist: A clinician’s guide to mindsight and neural integration.New York, NY: W. W. Norton.
Sasha Strong, M.A., Ph.D. (cand.), LPC Intern(they/them) is a psychotherapist in private practice at Brilliancy Counselingin Portland, OR. Sasha specializes in work with queer and trans* clients, Hakomi mindful embodied therapy, and Buddhism and spiritual integration. They recently began a process group for transwomen and transfeminine folks in cooperation with Brave Space LLC, and they have conducted research and offered training on culturally aware counseling with nonbinary and genderqueer clients. Email themfor more info.