Image description: A blue and pink image of a gem. Text reads, “No matter where you are in your journey, no matter how you feel about yourself, we support you.”
Dearest tender trans friend,
This letter is the collective effort of part of the Possibilities Calgary Bi+ Community, who met on November 20, 2018, Trans Day of Remembrance and Resilience. Some of us are transgender and some of us are cisgender. We met on the traditional territories of the Blackfoot and the people of the Treaty 7 region in Southern Alberta (Calgary), which includes the Siksika, the Piikuni, the Kainai, the Tsuut’ina and the Stoney Nakoda First Nations, including Chiniki, Bearspaw, and Wesley First Nations. This land is also home to Métis Nation of Alberta, Region III.
We recognize and honour the Indigenous people whose land we live and work and organize on, and we are interested in knowing what land you are on, too.
We don’t know who you are, but we do know that we care about you. We know that the world is hard and scary, especially for trans women, and especially for trans women of colour. We know that it can be hard and scary for anyone who is trans or gender non-conforming.
We care about you, whoever you are.
We care about you, no matter what your gender is.
We care about you, even if the only place you’re “out” is in the mirror.
We know that you are responding with skill and resourcefulness to the problems and hardships that you face.
We wonder, what kinds of problems are you facing? We’re curious about this, because we know that sometimes people assume that the only problems trans folks have are to do with gender. But we have some experience with being queer and/or trans, and we realize that sometimes the problems in our lives have nothing to do with that! We are more than just our gender. We know that some trans folks are disabled, some are neurodivergent, some are Black or brown or Indigenous, some are poor, or unhomed, or working through school. We support trans folks no matter what else is going on in your life! And we know that sometimes problems have nothing to do with identity. Sometimes it’s about our jobs, or our art, or a fight with our best friend. Whatever is happening in your life, we know that it’s probably a lot more rich and nuanced than trans stereotypes.
We know that you are the expert in your own life; you know more than anyone else who you are and what you need. We also know that sometimes that means all you know is that you’re searching for answers. That’s okay, too! You still know more than anyone else about your own experience and your own values, hopes, and dreams. It’s still your story even if you don’t know who you are.
We trust you.
You are bringing skill and insider knowledge to your life, and you are getting through. The reason we know this is because you’re reading this letter!
We wonder, how did you get here? What would you call the skills and insider knowledges that allowed you to get to this point, to where you are reading a letter from a small group of strangers? Were you looking for support? Did someone send this to you?
We all, regardless of our own gender and journey, love you. We want you to know that.
We wonder, is there anyone else in your life who loves and supports you in your journey? This person, or people, could be either living or no longer living, or fictional, imaginary, or pop culture figures that you feel supported and encouraged by. Who is on your team?
If you feel alone, we would like to let you know that we would like to be on your team.
Ivy shared that for her, the biggest obstacle has been the experience of being rejected by family members that she thought would welcome her, particularly family members she had welcomed when they came out as gay, but who rejected her when she came out as trans. Sometimes finding your team can be challenging.
This kind of rejection can happen in communities, as well as families. There can be heteronormativity even within the trans community, and if you are visibly queer and also visibly trans, this can be hard. But it’s okay. As one of us said, “You don’t have to fit into a box! It’s fluid and a spectrum and that’s a beautiful thing.”
It’s also okay to set boundaries within the queer community, within your friend community, or within your family. If a space doesn’t feel welcoming to you because of one or more parts of your identity, it’s okay to decide that’s not the space for you or to decide you’re going to advocate for that space to become more inclusive. It’s also okay to decide that you’re still going to be in that space despite its flaws. It is never your job to make those spaces welcoming, but it is always okay if you want to take on that work. You can make the choices that are best for you. It’s okay to fight, and it’s also okay to rest.
As a group, we came up with this list of skills and strategies, in case you find yourself in a situations of rejection or isolation:
- Remember that you can make your own family. Quite a few of us shared experiences of defining family in creative and preferred ways.
- There is no obligation to keep in contact with people who do not accept you.
- It can help to find a community of people who have shared similar experiences.
- Community can be in person, but it can also be online. This is especially true if you, like some of us, experience a lot of anxiety or if you’re in a more rural location.
Are there skills or strategies that you would add to this list? We would love to hear about them.
Another thing we talked about was how finding representation can be challenging, but when you find it, it makes a huge difference. This is especially true for identities that are on the margins of the margins; non-binary folks, like some of us, and also asexual folks and folks who don’t fit into recognizable boxes. One of us is on the screening committee for the Fairytales Queer Film Festival, and last year (2017) she watched 100s of hours of content with no asexual representation. We know that asexual trans folks exist! Possibilities is an explicitly ace-inclusive (and trans inclusive) space.
Not seeing representation can make you feel so alone. Where have you found representation? Do you imagine yourself into your favourite books and shows, even when the creators haven’t explicitly written characters like you? Who is your favourite character, or instance of representation?
Representation is important because of how it shows us possible stories, or maps, for our own lives. And the lack of trans representation hurts because it offers so few maps. We wanted to offer you some affirmation when it comes to your trans journey. There is often just a single story of trans realization, and it includes a specific experience of dysphoria. This does not reflect the diversity of experiences in the trans community, or even in the small group of us who met to write this letter! If you have not yet seen representation of a journey like yours, know that your journey is still valid. The problem is in the lack of available stories, not in your own story.
We want to validate that gender euphoria exists, just like gender dysphoria does, and that sometimes we come to our trans identities through an experience of validation rather than through an experience of pain. We also recognize that sometimes dysphoria doesn’t feel like dysphoria – sometimes it feels like depression, sometimes it feels like being flat for a long time – and that sometimes we only recognize that we were feeling dysphoria when we start to feel something different.
There are many paths available, even though there’s not a lot of representation of this diversity yet. Each of these paths are valid! Some folks transition medically, others socially, others surgically, others only internally – these are all valid paths.
We also wanted to share a bit about internalized transphobia, because this experience has been so challenging for some of us, and we want you to know that you’re not alone if you’re experiencing this.
One of us shared that internalized transphobia is not about hating trans people. It’s about being surrounded by negative stories about trans people and not having other stories to counter them with.
The shame you might be feeling if you are experiencing internalized transphobia is not because you are bad, it is because you’ve been surrounded by bad ideas. So many of our cultural contexts – in our families, our friend groups, our schools, our churches and synagogues and mosques, in the media and in books and movies and even music – so many of these contexts are full of dominant stories that are not kind or just in their representation of trans people. These stories are not the truth about transness. There is so much more complexity, nuance, and richness to transness. Transness is so much more than the thin and dehumanizing stereotypes available to us.
But those stereotypes are powerful. Sometimes trans folks have to pretend to conform to stereotypes in order to access necessary medical care. This is gatekeeping, and, as one of us said, “gatekeeping is garbage!”
It is not right that you have to jump through so many hoops in order to get gender affirming healthcare, and it’s also not right that so many medical professionals (even when they aren’t directly dealing with anything to do with transness!) are not aware or accepting. That’s an injustice.
How have you been getting through those experiences so far? How did you learn the skills that are helping you get through?
We wanted to make sure you know that just because someone has been labeled an “expert” does not mean they know better than you. You might find yourself having to educate healthcare providers, or searching for non-judgmental and appropriate healthcare. We want to name this an injustice. And it’s okay if you need help navigating this!
We also recognize that so many queer and trans folks have been told that our identities are mental illnesses. We have been pathologized and medicalized, and this can make it challenging to trust or feel safe accessing therapy. We want to let you know that this fear is valid, and also that it’s okay if you want to work with a therapist. We know that you are already skillfully navigating your care needs, and we want to validate that working with a therapist does not mean you are “broken” or any of the other hostile narratives that are told about people like you. Also, if you do work with a therapist, you are still the expert in your own experience! You know more than your therapist about what you need and who you are, and it’s okay for you to be choosy about the therapist you work with.
Not all of us at this event are trans. Some of us are cis allies. Those of us who are allies want you to know that we recognize our role is to listen, not to talk over or speak for you.
All of us have different privileges and marginalizations, and we are committed to using the privilege that we have (any money, influence, or power available to us) to create space for you in the queer community and elsewhere. Some of us are white settlers, some of us are employed, some of us are neurotypical or abled. Others are not. We are a group that bridges many privileges and experiences, and we are each committed to making space for each other and for you.
Some of us didn’t say much at the event. For some us, there are no words available that can overcome the great horribleness of the current political climate and the ongoing violence against transgender communities and individuals. This event was part of a larger project collecting letters of support for the transgender community, and some of us at the event were there because we wanted to write a letter but we didn’t know how to do it on our own.
It’s okay to not know how to do something on your own. Maybe you feel that way sometimes, too. If you do, we want you to know – it’s okay. Sometimes we can be part of a community even when we don’t have many words or much energy. You do not need to earn a place in the community.
There are two final things we want to share.
The first is that we write this letter as a group of people who love, and are friends with, and work with, and are partners and lovers with, trans people. We know, because we have insider knowledge into this, that trans people are loveable and desirable in all the ways that a person can be loved and desired. There are not a lot of stories of these friendships, partnerships, and other relationships, and so it can be hard to know that it’s possible.
We want you to know that it’s possible.
And lastly, this:
Even if you’re feeling completely alone, there is a small group of people in Calgary who know you are complete, and worthy of love. You don’t have to feel complete, and we have no expectations of you. Our hopes for you, and our acceptance of you, does not require that you also feel hope or acceptance. No matter where you are in your journey, and no matter how you feel about yourself, we support you.
With so much warmth and respect,
The Possibilities Group, including
(This letter is part of an ongoing collective project of support. You can find the album of letters on Facebook here, and I am working on migrating it into an album on my website. There are also physical letters available – if you are a trans person, or know a trans person, who is struggling, get in touch and I will mail out a letter of support. You can also contribute to the project by sending either email or physical letters.)
Image description: An addressed envelope to Dr. Ford, c/o Palo Alto University.
The following is the collective letter to Dr. Ford, the result of October’s Witness and Respond event in Calgary, Alberta, and the contributions of people elsewhere. It has been mailed to Dr. Ford, who is, as of yesterday, still receiving threats. We hope that she will also continue receiving support.
Dear Dr. Ford,
This letter is the collective work of a group of people who met in Calgary, Alberta, Canada in October to watch your testimony and talk about what it meant to us and made possible in our lives. It also includes the contributions of people in Calgary and in Adelaide, Australia who watched your testimony on their own and sent in their thoughts. This letter represents the responses of almost a dozen people, each of whom was moved by your actions.
We want to express our appreciation for your actions. We were inspired to do this by Anita Hill’s sharing that receiving support was helpful to her following her own experience, and also by the work of narrative therapists at the Dulwich Centre using letter-writing as a way of showing support.
As we watched your testimony, we were curious about what it was that allowed you to take these actions; to say the name of your assaulter after so many years, to write the letter to your representative, to meet with political aides, to describe the assault again and again despite the fact that it was so difficult for you, to come forward publicly with your story, and to stand in front of a Senate committee and, as you said it, “relive this trauma in front of the world.”
We saw each of these actions as a choice that you made, and we wondered, how did you make those choices? What values were you holding onto? Who supported you in these actions?
We heard you say that “sexual assault victims should be able to decide when and where their private details are shared”, and that it was important to you to describe the assault in your own words. It was clear to us watching that you have held this value close, and that despite the intrusion of reporters into your life, forcing you to tell the story in ways you may not have chosen otherwise, you kept this value centered in your opening statements. For those of us watching who have felt pressured into disclosure or ashamed of our stories, your strong assertion of our right to tell our story in our own time, in our own way, in our own words, was powerful.
Witnessing you tell your story allowed one person in our group to identify an incident from her own high school years and enabled her to speak about this incident with people in her life.
Another person said, “The courage to speak up is significant to me, when so many people don’t. When I myself have not. At the time it was a fear of the mocking, and the being pulled apart and condemned. I did not have the strength to endure that process at the time on top of what I experienced. Now I would maybe feel differently. Maybe because I am stronger now and maybe because of these stories. Dr Ford’s testimony in shaking voice made me want to cry with pride that she did speak up.”
Your shaky voice was something that many of us noted. Some of us also speak with a shaky voice, and have felt worried that we will be dismissed because of it. Hearing you speak in a voice that shakes like our own was a moment of validation that some of us had never experienced before. We saw that it is possible to speak in a shaking voice and still speak with confidence and calmness. Some of us also recognized within ourselves that hearing your shaking voice did not make us doubt you or dismiss you. We had feared that if we spoke in a shaky voice, nobody would hear us or believe us. But you did, and we did hear you, and we do believe you. Rather than seeing weakness, we saw the strength it took for you to speak. We feel closer to our own shaky-voice strength, having witnessed yours.
We also saw you adding to the community knowledge of what trauma is, and how it can operate in the brain. Your references to norepinephrine, to the hypocampus and amygdala, and to other scientific knowledge was validating for some of us. We wondered if this indicated a way that you were “re-valuing” yourself, and claiming space for science as a celebration. One of us wanted you to know that she, too, is a scientist and that seeing you use “science as a safe place” was validating for her.
We also saw that you spoke even though you didn’t know what the outcome of your speaking would be, and this is important. One of us said, “Just because you’re good, doesn’t mean you’ll be rewarded. But she did whatever she could to stop [the confirmation] from happening.” This makes it possible for us to also take action even when we may not see the outcome that we want.
We also heard you say, “It is not my responsibility to determine whether Mr. Kavanaugh deserves to sit on the Supreme Court. It is my responsibility to tell the truth.” In this, we saw you valuing integrity over outcome, and as we each move into what promises to be a difficult time for marginalized communities in the United States, in Canada, in Australia, and elsewhere, we are better able to hold onto our own integrity even when it seems that we might not get the result we are looking for.
We saw you acknowledge your fear without expressing any shame for it. Throughout the testimony, we saw you declining to engage with any invitations to shame. So many of us have felt afraid to share our own stories, and have felt ashamed of that fear. Your actions make it possible for us to shift our relationship to fear, and to see it as something that we do not need to be ashamed of. It is okay for us to be afraid, just like it is okay for you to be afraid. You described your fear so clearly, and also described the very real outcomes of your actions – even worse than you had feared! In your testimony, some of us felt for the first time that fear does not have to be accompanied by shame.
We also saw that your actions are part of a collective, and you are part of a community of women speaking up. Anita Hill also spoke despite not knowing the outcome of her speaking, and although it took many years, her actions are part of the legacy of speaking that you are now part of, and that we are invited to join. Tarana Burke founded the Me Too movement a decade ago, and we see her as another part of this long legacy of speaking the truth even without knowing the outcome. This helps us locate ourselves within a collective, and as part of a long history of resisting injustice. Your actions have helped us find each other, to find the history of this resistance, and have helped us open up conversations that otherwise might not have occurred.
We are actively searching for each other now, looking for other people who want to take similar actions, who want to speak out. As one person put it, we hope that “speaking the truth will be contagious over time.”
Dr. Ford, we watched your testimony together after your assaulter had been confirmed to the Supreme Court, and so we knew what the outcome of your actions would be.
Rather than diminishing the impact of your work, this allowed us to see that what you have made possible through your actions extends far beyond one unsuitable man’s appointment to a position of power. You have mapped out actions that will allow more of us to speak, and to keep acting in alignment with integrity despite the actions of people in power.
With warmth, respect, and appreciation,
Tiffany and many others
(Although there were many names signed to the physical letter, I didn’t want to expose anyone online, even by first name.)
Image description: An ornate pink, blue, and white background. Text reads – Solidarity : a Possibilities Calgary event in solidarity with the trans community : Nov 20, 2018 | Loft 112 | Writing a collective letter in support of the trans community on Trans Day of Remembrance
November’s Possibilities event falls on Nov. 20, Trans Day of Remembrance. (The official Transgender Day of Remembrance event happens in Calgary on November 18 at 1:30 pm at CommunityWise.)
Possibilities, although we are a group for and by the non-monosexual communities (bisexual, pansexual, asexual, and otherwise non-monosexual), has always been trans-inclusive, and many of our founding members are trans. This year, we will host a conversation with the goal of writing a collective letter of support from our community to the transgender community.
This is particularly important this year because transgender rights are under increased threat, very actively in the United States and looming on the horizon if conservatives gain power in Alberta and in Canada. This is a hard time to be a trans person looking to the future, and the goal of this event is to document our collective support for our trans community members and for trans folks beyond our bi+ community.
This event is open to transgender and cisgender members – we will be expressing our support both for and as transgender folks, and support from many parts of the community is important.
This collective letter will be part of the ongoing Letters of Support for the Trans Community project.
Notes about Possibilities:
There is a small fee associated with renting the space, and you can support the event by either donating at the event or becoming a Patreon supporter.
We have a focus on self-care and self-storying for the bi+ community (bisexual, pansexual, asexual, two spirit, with an intentional focus on trans inclusion), and a new framework for sustainability (you can now support this work by backing the Patreon).
There is no cost to attend.
This is an intentionally queer, feminist, anti-oppressive space. The discussion will be open, as they always were, to all genders and orientations, as well as all abilities, educational levels, classes, body types, ethnicities – basically, if you’re a person, you’re welcome!
These discussions take place on Treaty 7 land, and the traditional territories of the Blackfoot, Siksika, Piikuni, Kainai, Tsuutina, and Stoney Nakoda First Nations, including Chiniki, Bearspaw, and Wesley First Nation. This land is also home to Métis Nation of Alberta, Region 3.
It is important to note that Possibilities Calgary is a community discussion group and not a dating group.
(This is an expansion of a post that was shared with my Patreon patrons earlier this month.)
I am learning how to do narrative therapy, how to be a narrative therapist, how to engage with my clients in ways that are narratively-informed. But what does that mean? What is narrative therapy? What does a narrative therapist do? What benefit does narrative therapy offer?
In this series of posts, I’m inviting readers to join me in the learning process. The first of these posts was shared in April, and was about using narrative practices of collective documentation as it was used in a group exercise of Connecting To Our Skills. This post is also about documentation! (I really love generating documents, in case you couldn’t tell!)
This post is about therapeutic narrative letters.
Narrative letters are an important part of narrative practice, and have been part of the field for years (and therapeutic letter writing is also present in other disciplines). I had written some letters to community members who consulted with me, but my recent trip to Sacramento to learn from the therapists at the Gender Health Center really encouraged me to explore this practice further. The therapists there, particularly David Nylund, use narrative letters regularly – both with community members and also between therapists and supervisors. I was able to hear some of those letters, and it was a moving experience.
Shortly after I returned from Sacramento, I ran a two-hour narrative group therapy session at Camp Fyrefly, and I wrote narrative letters to the participants. Each of the participants gave me permission to share these letters.
I learned a lot through this process of writing, and one thing I learned is that it takes a long time to write a narrative letter! I knew this from my earlier efforts, but writing to a group like this really brought home for me how challenging this practice is. And yet, despite that challenge, it is a practice I will be incorporating more regularly into my narrative work. This is not only because I value opportunities to create documents, but also because I think a letter can be a powerful thing and I want to offer something back to the community members who consult me. Something that, hopefully, offers them a tangible reminder of the ways in which they are responding to the problems in their lives, and that connects them with the stories of their lives.
This isn’t just my own gut feeling, though. Other narrative therapists have written about the power of therapeutic letter writing.
In a 2010 paper, published in the International Journal of Narrative Therapy and Community Work, Susan Stevens wrote:
Letter writing has been a wonderful way to assist my growing understanding of narrative practices, particularly in learning the various maps. Crafting a letter has required me to carefully reflect on conversations in a similar way to reviewing recorded sessions. I have found it has given me some space to really examine my practice and facilitate further learning. I have discovered opportunities that I have missed that I can then pursue in the letter, as well as positive moments that can be developed further.
Letter writing following counselling sessions has created many more possibilities for working together than I initially envisaged. It has been a great privilege to work alongside people as they revise their relationships with significant problems in their lives. Hearing how the letters have supported people to construct preferred storylines of identity and celebrating their achievements toward this has been incredibly exciting.
In 2016, also in the International Journal of Narrative Therapy and Community Work, Renee Butler wrote:
Letter writing in a counselling context has a long history (Watts, 2000) and in particular, the use of narrative documents has been heavily influenced by the field of anthropology (Myerhoff, 1992). Myerhoff talks about how we can be ‘nourished by our stories being fed back to ourselves’ (Myerhoff, 2007, p. 25), and one of the ways in which this can be done richly in practice is through offering documents that honour and acknowledge the stories we hear from the people who consult with us. In a narrative context, these types of therapeutic documents have been used with the purpose of creating double-story development, where the listener provides an acknowledgement of the problem as well as a rich description of an alternative story that was hidden within the dominant ‘problem’ story (White & Epston, 1990). White and Epston were interested in the value of therapeutic documents and because of this they undertook some informal research into the usefulness of this practice. They established that a good therapeutic document (or letter) was worth 4.5 sessions of good therapy (White, 1995) and concluded that engaging in this process was worth the time and energy needed by the therapist.
David Nylund (at the Gender Health Center, which I visited last month) has participated in research into the therapeutic efficacy of narrative letters. From a 2015 paper:
At the present time, there is not much evidence for the effectiveness of therapeutic letters in narrative therapy. However, both David Epston and Michael White (Freeman, Epston and Lobovits, 1997) have conducted informal clinical research, asking clients questions such as these:
1. In your opinion, how many sessions do you consider a letter such as the ones that you have received is worth?
2. If you assigned 100 per cent to whatever positive outcomes resulted from our conversations together, what percentage of that would you contribute to the letters you have received?
The average response to Question 1 was that the letter had the equivalent value of 4.5 sessions. In response to Question 2, letters were rated in the range of 40% to 90% for total positive outcome of therapy.
Such findings were replicated in a small-scale study performed at a large medical facility in California. Nylund and Thomas (1994) reported that their respondents rated the average worth of a letter to be 3.2 face-to-face interviews (the range was 2.5–10) and 52.8% of positive outcome of therapy was attributed to the letters alone. As supported by this research, the amount of time it takes to write letters seems worth the effort.
So a narrative letter can be the therapeutic equivalent of 3.2-4.5 narrative therapy sessions. And it can assist in my own development as a narrative therapist, and enrich the experience of the community members who consult me. That seems like a really important practice to develop, especially since a lot of the folks consulting me do not have the finances to sustain frequent or extended therapeutic work.
But it’s hard work! And it takes a long time. For me, as a newbie to the practice, these four letters took me almost 12 hours, and many drafts.
I’m not sure exactly how this practice will develop in my work, since I won’t be able to write a narrative letter for every session. But it’s certainly something that I am considering, and if you are interested in working with me and are particularly keen on letters being part of our therapeutic relationship, let me know!
I’m sharing these four letters for two reasons.
First, because I think that the insider knowledge shared during our group conversation was valuable and might help other folks. Sharing these letters means that you have an opportunity to read and respond, and if anything particularly resonates for you, you can send me your response and I can share it back with the community members.
And second, because I’m “showing my work” and inviting you to see what happens behind the scenes as I learn.
Anyway! Here they are!
The letter to the group:
Dear A., E., and J.,
It has taken me a while to get these letters written.
Every time I sat down to write, I got lost in the wealth of information and insight that was shared during our conversation. I could write you each a whole novel! But that wouldn’t be a very good narrative letter.
Each draft of the letter that I wrote just didn’t seem to work. I couldn’t figure out how to make it coherent, how to shape it into something meaningful. I wanted to answer some critical questions:
What stands out the most to me when I think about our conversation?
What moved me in our conversation?
What do I want to note, and hopefully in a way that offers something meaningful back to you?
You were each so generous with your time, your energy, and your stories.
After many attempts, I realized that the problem was in trying to write a single letter to the group, rather than specific letters to each of you. Although there was so much resonance between your stories, you each brought something unique to the conversation. In trying to compress my response into a single letter, I kept losing the richness of the diversity in your contributions and your shared stories. And, since camp is so much about honouring and holding space for diversity, I finally realized what I needed to do! So, four letters. This one, and one to each of you.
As I mentioned during our conversation, this practice of writing narrative letters is new to me – I have done a lot more work in collective documentation. In collective documentation, I take a group conversation, and then generate a document or resource that shares the insights and stories with a broader audience. In those documents, I am sharing outward from the group, and a single document makes sense!
What I found as I tried to write this letter (now ‘these letters’) was that it is a bit of a different thing when I am writing inward, to the group, rather than outward, from the group.
One of the things that everyone in the conversation shared was the commitment to holding space for complexity, and for valuing the well-being of the people around us.
This was true for each of you, and it belongs here, in the group letter.
There was an ethic of care that extended in multiple directions – from the counsellors to the campers, from the campers to each other, from the campers to the counsellors, and from the counsellors to each other. This multi-directional, complex, compassionate care was beautiful to see.
My favourite quote from our conversation, and the one that has stuck with me, was this – “Giving up hope on a solution by generating hope for a process.”
I think that throughout our conversation, we found very few solutions. We talked about problems that are ongoing, that are supported and strengthened by the oppressive and marginalizing systems around us. Problems with deep roots and wide-ranging impacts. We did not solve these problems in our conversation – Imposter Syndrome (supported as it is by capitalism, by individualist culture, by hierarchies of knowledge, by a culture that values “expertise” and “productivity” in very specific ways); Guilt (supported internally and externally, by our desire to take care of each other, and also by social contexts that leave very little room for imperfection, failure, and growth); Comparison; and others.
So, no solutions.
But so many steps towards process, and so much hope for process.
These processes include harm reduction, disconnecting from value-judgements, holding and curating space for ourselves and each other, imagining ourselves and each other with complexity and compassion, naming our memories, seeking external validation and choosing to receive it, recognizing the potential for growth in failure, and so much more.
These processes, informed by your insider knowledge into navigating the problems in your lives, are full of hope.
I feel fortunate to have been able to particulate in such a rich and hope-filled conversation.
And I appreciate your patience with how long it has taken me to work my way through this process. I am incredibly thankful for this learning opportunity.
The letter to A.
Thank you for being part of the narrative therapy conversation. I know that you said there are not many places where you’re able to talk about your feelings openly, because you’re worried about how that might impact the people around you.
As I worked on this letter, I kept thinking about what it means that you have maintained a connection to your desire to share, which you said is healthy for you, despite the fact that you have fewer spaces for that sharing.
What has allowed you to stay aligned with that desire to seek out safe spaces to share your feelings, while also looking out for the people around you?
I also wonder if you were able to find more of those spaces for sharing while you were at camp, and how you navigated those opportunities and conversations.
One of the stories that you shared, that has really stuck with me, had to do with how you’ve responded to and resisted one of the problems in your life. This problem is related to Comparison. There are moments when you witness friends laughing together and you might get thinking, “I should have been the one to make them laugh.”
A., you mentioned that sometimes you really get in your head about it, and even when it starts as a small thought, this feeling of Comparison can get pretty big and loud. In navigating these hard situations, you’ve developed a skill of Naming Memories, to quiet the mean voice that tries to convince you your friends might not care about you if you aren’t the one who always makes them laugh, or if you aren’t always their first choice for an activity.
This skill of Naming Memories lets you stay connected to your knowledge that you’re still important even when someone else is busy.
I wonder if there are any people in your life, either now or in the past, and either real or fictional heroes and inspirations, who might support you in this skill of Naming Memories? Do you have cherished memories that you return to more often when you are resisting Comparison and Fear?
In all of your stories there were so many references to caring for the people around you, even when expressing that care meant making hard choices; giving space to a friend even when it’s the hardest thing, and reaching out to other friends even when you might want to keep just one person close.
Your hard work is paying off, and I wonder what else might become possible as you continue to do the hard thing in order to care for yourself and the people around you.
I also wonder, do you think there might be a time when the “hard thing” becomes less hard? What might that look like?
It was really inspiring to hear about how you have taken action to respond to the problems that show up in your life.
You shared the story of going to an event, and chatting with a totally new person, despite the fact that you have a hard time talking with new folks! Your friends were enthusiastic and proud of you. J. also shared a story of receiving validation from her community, and how helpful that was. E. pointed out what an active process it is to receive validation, and to choose to believe that what someone says is true. When you shared this story of attending the conference and reaching out to a new person, it touched on a shared experience in the group of reaching for and finding validation in the people around us.
One other thing jumps out at me when I remember our conversation – you mentioned a few times that you are learning to “stop thinking in black and white”, and we talked a bit about what that means, and how there is now more range of colour in your life, and more possibilities.
What does it look like, when you can see your life in this expanded range of colours?
It was an honour to share narrative space with you, and I hope that camp offered you a rich range of experiences and possibilities.
The letter to J.
First, it was such a pleasure to meet you, and a gift to have you endorse my work to A. and E. When you mentioned that my work has been helpful for you, it meant so much to me. Thank you.
I so appreciated your willingness to open up our conversation by sharing about how Imposter Syndrome has sometimes got you thinking that you aren’t worthy of taking up space, that you don’t belong, and that you aren’t qualified.
This Imposter Syndrome has shown up for you at various times in your life, and this resonated for all of us in the conversation.
You had really noticed it showing up for you at camp.
You’d seen other counsellors making connections and demonstrating how attuned they are to their campers, and you’d felt that as a gap in your own experience so far. You hadn’t had that chance for a one-on-one sit-down with a camper, and that had been hard. It was discouraging.
I wonder if you did get that chance to have a one-on-one sit down with a camper before camp ended?
I also wonder what it might mean to the campers, if they knew that you were paying such close attention to their needs, and so committed to making sure that campers who needed a one-on-one chat were able to access it?
I saw this awareness and commitment to community care put into action when you witnessed E.’s story and immediately responded by sharing that you had heard from campers that E. offered “the queer space to feel safe in.”
When you were talking about the effects of this Imposter Syndrome and the dreams you had of showing up for your campers and connecting on a personal level, I heard a strong commitment to community care, and an awareness of the people around you and what they might need. I heard you wanting to be part of creating safer spaces, and offering campers the opportunity to have their experiences even when those experiences might be uncomfortable or challenging. Rather than simply looking for solutions, you were, as E. framed it, “generating hope for the process.”
I also want to honour that you had experienced some disappointment, and even some guilt, about not having had those opportunities for one-on-one connection yet. In those moments when Guilt shows up, sometimes it has you wanting to disappear in order to make things better, because you are valuing other people’s experiences and their well-being.
This really seemed to resonate with what A. said about sometimes feeling like a downer, and Guilt showing up in those moments. E. also seemed to connect with this idea.
I was really interested in the story that you shared about receiving validation from your coworkers, and how this was a bit of an antidote to the Imposter Syndrome.
You actually went into social work (amazing!) because of the feedback that you got from your coworkers – they saw something in you, and encouraged you in this direction. You actively sought out that feedback, and chose to accept it. As E. pointed out, receiving validation is an active process of choosing to believe that what someone says is true.
I wonder what it means to your coworkers that you valued their opinion so much?
And I wonder if it makes it possible for them to feel connected to your work in the world, knowing that they were part of that process?
What might you say to Imposter Syndrome if it shows up for you again?
Do you have any ideas for how you can resist Guilt when it makes you want to disappear?
Are there ways that you can strengthen your relationship with Trusting Validation?
I would love to hear how things go for you as you continue to resist and respond to these problems, and cultivate your values of community care, connection with others, and doing justice in the world.
I hope that the rest of your camp experience was rich and rewarding.
The letter to E.
Thank you for being part of the narrative conversation at Camp fYrefly.
I really appreciated your contributions to the conversation, and some of what you said about holding complexity has really stuck with me and informed some of the narrative sessions I’ve facilitated in the last week.
I’m new to the process of narrative letters, and still trying to figure out where my voice is. I’ve left your letter to last, because I want to respond with my Big Feelings, and I’ve been worried about whether that’s how I’m “supposed” to do narrative letters. But I’m taking some advice from you, and removing my value judgement from these Big Feelings.
E., when you spoke about feeling like you were not able to be fully present because some of your own big stories had been brought up at camp, that really hit me. I struggle with this myself, and with the guilt over it. I want to make a difference in the world, and I want to create spaces and facilitate conversations that open up a wider range of possible responses for people who are responding to the problems in their lives. Michael White, who was a founder of narrative therapy, said that “deficit-focused stories present a narrow range of potential responses” and I really agree with this. But it can be so difficult to move away from a deficit-centered story when painful history intrudes into the present.
It was so encouraging and inspiring for me to see you show up, be present, despite the stories that had come forward for you. Even though you said that you were struggling with being present, your contributions were still so compassionate, insightful, and resonant.
This made me think about whether we make a difference even when we feel ourselves to be at a distance. It got me thinking about the value of my own work, even in the moments when I feel so far away from the self and the work that I most want to be and do. Thank you.
During the conversation, you shared your insider knowledge into what an active process it is to receive validation, and to choose to believe that what someone says is true.
This is a valuable insight, and I became curious about how you came to this knowledge. Have there been people in your life who made this work, which is often so overlooked, visible? How have you learned to see and validate this work in your own life, and in others’ lives?
You also shared that you have worked hard to value your big feelings, which happen in lots of directions. You’ve had some help in this work from skills like Introspection and Challenging Ideas, but you’ve also worked on holding space for feelings even when they are “bad” ones. You talked about how much growth and opportunity exists in failure, and how failure makes things possible but it still sucks.
I really appreciated how each of your comments demonstrated your close relationship with complexity and space-holding.
I also appreciated what you said about how you’ve worked with reimagining yourself as the villain. I’m really interested in this idea.
What villains have inspired you? Which villains have offered you insights into holding space for your own complex story?
It was a pleasure to meet you, and I hope that camp offered you a rich, and deliciously complex, set of experiences.
Image description: A pug wrapped in a blanket against green grass. Text reads: Make everybody feel sensational. A text box in the lower right reads: Exploring ‘too much of a good thing’: a narrative practice project. The bottom of the image reads: Contact Tiffany Sostar to participate: firstname.lastname@example.org. Original image credit (pug+’sensational’ text) – Inspirobot
Have you ever experienced “too much of a good thing” in your life?
Maybe you care what other people think, and sometimes this means you are empathetic, compassionate, and kind, but other times it means you have a hard time prioritizing your own needs or making decisions for yourself. It can be “too much of a good thing.”
Or maybe you have a strong work ethic, and this means that you are able to complete projects and get things done, but maybe it also means that you find it difficult to relax. It can be “too much of a good thing.”
Or maybe you are slow to trust people, and this keeps you safe but also keeps you isolated. Another “too much of a good thing.”
Or maybe you, like the pug in this Inspirobot image, like helping people feel great and this means that you are a kind and generous friend and colleague, and maybe it also means that when you’re unable to “make everybody feel sensational” you struggle with feelings of failure and guilt. Again, “too much of a good thing.”
As part of my Masters of Narrative Therapy and Community Work degree, I am undertaking a “practice innovation project” – looking at one aspect of narrative therapy, and trying to figure out how to do it differently, in ways that might help communities or individuals who are not currently being helped in this way.
The topic of “too much of a good thing” has come up again and again for the folks I’ve been working with in the last six months. It’s come up in relation to being rational, to caring what people think, to being productive, to being kind and empathetic, to being slow to trust – so many areas where a cherished or treasured or valued part of our skills or beliefs can sometimes slide over into something that we don’t enjoy or appreciate as much.
I’m interested in figuring out how we can talk about these experiences in ways that don’t turn them into a binary, that don’t demand that we completely get rid of or denounce our cherished part of ourselves, but that also support more agency in how we express these skills, beliefs, or traits.
If you’d like to participate in this project by talking with me about your own experiences with “too much of a good thing”, please get in touch!! You can find me on Facebook and Instagram (@sostarselfcare), or via email (email@example.com). We can connect in person, through text, or over Skype.
Friends, there’s a lot of discussion of suicide happening online right now.
Take care of yourselves.
Give yourself permission to not engage, if that’s what you need.
Give yourself permission to engage, if that’s what you need.
As is often the case, the discussion of suicide ends up being so individualized – framed as something internal to the person experiencing suicidality, something to be fixed within them. (Within us, for those of us who have been or are dealing with suicidality.)
There are other ways to talk about this issue.
There are ways to talk about this in non-individualizing and non-pathologizing ways – despair as a response to injustice, as a response to trauma, as a response to social and cultural context.
Individual therapy does not fix systemic oppression.
Systemic oppression is not an individual problem – experiencing the effects of systemic oppression is not an internal failing.
This doesn’t mean that we can’t resist the influence of suicidality in our lives, or that we can’t support each other in resisting it.
I absolutely agree that we need better access to better therapy (and by that I mean many things, not least of which is access to trans therapists, therapists of colour, queer therapists, Indigenous therapists, *peer* support systems – not only so that there is culturally sensitive therapy available *but also* so that marginalized and oppressed communities can see pathways into healing roles for themselves – the fact that marginalized communities are often framed as always accessing help and never offering help, always the “client” and never the “expert”, is a further injustice).
I agree that we need better healthcare, that we need to include mental health in our healthcare coverage and discussion.
I agree that “if you can’t make your own neurotransmitters, storebought is fine.”
I agree that if you need help, reach out.
But I *do not* agree that this is primarily a problem of individuals.
I think this is a systemic problem.
It is a structural problem.
It is a response to injustice, and we will not solve it by placing the responsibility on the individuals who are experiencing the problem.
If you are suicidal, and you want to talk about it in ways that contextualize and externalize rather than individualize and internalize, know that you’re not alone.
The way the individualizing narrative can grate… that’s not just in your head.
And if you are part of the communities that have already been dealing with suicides and suicidality – Indigenous folks, trans folks, queer folks, disabled folks, poor folks – and it hurts to see the conversation flare up when privileged folks experience suicidality in a way that just doesn’t happen when your folks deal with it… that’s not just in your head, either. It is an injustice.
These conversations are hard, and there is so much fear and grief embedded in them. But we can have these conversations. We can talk about these issues in ways that don’t shift the burden onto individuals, in ways that help us strengthen our connections to each other and to our own stories of resistance and resilience.
We can respond to this problem in ways that reach towards collective liberation.
Resources and further reading:
Metanoia’s If You’re Suicidal, Read This First
Eponis : Sinope’s Everything is Awful and I am Not Okay: Questions to Ask Before Giving Up
Locate a crisis line near you
Loree Stout’s Talking about the ‘suicidal thoughts’: Towards an alternative framework (this is an academic paper, link is to the PDF, but it is readable and gives an idea of a narrative therapy approach to suicidality)