“ What lies behind us and what lies before us are tiny matters compared to what lies within us”
-Olivia Wendell Holmes
The work of learning about ourselves can often bring up intense feelings that we may have tried to bury, avoid or get rid of. Detransition itself can bring up intense feelings as you question everything about your life, your identity and things that you may have lost or regret. Just as important as reconnecting to your physical body, it is important to build an inner foundation that will support your mental health and well being. This is not something that happens overnight, rather it is a process. Consider a plant: At first you only have a seed, but with the right ingredients, time and nurturance your seed will begin to grow. Getting into the depths of your suffering in order to work it out and heal takes courage and strength. This post is about how to support your mental well being and self-care so that you begin to build a mental scaffolding that will serve as a support for you to access any wounds or traumas from a place of resilience and strength.
An important thing to mention is that self-help is not the same as therapy. Therapy is a specific and focused work that takes place with the guidance of a professional who has experience in treating and resolving complex mental health issues. Self-help is a way to feel better, get support and develop healthier coping strategies. If you are triggered negatively by any emotional work that you are doing to the point where it effects your functioning then it might be a sign that you need professional help, something that peer support and self-help just can’t offer.
Regardless of where you are in your recovery journey, setting the groundwork is an important step. Just as important as your physical integrity, is your ability to regulate your emotions.
Write this down on a piece of paper and keep it with you where you can access it multiple times a day. This is a mantra that will help get you in the practice of connecting to your self-care. If you want to amend it or make it more personal to you, then go ahead:
“I focus on my breath and observe the feelings I have. I know that this too shall pass. I know my roots will hold me, no matter what storm I’m in.”
Expanding your Capacity to Stay Present
Working with emotions can be difficult, especially if you are inexperienced or had poor models growing up. Society is also not mirroring back to us healthy ways of coping-we see hysteria, narcissism and non-regulation of emotional states being normalized through the news cycles and social media.
Grounding is a specific technique used mainly in treating trauma and non-stabile personality structures. It is a technique that works on coming into the present moment when one is feeling overwhelmed by feelings. There are books and YouTube videos that offer free advice and techniques on how to practice grounding.
Meditation or mindfulness is not everyone’s cup of tea but there is scientific research (see UMass and Jon Kabat Zinn’s MSBR) that shows how regular meditation can help with all sorts of physiological and emotional issues. Learning how to be an observer, a witness of consciousness, and not just a reactor is vital in stressful or emotional experiences. Learning how to use your breath to calm your nervous system is simple, difficult, but effective.
These types of techniques are practical skills that one can learn to handle and work with intense emotional experiences. They lead to regulation, which is an important concept in trauma treatment. People who have been traumatized typically struggle to “regulate” their emotions and grounding, meditation and breathing are all ways to directly calm your mind and your body.
Analyzing your relationship to the internet and social media is another technique to deepen your relationship to the present moment. Constantly checking email and social media is a normal part of most people’s lives now, but that doesn’t mean that it is good for our mental health. As you learn to regulate your emotions, taking detoxes or planned absences from the internet will help you detach from stimulation. There will be less outrage, less comparison, and less compulsion to check. It may be difficult at first but it is essential in building a relationship to yourself and a more introspective state of mind.
Self-help can often feel trite and over simplistic, but regardless, it can be useful to read through books and workbooks that help you work on specific things, especially if you don’t have access to therapy. There are workbooks for depression, addiction and books on all sort of psychological and recovery topics. If anything they can serve as an inspiration, which is something we all need from time to time. Self-help can also be useful in getting in the habit of writing things down, noticing and naming feelings and giving some structure to your desire to be introspective. It is not perfect, it is not therapy, but it is nonetheless a tool.
Developing a creative practice is often overlooked by people who were either told as children that they weren’t creative, or somewhere down the line internalized the belief that they weren’t any good at art. This is a great shame as we were once all children, happily colouring and drawing without self- consciousness. Recently while drawing with a little girl she kept exclaiming, “Oh I have a great idea” as she happily went about executing it on the page. So many of us lose this freedom as we grow older and begin to contend with a harsh inner critic. Developing a creative practice gives you a place to play and experiment as an adult. You can play with visuals and colour, or words and meanings, if that is your preferred medium. It can be a place to access your innate creativity and feel closer to life itself. It relieves stress, reconnects to beauty, allows play and fun, and challenges the inner critic. In your darkest moments, being able to reconnect to something life affirming within yourself can be a lifesaver.
Writing is another way that people access their inner creative selves. Expressive writing does not have to explore your feeling states overtly, but can be more abstract or creative, a way to play with words, stream of consciousness and expression. It can help when one feels lonely, as there is always a page willing to listen. In Julia Cameron’s wonderful creative guide “The Artist’s Way” she suggests taking a disciplined approach to accessing your innate creativity. Every morning, no matter what, wake up and write out 3 pages of whatever comes to your mind. This is a tool to break past the inner critic and free your mind.
“You don’t choose between working a programme and not working a programme. You choose between a conscious programme and an unconscious programme. You are already working a programme.”
It may seem strange that in the books section of this website there are books that link to the 12 step programme. Gender Dysphoria and Detransition are not addictions, but it is interesting to notice how some of the principles of Alcoholic’s Anonymous and Overeater’s Anonymous can be useful to anyone wanting to live more consciously. The backbone of these programmes is an honest inquiry into your patterns and behaviours and the belief that you can’t do it alone; a support system is essential. I think that this also makes sense on a human level. We are social creatures and we thrive when we feel togetherness and we rely on cooperation. Connecting with others who know about your experience and can validate it is a huge part of breaking down shame and learning to live as yourself. The 12 steps is therefore a model of a peer support system that helps people support each other in getting well.
“You can never get a cup of tea large enough, or a book long enough to suit me”
Learning how to live despite how dark the world around you may seem is essential. There has always been suffering, war, inequality and fear, at some times more than others. Some of us find ourselves in a war at this current moment and many detransitioners are finding out how brutal and unforgiving their fellow man can be. But this is not a time to fall into despair; this is a time to fight for beauty and life. Reconnecting with activities that make you happy, despite the doom and gloom around you is essential. Make a list of things you like to do and make sure to make a date with yourself. Make a point of noticing beauty and wonder, whether in nature or the local park, whether in a museum or leafing through your favourite art book, turning to pleasant things that you enjoy can help to switch off.
Therapy can be a life changing experience if you find the right therapist. Detransitioners often talk about their anger towards mental health practitioners who let them down by affirming them in their transition when what they needed was exploration. They also talk about mental health practitioners who are either scared or inexperienced when it comes to detransition and that finding a therapist is extremely difficult. Sadly these stories are heart breaking but finding a good therapist who does not minimize or try to tell you what your “detransition” means from their point of view is worth the effort. A healthy, boundaried and ethical therapist is not afraid to challenge your distorted thoughts and has lots of experience in treating many different mental health issues. Through this process you can delve deeper into your psychology and start to make links and connections that free you in the present. A good therapy can also lead to the confrontation and release of anger, resentment, shame and fear. It is a commitment, not just time wise, but financially and emotionally, but as with any discipline in life-through this confrontation with the self-one can learn to grow and thrive.
These are some of the most basic things that you can do to support your mental health as you begin to confront the beauty and depth of your inner complexity. Let us know in the comments below what helps you? What techniques have you tried? What has been your experience with therapists?