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May 24 2015

(Un) Helpful Advice

DISCLAIMER I: There are a lot of disclaimers attached to this post… I wonder what that means?

DISCLAIMER II: This post started about the unhelpful advice I received about bullying, however it kinda morphed into the most helpful advice I received in regards to being transgender. While I could not remember the exact wording of the helpful advice I realized why it was helpful and how I can help transgender people around me, which is something I’ve struggled to wrap my head around. What advice or help does a transgender person need? It depends so much on their situation…

DISCLAIMER III: I use the word society in this post to mean “the people who love and support me.” This is a statement to say that we all have our own society within the subset of society as a whole. This smaller ‘society’ forms a person’s opinion of the pieces of society with which the person does not directly interact. This effect causes a either trusting, or distrusting of society as a whole as a result. I have tried to edit in the phrase “as a whole” for times I refer to the larger society.

DISCLAIMER IV: I seem to jump around in this post between a couple of different, but related topics. Usually I edit this out in a way that makes each topic sit next to each other in sections. However what you read is the order in that each bit occurred to my brain. I felt for this post it was more valuable to keep things in that order than rearranging into a more formalized essay.

DISCLAIMER V: I had accidentally posted this at around 12:05 central time while editing. It was posted by mistake before it was ready. It was revoked and editing continued. If you read that version as of 12:05 it has had some editing and readability improvements since, although the major content remains the same. Final posting occurred around 12:4o Central Time.

For most of my life, I have struggled with self-esteem, self-image, and self-motivation issues. I would argue that most people struggle with these issues or a subset of them during their teenage years. For me it was much, much longer. I struggled with these issues from when I was ten or so, until I was twenty-eight. Many people have tried to help. Most of it was unhelpful. In fact, the most common thing I heard was the least helpful and most aggravating thing that people advised me to do for so many years… “Stop putting stock in what others say about you.” I tried for so very long. Each time I tried, it made the problem worse. I would come home crying after having a bunch of bullies call me various things. I would come home and receive the advice, “what they say does not say thing about you. They’re just jealous of your (blank).” Really, any positive quality can fill the blank… Intelligence, self-confidence, strength, logic, usually my parents used whatever adjective is opposite to what the bullies called me.

Other things my parents would say included various things like the following. “Bullies are just insecure with themselves.” “Bullies are just trying to show they are in charge” “Bullies are trying to hide their own weaknesses.” “Bullies are just trying to be popular.” “They’re just looking for attention.” “They can’t control their own emotions.” “They have low self-esteem.” “They’re just cowards.” “If they’re trying to pull you down it just means you’re already above them.” There are so many more. How many of those have you said to someone? Did you know it actually makes the problem worse? At least, for me it did.

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These comments amount to attacking the bully in the same way that they attacked me. It is what our society, as a whole, does by default. If someone attacks someone, you love; you attack the attacker. Moreover, it teaches that the best way to win is to attack back. This chain of thought has almost led me into a couple fistfights. Luckily, for me, I did hold myself back. I would have lost every one of those fights, badly. Nevertheless, I was learning to attack my attacker. Luckily, my logic willed out and realized what was about to happen… Instead, I bottled my anger and just took the bullies words until they got bored and went away. Those were the times when I felt like I had nobody to could count on. My mind came to some incorrect conclusions when this happened. The people who supported me were not boosting me up; they were just tearing my bullies down. They did not care about me. They just wanted to attack the person attacking me. I felt unloved, even if they were doing it out of love. That was when I wanted to crawl under a bridge. This is the feeling started my path to realizing I was a transgender person.

After a couple of years, of those pieces of advice, people realized it was not working. I kept talking about the pain I was feeling at school, and in life, the people who supported me moved onto the next option. People tried to be helpful by ‘complimenting’ me. It was society’s next action after attacking my attacker. Society worked to give me a compliment that invalidated what the bully said. For most people, I believe, this would work and start helping to build self-confidence. For instance, if they said “you’re acne is so ugly.” My supporters would say, “Don’t listen to them! You’re very handsome.” If I saw myself as male, if I saw myself as man, this would have been the best thing to say. However, because I am, who I am, this was usually more hurtful and invalidating than what the bully said. I did not know why at the time, but I agreed more with the bully, then my supporter. There was no way I could tell anyone that. There was no way I could tell the people I loved that the things they were saying were more hurtful than what the bully said. I fundamentally agreed with what the bully said and fundamentally disagreed with what my supporters said. I would have never used the word handsome to describe myself. Yet, my parents used it frequently to describe me. I never knew why that word bothered me just that it did.

Every once in a while, the bully would strike on something that would not make me angry. Occasionally I knew the bullies were wrong. I don’t remember what the exact phrasing was but the most common ones were things insulting my intelligence. I would take that to my family wanting a laugh. I would take it to them to boast about how wrong the bullies were. They would think I felt bad about what the bully said and try to reassure me with compliments. “Don’t listen to them! You’re very smart.” Let me tell you what went though my head at that point. ‘I know that. That is why I am not mad over what they said… Oh, you think I am troubled. That is demoralizing. I’m not that unsure of myself.’ This would happen with adjectives that I would use to describe myself. I knew I was smart, I was proud of that. I had trapped the people who support me in a Catch 22. I had formed a paradox of logic without even trying. I trapped myself here for a very long time. I could not blame the people around me for what they were doing, and I did not understand why I felt the way I did.

For many years, I trapped myself here. This Catch 22 trapped her; she built a series of lies and a fake life. It was a perfect life. It was easier to build a fake smile, and then figure out why I could not smile for real. It was easier just to keep my mouth shut when I was uncomfortable then confronting it. It was easier to build a series of qualities that I thought should be true and do my best to represent those qualities, than figure out what was actually positive about me. I honestly started to believe my own lies. I build a personality, I built a mentality, and I built a life for myself. It was perfect. It was flawless. My shell was complete. I was going to reflect what everyone expected me to do. I was just going to reflect what everyone advised me to do. I just adopt all the qualities in those compliments that I did not agree with. One by one, those compliments became my reality. If someone said I had good skills in logical thought; I became more logical for them. Someone said I was a smart person; I got more facts for them. I showed each person that interacted with me the qualities they wanted to see anyway. In the matter of a couple of years, I had created a ‘me’ to show to each person around me. If someone’s opinion of me changed, I would change myself to fit that opinion. I became the court jester. I just wanted to please everyone around me. That is a line you will hear many transgender people say. I see that fake smile. I see the moment where a person would lie, or hurt someone with the truth, but deices to keep his or her mouth shut instead. It is a reminder of my past. I became everybody’s fool.

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Instantly the bullying went down to almost nil. It was amazing how effective that was. However, the more someone saw me the more likely they were to see cracks in my shell. If I was not on constant guard I would let something slip from inside. I spent my life predicting how people would react to each thing I said, each thing I did. When I received praise, I had done something intentionally to receive that praise. When I received scolding or questions, I had done something intentionally to receive that scolding or question. Most of the time, I had put up a trial balloon to see if someone would accept a little bit of me underneath the surface. Almost everything that happened in my life happened as I had planned, predicted, and prearranged. I was lost in my own mind.

I let shine the parts of me that people had accepted. I hid the parts of myself that people did not accept or I thought they would not accept. Even the smallest comment would cause me to calculate a change to my personality. Last time I went to get glasses for instance… There was a comment of “aren’t those glasses a little feminine?” about the glasses I wanted. So I recalculated. I thought I should show at least a little bit of myself underneath. One simple question could make me bury a part of myself yet again. I got a pair of glasses that I have hated ever since, because it was acceptable to the person that asked me that question. It did not take much to prompt a change. Compliment something; I would double down on those parts of my personality. Scold something or question something, and it went away.

I began to watch everything I did with a microscope. I do not think people realized how much power they had to make me whatever they wanted me to be. Many people probably did not even notice. I tried to make everyone happy, and when you do that, you make nobody happy. The person that was least happy, was me. I ended up watching everyone and thinking about who I ticked off most recently, trying to to decide who I had to tick off next. It created a problem in my mind. I watched everything; I cataloged everything. I watched and calculated my entire life. Every reaction, every emotion, every word said, was a potential to became an issue because a crack was going to form. For each social interaction, there was a different person I was representing. I had to keep track of which version of me was for which people. As you put more people in the same room, it became more complicated. The more people were around the easier I cracked, bent, and broke. I did nothing if I did not already know the reaction it would receive. I thought about everything. In retrospect, I could have said, “I think I’m paranoid.”

For me to build a true person, that I want to be will take something I have never done before. I need to ignore what other people say and look inside myself for the answers to see if a move is positive or negative. I need to figure out who I am. Many people do this during high school, I am very far delayed. I need to figure out how I describe myself. What compliments can I truly accept into my heart? On the inside, I am pretty, not handsome. I already describe myself that way. It is a minor difference in language but it is a massive difference in my heart. Have you ever called a woman handsome? I have, it is not a pleasant thing for her. In addition, the reaction I received was not pleasant for me. If you’ve called me handsome, you’ve called a woman handsome too. I just held that reaction in.

When people use the word handsome it invalidates my self-image. It creates a problem where I start questioning other parts of my self-image. If I was wrong about being pretty, am I wrong about being smart? It is hard to express in English. When I write these words, it all seems so meaningless. It all seems so superficial. Many people have told me the genders are not that different so what does it really matter? Therefore, I am trying to come up with a sentence that puts it in perspective. I can find no better than the challenge that came to me in 2007 by my now late stepsister. I miss you, Carie.

She challenged me in a way that I could not escape. She asked me for what most people is a relatively simple question. “Who are you?” I described myself to her. She responded with “No, that’s who you are around me. Who are you really?” I gave her a different description. “No, that’s who you are around mom and dad. Try again.” I provided another description… “No, that’s who you are with some of my friends. Who are you when nobody is around?” I had no answer.

She had seen enough cracks, enough times to know what was going on. I rarely put up my walls with her. I rarely considered that who I was when she was alone with me, or when it was her mom and dad, or when it was her and some of her friends, where all different people. Those four people were much more different from usual ‘variations’. The normal variations where just logical differences in situation for a normal person. Carie saw something different, she saw completely different people. Yet, somehow, she knew that the person she was alone with was closer to myself — but still a shell.

I had to be very careful about who I spent time with and in which combinations. My personality and qualities would vary from person to person. People would describe me differently based on whom you asked. However, I think if you ask all my friends, all my family, and everyone that knows me you could build a list that accurately describes who I am in my own mind. That would be an interesting experiment.

I am going to make up two hypothetical people. Their names are Fred, and Jim. The problem occurs when the personality that I showed Fred and the personality that I showed to Jim conflicted. That was not a problem in itself. What would happen if I were in the same room with Jim and Fred? I would reduce my list of ‘active qualities’ to qualities that I had showed and had been accepted by both Jim and Fred. This lead to an issue that the more people collected in the same place the less qualities I would have, and the more of an empty shell I would become. I threw out parts of myself that were not “good enough” to show people, based on the way they reacted previous times I had shown that bit of myself.

I had created an elaborate house of cards to hide the person in the basement. At first, the house was only a shack. Once I had that positive reinforcement of it reducing bullying, I saw a path. I turned the shack into a two-story house. The smiles of people around me provided more reinforcement. Because I was pleasing them, my life was easier and everyone saw me as a good person. I started to receive more compliments and people started thinking I was ‘well-adjusted and mature.’ The house of cards expanded into a mansion. I had created a mess. I had to keep track of what parts of myself each person had seen and liked versus what someone had seen and not liked. From time to time, I slipped up and a section of the house collapsed. I hid myself and struggled to build it back up before anyone saw the collapse. More importantly, I tried to figure out why it collapsed so it would not happen again.

Carie never let me run away from the question she asked me that day. She frequently saw the collapsing cards. In one moment, she would help me build the house again, in the next moment she would ask me who I was when I was alone. She never let it go. I could never answer that question. Each time there was a collapse, she would help me figure out why it collapsed and give me the advice to glue down the house just a little bit more. Why would she help me build up a fake self? By doing that, she learned what I was faking. She learned what was real underneath the surface. Once you have seen all the cards, there are no more secrets. Near the end of her life, she even helped me expand my house of cards further. This is the good advice that got me to where I needed to be. By helping me build onto my fake self, you helped me build a house of cards that required two people to hold up at all times, not just one.

Carie, you were a very smart woman. I hope that someday I can help someone the same way you helped me. You knew that by doing that I could not support it myself. When you left me, there was nobody else for me to ask for help in supporting it. It began to collapse quickly. Now, only a table and a pile of cards are left. I will start building again. However, this time it will be with what is truly on the inside. I will end up receiving the compliments I have always wanted. Some people will not see too much change; some may see a bit more. However, there was always some of me inside him. The ‘personas’ I shared were just me, with pieces removed and a shell built on top.

The way Carie helped me is not the how most people tried to help me. She found the helpful advice that I needed. Most people saw that I was suffering and tried to rush in and heal it immediately. That is a hard thing to do when the person suffering does not know why they are suffering. Carie knew something different was needed though. She knew when to push, she knew when to help dig me in. more importantly she found a way to connect to my heart that nobody else had done before her, although a few have managed since. It has become a much easier thing to do in the last couple of months. Carie saw that she was walking into a minefield carefully defusing mines as she found them. Most people rushed in yelling, “Let me help you.” In addition, they were yelling and screaming various generic advice as they ran and tried to get close to me. It is no surprise, to me, who was actually helpful. It is very hard to be helpful when you do not know where any of the mines are. It is even harder to be helped when you do not know what is causing the mines in the first place. People have asked me “what’s wrong?” People have asked me “why do you have this reaction to these words?” All I could ever say was “I don’t know.” That frustrates them and me.

I do not know if this kind of thing applies to other transgender people. It may apply to the ones who have yet to realize they are transgender, which is sure where I was. The most unhelpful advice was always the classical approach to fixing problems and tackling them head on. I had to solve this problem from the inside out. Somehow, she knew that, even if I did not. She arranged it so the house of cards would collapse in on itself from its own weight. Even seeing the house of cards was there is amazing. I had built it all though my subconscious. I did not even consciously realize it was there. It was just what I did.

In addition, I finally have that answer that was a long time coming. You first asked me that question eight years ago; today I have an answer. Eight years of trying to answer this one question. Who was I when I was alone? I was a stupid girl.

(Link to Lyrics — They are hard to understand if the volume isn’t all the way up.)

About the author

Josie

I’ve never been good at writing about myself. I’ve never been good at ‘talking up my strengths’ but at least I should try…

I am a 30 year old (gasp), woman. To me, it is just that simple. My life is slowly coming together into a form where I can be proud to call it my life.

Who am I? I’m a strong, loving woman that was assigned male at birth and is finally correcting that egregious error by biology. For most women if they have an urge like wearing a sundress, they just do it. For my first 29 years on this planet, that wasn’t a possibility.

I write to heal, then publish to inform. I hope my journey can make the journeys of people that come after me just a little less painful.

I also have a ‘day job’ as a Data Center Technician. I do an incredibly physical job lifting fixing and moving servers. I daily, walk into and then maintain ‘the cloud.’ Servers are still quite a bit larger and heavier than your desktop at home. So much so that I am the only woman on my team of 20 and one of 5 in the entire building of about 75. Technology is without a doubt a male dominated industry. Which makes me quite sad.

I wish I could better express who I am. I don’t feel like I’ve done justice to my history, my life, and my story, but for now, this will have to do. To me the most beautiful thing in the world is understanding and empathy. If we can have only one thing for each other person on this planet, I choose empathy.

2 comments

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  1. Marcy

    “The people who supported me were not boosting me up; they were just tearing my bullies down.” I can see how this happens. I have said and heard many of the examples you mentioned. It is so hard to be the person on the outside trying to help the victim of a bully, we feel so powerless and don’t want to see the people we love in pain. I love the land mine analogy. I can imagine someone I love at the other end of a mine field hurt and needing help. I would want to rush in and help them, butI need to go slow, find and diffuse the land mines so they don’t blow up. Then hoping that the person I love who is hurt on the other side of the mine field is still alive when I get there. So hard on everyone involved. As always there is so much to think about in your post and every time you do this, I get the privilege of knowing you more. You are making me a better person and I do truly love you.

  2. Jane

    Hi Jo, I’m Jane Peterson. I’m a friend of Marcy’s on FB, breast cancer unites us, and friends with her friend Gail IRL. I live in Denver, if you were mine you would be the youngest by a year. I’m strait, white and 57. Going through some shit myself. I love your writing. It’s like a conversation with you.

    I’m sure you have thought of this but I just realized you and Carie were sisters. And what a wonderful sister she was. You know why?
    1) she really facilitated you getting to the state of mind where you realized you actually could become yourself
    2) She never let you get side tracked into using others peoples’ attitudes to define yourself
    3) She knew you were sisters all along
    4)She taught you how to search for your truth, and every time you use the process, she is there with you. You know you can feel her nudging you to ask yourself that hard question you are avoiding
    5) Every time you succeed in being Jo(sephine?) Stephanie Troiani, she is there with you, telling you it was hard, but you did the right thing. And she is part of the joy you feel when you get one of life’s little triumphs.
    I’m so sorry she left you so early, but she left so much love for you behind, she will be with you forever. She was the angel you needed.

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