The most important thing I taught my family was how to fight.
They knew how to slash and act out, how to hit below the belt, but what they didn’t know was how to challenge with wit, with consideration, with love.
Families are supposed to be safe spaces that welcome us home, offer comfort & caring to bind up our wounds.
Unless, though, they also serve to be a place where we can consolidate our lessons, evaluating what worked and what didn’t, allowing us to experiment with new ways of being and find our own strengths and grooves, well, they don’t serve to strengthen and empower us to leave strengthened and enlightened. The only way we can learn to stand up for ourselves, honing our expression, is by doing it.
The idea of confrontation not as battle but as process is vital to enabling growth and healing. Instead of trying to be the winner, staying defended and hard, we try to become new, practice finding more effective and elegant ways of being.
When a kid wins at something, their next move is usually simple. “Okay, now you try it!” they tell their pal, wanting to share the success and achievement, preferring to keep everyone growing together.
Fighting with love keeps us fit and engaged. It helps us move beyond ineffective responses and gain mastery through insight and practice.
We know in our hearts that people who won’t fight with us won’t fight for us. In families, we may challenge our siblings, but when they are challenged, we jump in to help, protect and defend them. Only we get to beat them up because we know that only we do it with safety and love, always ready to help them up and bind up their wounds.
Not all families fight with this grace, of course. In dysfunctional families the goal of battle is winning, shutting down challenge. This may be done by force or by chaos, but it always comes from a place of resisting change and healing, trying to keep the family serving the demands of one person rather than expecting everyone to be present enough to engage, grow and transform.
While I grew up in a family where this kind of dysfunction was at the heart, by committing to my own practice I was able to come back with the patience, insight and wit to train my parents in fighting with heart. While they never got to the point where they could fight for me, they knew that I was always fighting for them, even when I pointed out their own less than effective choices. They learned to enjoy the give and take, at least within the family.
Much of my growth came from working in entrepreneurial businesses where everyone needed to bring their best and smartest to make shared success, measured and shaped by market forces. We work together to find solutions rather than trying to place blame on external forces. This is a very different approach than the so-called egalitarian process that attempts to force social consensus through shaming pressures, which tends to let the most resistant person in the room hold the agenda.
Empowerment and challenge brings out the best in us when it is alloyed with the awareness, kindness and grace that threads through the healthiest families. As much as we dread people having high expectations of us, we also know they are always better than people who have low expectations of us, those who assume we are abject, broken and incapable. People who see the best in us will work with us to find our strengths while those who see the worst will leave us to our failures.
No matter how much teenagers may complain, families are never simply styled as egalitarian democracies where shaming social pressure to enforce compliance shapes what are called “unanimous and correct” agreements. Instead, families are structures where what you bring to the table counts, where those who have more share it with those who are still needing to grow.
This can be tough for transpeople. We don’t emerge to fit nicely into a community role. Rather, we emerge to claim our unique and powerful truth.
Coming from the stance of rejecting expectations makes it hard to pin down what a grown-up, mature and well-integrated transperson actually looks like. There wasn’t any example in our family of origin, and we see few examples in structures of power, success and support in the wider world.
Do we eventually just blend in, assimilating into some desired and reasonably normative role? Do we find role models who embody bits we want to include in our expression? Do we find new and innovative ways of being part of community, offering some kind of unique role?
Emergence as trans requires another adolescence, another process of experimentation, of trying on, shaping, abandoning and including a new set of choices, approaches, strategies, behaviours and mindsets. This process includes clinging to bits that feel safe even if they don’t really work for us anymore, thrashing about naked, being inexpert as we try what we have not yet mastered and generally being a bit self-obsessed.
We tend to hear everything people say as about us and not about them, which means we are very easily triggered. How can we not see the world that way after internalizing the amount of shame we are fed to keep us heavily self-policed?
How, then do we learn to be effective players in community as transpeople? How do we learn to share leadership roles, taking our part of the responsibility for both group actions and caring for others?
We need to learn to fight like family. You will know the people who are really your family by their ability and willingness to tell you the truth while still leaving you feeling loved. Only someone who cares enough to confront you because they really know who you are, they have really listened to your crap and and they believe you can be better and more powerful really loves you.
Agreement is nice, but deeply caring engagement is better. We don’t need people to always agree with us, always sing the same song, rather we need people who will stand by us no matter if we are a bit cracked or off key. You know, like real, solid, loving family does.
When someone really sees and mirrors us with open authenticity, rather than projecting their issues on us, trying to cast us in their movie, making our choices about them, they give us the gift of respect and empowerment. It’s a gift that we should work to return, deepening those relationships with our own vulnerability.
To build connection, community and allies, getting beyond our emotional buttons and learning to fight, to fight like family, with and for each other, seems vital.