Deep End of the PoolIFS and LGBTQiIFS DiversityKnowledge

Swim Session 2: Star of Self – Sexual and gender identity formation as a Self-led process

This article discusses our Star of Self Model of Gender and Sexual Identity Development. We developed this model to account for the diverse ways in which people, and their various parts, explore and understand their identities and to celebrate how the Self-energy of individuals and groups can be utilised as a vital resource to support people in this process.

We have written this article to outline our approach, but also to reach out to members of the community with similar interests. We invite anyone with an expert background in the issues we discuss here – who is intrigued, stimulated, encouraged, or similar, by what we write – to get in touch. We can be contacted via our websites, found in the author boxes.

 

Our model uses the term “ground zero” to portray the world into which we are born; a world in which we experience the collective burdens of patriarchy, capitalism, racism, and individualism (Schwartz 2021), as well as being subjected to normativity, stigma and discrimination regarding sexual and gender diversity. Key terms that are useful in this respect are:

  • Heteronormativity – assuming people are heterosexual unless otherwise informed.
  • Cisnormativity – assuming people identify as the gender they were assigned at birth unless otherwise informed.
  • Mononormativity – assuming people have romantic and sexual relationships with one person at a time.
  • Allonormativity – assuming all people experience sexual and romantic attraction.

These assumptions create hierarchies around what is expected and considered normal and desirable. In addition, Many LGBTQIA+ people worldwide are discriminated against, judged, physically hurt, threatened, and legally and politically oppressed.

From the day we are born, we are subjected to gender, sexual and relationship norms along with a host of associated assumptions, expectations, and judgements. Unfortunately, most people are imbued with these norms before understanding the concept of having a gender and sexuality, meaning they internalise these norms before considering their own feelings. 

It can be disorientating and frightening when one’s core sense of oneself does not align with what is assumed “normal”; as such, protector Parts may attempt to block non-conforming feelings out of consciousness. Exiles often absorb heavy burdens of shame, loneliness, and isolation when this happens.

Being your whole self can be challenging sometimes. This is the case for everybody.

Cornerstones

Our model identifies “cornerstones” that people commonly experience during the process of understanding non-conforming feelings whilst living in ground zero. We have depicted these as points on a star to demonstrate that identity development is not a linear process. Each individual moves back and forth between the cornerstones according to their specific circumstances. Their journey will depend on the interaction between their internal system and external environment with each cornerstone potentially paving the way for later ones, and multiple cornerstones potentially being experienced concurrently.

Acknowledging one’s identities when they do not align with “the norm” takes courage and resilience. Our model celebrates how identity formation is a self-led process on an individual and a collective level, with the shape of the star intended to symbolise self-energy.

This article goes on to explain each cornerstone of development, including pointers on how to support clients when navigating each of them.

Cornerstone: Awareness and questioning of non-conforming feelings 

A person reaches this cornerstone when they become conscious of non-conforming feelings, although whilst some of their Parts might want to explore these feelings, other Parts might backlash against them because of burdens of fear and shame. Self-energy allows clients, and therapists, to meet Parts who wish to stay in “denial” with courage, curiosity and compassion, rather than trying to bypass them.

A person may experience a period of self-questioning and changing their mind. Supporting clients by being an unquestioning presence, and validating why self-doubt and uncertainty are to be expected in a normative society, can help anchor them.

Cornerstone: Accepting non-conforming feelings 

At this point a person’s different Parts agree that their feelings about their sexuality and gender are real and valid and protective Parts which have been denying feelings feel safe enough to give space.

Some people will accept their non-conforming feelings as they become aware of them, particularly if they are part of families, schools or communities which celebrate diversity. For others, reaching this cornerstone may feel frightening for the Parts of them who have been heavily indoctrinated, and doing so will take courage. Seeing queer people positively or neutrally represented in books, movies, media, and in powerful positions can facilitate this.

Encouraging clients to address Parts that carry shame and fear may help to integrate these feelings. If a person does not have the support to unburden these Parts, they may exile them in the process of accepting non-conforming feelings. Challenging life events, such as experiencing discrimination or rejection, can then re-trigger them, and bring denying Parts back online. If this happens, working with these Parts to feel safe again may take persistence and patience.

Some people need to reach self-acceptance before feeling safe enough to disclose non-conforming feelings. Others may seek to explore and understand their non-conforming feelings by engaging in other cornerstones, such as speaking to others and finding community. The possibility of the latter will, at least partly, depend on the attitudes, knowledge and self-energy of the people around them.

Cornerstone: Sharing non-conforming feelings with others 

The expression “coming out” is often used to describe someone disclosing their sexual orientation or gender. However, some prefer the idea of letting people in as this focuses on a person opening towards others in a bid for connectedness. No one has a “duty” to tell others about non-conforming feelings.

A person’s circumstances, including their race, ethnicity, religion, physical location and family background, will significantly impact their experience of this cornerstone. Therefore, clients should be supported to speak to others following what feels safe (enough) and comfortable.

Sharing non-conforming feelings is not a one-off process. A person may share their gender or sexual identity with new people repeatedly and may regularly have to evaluate new situations to assess if they are safe. Doing this takes courageconfidence and perspective.

No one should have to defend their identity to others. However, sadly, we live in a time where some people still question the validity of some non-conforming gender and sexual identities. Therefore, supporting clients to build resilience with courage and self-compassion is essential.

Sharing feelings with a therapist can be part of this cornerstone. You may be the first or only person the client will feel safe speaking to, and it is important to honour this with respect, curiosity and compassion.

Cornerstone: Existing within a community 

Humans are hardwired for connection and thrive with a sense of belonging. Unfortunately, many who identify as LGBTQIA+ have experienced being “othered” by people who have been, or are, important to them. Therefore, finding a community within which they feel safe, and to which they belong, can be extremely valuable and healing.

The ability to access community depends on many factors, including:

  • Social class, education levels and wealth
  • Physical and cognitive disabilities
  • Culture, faith, race
  • Age and existing community
  • Geographical location, ability to travel
  • Language barriers
  • Confidence to socialise, social anxiety

Reaching out to new communities takes courage, and nervous protectors may need compassionate support. In addition, some clients, especially if they have intersecting identities, will not have easy access to community and may need help to find appropriate groups and networks, including online.

Cornerstone: Processing anger and grief 

When someone is hindered from expressing their whole self, they are likely to miss out on meaningful and fulfilling life experiences. Furthermore, some LGBTQIA+ people have been discriminated against in painful and frightening ways. As someone moves through the identity development process, they may feel grief for what they have missed out on and anger for what they have endured. These are valid feelings as a response to real experiences and ongoing oppression.

When Parts that have questioned or felt shame for one’s non-conforming feelings are unburdened, this can create space for anger and grief. As a result of gaining clarity over one’s right to have the identities they do, a person may gain perspective and realise the things they have experienced are unfair.

People may also have to grieve things or people they have lost, for example, if they have had to move countries, leave faith organisations, or have been disowned by family due to expressing their true gender or sexual orientation.

If parts holding grief and anger are met with courage and compassion, this may help someone respond in positive ways, such as:

  • making a positive difference (i.e., political engagement)
  • seeking support and connecting to people who relate
  • engaging in personal therapy

If not met with compassion, anger and grief can trigger exiles burdened by shame and lead to depression and anxiety. These feelings must be validated, felt, healed and integrated. As a therapist, you can facilitate clients to acknowledge the significance of loss and help them to name grief for things they never had (i.e., the freedom to grow up living their truth).

Cornerstone: Self-expression 

This cornerstone involves the outward expression of one’s sexual or gender identity. People use self-expression to say to the outside world, “this is who I am,” and to:

  • name, display and explore aspects of their identities
  • make a statement and reject norms
  • raise awareness, share political ideas
  • demonstrate belonging within a social/peer group.

Expressing one’s identities can be creative and playful and might require confidence. For some, “being queer” relates to the celebration of diversity, fluidity, freedom from binary expectations and the ability to be unique whilst belonging to a collective. For others identifying as LGBTQIA+ does not feel like a defining aspect of their outward identity, and yet others do not have the option to express their gender or sexual identity, for example, because it is illegal or physically unsafe.

Cornerstone: Healing from shame 

Hetero- and cisnormativity, as well as homophobia, biphobia and transphobia, can spread the notion that non-conforming people are wrong and bad at their core. As a result, exiles and protectors can hold burdens of shame long after a person has reached full acceptance and long after they logically understand there is nothing wrong with their non-conforming feelings.

And yet, every time one’s true self is seen and validated, a layer of shame can heal. As Frank Anderson says, “trauma blocks love, love heals trauma” (2022). Letting go of shame allows a person to shift their narrative from “it would be easier if I were different” to “it would be easier if society were different.”

Facing shame takes extraordinary couragepersistence, and patience. Unwavering compassion may be needed from both client and therapist to navigate this challenging yet life-changing cornerstone.

Conclusion

Homophobia, transphobia, racism, and sexism lead to people exiling Parts that need and deserve to be heard and seen. Yet we believe humans are constantly growing, collectively and as individuals, and that one’s personal journey is deeply embedded in the collective growth process. Raising awareness, facilitating mutual connection and respect, and creating Self-led spaces can enable collective and individual Self-energy to flow, which allows diversity to be celebrated and healing to take place.

Click on this link for a video discussion of Star of Self: Gender And Sexual Identity Formation Through The Lens Of Internal Family Systems

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Author´s Bio

Authors

  • Victoria Kirby

    Victoria Kirby (she/her) is an integrative psychotherapist and IFS therapist, who specialises in sex and relationship therapy. www.victoriajanepsychotherapy.net

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  • Magdalena Ségur-Cabanac

    Magdalena Ségur-Cabanac (she/her) is a Gestalt, IFS, couples, sex and transpersonal therapist trained in GSRD therapy, based in Vienna, Austria. www.praxis-psychotherapie.wien

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